Thursday, September 04, 2008

Improv Tribal 101

I decided that, in order to get some information out to my students without the returning students having to hear the same information again (though some stories are classic), I'd instead post up an into to Improv Tribal/ATS basics, a place to direct people and provide links to more information.

A Quick and Dirty Historical and Informative Lesson About ATS and Tribal Group Improv for the Kallisti Tribal Student

The Foundation:
The foundation of most cued improvisational tribal style belly dance is American Tribal Style (ATS), created in the 1980s in San Francisco by Carolena Nericcio. ATS arose out of Carolena's dance classes, and at first was danced solely by her troupe Fat Chance Belly Dance (FCBD). Until recently ATS was not strictly codified; in the past few years Carolena has worked to define ATS through it's common look, vocabulary, and system; she does this through her instructional videos, the Tribal:Pura workshops, General Skills certification and Teacher Training certification programs.

Improv Tribal, solo or group, that does not follow the ATS structure is not considered ATS. Instead dancers use terms such as Improv Tribal Style, Tribal Group Improv, Tribal Fusion or named a specific system used by a particular troupe/dancer/school.

The name is descriptive of the style, American because is is an American invention, Tribal to describe how the dancers work as a unit and can look as if they are part of one "tribe".

There is a more detailed essay on this at FCBD's website:

The History:
Before ATS there was Jamila Salimpour and Bal Anat. In 1968, in order to offer an authentic look/feel performance for the CA Renaissance Pleasure Faire, Jamila created a troupe called Bal Anat that showcased different dance and entertainment styles Jamila had learned from her circus and dance background. The dancing was incorporated with live music into one seamless spectacle. Bal Anat costumed in a faux folkloric style, using original textiles and clothing from various North African, Near and Middle Eastern, and Asian countries. The show gave a feeling of an authentic dance experience, though it was made up of elements from many different cultures, and also introduced snake and sword dancing to the belly dance repertoir. The style of Bal Anat and similar troupes has been called California or Old School Tribal.

Baltimore area students are probably familiar with local teacher and dancer Piper, whose mother Rhea was a member of Bal Anat:

One Bal Anat dancer, Masha Archer, left to create her own group, The San Francisco Dance Troupe. In 1974 Carolena Nericcio began dancing with Masha; when the troupe disbanded in 1987 Carolena began teaching classes in order to have people with whom she could dance. What Carolena taught was pulled from Masha's eclectic style, and in her classes the movements began to solidify into a cohesive vocabulary.

Pictures of Masha's troupe:

The Style:
ATS can be defined by several things: the cued movement vocabulary, the improvisational choreography, and the look.

ATS has a set vocabulary of codified movements. Occasionally new movements are added, but only through careful examination to see if they line up with the rest of the ATS vocabulary. Movements are split into fast (with a timed count, done to fast music) and slow (no count, done to slow music). They are drawn from standard belly dance moves (such as horizontal figure eights), standard movements modified to fit ATS (the Arabic series of movements that date back to Jamila Salimpour), and movements modified from other cultures (floreos from Flamenco or moves from Indian dances). All ATS dancers know all the same movements, enabling dancers that are don't know each other to successfully dance together with no practice. The same movements are used if an ATS dancer solos, though the dancer may modify the moves to make work better for a solo dancer (such as not cuing a move since there is no one following the leader).

Also, ATS is danced while playing zills (finger cymbals) during fast songs. Patterns used most often are triplets, the military pattern and baladi.

Improvisational Dancing:
The style of ATS can be called cued improvisational dance, or improvisational choreography. ATS dancers will dance with a group of 2-4 dancers, sometimes backed by a chorus that uses simple move and which serves as a frame for the small group. The small group is set up with the leader in the front left hand position with the followers in formation behind, everyone angled slightly to the left corner to maximize visibility. When dancing the leader picks movements to execute and the followers know what moves are coming either by distinctive cues or because the beginning of a move is distinctive enough to tell the dancers exactly what is going on (i.e. the move is the cue). When the entire group knows the movements well the changes happen simultaneously giving a "flock of birds" appearance to the group. Leaders can change though line fades or circling. Some ATS groups will choreograph occasional performances, usually for a large stage, to give a dynamic look to a performance, though most choreographed pieces will still follow the ATS rules.

The Look:
One of the first things audiences members tend to comment on with ATS is the look. Like Old School tribal, ATS has a "fakeloric" look that has a feel of authenticity but is actually a fusion of many different styles from different cultures. The basic of ATS costuming are usually: turban or head wrap (many cultures, used to balance out the top and bottom of the dancer's silhouette), choli (open backed cropped blouse adapted from Indian clothing), coin bra (from American belly dance, often used for more "ethnic" flavored dance instead of sequined and beaded bras), pantaloons (based on salwar or other pants but styled differently than actual historical clothing), tiered skirts (adapted from multiple cultures), hip shawls/wraps (standard to belly dance), and sometimes tassel belts (not an actual or a rare clothing piece historically, adapted from horse and camel tassels and used to accentuate hip movements). Carolena has decided that is is the basis for the standard ATS costume, with some modifications allowed, such as mirror Indian cholis instead of a choli and bra combo, or more streamlined costumes for certain performances.

