Between the Light and the Dark-side: 1 Year of Bellydance

You probably weren’t aware that bellydance had a dark side. You probably thought it was all jangling coin belts, Egyptian music and glittery bras. Well, let me tell you about the OTHER side…

Wikipedia and professional bellydancers can probably inform you about the general history of bellydancing better than I can. Suffice to say, you can classify “bellydance” into two main, distinct styles: “classical” Egyptian dances based on the original forms of the dance(s), kept traditional; and the modern “American Tribal” style that puts a new spin on the original style by adding influences from other dances forms (European folkloric, traditional Asian dances, hip-hop, etc). Between the two camps there exists a friendly rivalry, each adamant that their style is “better”.

In 12 months I managed to pass through 4 Bellydancing instructors, 2 Tribal and 2 Egyptian, each of the ladies with their own styles, influences and approaches to teaching. It made for a broad introduction to bellydance.

* Valerie Rushmere, Middle Eastern (Philadelphia)

It was the summer of 2010 and my DanceSport was winding up. I’d done my big competition and the package of lessons had just about run out. The concept of bellydancing had been introduced to me by my ballroom dancing friends: I agreed to accompany my friend to Valerie’s weekly beginner classes at Studio 1831.

I was impressed with Valerie’s approach to the beginners classes: the time was entirely devoted to drills, working from the head down to the hips. In the average class we practised basic drops, slides and shimmies with a little bit of layering, though we once did a gruelling floor-work session or tried some more technical combinations. As an individual she was very laid-back, relaxed and exceptionally good at layering. Her background in Jazz, Yoga and Pilates made her jaw-droppingly slinky (exemplified nicely here).

* Tamsyn, Tribal Fusion

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and I had to leave Philadelphia to finish off that degree of mine at the University of Edinburgh. Naturally, I sought to continue my exciting dancing hobbies. So, when I saw in Freshers Week that there would be a sampler night for the university African & Arabic Dance Society (AADS)…

Freshers Week AADS Taster Night (Tribal Fusion w. Tamsyn)

AADS runs classes in Egyptian, Tribal Fusion and African Dancing on different days. However, Egyptian Beginners & Improvers were on Tuesday…which clashed with Ballroom Dancing. On Monday I had free run of Tribal Fusion with Tamsyn. I became acquainted with the East Coast (Hip hop) version of Bellydance. I liked the fact that Tribal Fusion classes included an extensive yoga warm-up – flexibility conditioning was something I needed since I’d stopped Pilates. By this time I was adamant that bellydance was an ideal outlet for my creative expression. With Fusion came unlimited options for creativity. I was also learning Bhangra and African Dancing at this point in time, I was becoming familiar with a lot of different dance styles and eager to see how they all fitted together and what I could do with them.

Tamsyn certainly demonstrated the limitless possibilities and applications of bellydancing with her public performances.

* Moyra, Modern Egyptian

Just when I was getting into the swing of East Coast Tribal Fusion there came a switch in the timetable for Semester 2. Tribal had been moved to Tuesday! My ballroom dancing was pretty much untouchable, so I decided to go to the Egyptian classes with Moyra, now on Monday.

I’d already heard the Tribal Fusion dancers speak of traditional bellydancing and deride it as being a bit too, well…girly. Tribal Fusion movements were certainly strong, a little bit intimidating and filled with attitude. However, I knew from my time with Valerie that Middle Eastern bellydancing had a good emphasis on technique. Technique was the most fundamental part of the dance, in my eyes – especially since it was transferable to both American and Egyptian forms of bellydance.

AADS Egyptian Improvers at the CSE Danceshow.

Moyra indeed put a lot of emphasis on technique, with regular drills and areas of focus in each lesson. In learning the very basics and learning them well, Moyra sought to equip up for future improvised solos, something she conveyed passionately. Layering and more advanced moves were taught in the choreographies learned for our various charity and dance-show performances. In particular the nuggets of Egyptian history and culture made the lessons all the more interesting.

If you want to see what “modern Egyptian” entails, feel free to check out Moyra Dancing …or alternatively, the Improvers Class Dancing. Very floaty, with a lot of balletic influences.

I put in about 6 separate shows with the AADS girls over the course of a semester. Following our final class we took Moyra out for a lovely meal at a nearby Turkish/Middle Eastern restaurant. I was sad to part from the girlies – we’d had a fair run of dancing together.

* Tamsyn & Bobby, Tribal Fusion/ATS

At this point I was entering the Easter Break and dreaded Revision Period. All the university-based societal classes had been suspended. Most people had headed back home for a holiday. I was going in to the library 6 or more days per week ALREADY. Oh dear, I just wasn’t going to remain sane, not without some extra curricular activities…

Barocco Tribal at Edinburgh EcoFusion Festival 2011

So I decided to check out a new collaboration between Tamsyn and Bobby Beakbane: Barocco Tribal. The format was a 2-hour weekly class where Tamsyn taught the warm-up and technique, and Bobby took care of choreography. The arrangement seemed to work very well: Tamsyn had a lot of experience with Tribal Fusion (East and West Coast), while Bobby knew a lot of American Tribal Style (group improvisation) and had studied East Asian dance forms.

We tackled an impressive variety of Bellydance fusions: from hip hop to Flamenco, to Thai to Fan

Barocco Tribal at Mad Caravan

dances to Balklan music. The option for performing was a great allure too: Barocco Tribal can lay claim to dancing in nightclubs as well as in the open air on grass.

Tribal Fusion costumes are a lot of fun to create. I admit that when I first saw a group of ATS dancers at a hafla (a bellydance performance night) I was slightly scared: subtle rarely comes in to it. Ethnic and tribal apparel features heavily: bindis, flowers and glitter are important feature too. My jewellery collection multiplied exponentially during my time with Barocco Tribal!

Light vs. Dark

I still don’t have a marked preference for either style. I tend to feel more of an emotional connection to the music of Tribal Fusion over the Arabic equivalents, but a lot of the tunes cross over. ATS feels a bit rigid for someone who likes to express creativity. Egyptian technique is typically subtle and layered, American technique is quite sharp with strong isolations. Exploring the culture behind Arabic dance is a worthwhile exploit in itself, but the influences in Tribal Fusion can be quite interesting, too.

Long may my crossover continue.

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