Naming discussions are rocking the North American belly dance communities, especially the tribal fusion and tribal improv subsets. Apart from our usual conversations about cultural appropriation, the main question is: who gets to use the word tribal?
It’s no secret that I’ve been studying, teaching, and performing Middle Eastern dance, a.k.a. belly dance, for over 20 years. Most of my expertise is specifically in the style known as ATS® or American Tribal Style, a group improvisational format of belly dance that evolved in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s. It has offshoots like ITS or Improvisational Tribal Style, which has numerous subsets of movement vocabularies that may or may not overlap, as well as tribal fusion, a more soloist-oriented style (sometimes) that allows its participants greater leeway since there’s less emphasis on group improvisation.
Recently, the North American belly dance communities have been talking about whether the word “tribal” should remain in our description. I’ll provide some background on this for newcomers, and then get into some of my thoughts on the issue.
In addition to many other valuable insights, she also shares that she encourages her college students to share potentially charged opinions, or ask for help in learning proper terminology, by saying “I’m going to fumble forward.” In that spirit, I’ll ask for grace as I fumble forward in this blog post. I may have a foot-in-mouth moment, but if so, I’m open to hearing about it and I intend to do better in the future.
I also want to note that when Dr. Mejia’s blog post hit, I spent some time listening and popping in on various online conversations. I do summarize a few ideas without attribution, in part because I can’t remember if they were happening in public web spaces or on people’s personal Facebook pages. It’s not ideal from a research perspective, but here I’m writing more as a dancer than as a scholar (unlike in my previous post), and I’d rather protect people’s privacy and have them come forward to claim their ideas than the other way around.
What’s In A Name?
I do want to point out that these conversations seem to be generated from within our community, which on the one hand is appropriate since belly dancers in both past and present have sometimes had problems with being racist and imperialist and Orientalist in our actions. We do consistently need to strive to do better. At the same time, since it’s not as though activists outside the community who are also invested in the word “tribal” have brought this to our attention – for valid reasons, like they have their hands full with life-or-death activism on other fronts, plus marginalized people do not owe us the emotional labor to help us become better – I do wonder if we are participating in some white guilt and are generating more controversy over a topic than there necessarily needs to be? Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a useful moment for reflection and it may turn out to be an important time to pivot away from past colonialist histories, regardless of whether we replace the word tribal or not. I’ll explain some more of my reasoning below.
I also hear some people saying that if this word is suddenly offensive or taboo, what’s next? Where do we stop? And on the one hand, yeah, it can seem daunting to realize that many words have histories that are not-so-great, and I get that it can feel overwhelming to start to grapple with that. I get that there’s a sense of “but will there be any words left for us to use ever?!” But the point of language is to be infinitely expressible; that’s part of what distinguishes a full-on language from a dialect, pidgin, or creole. I don’t think we’re going to run out of words for what we do, in part because I don’t think every single word in the English language has a racist or colonialist history (granted, many do, whether or not we realize it), and in part because I think it’s just common sense to try to suss out which words have the worst histories and hence should be replaced, and which words can keep trundling along (I realize there may never be consensus on this though, but again, we’re trying to do better and be more ethical in general so hopefully we make some progress).
This is one of the parts I’m struggling to articulate hence I’m asking for grace if I fumble: are we offending the people we worry that we’re offending with the name tribal, or are we not even on their radar? If we were on their radar, would it indeed be offending/harming them? Again, no one owes us the free educational labor of knocking on our dance studio doors to give us a lecture about what we’re doing wrong and how we could be doing better, and if those educational moments are not happening it’s no surprise due to the variety of injustices Native American people are and have been facing (such as fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline and investigating the huge number of indigenous women who go missing every year). But… I still wonder about this, and am trying to find words for it in such a way that I don’t sound like a jerk (totally a risk here, I get it). It could be that few people have brought this to our attention because they already attempted those conversations and were rebuffed (I got a whiff of this possibility from some social media posts), or because they’re flat-out tired from fighting other larger injustices, or because it seems hopeless that we’ll listen and act, and in all those cases, that makes it our responsibility to hold ourselves accountable to have this conversation and try to find a way forward that is more in line with being ethical global citizens.
What’s in Another Name?
I want to speak to some of the alternatives proposed. I think the folks who dance tribal fusion have an easier time of it than ATS people, for a variety of reasons: their style is more syncretic than ours and often more solo-oriented, so ditching “tribal” is fine in that it wasn’t needed in the first place for the same group-dynamic connotations that ATS and ITS people tend to want. Further, substituting “transnational” for “tribal” as Dr. Mejia suggests remains accurate, since many tribal fusion styles are in fact transnational in their inspiration.
I’ve seen “Global Group Improv” suggested as an alternate name for ATS, and while on the one hand I like it, on the other hand I don’t think “global” is an accurate description for what ATS dancers do (though “group improv” remains spot on). See, ATS is based on Middle Eastern dance, with its movement vocabulary that emphasizes hip, pelvic, chest, and shoulder isolations and shimmies. ATS also borrows from Spanish flamenco and a touch of Indian classical temple dance… but all of these regions have displayed a large amount of coherence and unity in terms of folk music, classical music (e.g. classical Arabic music and classical Indian music, which share a surprising amount of ground in terms of scales, rhythms, and so on), and folk dance. This is in part due to the Ottoman Empire, the spread of Islam, and stuff like that, which I don’t have space to get into here.
