Various Meanings of the Word Tribal

Various Meanings of the Word Tribal January 21, 2020

There’s a discussion brewing in the belly dance community about genres that go by the name tribal and whether we (white Americans, among others) should get to use that word. What follows is some reflections on language and meaning.

Photo by Jyotirmoy Gupta. In public domain, from Unsplash.

If you’re just now tuning in, dancer and professor Dr. Donna Mejia has published an open letter to the North American belly dance community, advocating for using the word “transnational” instead of the word “tribal” to refer to certain of our specific dance fusion genres. She eloquently writes:

As a woman of Choctaw, African, Jewish, Scottish, French and Creole heritage, the word tribal signified membership to a people who endured brutal and perpetual genocide, racism, and political, economic and ideological disenfranchisement.

I am descended from slaves in Louisiana. I am the product of my Great Grandmother being raped by her employer in Mississippi. A tribe signified DNA-membership to an identifiable group that shared a common language, cultural practices, experiences, histories, food, attire and values. We collectively attempted to retain those practices through hundreds of years of attacks to our sovereignty, values, personhood, homes, health and family structures. It wasn’t easy. Many cultural treasures, languages and knowledge have been obliterated. Many humans didn’t survive.

A weekend festival gathering of dancers who’ve gained entrance to a community through paid instruction do not share the same cultural, demographic and physical umbilical cord. Most certainly, no matter what adversities they have traversed as individuals, they have not experienced the shock of collective genocide and persecution for their way of life. They amalgamate into a family of shared temporal experiences and inspirations, but the ability to adopt or drop that mantle of identity can be timed to begin and end with their time on the dance floor or on social media. Afterwards, home/original identities may be resumed if they so choose. Not all do. For many those identities transform, become integrated, permanent and public facing.

Many tribes of indigenous origin did not/do not have that luxury or editorial agency in their lives.

And…she’s right. We should definitely be having this conversation. But I’m also curious about how many meanings the word “tribal” has, because there’s more than one, and I wonder whose definitions and connotations should win out here.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the first recorded use of the word “tribe” in English was in the 13th century, in the sense of “a social group comprising numerous families, clans, or generations together with slaves, dependents, or adopted strangers.” Other connotations include “a political division of the Roman people originally representing one of the three original tribes of ancient Rome,” while another facet of the definition is “a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest.”

Uses of the word abound. Ancient Biblical lore speaks of the 12 tribes of Israel, while Ireland had tribes in the pre-Christian days. Ethnic groups in India lay claim to the term “tribe” and in fact this has been enshrined in law, with references on the Indian government’s census site to scheduled “tribes and castes.” The word “tribal” has further taken off and is used to reference tattoo styles, certain electronic music genres, and more.

Is referring to someone or something as tribal automatically a tool of colonizers? Not in the pre-colonization examples listed above, though the word may have acquired those connotations and indeed some of the nefarious judgments and conditions that accompany colonial attitudes towards the “natives.”

More relevant to the North American context is the use of “tribal” and “tribe” to apply to indigenous peoples here. I won’t even pretend to know enough on the subject to speak authoritatively about it – I’d need at least 6 months’ dedicated research time and ideally a travel budget to do fieldwork – but it seems to me that the word “tribe” is used both as an in-group identification (e.g. Native American people may use the word themselves, referring to themselves) and an out-group identification (like when the U.S. federal government recognizes certain tribes). However, other words may also be in the mix, such as clan, people, and so on.

And, this is more anecdotal than research-based, but I’ve noticed some diversity in how indigenous American folks use the word. In this Twitter thread, for example, a Native American woman explains why she finds colonizers using the word “tribe” to be offensive, writing: “I think that–whether you realize it or not–you’re playing with racist and stereotypical ideas that are so deeply embedded in your head and heart that you don’t realize that they’re harmful.” Yet I’ve also had conversations with Native Americans, or white allies who work with them, who’ve characterized their feeling about the word as one of negligible importance; if it’s used like an insult, then it’s an insult, but otherwise, who cares? Again, this is anecdotal, and obviously one person’s opinion may not reflect that of the whole group, but I just wanted to mention that there seem to be a few opinions floating around within this (admittedly very diverse) group.

The North American context is the one that Mejia writes about, and she describes her decision to reject the term “tribal” applied to belly dance genres and contexts as such:

It was too dismissive of the harrowing experience of tribal peoples on all continents.

Which is accurate. But the word “tribal”in belly dance usage does maintain some of its other connotations, referring to group identity more broadly and in other historical and geographical contexts.

