"If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." -Emma Goldman
It struck me to take on the stage name “Shajara” after reading about Shajar al-Durr, a slave-turned-queen of medieval Egypt. Historically, slave women of the Muslim empires were dancers, musicians, and poets. While I believe that bellydance has its origins in many ancient civilizations—Egyptian, Greek, and Phoenician, to name a few—I have come to think that the Arab and Ottoman empires across the Middle East, North Africa, and Andalusia contributed heavily to the emergence of Cabaret bellydance as we know it today. Samia Gamal’s role as a slave-dancer in the French film Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves may not be far from the historical reality.
For this reason, I feel that the root difference between Cabaret and Tribal Fusion is this: Cabaret adheres to the traditions developed in the Arab and Ottoman Empires, whereas Tribal Fusion channels into pre-Islamic and pagan civilizations.
American Tribal and Tribal Fusion
Two major branches of tribal bellydance have developed in the US: American Tribal and Tribal Fusion. Director of Fat Chance Belly Dance, Caroline Nericcio, developed American Tribal Style (ATS) in the 1970s, which is characterized by improvised group dancing, full skirts, and coin adornments. The face tattoos and that we see in American Tribal Style can be likened to those of Berbers in Morocco or the Bedouins in Jordan, and the jewelry resembles that of the Central Asian Turkic tribes.
Tribal Fusion is characterized by muscular isolations, and an emphasis on fluid abdominal, chest, and arm movements. The artistic director of The Indigo, Rachel Brice, founded this style, which is often performed with the backdrop of non-Middle Eastern music. Tribal Fusion utilizes many techniques from Indian, Indonesian, and sub-Saharan African stylizations.
Bellydancers who immigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century sought to exhibit exotic movements that fit the American perception of “Oriental.” Little Egypt, for instance, utilized full, circular pelvic rotations that we rarely see anymore in the context of modern bellydance. I believe that the perceived representation of “Easterness” is the foundation of modern American tribal styles of bellydance, and began largely with these Belle Epoque bellydancers. The pioneer of tribal and folkloric styles in the US, Jamila Salimpour, herself admitted to the theatrical and “unauthentic” facet of her dancing. As of the last decade, The Indigo created a series of new dance innovations—not only Tribal Fusion, but "Raqs Vaudeville" and Balkan Fusion. In my view, they are revisiting the tradition of Vaudeville from which American bellydance was born.
In contrast, we can look at Egyptian Cabaret at its origin, pioneered by the “Golden Age” dancers Tahia Karioka and Samia Gamal. From the British occupation to Nasser’s rule in the 1950s, Egypt was heavily “Westernized” and films contained a distinctly Hollywood flavor. Likewise, music and dance borrowed Western characteristics, as we can see that popular Egyptian singers like Oum Kalthoum employed full orchestras, which was not previously typical in the Middle East. Furthermore, bellydance á la Tahia Karioka and Samia Gamal blended samba, ballet, and ballroom dancing with traditional folkdances of the country. Today, we can see everyday Egyptian women and men bellydancing at family gatherings and weddings, pointing to the fact that bellydance is primarily a folkloric rather than a stage dance in these countries.
I’ve heard the comical theory that bellydance developed in desert regions so that dancers wouldn’t kick up the sand with their feet. Given that bellydance is a pan-Mediterranean dance—a majority of which is not desert—we need a more convincing explanation! Perhaps the fluid isolations and hip movements were simply suited for the rhythms and melodies of traditional Middle Eastern music.
You may have noticed that I avoided the use of the term “Gypsy” when describing costumes and stylizations on this page. The reason is that Gypsy dance and music blended with local cultures wherever they traveled—be it the Middle East, Balkans, or Spain—and thus I would argue that their stylizations are integral traditions in these countries nowadays. What would Spain be without Flamenco, or France without Manouche? A nationalist movement in Hungary is currently underway to revive pure “Hungarian” culture separate of Gypsy and Jewish traditions, although most of the music we characterize today as Hungarian is actually of Gypsy or Klezmer origin.
Dancers sometimes have the tendency to characterize a plethora of dance styles and costumes as “Gypsy.” In fact, aside from the Ghawazee of Egypt, we have no evidence that Gypsies engaged in a style of dance likened to bellydance. We have evidence that Flamenco, on the other hand, was developed by Gypsies who borrowed musical concepts from the Moors. The Spanish believe that castanets are not authentically Flamenco, and historians speculate that they originated from the Phoenician and Greek dancers that pre-dated the Moorish rule. I noticed a similarity between the rhythmic stomping in Flamenco and that of Turkish/Balkan Gypsy dance, suggesting that this is a characterizing element of Gypsy dance. On the other hand, dabke also employs stomping and is a major folk dance of the Levant (Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Syria), Armenia, and Greece.
Numerous individuals are now pushing for the replacement of the word “Gypsy” with “Roma.” Roma identify themselves with this term, and the singular term "Rom" means “human being” in their language. The word “Gypsy” is attached to many stereotypes, some positive and some negative. I think that the ground issue is not the replacement of the word “Gypsy” with “Roma,” but the understanding of who Gypsies are culturally to avoid the common misuse of this ethnic term. Moreover, we should recognize that Gypsies are a people, and not merely symbols of perceived cultural traits.
Duende and Zar
"Technique never made a dancer. There are no schools to create dancers just as there are none to create poets... The technique, invisible to the spectator, forgotten in these moments by the artist herself, runs beneath her art like stream of water which renders the expression, the soft and succulent geometry of her dance."
- Antonia Merce, flamenco dancer of La Argentina
Though we have standardized bellydance techniques in the US, I feel that the essence of this dance is—as in Flamenco—a concept called Duende. Duende in Spanish refers to an elfin demon, and symbolically represents the “spirit” that possesses a dancer when she is driven by the music. Duende yields strong, passionate movements and rhapsodic facial expressions that are meant to affect the audience. In this day of age, Spaniards have noted that most publically-performed Flamenco utilizes proper technique, but lacks Duende.
I would liken the concept of Duende to the belief of the Zar in Sudan. Some Sudanese believe that a spirit, called the Zar, can hover above a woman and drives her to necessitate fine jewelry, perfume, and clothes. The Zar, they say, can only be exercised by drum rhythms that inspire it to dance. Consequently, believers in this spirit hold Zar ceremonies, in which drummers play a series of rhythms until the possessed woman dances to the one most suited to her Zar. Well, I call this “Zar” a woman’s desire to dance! I think that one of the goals of every dancer is to channel her Duende or Zar in order to dance in a meaningful and self-satisfying way. We can practice all of the shimmies, hip drops, and undulations we want—but if the music doesn’t move us, of what joy is our dancing?
"Dance, when you're broken open. Dance, if you've torn the bandage off. Dance, in the middle of the fighting. Dance, in your blood. Dance, when you're perfectly free."