In addition to the distinctive costume there is the distinctive posture and carriage of ATS. Most belly dance starts from a strong neutral posture: head level, shoulders rolled back and down, chest lifted slightly, abs engaged, pelvis tucked slightly to protect the lower back, knees soft. ATS has a slightly higher lift to the chest, which lends a feeling often described as strength or pride and can create an illusion that the dancer is slightly arching the back. Arms are usually held at chest level or higher, with the elbows slightly bent; movement is generated from the shoulders through the elbows and hands to keep the arms strong. The gaze is level and outward, to enable followers to catch cues and move changes. Movements are usually danced flatfooted with some moves executed on the balls of the feet.

One point of contention within the belly dance scene has been the perception that ATS dancers do not smile while dancing. This is not generally not true. There are some groups that purposely cultivate a serious look, but Carolena has stated that ATS is meant to be a happy, joyful dance and dancers should be enjoying themselves and therefore convey this by smiling.

Overall, through the costume, posture and stylization, ATS aims to produce the feeling of the dancers as a cohesive unit. Dancers should move almost as one, and the costumes provide a colorful accent to the dancing.

So What Do We Do?
The members of Kallisti Tribal come from a variety of dance backgrounds. Lyra has training in classical western dance styles and Irish dance, personal family experience with Indian dance and has studied both tribal and non-tribal belly dance. Nora has trained in social partnered dance and multiple styles of belly dance. I have no dance back ground other than kids ballet and a semester of modern in college; my belly dance background has been primarily in tribal supplemented with classes in several cabaret styles. We met through one of Lisa Zahiya's classes, which was tribal group improv, based out of ATS but with some of the vocabulary reinterpreted and also supplemented with moves from other tribal improv styles or ones created by Lisa's dance troupe. ATS classes are new to the Baltimore area, and there are not many dancers doing strict ATS though this will probably change in the near future as current students start performing.

Over the past few years we have consciously decided to look back to our ATS roots for many reasons. First we feel that to dance tribal style we should have a strong base in the foundations of the dance. We also feel that ATS is just really cool and beautiful and we like to watch and dance it, and Carolena is a continuing source of inspiration to the troupe. Also, it's smart to look into not just the vocabulary of ATS but to the concepts (of presentation and form) that Carolena's developed because they look good and make sense, so why reinvent the wheel? None of us are ATS experts, but we are enjoying our continued studies in the style.

We've also kept some of the moves we learned from Lisa, some of which do not stick to the ATS rules. To this we've added moves or concepts we've picked up from other teachers and we've added things we've, to be honest, made up. Even when using established moves we sometimes change their execution to suit our tastes, but we always try to make sure that what we're doing looks cohesive. Also, though ATS does allow solos for dancers, we tend to do our solos in more fused tribal styles; we break out of the ATS vocabulary, will bring in more audience interaction, and will adopt more individual emotional expressions during solos. And if you ever see Kallisti dancers busting out a solo performance, don't be surprised. We are happy to support each other in our different dance endeavors, which include the occasional spot of solo dancing.

I recommend Sharon Moore's info site for a good synopsis of tribal styles; she is very knowledgeable and very passionate about this dance!

So, What Are We Teaching?
As I mentioned, we believe in Tribal Group Improv dancers having a strong background in ATS, because it is the source of our dancing. With that in mind, many of the basics we teach are straight from the ATS vocabulary, and we recommend students pick up the FCBD teaching videos (especially #1, 4 and 7) to supplement their home practice. Videos are an extremely helpful tool, though they can never solely substitute for feedback from a teacher. When we do teach something that is not strictly ATS we will make sure to tell you, and are happy to show the "traditional" variation. All three of us continue to study with local teachers and take workshops, so we will continue to bring in new information and inspiration from what we are learning in our own studies.

Also, though Kallisti does not currently dance with zills (as we were not taught to do so) we believe that all dancers should have basic zill abilities, so Amy will be introducing them in her class. We admit to being zill beginners, so we are learning right along with you and will be continuing our studies in order to present solid material to our students.

All of this information is, of course, just a taste of what is out there. I recommend students take some time and look into online resources, including the various groups on (the Tribal Style Bellydance, ATS, FCBD and ATS FAQ in particular), the forum discussion Bhuz (great info on music and various dance styles), and the North Beach series at The Gilded Serpent. But don't be just an armchair academic! Get out to watch dancing, whether at restaurants, shows or parties, and make sure to dance yourself, not only for practice but just for the fun of it.