Helené, Audrey and I performed for a small audience on the garden stage at The Crepe Place Saturday afternoon. Audrey and I are former students of Helené’s and performed together in her company, Sister’s of the Desert Sky. After we formed Mountain Tribal with Kim, Helené generously invited us back to perform with her at senior centers, at her winter concert, and at The Crepe Place in Santa Cruz.
As Kim was not able to perform with us that day, Audrey and I made a few adjustments to make it a duet. All of our dances are created collaboratively, though, so our performance represents the work of all three of us. We started with our taxeem choreography, or, in this case, the slow, oozy movement section. Just before we stepped into position, Audrey and I looked at each other wide-eyed: we’d both blanked on how to start. “Snake arms and no taxeem hips!” I whispered to her. I settled in to my stance, dropped my pelvis, lifted my sternum and waited for the music. Then I started the snake arms with taxeem hips. Doh! No hips! I just said that, you fool. Should I stop now or will that just confuse Audrey all the more? She’s probably following me, I thought, just as the phrase ended. Whew. On to the mayas.
We each tripped up a few times either in the choreography sections or in our tribal cues. But one of the advantages of training in ATS*, is that you learn to watch whoever is in front and if they make a mistake, you make it with them.
*American Tribal Style (ATS) is a modern American take on traditional bellydancing in which two or more dancers improvise through the use of visual cues. Cues can be hand, arm, or head positions or gestures. Every step or phrase has a distinctive cue. One dancer will take the “lead” position. It will be her job to cue the followers. The “followers” are responsible for watching their leader and responding to her cues. This cueing necessitates that the dancers stand in carefully staggered positions which allows the followers to see the leader, and the audience to see the dancers. Typically, leaders and followers change positions after cueing three or four steps. Everyone learns to be responsible for leading the whole group as well as for supporting the leader. The ATS costume is also distinctive. It calls for one or two brightly colored full skirts, matching or contrasting pantaloons, a coin bra over a choli, and layers of belts, scarves, coin belts, fringe, and whatever other Middle Eastern bric-a-brac they can pin on.
As a modern dancer, this was not the case because we tended to stick to the exact choreography. This was not improvisational modern dance. If someone in front flubs up, too bad for her: the group couldn’t adjust. Mistakes were embarrassing, ugly, and a critical statement of your ability. In my modern dance performances, I never had the sense of being support on stage. That might have been me, of course, but modern dance and bellydance are substantially different enterprises. As modern dancers, our personal stakes were different; resources were limited and jealously guarded; our goals as dancers were ambitous. That affected who we were on stage and what our performance experiences were like at that time.
When I started watching local bellydancers perform, I noted a different spirit: one of cooperation and shared fun. This seemed to be true with bellydancers in general and ATS trained dancers in particular. The on- and off-stage support was what enticed me to perform again after my retirement from modern dance concerts. But I’m not naïve: I know that internal group relationships aren’t that simple—there are always going to be tension and jealousy especially around performance time. It is part of the performance experience, but if one is careful, those conflicts can be bonding. In any case, it was the cooperative spirit of the dancers and the audiences that prompted me to begin performing with Sister’s of the Desert Sky.
Audrey’s daughter, Mariah, gave us a great compliment saying she could tell we had been working together for a long time because of our synchrony. That too is a result of our long-term ATS practice. We have learned to read subtle changes in our posture and gesture, becoming adept at responding quickly. We have developed our group sense of kinesthetic empathy. ATS teaches us to trust one another. Even in choreographed pieces we stay aware of each other, so if I blow the taxeem Audrey calmly follows my lead. I relieves a great deal of stress to know that.
It was a short afternoon with only Helené, Audrey, and I performing, but we had fun. The weather was perfect and it was lovely to just sit there afterwards with my friends and a glass of white wine.