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The Art of ATS® - a brief history

The Art of ATS® by Kelley Beeston – Mosaic Magazine, Winter 2016

Over the last few decades Tribal style belly dance has grown into a worldwide movement with many different branches, from Tribal Fusion, Improvised Tribal Style (ITS), and Tribaret to Gothic Tribal, Combo-Based Tribal and Steampunk. But they all come from the same root – American Tribal Style®(ATS®) belly dance.

So where did ATS® belly dance come from and how did it start?

The first time Americans ever heard the term ‘belly dance’ was in 1893 as a result of publicity by a man called Sol Bloom in his promotion of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the New World. During Bloom’s time in Paris a few years earlier he recognized that the exotic entertainments provided by the French colonies in the form of Algerian and Tunisian performers, could be reproduced to scandalous acclaim in his own exposition. It became known as the Midway Plaisance and in particular one of the stages “A Street in Cairo” was a great success with snake charmers and ‘belly dancers’ although he denies ever employing a dancer called “Little Egypt”.

However, it was almost a century earlier, during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, 1798 – 1801, that the French soldiers first witnessed the Ghawazi gypsies performing their strange and exotic dances, which the soldiers aptly named “danse du ventre” – dance of the stomach. This was no ordinary invasion. Indeed, Napoleon had plans way beyond just capturing the lands. He took with him 150 savants – scientists, scholars and engineers whose job was to record Egyptian culture and history in minute detail. Their discoveries were published in a series of 23 volumes – the largest books ever to have been printed.

What followed in the years between these two events was an absolute fascination with everything Egyptian from public mummy unwrappings to deciphering the Rosetta Stone. With travel opportunities opening up (Thomas Cook launched his first organized tour of the Nile in 1869) many European artists, writers and travellers took advantage and documented both Arabic dance and the gypsies in writings and paintings in what became known as the Orientalist Age.

Theda Bara as Cleopatra
Theda Bara as Cleopatra

By 1915 William Fox, a young Hungarian immigrant to the US, had grown a chain of 25 ‘nickle odeons’ showing his hand cranked films on a large screen for 5 cents, the start of his movie making business. He moved to Los Angeles and in 1917 released the silent movie “Cleopatra’ starring Theda Bara, one of the most elaborate films of its time with incredibly lavish sets and costumes based on the wall friezes found in the tombs of the pharaohs. Egyptomania had taken hold and, with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, Hollywood and the fashion industry quickly jumped onto the bandwagon.

In the following years Arabic dancers who saw the films wanted to emulate the new Western ideas and thus modernised their own dance and costuming for both artistic and financial reasons. So began an exchange of ideas back and forth across the Atlantic.

But to understand the full background history to American Tribal Style we have to travel back even further, to the diaspora of the ancestors of the Roma people from North West India some 1500 years ago. DNA studies now show that they arrived in Europe about 900 years ago and travelled through many countries, either settling along the way or continuing their journey to new and foreign lands. Wherever they went they brought their own traditions, stories, music and dance but were adept at adopting and incorporating the things they found in their new countries.

The ‘gypsies’ are believed to have left India in three waves during the 6th to 11th centuries and there were several probable reasons – not only to avoid war and persecution but also to take up positions as musicians, dancers and entertainers in the royal courts of Persia. They took two main routes – one travelled south through Persia and Arabia into Egypt and beyond to Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria so it is easy to see those influences in our Oriental or Middle Eastern dance.

The second route went north, again through Persia, but then into Hungary, France and Spain. American Tribal Style takes influences from both these routes incorporating elements of the Indian roots and combining them with traditional Middle Eastern belly dance, North African folk dance and flamenco styling in the form of its hand floreos and some of its steps.

Although the roots of ATS® belly dance are many hundreds, if not several thousands of years old, the dance form we know today is relatively modern created in the 1980’s by Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman, director of FatChanceBellyDance, San Francisco. However it was actually the legendary ‘Morocco’ (Carolina Varga Dinicu), an Oriental dancer of Roma ancestry, born in Rumania, but brought up in New York, who decided that this form of belly dance should be called American Tribal Style.

Jamila - Bal Anat
Jamila - Bal Anat

It was a term given to describe what was happening on the West coast of America, which started in 1967 when Jamila Salimpour moved to Berkeley, California and where she eventually formed the legendary dance troupe Bal Anat (Dance of the Mother Goddess). She created a circus-like variety show for the local Renaissance Pleasure Faire, calling on her years of experience as an acrobatic dancer with Ringling Brothers Circus. The show evolved over the next few years and featured an assortment of folkloric acts in different costumes including an Ouled Nail dancer from Algeria, a Mother Goddess mask dance, Tunisian pot dance, Turkish karsilama, water glasses, swords and snakes. The publicity informed the public that they were from many tribes and many people believed everything was ‘real and authentic’ but Jamila never made that claim saying some of it was for real but the rest was “hokum”.

She used a crescent shaped chorus bringing individual dancers out to perform in the centre whilst the remaining dancers would ululate noisily to express their joy and play finger cymbals (zills). The zaghareet, zills and chorus line are fundamental elements of ATS® as are several of the steps she named, for example the Basic Egyptian and Arabic. Jamila had spent many years dancing in restaurants where she meticulously studied, recorded and named the movements of her fellow dancers and their different dance styles.

In particular Masha Archer, one of Jamila’s students, was inspired by Bal Anat and this new tribal style of fusing together different regional dances from North Africa and the Middle East.

Masha Archer
Masha Archer

Masha felt she was entitled to experiment with the dance because of her artistic heritage. She was born in Kiev, Ukraine, emigrating to the United States as a child in 1949. Her parents were both artists and teachers of painting and sculpture at the Kiev and Kharkov Art institutes.

