Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bellydance fusion: the differences that make a difference

Misty and Kerry, two of my favorite local dancers, were the featured artists at a local bellydance showcase. Both are in their early 30s (I think) and were debuting some new choreographies. They were lovely, charming, and skillful. Their choreography reflected a very new variety of bellydance, a fusion inspired by historical and contemporary images of female dancers from both the East and the West.
Dance styles today are mutating at such a rate that there isn’t time to define them with simple nomenclature.
This new hybrid doesn’t have a name yet. Dance styles today are mutating at such a rate that there isn’t time to define them with simple nomenclature. If there is a name, it would undoubtedly include a combination of terms like urban, tribal, American, or neo-gothic-burlesque. Tho its smaller roots are too idiosyncratic for me to identify, its main roots can be traced to American Tribal Style and its daughter, Urban Tribal Fusion (a phrase I have adopted but which is not generally agreed upon). I’d like to take this opportunity to describe for you how they differ, how they achieve that difference, and what effect those differences have on the dance.

All of these bellydance variants are combinations of Middle Eastern and North African movement idioms with North American urban aesthetics. American Tribal Style Belly Dance (ATS), a distinctive form of group improvisation, was created in the San Francisco Bay Area around 20 years ago. It is characterized by its high energy, free flowing movements. The weight is carried in the lower torso with movement and posture driven from the pelvis. It calls for a high, open, and proud sternum with arms unfolding from the center, stretching outward or upward to frame the body. The temporal quality of the movement is quick and its spatial qualities are direct and confident. Arms and torso isolations can explode dart-like at times, and at other times sweep smoothly in arcs. Their taxeem (slow, unpunctuated movements) flows freely at a low intensity, sustained but direct giving it its languid, smoldering character. Combined, these characteristics produce a powerful, driving, grounded persona; a proud and confident female. It is altogether a joyous dance to watch or participate in. ATS costumes are also distinctive and differ from all other belly dance styles. They consists of a heavy layering of brightly colored pantaloons, skirts, fringe, and coin belts (up to 5 or 6 layers) with heavy emphasis on jewelry and ornate headdress.

Gothic belly dance drew its first inspiration from the movements and costumes of ATS. This second generation began to infuse ATS with rave and goth cultural elements, including a fascination with vampires and early Hollywood vixens. In addition, they promoted an athleticism and flexibility that is fashionable in most contemporary dance. As a result, they have produced extraordinary technical combinations of rolls, flutters, shimmies, popping, and locking.

The first thing you notice in gothic bellydance is that the flamboyant, bright colors of ATS are abandoned in favor of black with silver accents, spiked jewelry, body piercings, and dreadlocks (real or fake). The daughters of ATS (gothic and urban tribal dancers) generally carry the same qualities of weight (grounded in the pelvis), time (both quick and languid), and space (direct) as their founding mothers. But where ATS dancers have a high, proud, open sternum, gothic bellydancers close off access by holding the center tightly and rotating the shoulders forward and in. Movements are controlled and cautious but reach out assertively and even aggressively. Small, sharp joint isolations punctuate the viscous circular motion of the arms, torso, head. The Fosse-like joint pops are like valves opening to release their charged energy. Then, as quickly as they open, they are abruptly locked off again. Their eyes challenge you, daring you to watch. The result is a highly charged, dramatic expression of feminine sexual power.

Because they use strong, quick, and direct movement qualities, both ATS and UTF present the feminine as a powerful force. This is no less true for the newest style that Misty and Kerry demonstrated. The vocabulary of movements is drawn from UTF but it is performed with more lightness. Instead of black and silver, they wear browns and antique whites. The popping and locking is there but now it is less threatening, more playful and flirtatious. Their faces and bodies express pleasure and invite the audience to watch and enjoy them openly. It is lighthearted and teasing, but the women are confident and in charge of their own bodies.

The differences that make a difference are often subtle. A simple rotation of the shoulder changes the mood from open and inviting to cautious and foreboding. Like Geertz’s wink. In 1973, anthropologist Clifford Geertz published a landmark essay in which he reflects on the difference between a involuntary twitch of the eye and a socially meaningful wink. The wink itself has multiple meanings (flirtation, conspiracy, sarcasm, et al), and requires interpretation of nearly invisible facial cues within a specific historical and cultural moment. Did she just twitch or was she sending me a message? Was the rotation of the shoulder merely bad technique or a meaningful gesture? In the case of successive generations of tribal bellydance, the shoulder gesture changes the entire mood and meaning of the dance.

It is not in the nature of dance to stay the same generation after generation. I love the following quote from the cover notes of an old Weavers LP. It explains the living nature of art:

“For the essential and living quality of folk music is that it is never ‘fixed’ in a scholar’s treatise or on a phonograph record; it is always growing and changing. It is at once the voice of the past and the vigorous voice of the present. It adapts itself to any voice or instrument. It can not only weather, but can profit from occasional changes of text, the addition of new verses, an inspired rhythmic alteration. And that is actually the way in which knew folk songs have traditionally grown out of old ones. Always, to folk singers, a ‘new song’ meant new words set to an old melody, and if in the process a new variant or curve of melody appeared, that seemed so natural a process that they hardly paid it any mind.”

Dance in America is having a growth spurt. Old styles are adapting to new people with a rate of change that I have never witnessed. Funk, punk, hip hop, Broadway jazz, flamenco, bharatya natyam, Vegas showgirl, neo-burlesque, 19th century femme fatales, and Roaring Twenties flappers: these are just a few of the sources that inspire and inflect today’s bellydance. How far they can push this and still retain something recognizable as bellydance, is an open question. So for now, I say sit back and enjoy the show. It has never been so spectacular.

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