The curious case of the dream catchers.

….or, another observation while teaching and performing in Europe…. and watching Ken Burns’ series The West on DVD.

The term “tribal” means myriad things to myriad people.  “Tribal” can be a specific term, referring to a specific ethnic tribe of peoples, such as the Lakota Sioux native Americans, or the Tuareg nomads of North Africa.  “Tribal” can also be more of a loose idea, evoking images of prehistoric man living in a time before agriculture, guns, or industry.  The word “tribal” also conjures images of “savages”, peoples living in areas and times before electricity, before factories, before monotheism; Europeans and Americans have romanticized and exploited this imagery for hundreds of years.

So, many people come to this dance, this dance which we call “tribal style belly dance”, with an idea of what “tribal” means to them… and most of the time, their idea of “tribal” doesn’t really include belly dance. In fact, I’m sure a lot of them wonder, “what does ‘tribal’ have to do with belly dance, anyway?” And I know some of them ask, “What tribe?”

So, when we say “American Tribal Style Belly Dance”, what images are we evoking in the minds of the uninitiated? And what does “American Tribal” mean to someone who isn’t American or who isn’t familiar with American history and folk culture?

The words “American Tribal” to those outside the belly dance world probably will evoke images of Native American Indians on the Great Plains of North America, hunting bison on horseback, feathers in their hair, and other stereotypical ideas of how pre-European cultures lived on this continent. Furthermore, if a dancer outside the United States searched “American Tribal” on eBay, what items are retrieved?

Ojibwa dream catcher.When in Europe, I saw several costumes that incorporated Native American dream catchers on belts and hair ornaments. My initial thought was, “OK, that’s strange”, but then when I thought a bit more, I realized, “well, if you search ‘American Tribal dance'” on eBay, that’s an item that might come up.” As I think about this incorporation of Native American elements into tribal fusion belly dance costuming, I realize that I’ve seen more than just dream catchers, but leathers that look like buck skin, headdresses that are clearly inspired by the Great Plains Indians’ warbonnets, and other American Indian-looking items.

It made me think about what we’re saying as dancers when we incorporate not only Middle Eastern and South Asian tribal elements into our costuming but also Native American costuming elements. And it also made me wonder if these European dancers even know that the dream catcher, although it is an authentic tribal item, is not usually a part of the American Tribal Style Belly Dance costume. I suspect this is mostly because it is a Native American tribal item and might, at least in the United States, offend Native Americans who might be watching our performances. And why would a European dancer care that she’s wearing a Native American folk art? She might not know it’s an American craft, and furthermore, she might not have even been to the United States at all.

After all of this pontificating, rambling, and ruminating, I think I’ve concluded, at least temporarily, this: As dancers, we need to educate ourselves about the ethnic items that we choose to wear. Our costumes are the first things that our audiences see, and if the audience includes members of the General Public, then we need to pay even more attention to how we adorn ourselves. Just because something is listed as “tribal” on eBay, that doesn’t give us fair license to sew it on to our belts. Lack of curiosity is no excuse for ignorance. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t blend tribal elements in our costuming; it’s these ethnic items that make the tribal style costume so rich and beautiful! What I am saying is that you, dear dancers, have a responsibility to know where your costuming elements come from, what they represent, and what images they might conjure in your audiences imaginations.

Each belly dancer represents all of us. What are we saying about our community if we don’t even know the meaning of what we’re wearing?

 

Comments: 11

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I think what we are saying is that we are more than just the sum of the clothes we wear. Yes it is important to know where things come from but do you really spend time thinking that your underwear was actually meant to keep you clothes clean and now we focus on keeping our underwear clean. Yes, the history is important but I feel you are missing out on the joy of it all. Education should be a positive thing not a research project on my kuchi pendant. I think you are on to a great book idea with lots of great illustration and information. Spread knowledge by all means but don’t forget the joy of the dance. Life is amazingly short – embrace the beauty.

 

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Aww, that’s kind of funny! Though I can see how it is potentially offensive and definitely confusing. It’s kind of like people confusing “Indians” (as in, from the Asian subcontinent) and “Indians” (as in Native Americans). They have nothing to do with each other.

I was also confused about the meaning of “tribal” belly dance in the U.S. when I first heard of it. I’m still not sure I understand what it is and how it developed. When I watched some clips of “tribal” dancers, I noticed a few things: a.) Many sported “tribal” style tattoos, which are based upon Native American and other indigenous peoples’ designs but usually have no authentic significance and are more aesthetic; b.) many wore costumes with “goth” or “hippie” elements in them, which made me think that “tribal” referenced some kind of modern Western American tribal culture based on hippie communal living or urban street groups or performance troupes like fire dancers; and c.) much of the music used was industrial metal or what sounds like video game music, which makes me think of virtual “tribes” on games like Worlds of Warcraft.

My conclusion has been that “tribal belly dance” is a Western (as in, European-rooted) American style that combines ancient and extremely modern influences from all over the world… which makes sense if it developed in a culturally mixed, urban setting like New York.

And it has nothing whatsoever to do with Native Americans, except maybe indirectly through tribal-style tattoos and body piercings… right?

Am I way off the mark, or are some of my assumptions correct? I can imagine how confusing this must be to someone who has never been to the U.S.

