How I Got into Tribal Belly Dance

How I Got into Tribal Belly Dance October 22, 2016

With a few years of cabaret-style belly dance under my belt, I started exploring the Bay Area dance scene. That’s when everything changed.

Photo of me performing tribal belly dance at the 2016 Winter Bazaar. Picture by P. Shypula
Photo of me performing tribal belly dance at the 2016 Winter Bazaar. Picture by P. Shypula

Somehow, I caught a performance by FatChance BellyDance at a street fair. It was the first glimpse of tribal belly dance I’d ever encountered, and it mesmerized me. The rigorous technique that I’d found largely lacking in cabaret belly dance was compacted into one beautiful form. I knew I had to learn more.

The early 2000s were a heady time in the Bay Area belly dance scene. I dropped into classes taught by Jill Parker of Ultra Gypsy, Rachel Brice, Frederique, and of course Carolena of FatChance BellyDance. Initially, I was drawn to both tribal fusion and tribal style belly dance, not really distinguishing between the two. After all, I was most interested in continuing as a solo performer. I wanted the aesthetics of tribal belly dance, not necessarily the mechanics of group improvisation.

Looking back, I now know that the aesthetics and mechanics of tribal belly dance are interrelated and fractal in nature. But back then, it wasn’t really obvious to me, so I kept dabbling here and there. I spent a year in and out of classes at the FatChance studio in San Francisco, absorbing the high-energy drills and technique, but I didn’t really intend to dance in groups ever.

I continued to study cabaret under Nanna, and through her, arrived at a deeper appreciation of what sets tribal and tribal fusion belly dance apart. I participated in some of the open stage nights at Amira’s in San Francisco, and though my own dancing at the time barely merits comment, I got to watch Nanna and her students, Rachel Brice, and various FatChance dancers perform in the café setting that was so integral to the development of these improvised dance forms. The robust, flamenco-inspired posture, the graceful arms – these things not only are beautiful, they’re also functional. When you’re dancing in a tiny restaurant like Amira, you must be economical in your movements. You must be strong enough to hold the posture for the duration of a set. So from the very start, concepts of strength and endurance became woven in with my notion of the dance.

When I left Berkeley with a rudimentary understanding of the aesthetics of tribal and tribal fusion belly dance, it was for a new dance scene: in Bloomington, Indiana. That scene, I discovered, was very group-oriented. It was extremely difficult for me to break in as a soloist.

Fortunately, I fell in with the awesome folks of Different Drummer Belly Dancers. There were still plenty of opportunities to perform solo acts within the troupe…but that’s also when I realized that most of the point of tribal belly dance was to improvise in a group setting so as to not have to memorize choreography. Or, if we were going to choreograph something, the ATS moves provided a useful shorthand in which to do so.

Thus, while the appearance of tribal belly dance is what initially drew me in, the functionality of it is what roped me in for good. The ability to use this dance language to communicate with anyone, anywhere, who’s also learned it – that completely won me over once it clicked.

I still perform as a soloist; I’ve got too much weirdness in my head not to. But the lessons I learned first in the Bay Area and then in Bloomington have molded me into the dancer I am today, one with a strong yearning for community as well as artistry. And the people I’ve encountered along the way have been fantastic and inspiring.

While my dance journey began in sunny SoCal with a typically Hollywood bent, I’m glad that it’s taken me on the path to reach the tribal belly dance community, with our visually distinctive movements and costumes. Who knew that college-age-me would get a glimpse of a dance style I knew nothing about, but would later become a certified teacher of? So, thanks past-me, for following up on something that caught your eye.

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