In other words, ATS isn’t really global in the sense of where the movement vocabulary comes from. It draws pretty specifically from folk dances of the Middle East, North Africa, Mediterranean, and central/southeast Asia (just a tad on this last region though). When I hear “global dance” it makes me think of the diversity of dance styles I know are out there: Polynesian and Tahitian dances which look totally different from West African dances which look totally different from Plains peoples Native American dances which look totally different from Japanese classical dances which look totally different from… you get the idea.
ATS may have become a global phenomenon, but its inspiration and cultural borrowings are not (to my knowledge) 100% global. And that’s okay, in my opinion. Having a focus on a Middle Eastern-influenced movement vocabulary gives the dance coherence. It creates repetition, pattern, and theme. It helps set audience expectations. I know I’d be thrown for a loop as an audience member if a dance performance featuring one troupe went all over the globe without there being some kind of explicit reason for it, you know? Though kudos to those hypothetical dancers for mastering a bunch of different global styles, which brings me to this point: focusing on one style of dance, on one region of the world, is a way of going deep rather than broad. I wouldn’t want to be a global dancer in the sense that I don’t actually want to spend all that much time on Latin dance, for example, though I might dabble in it. I want this region of dance as a lifelong practice, and I want to appreciate the hell out of other people studying and mastering the dances of other regions of the world.
Genre is basically a form of classification, and genres (whether determined by cultural insiders, or labeled by outsiders) exist for many reasons, among them to provide structure and to help people (both performers and audience members) know what to expect.
As someone put it on one of the discussions I skimmed, if we decided that ballet couldn’t be called ballet anymore, and gave it some other name like “pointy-toed point-shoe elegant dance” we’d all know that it referred to ballet. So what does the name change really accomplish? To provide a counterpoint, though, the general American public doesn’t know much about belly dance, so if we were to rebrand, we’d have to take into account that we’re really signaling different things to different audiences: we may in fact be playing on Orientalist connotations when describing ourselves as “tribal dancers” to outsiders, whereas to fellow belly dancers, we’re signaling the “group improv” orientation towards the dance, and perhaps implying which specific movement vocab we know best (ATS vs. ITS vs. Fly Fusion or whatever).
What to Do?
Right now, I’m curious whether we’ll look back on this and think, “oh jeez, duh, using ‘tribal’ was a bad call from the start, it’s good we decided to stop doing that” or think, “hm, yeah, that was kinda controversial for a hot minute, but it didn’t end up being as controversial as we’d thought when these conversations first started.” Right now, I could see it going either way.
And I want to be clear that majority consensus within a group – as in, enough tribal dancers confer and decide that it’s not worth changing the name – is not the same thing as a position being ultimately ethical or moral. Let’s recall that there were plenty of times in history when slavery, segregation, and genocide were legal and considered mostly-okay by the masses.
By the same token, it’s inappropriate to ask one person from a group to speak for everyone in that group, so we don’t get to say “This one Native American person told me once that they weren’t offended by others using the word ‘tribal’ so we get to keep using it.” It’s like saying “I have a black friend so I’m not racist” – as though having a black friend means a white person somehow evaded all the social conditioning and privilege of white supremacy. Still, I am seeing some evidence that in Native American communities, at least, some people don’t care about the word and others do. I don’t know if there’s a way to evaluate if there’s a consensus or not.
I do think that Western belly dancers need to continue to have conversations about where our art form originated from, and how we can do our best to accurately represent it and to not do further harm to populations already harmed by imperialism and colonialism. But at the same time, tribal belly dance genres have been around in the U.S. for 3 or 4 decades (maybe a hair longer, depending on how you trace your genealogy of the dance). How long does it take for something that’s a fairly new art form to become traditional, recognized in its own right as a valid art form, one that still (hopefully) acknowledges its influences gracefully and ethically, but is visibly its own distinct thing?
Speaking selfishly, yes, I acknowledge it could be a pain to rebrand (my troupe is named Indy Tribal, so we’d be in the market for a new name), but if that’s the way this is going, I’d rather be on the right side of history than stubbornly cling to something that is outdated and quite possibly harmful. As someone with privilege, I am aware that something that’s a minor inconvenience to me may be a much bigger deal to someone else who lacks my privilege. And if undertaking this inconvenient task of rethinking my dance branding is the correct thing to do, I’ll do it.
However. I’m still trying to do some research and do some listening to figure out if the name is actually that harmful (at risk of sounding tone deaf, yes, I know that I might be wearing privilege-blinders and might hence be insensitive to the harm I’m unintentionally doing here; this is why I’m being kinda cagey with language and taking my time reaching a decision – I’m trying to gather as many sources and ideas as possible).
