On Saturday, Aug 28, Crystal Silmi presented “Unmata Belly Dance Fusion Extravaganza” which included Tribal Fusion workshops and an evening concert. Both Crystal and Amy Sigil, director of the group Unmata, are proponents and innovators in the area of bellydance fusion.
“Tribal Fusion” is an American variety of bellydance that was born and raised in Northern California, though its influence has become global. Its lineage dates from Jamila Salimpour’s Bal Anat dance company in the 1970s, which presented a collection of traditional dances from the Middle East in a theatrical format. Her student Masha Archer took further liberties with traditional materials in order to satisfy American sensibilities. Carolina Nericcio writes of Archer: “She referred to [her style] as ‘Authentic Modern American’ because of the American concept of taking liberties with authenticity and origins” (Nericcio, www.fcbd.com). This liberty, says Nericcio, is Archer’s lasting contribution to the bellydance and drove the next generation of dancers to innovate further.
In 1987, Nericcio created Fat Chance Belly Dance, the genesis of American Tribal Style bellydance (ATS). This was pure fusion from the get go. Building on what Archer and Salimpour started, FatChance BellyDance forged a uniquely American hybrid of movement, music, and costume that expresses an assertive and self-confident American femininity. From Nericcio’s studio and the growing popularity of ATS, another generation of bellydancers began to infuse their own aesthetics into this already hybridized genre. Initially inspired by Gothic culture, raves, and street dance, “Tribal Fusion” began to evolve between approximately 1996-2003. Most credit its development to Jill Parker (a founding member of FatChance BellyDance), Heather Stants, and Rachel Brice.
(For more complete histories, I recommend Wikipedia’s entry “Tribal Fusion (dance form)” and the history on Tribal Bellydance website.)
At Unmata Raks Cypress, a concert hosted by Aruba at the Cypress Lounge, we had a chance to see where these hybridizations have come. It was indeed an extravaganza of bellydance fused with sources far distant from its origins in North Africa and the Middle East. For some, bellydance was clearly the foundation of their art, while for others bellydance represented merely another stylistic influence.
Opening the show were Imzadi and Mariah from Desert Dream, performing as “The Dreamy Cancan Girls.” Dressed in blue and gold skirts with net stockings and heels, they performed as a couple of Music Hall coquettes. It was a three-part set including a raks sharki, a very charming cane dance, and a cancan with Karsilama rhythm and gestures. Many Tribal Fusion artists have become enamored of the early 20th century female entertainers of Europe and America. From cancan, vaudeville, and burlesque dancers, TF dancers borrow an attitude, a look, and a style identified with these flirtatious femme fatale.
We saw five solos: Kitiera performed her fusion of Gypsy/Romany bellydance, Irish step dancing, and American jazz. Jessica Cooper’s solo was an excellent example of early bellydance fusion with its precise and crisp joint articulations. (I realize that would only place it about 10 years ago, making it hard to call it “early,” but the fusion movement is a lightning-paced phenomenon.) Crystal, in a straw cowboy hat, brought us a crazy jazz number with accents from bellydance and rockabilly. Jackie Morris did a cabaret style bellydance with tribal fusion popping and locking. And finally, Cera Byer of Damage Control Dance Theater worked bellydance flourishes into her street dance moves. Each of these soloists work at varying degrees from the center of bellydance and simultaneously challenge the limits of the central form.
Tatseena and the Serpent Sirens, RaksArabi, and Unmata performed as groups. Tatseena and her company of three performed in Gothic tribal style replete with live serpents. Women, snakes, and the darkness are a common constellation of metaphors in feminist spirituality circles. RaksArabi, a self-professed “loco belly dance fusion group,” channeled a modern, urban, street sensibility, at once sexy, playful, and daring.
Unmata, however, were the guest artists and the big draw to the event. Amy Sigil’s Unmata has been another driving force in Tribal Fusion with their hybrid of ATS, street moves, and modern theatrics.
What these dancers have in common with all bellydancers is the emphasis on torso articulations: locking and popping the hips and chest, snake-like undulations that ride the spine, shimmies, shakes, and shivers. What they have in common with each other is a youthful worldview and a nightlife sensibility. The music is loud and forceful; the movement is frenetic; the mood is sometimes nostalgic and ironic (the zeitgeist of that generation?), danger mixed with humor.
But here’s the thing. There is a point at which categorization is more trouble than it’s worth. So just look at the dance as it is presented to you. And for my money, Tribal Fusion is one of the most exciting things happening in dance today. Check it out on YouTube.
A. Crystal and Aruba decided to use this free event as a fundraiser for the victims of the floods in Pakistan. They raised $200 to go to Avaaz.org.
B. Thanks to local bellydance photographer, Robert Jan Ridder.