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  • Lisa Lumina

New Age American

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We used to call this "Modern American" style, but that isn't really accurate anymore. An undercurrent of spirituality, association with "world dance" and "world music", and the "elevation" of the dance described below are why I use the term "New Age" to describe this era's style. Now-a-days in the US, you typically find dancers who do various vintage styles, the competition style we'll cover in a future post, or fusions. Particularly for dancers who do gigs, their dancing will be tailored to their audience, with versions of the Am-Cab format featuring modern music and the latest costume and prop fashions.

This post is about the style changes that happened in the US between the 90s and 2010s and how the situation dancers in the US found themselves in changed. During the 80s, dancing in the US was still basically the same styles as the previous decades, with more fringe on the costumes and more dancers starting to get into historical research, but several changes to the national context were starting.

A trend away from Turkish influence and towards Egyptian started in the 80s. Lebanon's civil war (1975 - 1990) curtailed their dance scene and by extension their influence abroad for obvious reasons. Egypt's dance scene was still being patronized by tourists from the Gulf States and their own film industry increased their influence. (The clips in Dahlena's vid aren't in chronological order, but the costumes can clue you in on what order they originally occurred in.)

Combined with Egypt's robust tourism advertisement and the export of tapes from Egyptian films, including some tapes dedicated to a single star dancer's show, and interest in researching the dance in its home lands combining with new access to information, many US dancers began to consider Egyptian style the "right way" to dance. This clip shows a US dancer performing to Egyptian music. Om Kalthoom's music became regarded as something to aspire to do justice to when dancing to it.

The 80s also saw a shift from the sexual liberation movement that had been tied up in the empowerment message and orientalism of the 60s and 70s, and towards more conservative social norms. This corresponded with the trend away from Turkish influence, where dancers were dealing with economic hardships that pushed them towards a style that was a bit more racy and that, as Shira put it, dancers in the US were not interested in emulating.

This general shift brought along a trend for dancers in the US to try to "elevate" the dance to make it more socially acceptable, refined (by Western standards), and attract funding from arts institutes and recognition from academic dance academies. Part of this effort included the fantasy (passed around as history) of raqs as ancient child birth rituals or something done by priestesses for goddess worship. Anything to displace the "harem girls competing for the Sultan's attention" myth! My first DVD was actually called "Dancing the Sacred Shapes with The Goddess Dancing", and while it may enrich your personal practice, it isn't accurate history.

The 80s also saw the start of another trend: people had TVs, usually in color, with more than a few channels at home, and fewer people were getting their entertainment from dressing up and heading out to a supper club for dinner and a show. Many of the Turkish, Greek, Arabic, and Persian supper clubs began to close down as their audiences shrank. Thanks to the dance schools opened in the 60s and 70s, there were also more dancers and fewer and fewer places for them to earn a living. Wages fell and undercutting became an industry wide issue.

And then came 9/11. The anti-Arab sentiment that swept the nation was the final nail in the coffin for many struggling family restaurants that were also dance venues. Many dancers looked to teaching in fitness centers, and there was a shift towards "world dance" as the mid 90s - 2000s had already kicked off a new flavor of orientalism. Classes were often advertised without reference to the Middle East. AND THEN Shakira hit the scene, "Hips Don't Lie" came out in 2005, where the singer blended bellydance, Columbian dance, and hip-hop in her choreographies, and the dance's popularity exploded again. In Spanish speaking areas, a soap opera about a bellydancer called "El Clon" also fueled interest. Fitness centers, gyms, YMCAs, all seemed to offer bellydance classes, news segments touted bellydance for fitness, and episodes of variety fitness TV workouts, or the entire series called "Shimmy", aired on networks like FitTV.

Some of the ways these changes showed up in how the dancing looked were:

Between the move from family-run supper-clubs where dance was a facilitator of community, to gyms; the drive to "elevate" the dance; and due to decades of older dancers performing in layback postures with little to no instruction who now had back pain, there was a major focus on precise technique.

Veils use changed. Dancers emulated golden era Egyptian star's method of entering with the veil, but retained the US tradition of more intricate use of the fabric. There was also A major cut-back in cymbal playing since dancers didn’t see them being played by Egyptians (due to the difficulty of synching them with video), and since recorded music was much easier to get access to than in the past, and live music much harder to find. When you pick your set and edit the music ahead of time, you don't need to have the loudest instrument in the band to steer your show, the way dancers of the 60s and 70s did. Dancers who learned to dance in gyms (instead of the previous generation who often learned on the with job and played cymbals or frame drums with the band between sets) also tended to prefer the predictability of recorded music.

Floorwork is also much less common, partly due to changes in costume fashion for tighter skirts, partly due to lack of venues with clean floors and good sight-lines from the audience to the stage, and partly due to it being banned in Egypt, who was still the trend setter for "correct" bellydance, since the 50s.

There has also been a few new props added, like fan veilsIsis Wings, and veil-poi. In many ways the Modern American style is a product of the am-cab style being influenced by the vintage Egyptian. 

At the time, it was common to divide bellydance into two styles: "Cabaret" which included all things sparkly, and "Fusion", which rejected all things sparkly. By the 2010s, there was also a vein of back-fusing fusion style into the "cabaret" style. Sometimes this manifested as "tribaret", which was in some ways a reinvention of the vintage am-cab, sometimes it was a blurring of the boundaries of traditional and fusion styles, and sometimes it lead into more theatrical pieces. More on those later.

Troupes like the Bellydance Superstars showed up, basically the Riverdance of “New Age” American Oriental Dance, combining world tours, high production value, and exciting choreographies with lots of fusion elements. The troupe was produced by The Police's producer, Miles Copeland. His original vision was for a troupe of pretty dancers without regard to their skill, and director Jillina’s insistence that for his troupe to work they needed pros is how the Bellydance Superstars was formed. 

About 4 minutes into the documentary "American Bellydancer", inked in the text, you can see Jillina stop Miles Copland from putting beginner dancers in front of an audience expecting pros. Before Jillina, Suhaila (seen in the cymbal dance, above) chews Miles out pretty good. Suhaila’ troupe is another that shows the American troupe style, of very precise, technical dancing. 

Soulfire, of Portland, OR is another example of this troupe trend. Several of their members have instructional DVDs on the Cheeky Girls production label. The explosion of technique focused dancers who learned in the gyms made CDs and DVDs marketed towards bellydancers lucrative, and kicked off "the bellydance economy", more on that in the post about competition style.

The internet, in addition to spreading both myths and facilitating more excellent research, also allowed dancers to reach a big enough audience to support projects that wouldn't have been as viable at local levels, for example, Project Bellydance, an Oriental Dance reality show (without the cattiness, don't worry, it's a fun show ^_~). There are many other competitions out there (such as the one Soulfire is at in the clip above) which, in addition to the shift from live to recorded music, has also been pushing the technicality of the style both in the states and elsewhere.

The competition circuit created a whole different style, that will be covered in another post, and basically marks the end of "New Age American".

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