 

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OK, I just went back and read your older post on what tribal belly dance is. I see now that I was probably watching a bunch of “fusion” videos in which the only similarities I could see across the board were in costuming and music, neither of which defines American Tribal Style. I was also under the mistaken impression that the popping and locking stuff was part of the “tribal” and not the “fusion.” That really cleared things up for me. Thanks for explaining. “Tribal” sure is a tricky word to use to describe something so specific.

 

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“As dancers, we need to educate ourselves about the ethnic items that we choose to wear. Our costumes are the first things that our audiences see, and if the audience includes members of the General Public, then we need to pay even more attention to how we adorn ourselves. Just because something is listed as “tribal” on eBay, that doesn’t give us fair license to sew it on to our belts.”
Looooove this! I so agree – I am very careful with any artisan/folkloric piece I use in my costuming because I don’t want to use something that might be completely out of its cultural context (just looking at the general US population, for example, I see people using rosaries for jewelry/adornment and for the practicing, devout Catholic that is totally *not* it’s purpose and offensive… my parents got pissed when I had one hanging from my rearview mirror!)

 

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As far as I’ve understood, many countries, particularly Europe, have had a quite ongoing fantasy obsession with Native American culture since the shows that featured Native Americans started touring Europe in the 1800s and earlier. They may possibly feel less discomfort about the appropriation of these items than a non-First Nations American might. I’m also not trying to make sweeping generalities about Europeans here, but as far as I understand, many Europeans have a quite different understanding of the concepts of cultural appropriation and assimilation than your average American may. So while just plain ignorance may be a part in this, I think varied cultural views compared to you (or I or various other dancers) as Americans may be in play here as well.

FYI I am first generation European-American if anyone is wondering. Not trying to make sweeping statements here but I have simply noticed in my brief travels that concepts of cultural appropriation and assimilation in much of Europe are different compared to the US.

 

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I agree 100%. As someone who wears a lot of clothing from various cultures I am always concerned about this to some degree; the conclusion I had come to is that the way to avoid sticky cultural appropriation issues (for the most part) is to at the very least know what it is I’m wearing, its provenance, and how to wear it correctly. So even if I do annoy a few people (can’t help that) at least I’m not being an ignorant boob who puts on a Chinese bathrobe and says “I’m a geisha!”.

(I also make a point of telling anyone who asks about ATS that our costumes are a total mishmash of various cultures and are not in ANY way authentic to anything.)

That said there are a number of my jewellery pieces where I know vaguely where they come from but have not done much research, and I really should correct that.

 

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“The words “American Tribal” to those outside the belly dance world probably will evoke images of Native American Indians on the Great Plains of North America, hunting bison on horseback, feathers in their hair, and other stereotypical ideas of how pre-European cultures lived on this continent.”

This is so funny because here in Brazil, when you mention “tribal dance” to someone outside of the bellydance comunity (or even poorly informed bellydancers) they immediately associate that with african dance, animal print and bones on your costume (Flintstones style!) The concept of “tribal” really varies on the collective unconscious of different cultures, I’d never thought about that.

 

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Very interesting points…

We’re smack dab in the middle of the “west” here. We interact with the Native American culture daily and here… “tribal” = Native American. I would think they would be HIGHLY offended (and confused!) by the image of a bellydancer wearing a dreamcatcher on her belt or feathers in her hair! Makes makes me wonder what we’re doing that might offend another culture…

But alas, where is the line drawn? Art vs. authenticity is always a blurred boundary.

I think it’s fascinating to see what people do with cultural inspiration. Certainly worth a look, at least!

 

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Hmm…Very interesting. As a french dancer living in Japan, I never saw such Native-American items on costume neither I met people confusing American Tribal Style with Native American dance or something when I was in France, but I used to see it in Japan actually. In my opinion, I don’t think they are confusing or lacking curiosity about the cultural roots of what they wear. I think they are creating with many influences, as they are doing “fusion”. You can see it very well in Japan where dancers are really imaginative with their costuming. I agree with you with this point : ATS roots are mostly south asian and middle eastern, so it may be expected to see these items in ATS costuming instead of Native American ones, but it might be also offending for these cultures as well…And sometimes, it’s not “authentic” at all. Maybe because I’m European, I do not think it’s offending to wear Native American items in costuming…Ok, dreamcatchers may be weird, but it could bear an interesting signification perhaps…I’ve never been thinking of that, but maybe I should try^^

 

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this brought up a thought. it’s kind of a mish-mash in my head, but anyway: i like this idea of native american folk art on tribal costumes. it’s gets into a larger philosophy, politics, etc… maybe waaaaay too much to go into here. i am basing myself off of ‘the people’s history of the unites states” at this moment, and the whole idea of a collective community that has no idea of private property, no ”law enforcement” in our western sense of the term, but a group of people living together and doing the right thing, because it is.. the right thing to do; women who have equal power with men… and the whole impact of the colonizers, introduction of private property, diminishing the importance of women and diminishing their ”liberty”.. a whole plethora of issues… wearing nat.amer. folk art is a great way, a ”shout out”, if you will, to these values that have been trampled for so long, by a warrior-like, war and private property loving culture. it’s a very appropriate concept for us dancers.

 

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White people have to deal with their personal internalized privilige, in order to understand systemic and structural racism. So, easy to just consume culture, in the new form of neo-colonialism and neo liberalism.

 

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