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A group improv lover’s dilemma: debate?

posted in: musings | 3

An online friend, dear Leslie-Jean (Miss Boo, to those on tribe) remarked the other day on her Facebook status that she was exhausted by debates and discussions about ATS/tribal. And frankly, it is genuinely tiresome, and not for the faint of heart to leap into these topics of discussion in any medium. My latest was a discussion on one board about Tribal Fusion, and some misunderstanding that Rachel Brice does ATS. *le sigh*

When I pointed out that she doesn’t in fact perform ATS, and has more cabaret background than anything else, and in fact calls herself dark cabaret now, I was directed to a video of RB and another dancer doing a very simple lead-follow at some party, using a few moves which one would identify as ATS. When I pointed out that it was not RB performing ATS, but an example of casually playing around with a fellow dancer improvisationally, the arguments came back that RB had taken private lessons with Carolena, and that those were “definitely ATS moves”. This is one of those times I realized I really had to sit back and let it go. Because while that person was right–Rachel has done some studying with Carolena (after she had already been dancing the style she is known for because, as she said, she wanted to be able to back up the “tribal” in the “tribal fusion” label she had been stuck with), and those moves are used in ATS vocabulary, it wasn’t an example of Rachel “performing ATS”. And if I tried to go into any depth explaining why, I might just frustrate and anger the person who made the misinformed assertion in the first place. And in the end, I would come out being attacked for my attempt to educate, be stuck with some of the usual “you’re just trying to shut other people out” bull, when all I was trying to do was help disseminate some facts about what is and is not ATS/group improvisational bellydance. But here is what I would have written:

So do you have some friends who have taken some bellydance classes for a while? And do you think that if you kept it pretty simple and didn’t go too fast or make it too complicated, that your friend could follow along with stuff you did? Frankly, ANYBODY can do that. And if you shared some of the same classes and teachers and stylizations, you could probably do it even better. But you wouldn’t really be “dancing together”, would you? It would be mimicry. Copying as best you could, but it would not likely be very precise, energetic, or necessarily interesting or entertaining for anyone but the two of you playing around together. A lot of people who have never done ATS or its descendants (and even some students when they start out in tribal group improvisation) think that is all group improvisation is: following along.

But it is SO MUCH more than that. It is more precise, and more nuanced, and more interactive than that. It is a conversation between the dancers which is based on a common understanding of not only the vocabulary, but the agreements (or rules, if you prefer) surrounding the interaction, allowing a powerful and playful give and take between leaders and followers, which keeps it dynamic and exciting for the performers, and multi-faceted and entertaining for the audience. That exchange of energy and ideas is palpable! That is the power of group improv!

I run into a lot of people who point out dancers bopping along together, “making it up” as they go, and say that is just like tribal group improv. “They’re using ATS moves” is one of the most common arguments (sound familiar? :). They just don’t know any better, and it is nearly impossible to explain to those who don’t delve into it to any depth. I imagine it’s the same for dancers of any style–I am sure Egyptian dancers debating dances from Egypt in the 50’s and 60’s in the clubs, versus what made it onto film, versus what is being performed over there today, versus what is being performed in the West–all of these interpretations of Egyptian dance have a lot of nuances that a studied Egyptian dancer can see and understand which I could not unless I really devoted time and energy to studying. Those same dancers can probably also understand the frustration one feels when the term “tribal” and ATS get lumped in with many things which completely are not of those genres, especially when it is labeled with a dismissive tone: because we invest so much of ourselves in the understanding of these art forms, and have such a passion for it, it’s hard to be patient with rampant ignorance; and there is no way to succinctly explain it all to someone who doesn’t know what they don’t know without sounding insulting of their demonstrated lack of experience and understanding. And when one tries, one gets accused of being “elitist” or “exclusionary” or worse.

This is the dilemma:
Keep plugging away, helping to educate a population who doesn’t understand what makes ATS/tribal group improv so amazing and why it is important to make a distinction in our communications with one another, and risk being snubbed or dismissed or called names? OR
Let it go, let the ignorance continue (but live to educate another day)?

Sadly, until women stop taking simple disagreements personally, and stop attacking each other instead of listening and talking through a valid topic of debate, seeing the merit even in those times (or as I believe, especially in those times) when we don’t see eye to eye with one another, sometimes it has to be the latter…

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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3 Responses

  1. مونيكا
    | Reply

    Interesting thoughts! (I have also read the original thread.) I respect the parameters of ATS as a group-based form, though it is not my chosen belly dance style. I think a mish-mash of terms is a big part of the problem…for example even the term cabaret says very little to me about what I can expect to see or what a dancers background is, and ‘cabaret’ can feel like an insult (not in your post, not at all, but in other contexts).

    That said, I find it interesting to see the need (that might be the wrong verb…) to push solo tribal fusion style dancers away from the group tribal fold. The clip you referred to of ATS being done to an Egyptian taqsim baladi was seemingly odd to both of us, perhaps for different reasons. To you, perhaps, it seemed to be merely a playful follow along that included some typically ATS movements, to me it was fairly shallow overall, mainly because it was done to a pretty standard taqsim baladi, representative of another improvisational form with a lot of structured parameters between musicians and a solo baladi or sharqi dancer. It did look totally ATS to me, by the way…when I improvise playfully with a fellow Oriental dancer it does not look like that!

    Sidebar: I can’t remember how I stumbled across it, but I enjoy your blog! Much respect. I vote that you keep plugging away and taking risks.

  2. Meissa2112
    | Reply

    Keep plugging away. For every 20 that is not open to listen, there has got to be one that will be humbled and willing to learn. And that one makes it all worth it, maybe that one will be the bridge between you and the other 20. I always look forward to what you (and others) have to say.

  3. Jennifer
    | Reply

    Shay, I have to say that I *really* appreciate the posts that you make on tribe, and your blog, for educating others. A lot of teachers only teach how to dance, not the history behind it, and so posts like yours on tribe are a valuable resource. That being said, I don’t necessarily think it is a bad thing for teachers not to teach the history, at least during the first few months of a dancer’s learning – if she’s just there to get away from the kids for an hour, she probably doesn’t care. Once she’s been hooked, though, that’s when the rest of the education can begin.

    Personally, I just wanted to learn to “belly dance,” with no style in the beginning – I didn’t even know there were styles. After seeing a performance for the first time, I saw that there were many different styles, and for me to start learning, it was boiled down to cabaret and tribal. Once I was more dedicated to my practice, started taking workshops, etc., I learned more about how those two categories are broken down further, or better. Tribe was a great help for me there, as was youtube, individual dancer’s websites, and workshop instructors.

    I haven’t seen the thread you mention here, but I suspect it may be a case similar to where I was about a year into dancing. Maybe the dancer who commented is just learning about the names of the styles, and hasn’t quite delved in much deeper to find out what they really are yet. Your replies may not have gotten through to her this time, but hopefully as she continues her dance studies (both movement and history), she’ll see another similar post on tribe, or hear a comment made at a workshop, or read a comment on a youtube video – and then learn more.

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