Part II of The Continual Re-Mixing of 'Bellydance'
....Now, many newly minted American dancers were working "without a safety net" as more and more women took up the dance from someone who's studied with someone for but... but had little experience in the form and almost no expertise with the people and the culture from the Middle East. The artistic visions of these dancers flew high, and sometimes they landed well. Re-mixes happened often as dancers took a bit of this, a piece of that, and a smidgen from some other dancer they knew. Some stews were amazing, and some smelt of a mix that Betty Crocker would never approve.
But by then. the mold, and the mainstream concepts, of raqs shaquri was backed in. In America, all to many of the new dancers should have been "raqasa", female dancers and artists to be respected and feared and shunned, as professional dancers were in the Middle East. Instead, they were simply American "belly dancers". a source of thrills of many kind, along with derision, of sniggering, and of friends wondering what dignity lay in sequins, gold lame and push-up bras. The artistry of the dance was still there, always, and could never really leave. Yet, in America, the entire dance was labeled by the look and feel, not by the skill of the dancer.
This is why the irony of American Tribal Style Bellydance is that, in no small part, is is raqs shaquri. The movement vocabulary is an evolution, one again - this time from the Jamila (now Suhaila) Sailmpour technique first developed in the 60's. So too, some of the aesthetics, as Jamila's seminal Bal Anat dance troupe featured performances with the kind of ethnic look-and feel that would end up being re-mixed heavily by two generations of women in San Francisco, California. The 2nd Generation, Carolena Nericcio, founded the seminal Tribal troupe, Fat Chance Belly Dance, and the concept flew from the first videos she made.
The look-and-feel, if not always the demanding dance style, launched out of San Francisco and across the United States. The elements of dancers dancing for an audience and their fellow dancers were new and novel; the embracing of serious looks and strength avoiding the "cutesy" aspects of raqs shaquri, opening up new aspects and keeping many of the original Salimpour moves. The emphasis on anti-establishment looks was, perhaps, the final kicker; body art and darker costuming hooked into an American that was about to discover and embrace Nirvana over Whitesnake, and an ex-pot smoking boy from Arkansas over "another rich white guy".
Yes, despite the unique and complex improvisation formate, the dance-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style whose execution stuns many dancers, it is always the aesthetics, the look-and-feel, which first captures the viewers of ATS (American Tribal Style). An ATS dancer looks like she stepped out of a National Geographic magazine, like an Amazon of unknown origin. And indeed, in the best - or worst - of American ingenuity, Tribal aesthetics are a conglomeration of worlds, a re-mix of everything we know about native cultures; Ottoman style pantaloons go together with Indian cholis to slide past Romany Indian skirts and meet back in Turkey to swipe the turbans off their heads before running over the Spanish Flamenco flowers-in-hair. Multi-culturalism runs rampant and the effect is oddly intoxicating. Based upon its growing popularity, ATS was Change Writ Large.
Yet Change doesn't stop because you want it to, and dancers new to the form, enthralled by the look of women, strong with muscles rippling their tattoos and piercings in the dark rooms where the early ATS dancers worked, took it home and re-mixed it yet again. Another flowering of ideas built on another remove from the "Motherland of Raqs". Tribal Fusion Bellydance was born, with groups both branched off from Fat Chance, like Ultra Gypsy, and others merely influenced, like Zafira. And the added influences from everywhere; hip-hop, modern, Romany Indian, no form of dance that could be minded was left unplundered. And if there is any truth to the ideal that raqs shaquri is a Universal Dance, these estranged Grandchildren in their off outfits are it, as they birth Gothic Bellydance and a dozen other re-mixes of American life with Oriental Myths.
This has worried and concerned conservative raqasas who see the native forms as honorable and worth saving. As the popularity of "fusion" forms grow, and the BellyDance Superstars tour the Western word, a battle of words brews between "conservative" and "progressive" dancers. And the battle is interesting, not because of who will win, but because the dance has grown so large and popular that it is rarely seen as worth fighting over. Its a far cry from reading magazine indexes in the 80's, and finding not a single article on the form in the Mainstream press.
Raqs shaquri has made an impact, for good or ill, on the Mainstream that, this time, might not be washed away. Just as the lovers of the traditional forms are in a resurgence for well-deserved attention and respect, the New Kids on the Block, symbolized by the popular dancer Rachel Brice, present the way of the West - to re-mix, develop and maybe, just maybe, crack the whole form into the Mainstream, once and for all. Did Shakira's hips make things better for raqs shaquri - or worse?
Time will tell. But tell me, what do you think?
Images from top to bottom: Jamila Salimpour, Carolena Nerricio, Jill Parker of Ultra Gypsy, BellyDance Superstars, Rachel Brice.
One more time about our author:
Troublemaker, dancer, political junkie, programmer, layperson historian, costumer, geek, and Guy who Blows Stuff Up: Woodrow Jarvis "Asim" Hill's time is usually taken up by avoiding new projects like the bubonic plague. A man who's quiet interest in raqs shaquri as a lad of 16 has transformed his life and his outlook on the world, he's currently coming out of a recent 4 year dance hiatus, and does NOT recommend it "for the waters" -- or for anything else. He still seeks "The Big New Thing", fascinated by the lines and lies between mainstream and dance culture, even as he digs for ancient information on raqs in history. He writes a raqs/dance-oriented blog called APOSTATE: Angry Young Black Man Does Raqs., which contains enough writing to get him banned from the dance for life. Woodrow can be reached at email@example.com, but warns that any brickbats won't hit him until he gets back from his so-called "vacation".