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Tribal Style: Getting our Terms Straight

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More blasts from the past today! After I found that old class outline, I also found a repository of some of my old articles from various publications.

Below is an article I wrote for the now-defunct Caravan Trails quarterly newsletter which used to be produced by Paulette Rees-Denis of Gypsy Caravan. I was author of a regular column called “Of the Tribe” for a short time, for which I wrote short articles focused on the topic Paulette had chosen. This was for my first article, sometime in 2001, or maybe early 2002. Enjoy a little retro reading…

Tribal Style: Getting our Terms Straight

You know, when I was coming up with the subject of my very first installment of “Of The Tribe”, I was going to define my terms. With all the hub-bub about tribal belly dance these days, and all the new and varying catch phrases used to describe what we do, it is becoming hard to know what people mean when they say they do tribal belly dance. When I visited Tribal Fest II in Sebastopol, I felt really strongly that there was a need to understand what the basis of our dance form is, because from what I could see, the interpretations are getting further from the core, and we are losing our cohesion…at least, so it seemed to me.

So I jotted notes. I wrote draft after draft, and finally I had to put it away. Nothing was coming out right. How could I write on this topic without claiming to know better than others what defined tribal? After all, part of the beauty of this dance is that it holds so many opportunities for personal interpretation, and there are so many directions we can grow in. Yet every time I wrote, it seemed like I was making a list of things I have seen that didn’t “fit the tribal mold”. Tribal isn’t this, and tribal isn’t that.

I was still in this rut when I went to the Gypsy Caravan show at The Pink Door here in Seattle in August. It was a fantastic show. Many of my students came and grinned from ear to ear as some of them saw their first live show of tribal belly dance. It was utterly inspiring, and it reminded me of all the things I love about tribal. And that’s when it hit me. The best way to talk about tribal is to really concentrate on what it IS, not what it ISN’T. It may seem obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me. I was so caught up in my frustrations with what I am not seeing in dances being called tribal, I wasn’t focusing on what I see that is.


It goes without saying that I can only really speak from where I stand, so that is what I am about to do. This is my column, so it’s my take on it. Just hear me out.

What drew me to tribal in the first place was certainly not that it was improvised–I didn’t know that fact when I saw my first tribal belly dance show! So then how did I recognize tribal from other styles? I had seen belly dance before, but nothing made me feel like I did when I saw tribal. I am sure the costumes were one major give-away–those tier skirts and turbans, layers of textiles and jewelry made my heart leap. I wanted to look like that! But it wasn’t just about what they were wearing that made me want to jump up and dance. There was this…sensation. This…indescribable feeling that I am going to try to describe: There was something about the dancers that made me feel like I was witness to something and a part of it, both at the same time. I watched the dancers as they performed a basket dance in a circle, and saw that they were really communing with one another up there. They were really enjoying that moment and it showed. They looked at one another in the eye, they traded winks and smiles with one another, and somehow I felt like I was being let in on a secret between them. And yet, this was not exclusionary. As often as they smiled at one another, they had ten-times that much positive energy to share with the audience. They didn’t just look over our heads in an effort to see us (the audience) all at once in some practiced stage presence. They looked AT ME somehow. They looked at the people in the audience around me. They truly SAW us. I almost felt like in that moment I was drawn in, as a part of their group; as a part of their secret. I know now what to call that feeling. It’s called being part of a tribe.

Being a performer all my life yet never having experienced something like this, I really wanted to know, “How did they create this feeling?”, “Where did this energy come from?”, “If someone like me wanted to create this same dynamic, how could I do it?” And that’s when I learned the name of this group I was seeing. They were, of course, Gypsy Caravan. And how could I do what they do? By learning what they do: improvisation. Because, as I was once told by Paulette, it is by this improvisational skill, being fully present in the moment, that we learn to really “see” one another as we dance. We can’t be in our heads and get this effect. We have to connect. We have to communicate. We have to give and take. What an intriguing new concept this was to me then! What a wonderfully familiar and magical concept it is to me now.

I will never say that you cannot captivate an audience with choreography. I have done choreographies all my life, and have seen dances that have literally made me cry with emotion. I love the challenge of learning a choreography, and still do them from time-to-time with my troupe. But I don’t call it tribal. The sensation I felt that day at the Gypsy Caravan show–that feeling of being part of a tribe–it came from a tribal belly dance troupe. From a group doing improv. And that is the core of what our branch of the belly dance family tree was founded on. What made it unique and different, what made people sit up and pay attention, was that very challenging skill which seems to be more and more scarce today. I would hate to see it further whittled away. I would hate to see tribal simply become a costume…a look that anyone can slip on and off, and throw in the washing machine at the end of the day. I would hate to see it become simply a musical choice–a CD that becomes scratched and outdated over time. I would hate to see it become anything but what makes it beautiful and unique–a dance based in improvisational skill, a dance where we really see each other.

Shay
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Shay Moore is the director and primary instructor at Deep Roots Dance in Seattle, WA. She loves writing, movies, costuming, knitting, cooking, and bellydance to the moon and back again; and loves her amazing husband and doggies even more than that.

Shay
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