Saturday, May 10, 2014

Just Keep Traveling

With its recent popularity and proliferation, it seems that many people now are introduced to Tribal fusion directly through DVDs and classes specific to that genre rather than through traditional or even ITS bellydance. Tribal fusion is (or in my humble opinion should be to qualify as "Tribal") based on some background in a group Improvisational Tribal format whether that is ATS, Gypsy Caravan, BlackSheep, Unmata, etc. However, even though many people now begin their bellydance studies in Tribal fusion without a more formal ITS background, one can still find the Tribal signature in much of what is currently labeled as Tribal fusion bellyance from carriage to costuming.

Although Tribal fusion is primarily a soloist's genre, it has inherited some traits from its parentage that are more suited towards its communal stylistic roots. As a "tribal" or group dance done in formations, there is not much of a need for traveling around the stage or performance area except for leader rotations, entrances, and exits. Most of the dancing in this style is done in a stationary position. Even turns and spins are typically in place. I believe an unconscious result of this influence can be seen in the fact that many Tribal fusion performances take place primarily in one spot.1 If there is any traveling in the performance, it is often just walking forward or backward with a layered arm and/or upper body pathway.2

Contrast this with most styles of Cabaret bellydance where it is expected that the dancer make at least one full circle around the stage or performance area in a successful presentation. Typically the stationary dancing is reserved for a drum solo or balancing piece, but otherwise, Cabaret dancers are all over the place.

I noticed that I too tend to want to stay put when dancing, and not just due to space restrictions; I realized that I was largely at a loss when it came to traveling steps. I remember when preparing to participate in a Tribal show my teacher had choreographed a basic entrance for the entire group which consisted of traveling across the stage and in a large circle with the Egyptian step. Initially when learning this segment, I and others had difficulty because we just were not used to moving around so much with the hipwork layered on top. When taking a Zills and Drills class we had an exercise where we were to travel across the room while improvising to a song and the actual feat of making it across the room while dancing was quite challenging. I think most of us walked to the center, danced, and walked to the other side. Much later, in Cabaret style classes with Bridgette, I realized just how unpolished my three-point turns are and how awkward I was with arabesques, grapevines, etc. While footwork and traveling have always been difficult for me, I realized that I had not had a great deal of practice when I was taking Tribal classes and at that time I hadn't realized the large gap in my dance education because I was primarily exposing myself to Tribal and Tribal fusion performances.

I've been trying to rectify that now that I'm aware of the issue, both with my workshop and DVD selections and in my own practice. For me at least, this has meant returning primarily to Cabaret resources, and it's one of the many reasons I've felt drawn back to those styles of bellydance. I hope to do solo performances one day, and I'd love to be able to dynamically engage the entire space in the way that Cabaret dancers can and do.

For those of you who might feel the same lack of confidence and repertoire when it comes to traveling steps, I do have a few DVD recommendations:
  • Combin-ography with Bahaia: This DVD aims to help in "bridging the gap between choreography and improvisation" and there are a lot of great exercises included. Bahaia teaches you how to walk in the context of a performance and then adds several ways to spice up that walk. She also goes over how to do a basic bellydance arabesque.
  • Elegant Turns & Arabesques with Hannan Sultan: Atisheh has a wonderful, in depth review of this DVD on her blog, but in summary this is an extremely helpful program covering several traveling moves (even most of the turns covered involve traveling). There are also some great ideas included in the combinations section which are not specifically covered in the instructional breakdowns.
  • Belly Dance Travel Steps: A Choreographer's Movement Catalog of Layers, Accents & Step Combinations, by Autumn Ward: This is not advertised as an instructional DVD, however there are sections of this that could be used to teach yourself the traveling movements covered as a part of this movement catalog. Autumn has a very clear, technical approach which is well suited to instruction, but you will probably need to repeat the sections a few times to learn the moves themselves as they are covered very quickly, and you will have to drill the movements on your own. There are also a few combinations you can use to practice stringing together some of the movements.


1) This is, of course, a generalization and as such can never be 100% accurate. It has just been my overwhelming observation of Tribal fusion performances live and on the internet.

It is worth noting that the pioneers and vanguard of the genre often do not suffer from this primarily stationary trait, and I believe that is because people like Rachel Brice, Mardi Love, Kami Liddle, and Zoe Jakes initially learned and/or have cross-trained in traditional bellydance forms. They did not start out their dance journeys as "Tribal fusion" dancers, rather "Tribal fusion" became a name applied to their solo styles which were then emulated and even codified by others.

2) Asharah attributes this lack of traveling hip moves both to a stylistic preference and laziness:
It might be that people want to experiment with new movement vocabulary, or maybe it’s that more 'traditional' hip movements within steps (such as, say, 'Basic Egyptian' or '3/4 Shimmy') doesn’t fit their vision for a contemporary choreography.[...] Or it might be that they just don’t have the skill or the training to put hip work on their contemporary traveling movements. And why work to do so when you can present a choreography with a few hip drops and undulations and still receive a standing ovation? Because it’s hard. It’s damn hard.
I'm not quite as pessimistic, although I don't doubt those are factors also.

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