The Vintage Fusion trend – Is it “Tribal” style?
Tribal style bellydance, even before the emergence of American Tribal Style, has always drawn inspiration from times past. We use antique textiles and old jewelry from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, incorporating them into new costuming. The costuming itself–pantaloons, decorated coin bras, big full skirts, and cholis–also evoke an “Old World” flavor. I know I was attracted to this combination of new and old, not only in the costuming, but in the music and the dance movements of tribal style bellydance. The dance style and its aesthetics draw on archetypal images of caravans, nomadic peoples, and old-fashioned femininity.
Recently tribal fusion bellydancers have adopted a new kind of “vintage” look, using costuming elements inspired by the late 1800s to early 1900s, incorporating lace, ruffles, frilly skirts, and “Granny” boots. This style also incorporates the use of Balkan Romany (Gypsy) music, carnival and circus themes, as well as Vaudeville and sometimes burlesque. This trend is everywhere in tribal fusion right now, not only in the United States, but it appears that it has made its way to Europe and beyond. And, I have to say, that I wonder if this new style that has taken the tribal fusion dance world by storm is even tribal style anymore. And what are we conveying to the general public and those who know nothing about bellydance through the use of these vintage elements?
On my travels I’ve seen several troupes attempting this “vintage fusion” style of bellydance… but they’re incorporating props and costuming that I find somewhat inappropriate in a bellydance, particularly a “tribal” bellydance, context. I wonder if these troupes and dancers have reflected on their choreographies, or prop, costuming, and music choices, and have they considered what someone completely ignorant about bellydance (especially tribal) might think of our dance style as a whole after seeing one of their “vintage fusion” performances.
I’d like to caveat this post by saying that when done well, “vintage tribal fusion” is beautiful and captivating. There are several troupes who perform “vintage tribal fusion” elegantly and professionally. The Indigo, Zafira Dance Company, Delirium Tribal Bellydance Company, and the Mezmer Society/Onça all pull in vintage and antique elements into their costuming, music, and dance artfully and tastefully. I also like to break out ruffles and lace once in a while. I have nothing against what I call “vintage fusion” tribal bellydance.
Aspects of “vintage fusion” that strike me as odd…
One element that I’ve seen often is the use of wine and whiskey bottles, sometimes empty… sometimes not. Now, I have nothing against having a drink. What does bother me, though, is when dancers, especially inexperienced ones, are on stage pretending to (or actually) getting drunk and stumbling around on stage. From what I have observed, only very experienced and serious dancers can really pull off the use of wine bottles and alcohol in their performances. It takes a certain amount of technical and performance skill to be able to pull that off without looking like a fool. Otherwise the performance can look haphazard, lazy, and unprofessional.
Another element that I find a little bit odd is the wearing of undergarments on the outside as part of the costuming itself, such as frilly panties and bustiers. Maybe I’m “old school”, but my mentors told me that even though our costuming might be revealing at times, we should never wear anything that still looks like underwear. It seems to me that the resurgent interest in burlesque has influenced this trend, and I have nothing against burlesque… but I often wonder what someone new to bellydance might think if they saw a troupe in underwear-like costuming. They’d probably wonder, “what does this have to do with the Middle East, and what does it have to do with bellydance?” If I didn’t know anything about bellydance except that it’s something I’d seen at a Middle Eastern restaurant, I would probably be very, very, confused.
Something else I’ve noticed amongst the less successful attempts at “vintage” style bellydance performances is that there has been more emphasis on the comedy, acting, and slapstick than the dancing itself. Again, I have nothing against theater or comedy… but if you’re going to call yourself a tribal style bellydancer, please make tribal style bellydance the primary element of your performance. The playful, flirty quality often found in “vintage fusion” isn’t very tribal, if we’re using American Tribal Style bellydance as our standard of what defines Tribal style bellydance. Posing and being cute with a wine bottle isn’t tribal, and it’s not bellydancing. Dance first… then add the theater once you have a good foundation in bellydance. So, if you’re going to play with “vintage fusion” bellydance, be aware that what you are doing might not be tribal anymore. It might be something entirely new and different. And please focus on the dance first.
From the point of view of the outsider…
What if someone from the general public came to see one of these performances? What if this person knew nothing about bellydance? Do we want to give the general public the impression that we’re only comic relief and slapstick acts that have no qualms about showing our frilly panties to strangers, particularly as we lose (or pretend to lose) our inhibitions through the imbibing of alcohol on stage? Is that bellydance, and, more importantly to me, is that tribal? And, I know that many of us bellydancers are trying very hard to elevate this dance into the realms of both popular and high art… and in order for that to happen, we must earn the respect of not only our peers but also the general public. How do we expect to be respected as an art form when we’re stumbling around on stage in our underwear?
The importance of training and self-reflection.
As an artist and dancer I’m not against experimentation and pushing the boundaries of bellydance. I have been fusing bellydance with other dance and movement influence for years. I am, however, passionate about fusion with integrity. What that means to me is that in order for your artistic experimentation to be successful, you must spend time in the studio training, drilling, and focusing on the dance. If you want to continue to call yourself a tribal style bellydancer, you must make your primary focus tribal style bellydance, not acting, slapstick, comedy, costuming, props, or music. Also, as you’re preparing a performance, take the time to reflect on it and ask yourself, “What message am I giving the audience by dancing to this music in this costume with these movements? Is that something I want to convey? Why am I putting these influences together in the way that I am?” It’s also completely acceptable to have a good time on stage. So much of why we dance is because we find joy in it, but there is much joy to be found in the dancing itself, and you don’t need a frilly costume and a bottle of wine to enjoy it.