I see a parallel in the word “gypsy,” which for a while was a popular descriptor signaling a certain type of dancing, bordering on flamenco and the dances of the Roma/Romani populations of Europe. Hippie-type people in the U.S. continue to use the word to signal some sort of free-wheeling wanderer stereotype, and in the belly dance community it’s become extremely unfashionable to use the word because enough people have finally tuned in to the ongoing oppression of the Roma people (though, one counterpoint I’ve heard is that in Spain, the word is used favorably in performance context, as a way of applauding a dancer’s embodiment of a fiery flamenco sort of authenticity, but I’d need to look more into this, because it might also just be using the word in a praise-worthy way while the larger political context remains hostile to actual Roma people).

Yet where I see this parallel diverge is that the Roma people are one specific ethnic group with a specific history of oppression and marginalization, whereas there are multiple tribal groups globally and they have all interacted with colonial powers differently. Is the sum of that oppression, as Mejia states, enough to imply that non-tribal folks should simply never use the word outside of a context referring to said tribal folks?

The history of how the word came to be used for American belly dance is a bit murky, but going off Kajira Djoumahna’s book The Tribal Bible: Exploring the Phenomenon That is American Tribal Style Belly Dance, I’ll present some ideas here (I’m aware of some of the problematic stuff that happened around her festival, but the resource is still useful). Djoumahna writes:

The credit for naming this style of Jamila’s as “California Tribal” or “American Tribal” should go to Morocco of New York (from a conversation in December, 1998). Morocco felt it was an apt name for this new style that was uniquely American in its fusionary approach, since it did not accurately represent any particular tribe from any particular place (1).

Belly dancers will know that Jamila Salimpour is a famous belly dancer, whose troupe Bal Anat pioneered many of the seeds of modern belly dance styles. Bal Anat performed at Renaissance Faires in Northern California in the 1960s, and Jamila’s daughter Suhaila Salimpour has carried on this legacy (more on that here). No one today would look at Jamila’s dancing, or Suhaila’s (which has become its own distinctive style and brand) and call it tribal style belly dance, but that’s where the roots are.

One of Jamila’s students, Masha Archer, continued the stylistic developments of Bal Anat and continued to work with the Middle Eastern dance movements in a way that was conducive to group improvisation. Masha’s student Carolena Nericchio would go on to become the founder of FatChance BellyDance, the troupe that has definitely created and maintained American Tribal Style or ATS. Djoumahna interviewed one of the FatChance principal dancers in 1999, Rina Rall, and provides this enlightening quote:

A new style has emerged, especially on the West Coast, American Tribal Style Bellydance. It is an ethnic fusion style, influenced by Middle Eastern dance but inspired by American artistic sensibilities. It has nothing to do with representing a particular tribe, but it combines movement vocabularies and regional costuming to form one cohesive presentation. The ‘American’ part of the label acknowledges that the dancers are continents away from the culture that has created the dance form and are taking artistic license with it. Yet they still must acknowledge, respect and honor the roots (5).

I chose this quote in particular because, two decades later, it’s still an apt description of ATS. We are not trying to recreate or represent any existing folk, ethnic, or tribal dance from the Middle East or North Africa, though we do nod at certain tribal dances that exist there (I’m thinking of Berber, Tuareg, and Bedouin tribes of North Africa whose movement and visual aesthetic has been an influence on our art form). This is deliberately a syncretic style of dance, but I view that as an attempt to negotiate a double bind that American dancers interested in Middle Eastern dance are caught in: trying to conform too closely to actual dances from the Middle East provokes discussions of authenticity and cultural appropriation, but to not acknowledge the roots of what we’re interested in also can cause accusation of cultural appropriation, in the “we took it and ran” sense of the word.

Brief aside: Middle Eastern dance itself, known as belly dance in the Western world, is also still evolving and has fairly recently roots too. As dance scholar and dance professional Abigail Keyes writes: “Belly dance as we know it today is hardly even 100 years old.” So we need to take that into account when we talk about how much Westerners are adapting what is supposedly the world’s oldest dance form (it might be… but we have no freakin’ way of knowing for sure, which is a dilemma that folklorists and oral historians know well: if nobody thought to write it down, we lack definitive evidence of its age). The word “belly dance” is also not ideal for a variety of reasons (among others, it came from French colonizers who saw it and dubbed it the danse du ventre) but it seems we’re stuck with it, and besides, I can think of few other dance styles that focus so much on learning to isolate the torso and hip regions in such nuanced ways.

