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  • Writer's pictureEmerald Starling Belly Dance

Fusion Styles ~ by Emerald Starling

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The story of fusion belly dance as we know it today can be traced back to Jamila Salimpour and her classes and performances on the West Coast of the USA starting in the 1950s and 60s. Jamila Salimpour, born Giuseppina Carmela Burzi, was the daughter of Greek and Sicilian immigrants. She fell in love with Egyptian dance as a teenager by way of golden era Egyptian movies. During her teenage years, she also worked as part of the Ringling Brothers Circus, an experience that would influence her later belly dance performances. As an adult, she moved to the West Coast and was immersed in the Middle Eastern immigrant community there. She performed at popular nightclubs, including the Fez, and eventually owned her own nightclub, the Baghdad Cabaret.

One of Jamila’s most famous contributions to belly dance history is her codification of dance movements. As a dance style that was typically learned in the home by way of family members and friends, belly dance did not have formal names for any movements. In a more formal class setting, Jamila found it helpful to give movements specific and consistent names. To this day, many of her movement names (e.g., Turkish Drop, Maya, Basic Egyptian) are used by dance teachers around the world. (Other teachers around the country were also breaking down moves and developing their own systems of pedagogy, but they don't relate to the fusion story.)

Jamila’s other famous contribution to belly dance history was her performance troupe, Bal Anat. This troupe performed at the local Renaissance Faire, and was specifically designed as a more fantastical dance performance. Jamila pulled from her circus background to inform performance decisions, and also brought a different aesthetic to the costuming that was distinctly different from what belly dancers were wearing in the nightclubs. Dancers were often clad in layers of assiut and other rich textiles, and decorated their faces with markings inspired by the Amazigh people of North Africa. It was this troupe that inspired the usage of the word “tribal” to describe a new style of belly dance.

One of Jamila’s students, Masha Archer, added further elaboration to the “tribal” aesthetic of this style by adding even more emphasis on rich textiles from a variety of cultures, as well as emphasizing a sort of sculptural aspect to the dance movements. One of Masha Archer’s students and troupe members, Carolina Nericchio, would go on the found the troupe FatChanceBellyDance in the 1980s.

Carolina Nericchio & FatChanceBellyDance performed what was dubbed “American Tribal Style” or ATS. ATS took the aesthetics passed down from Jamila Salimpour and Masha Archer and added a new element - group improvisation. Based largely on the way the Banat Mazin of Egypt danced together (learned by studying with Aisha Ali), group improvisation works via a follow-the-leader format and a shared dance vocabulary. ATS and FatChanceBellyDance created their own specific vocabulary, which has been taught and performed around the world.

While group improvisation can be an exciting way to dance together as a group, solo dancers drawn to its style can find themselves limited by a strict vocabulary. And so, naturally, a more solo-focused form grew out of ATS - “tribal fusion”.

The trailblazer of “tribal fusion” was Jill Parker, originally a member of FatChanceBellyDance. She branched out with her own troupe, Ultra G*psy, and experimented with her style in the 1990s. In addition to the influence of FatChanceBellyDance, Jill Parker’s style was influenced by a mix of alternative subcultures from the time, leading to the image most people have today of “tribal fusion”.

“Tribal Fusion” belly dance started to really take off in the early 2000s with the traveling show, the Bellydance Superstars. Featuring a variety of belly dancers, including Jill’s former student, Rachel Brice, this traveling show significantly boosted the popularity of belly dance in the mainstream.

It’s at this time that we see acts like The Indigo featuring Rachel Brice, Kami Liddle, and Zoe Jakes. New music also develops to specifically cater to the “tribal” belly dancer, most notably with Zoe Jakes’ band Beats Antique.

Fusion Belly Dance has since branched out into many directions. Out of the ATS and FatChanceBellyDance lineage came more styles of group improv - Amy Sigil’s Improv Team Sync, Violet Kind’s Fly Fusion, April Rose’s Cohesion, just to name a few.

Fusion also encompasses any form of belly dance that incorporates other dance forms: Ebony Qualls performs urban fusion; Sylvia Salamanca performs flamenco fusion; Colleena Shakti performs Indian fusion… the only limit is a dancer’s creativity and knowledge of dance!

Naturally, the inherent blending of styles and culture in Fusion belly dance has led to many important discussions about cultural appropriation and terminology. For example, the term “tribal” is now considered a dated term because it is, at best, non-specific and confusing, and at worst, blatantly colonialist. It has been objected to by groups from North Africa as well as Turtle Island.

There is also a strong push to give more credit, respect, and compensation to the cultures of origin and their dancers and teachers. One group doing a lot of educational work in this realm is the Paris-based North African dance group, Kif-Kif Bledi.

For a more detailed rundown of the conversations happening around the fusion belly dance sphere, check out this post by Donna Mejia.

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