After studying in New York and working as a restorer at the National Museum in Mexico City, Masha arrived in San Francisco where she started designing clothes. She joined Jamila’s dance classes and was smitten with the power and majesty both of her teacher and the way she portrayed the dance steps. Although she had seen belly dance before she had never seen it portrayed in such a regal and beautiful way.

As an artist like her parents, Masha had a strong sense of beauty and lines and when she created her own troupe, the San Francisco Classic Dance Troupe she introduced the powerful, open, uplifted posture of the ATS®dancer. She also changed the presentation of the dance by getting rid of what was known as ‘the challenge style’ where it would appear to the audience that each dancer was trying to upstage the previous dancer. Instead she wanted to show the audience a united front where all the dancers were part of a ‘tribe’ working as one supporting each other with all attention on the feature dancer. The message to the audience would be ‘look at this fabulous dancer we can’t take our eyes off her so appreciate her as it will all be over in a minute’. Masha felt her job was to enhance the power of the dancer and to make the audience feel privileged to be watching. It was this artistic creativity together with her committed feminist attitude that took her interpretation of tribal belly dance to new dimensions. She experimented with different styles of music, and refused to perform in bars and restaurants, instead preferring cultural events, theatre and stage.

Masha originally studied painting and graphic design and believes that her art and drawing together with Jamila’s teaching showed her how classically perfect the beauty of belly dance could be whilst she has shown her students that nothing is more beautiful and dignified than them. Today Masha creates the most exquisite jewellery exhibited all over the world and her love of textiles and jewellery is evident in the way she put together her dance costuming. She created a look that one of her students described as “mad, rapacious, acquisitive eclecticism. We looked like some sort of European, Parisian-Tunisians with a very strong Byzantine tribal look, which was completely invented”.

That student was Carolena Nericcio who joined Masha’s classes at the age of 14 and danced with her troupe for 7 years. When Masha finally stopped dancing Carolena started to teach in the Noe Valley Ministry in order to have people to dance with. She eventually formed her own troupe naming it FatChanceBellyDance after a jokey quip by her very good friend Jim Murdoch. It referred to the question often asked by men for a private show – the response of course was “fat chance” and she absolutely loved it.

Carolena refined the ideas of both Jamila and Masha and developed her own ideas, bringing in influences from her time studying Kathak, and adding embellishments from flamenco using dramatic arm positions and hand floreos adapted to accommodate the zills. Many of the steps are from Egyptian, Turkish or Ghawazi origin but have to be kept simple and clear to allow for improvisation and the heavy tribal costuming but always with Masha’s uplifted posture, arms open and out and elbows lifted.

People often think that Carolena had a master plan for what is now known as ATS®. Well of course she must have done because everything fits so completely logically with its incredibly intuitive use of eye contact, formations, cues and gestures allowing dancers from anywhere in the world to completely improvise and talk to each other through the dance to tell each other what is going to happen next. Well actually – no she didn’t!

Carolena admits that she had no idea that there were different styles of belly dance because Masha had taught her students to be creative within the belly dance framework. So when she saw other styles she thought it was someone’s creative ideas. In the early days she and her troupe would just choose songs they liked dancing to and would simply play with each other using nothing more than eye contact. In other words they improvised. They were completely taken aback when they received a rapturous response after the 1990 Desert Dance Festival, San Jose, their debut performance to the belly dance community. But then started the criticism from traditionalists. Some thought that although it may appear ‘authentic’ and look nice it wasn’t belly dance. Carolena was surprised as she had never pretended her dance style was authentic, she was simply doing her thing and was grateful when Morocco finally said it should be known as American Tribal Style, although it is not a name she would have chosen herself.

Rather than any great master plan the dance has evolved over time. The use of formations with good sightlines, needed to read the cues from the lead dancer, was as a result of learning from their mistakes. Café style and the later Duelling Duets was born out of their weekly spots at Café Instanbul and Amira where they danced in cramped spaces between the tables and learned performance technique. What we see on the stage today is a result of many years of experimentation within the troupe under Carolena’s direction. The structure of ATS® is very simple but it allows endless possibilities and combinations to allow the dancer to express her own creativity in a strong, feminine, powerful way with a supportive ‘tribe’.

Carolena Nericcio
Carolena Nericcio

As a creative artist Carolena appears avant-garde but she has actually brought the dance closer to its cultural roots than either of her predecessors whilst embracing the ideas they have handed down to her. She has an incredibly deep respect for the origins of belly dance and a strong desire to protect the dance, preferring to use mainly North African and Middle Eastern folkloric music and keeping the steps simple. As she says, the more you add to it the more it takes it away from belly dance to the point where it just becomes modern dance. American Tribal Style® belly dance is a complete package. It is the tribal costume with its authentic jewellery, the joyful uplifted posture and expression, the zills and zaghareets, the formations, cues and gestures that allow aesthetically pleasing improvisation, the folkloric music with its fast rhythmic phrasing or slow taxeem, the sisterhood of empowered women collaborating together creating something beautiful – take away any one of these elements and it is no longer ATS®.

Resources, Books and Websites:

The Autobiography of Sol Bloom – Sol Bloom The Metropolitan Museum of Art Ancient Egypt in the Popular Imagination: Building a Fantasy in Film – David Huckdale Corporate History C20th Fox Articles in both New York Times and The Telegraph 2012 based on a Genomic Study of the Roma – co-author Dr David Comas and Dr Toomas Kivisild The History of American Tribal Style Bellydance – Rina Orellana Rall From Many Tribes – The Origins of Bal Anat – Jamila Salimpour Tribal Talk newsletters 1997 – 2001 – FCBD


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