I’ve already written out my thoughts on ATS in particular in regard to cultural appropriation here and here, with a follow-up here. I think the discussion around the word tribal is not quite the same thing as the conversation around whether belly dance is cultural appropriation (as a whole, or only certain things American belly dancers do, etc.) but I do think the two topics are related in that (white, North American especially) belly dancers need to be able to recognize their privilege when approaching these topics (I talk more about the concept of privilege and why it’s not a bad/accusatory thing here), and we need to listen to folks who are more marginalized than us and who have higher stakes when it comes to these topics. By that I mean, we need to recognize that as hobbyist and semi-pro belly dancers, we can take our costumes off at the end of the day, and so we need to make space at the table for people who cannot shed their identities, who are impacted daily by white supremacy, Western imperialism, Islamophobia, and so on. If we’re doing something that hurts them, we should be receptive to hearing it, since no matter how positive our intentions might be, there’s a chance could be doing harm.

Now, I think that if we do more education around Middle Eastern music and dance, honoring the roots of our dance style even if what we do on stage is more of a fusion, I think that does some good. I say this especially as someone living in the Midwest, particularly in a state (Indiana) that has been known for attempting to bar Syrian refugees under *eyeroll* governor Pence and for not passing a comprehensive anti-hate-crimes bill after a Muslim man was fatally shot recently Clearly ethnicity and religion are not the same thing, but for a population that may not know much about these identities, and may associate all things Middle Eastern with horrible stereotypes about terrorism, maybe getting a foot in the door through artistic appreciation is a win, and maybe that starts a beneficial conversation no matter what we call the dance

I suspect that the conversations about “tribal” and cultural appropriation are somewhat related in that we sidestep issues of cultural appropriation because in calling ourselves (non-specific) tribal dancers, we are not held accountable for accurately representing any one ethnicity’s folk dance. So, yay for artistic license…but that also makes us susceptible to accusations of disrespecting the dance form by grabbing it from its original context and running with it…but at the same time, there’s no one original context, there’s a multiplicity of contexts, since any belly dancer can tell you just how different (to take one example) Egyptian dance is from Turkish dance, for a variety of reasons including how different their folk musics are, and you’ve simply gotta dance differently to different styles of music.

Going back to the first sentence of that last paragraph, what I think this all means is that if we do this dance form, American Tribal Style or any of the other tribal subgenres of belly dance, we have to hold ourselves accountable for knowing some of the history of the dance, promoting positive and accurate representations of the Middle East and North Africa, and addressing systemic issues of injustice when possible. In other words, if we’re gonna play in their sand box, we have to be as polite as possible, and I think that’s true no matter what we call our dance form. The fact that we’re continents away from the earlier modes of this dance does mean that however we interpret it, what we do with it will be different (because we have different audiences and venues, and we’re just in a different cultural context to begin with). It’s quite possible that the word “tribal” acknowledges these disparities over time and space while still granting that the group aspect of this specific style of belly dance is what sets it apart in an American context from the other variety of styles of belly dance, many of which are more solo-focused or which rely on choreography to get big groups to dance together.

I will say, though, that it’s pretty awkward when people learn our dance style’s name and ask, “Oh, which tribe are you from?” or “Which tribe does your dance represent?” That conversation alone does indicate that the sense of tribal as shared ethnicity, shared-inherited-in-group status, remains pervasive. When I explain that our dance style is a fusion of Middle Eastern, North Africa, and Central Asian folk dance styles, with a bit of flamenco as well, and that “tribal” acknowledges some of these ethnic and folk dance influences and foregrounds the group improvisation and synchronization aspect of the dance, people usually get it. If nothing else, dancers in our style should be educated enough to be able to have the conversation about the roots of this dance, regardless of where we go in our discussion of the naming conventions.

I’m still thinking this through, and will provide more analysis in the follow-up post coming soon, but for now we should be considering the following factors:

  • Are we using “tribal” more to signal shared group identity (granted, through coming together as a community centered around this dance rather than through birth into a community), or are we using it because it sounds exotic and mysterious? The latter use is obviously problematic and should be discontinued.
  • Are we using “tribal” in the sense that early anthropologists did, implying that there’s a unilinear evolutionary scale, and that the people who live in”tribal” societies are somehow less evolved or rooted in historical timelines than others? This is also problematic, because equating “tribal” with “less evolved” or “less civilized” is an ethnocentric assumption that colonizers have used to justify their rule.
  • Are we using “tribal” to distinguish ATS and related dance styles from other belly dance genres in Western contexts? This is perhaps less bad than the above connotations, and words can and do have multiple meanings, but we should continue to listen to the concerns of those who might be harmed by the word.

 

References:

Djoumahna, Kajira. The Tribal Bible: Exploring the Phenomenon That is American Tribal Style Belly Dance. 2003.

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