One true statement is that language exists on a continuum with actions and behaviors. I wouldn’t be okay with normalizing rape culture by telling rape jokes, so why would I be okay with normalizing colonialism by using language that has been a tool of colonizers? But, as noted in my previous post, the word tribal does have different meanings and connotations, not just the one, so we’re kinda back to square one here, with questions of whose meanings in a language should get priority.
Another true statement is that actions speak louder than words, so I wonder if a somewhat obscure dance style changing its name will really have any impact on the world, or at least any more impact than, for instance, tribal belly dancers pledging to become better allies to marginalized/oppressed peoples in the future by doing things like donating to political campaigns or volunteering their time. This would likely have to be a local effort based on the needs of people wherever a given dance troupe is located, though I do think there’s something to be said for belly dancers in all locations combating negative Western stereotypes about the Middle East by educating about its art, music, and dance like I said in my previous post (though I realize that might sound kinda white savior, which is gross – what I meant more is that art gives people a chance to get their foot in the door and become curious about other cultures rather than feeling turned off by stereotypes or misunderstandings).
Put quite bluntly, I don’t think it matters if a dancer rebrands and stops using the name “tribal” if they also vote for politicians who are racist and sexist. There are likely belly dancers out there who improbably, say, voted for Trump, and I don’t understand how they must navigate that cognitive dissonance, but basically, I don’t think rebranding would make a huge difference in the life of someone who already loathes and actively works against everything that studying another culture’s dance form stands for. Especially a dance form from the Middle East, in the current political climate.
Who Benefits or Loses?
Apart from the question of any personal expense incurred by dance teachers or troupe directors who might choose to rebrand, we should think about how any potential name change might impact those who study/teach this dance style but are not in the Global North.
The thing is, ATS began as a North American take on belly dance, but it’s become a worldwide phenomenon, with hundreds of teachers certified in the dance form. If those teachers do not live in the U.S., the only way they can get certified is to either hope a workshop comes to a country near them, or to travel to the U.S. which is quite expensive in terms of airfare and lodging, not to mention the costs of multiple days of workshops with world-class instructors. I worry that rebranding could throw these dancers under the bus, so to speak, by shifting the terminology of a dance form they have invested lots of money and time in, deriving validity from their affiliation with a North American brand.
To me, it seems like it’s the ultimate privilege-blinded power move to make a quick pivot based on a North American context – meaning the very valid issues Dr. Mejia raises in her post, about the suffering of indigenous peoples on this continent – while ignoring the larger global context. I’m not sure how to reconcile these issues, but I want to make a point of affirming that the ATS community is global, with North Americans in the driver’s seat at present, and our decisions might hurt our dance brethren abroad (sadly I see this pattern a lot within feminism, where North American white women’s concerns take precedence over those of women of color, and unfortunately we’re caught in a bind here; send a message of respect and solidarity to women of color within these borders who perhaps have a more legitimate claim to the word tribal than we do, or maintain solidarity with women of color outside these borders who have invested in the dance form and its branding including the word tribal).
Another audience issue is our local students. I don’t know if many of my students in Indiana know or care about these larger issues. I certainly hope I’m not driving anyone away by having “tribal” as part of my branding; the kicker is that I wouldn’t know, because they’re not showing up. And as someone who lives in a fairly conservative part of the country, I might actually drive away students by appearing more… politically correct? social-justice-y? than any other dance teacher they could study with. I believe that dance and art are inherently political, but someone showing up for one hour of exercise a week may or may not be tuned into that. So, that’s worth considering as well.
The main thing is, students, teachers, and proponents of this form of dance need a way to self-identify and to find one another. One of the perks of ATS, after all, is that I can drop into any studio worldwide and be assured that we more or less speak the same dance language, and can sync up and start dancing together right away. It’s an amazing thing, and so I hope that whatever move our community makes, we ensure that we foreground that aspect of the dance (so if, hypothetically, we stay ATS but the T becomes something other than tribal, ATS dancers can still find each other; or if the folks wanting to go with Global Group Improv do so, then teachers could identify as ATS/GGI in their marketing materials so that students know where to go to speak the same dance language).
Ultimately, when I completed ATS Teacher Training and became a Sister Studio of FatChance BellyDance, I agreed to work within the dance form’s naming conventions and branding. Thus, I’m waiting until the founder of ATS, Carolena Nerrichio, weighs in. Additionally, I think there is more benefit to sticking together than not, but as noted above, it’s a simple enough thing to signal to other dancers what we do once the terms have been sorted out. Plus, many of us are networked on social media and can still contact each other even if some of the dance style names shift; the main thing for me is to be able to refer students who are in other cities to the ATS teachers there, no matter their brand affiliation.
I think I’ve said everything I want to… for now, at least. I’m going to continue to listen and to try to squeeze in a bit of research when possible, and as noted above, I need to wait and see until the creator of my particular style makes a statement. I don’t know how long it’ll take or where the pieces will fall, but I hope this is a useful conversation and that it inspires people to learn more and do better in the future. If I’ve fumbled at all here, I will listen and try to better myself as well.