*Note: I am in the process of changing my language to more accurately reflect the nature of this dance, and haven’t had a chance to edit this page properly yet. I am leaving it as is for the moment, but please know that I prefer “transnational fusion” to “tribal fusion.” Thank you for your understanding – Sitri
A Brief History of Tribal Fusion Bellydance
Belly dance has a long and complex history. Any short re-telling is going to miss some details, but we can aim to follow its general path through time. For clarity’s sake, we are going to mostly follow the thread of Egyptian dance through time.
The Name of the Dance
First things first, we need to establish that “belly dance” being called “belly dance” is a relatively new phenomenon, and one that is thoroughly Western. The term originated in French as danse du ventre. This name came to be used for all Middle Eastern influenced torso-based dances in French, and, subsequently, English. We can trace the origin of this phrase back to about 1864, where it was coined as a less-than-kind nickname of an orientalist painting that was very loosely based on a Ghawazi dancer. The name has also been attributed to Sol Bloom, who brought bellydancers to the Chicago World Fair.
Folk Dance Roots
Modern belly dance is a blend of several dances, including many folk dances. This makes the “origins” of belly dance very difficult to track down, because there isn’t a hard edge to where belly dance begins and ends. The other difficulty with defining the origins of belly dance is that most available sources of our information are Western. Keep this in mind as we explore the past. Our sources were outsiders with their own moralities, desires, and expectations that influence how they saw the dance.
Rather than try and untangle what folk dances specifically contributed what to belly dance, we can generalize by saying that there are a variety of different folk dances in the Middle East and surrounding regions that rely on torso articulation, and each have their own rich, complex histories. Perhaps the place to start is to note that at some point a separation occurred between folk dances as performed by the people and folk dances as performed by professional dancers. These performers would not have looked much like bellydancers as we see them today but rather more like street performers. It is worth noting here that the two-piece bedlah that modern dancers wear is not traditional, and would not occur in a folk-dance context even with professional performers (we will get to the origin of the bedlah later.)
The Ghawazee, Awalim, and Orientalism
The Ghawazee and Awalim are most often give the title of earliest stage-performers of raks baladi, or what we now call folk dances. The Awalim were a class of women that were trained to sing, recite classical poetry, engage in witty discourse, and dance. By contrast, the Ghawazee were primarily travelling dancers, who had poorer social standing than the Awalim. One can think of the Ghawazee as rural travelers, and the Awalim as trained urban entertainers. This is a broad generalization, but is helpful if one just wishes to get a feel for what each type of woman did. Interestingly, the division between Awalim and Ghawazee blurred together for a time, after a King of Egypt, embarrassed that the Ghawazee would follow around camps of foreign occupiers in order to dance for them, tried to exile the Ghawazee. The Ghawazee, being resourceful and persistent, pretended to be Awalim. This ban occurred during the Ottoman reign over Egypt.
During this time there was a surge in tourism, and in foreign soldiers as part of Egypt’s occupation. Orientalism was in full swing as a movement at this time. Many painters visited the Middle East and created paintings based partially off of things they saw, and largely off of fantasy. One of these paintings, Danse de l’almee, is the painting that was nicknamed “danse du ventre.”
Bringing the Dance to the West
These paintings led to a further fascination with the “exotic East” back in the West. North African and Middle Eastern dance had made their way into Western consciousness through the paintings and written words of the Orientalist movement. Westerns were also exposed to belly dance through trade expositions. In the late 1800s, these expos brought in danse du ventre dancers to titillate attendees. A noteworthy example for the US, is the 1893 Chicago World Fair, where, according to bellydance lore, Little Egypt is said to have gotten her roots. Later aspiring dancers began to imitate what they saw at these sorts of expos. These dancers, and dancers imported for trade expos were then imitated by burlesque dancers. This, paired with the Orientalist depictions of belly dance that Western audiences were used to, solidified belly dance’s reputation as a dance of seduction. The dance, at this time, was also known as “hootchie cootchie.”
Casino Opera and the Golden Age
Back in the Middle East in the early 1900s, Badia Masabni helped to transform the dance into something that she could put in stage alongside Western entertainment at her Casino Opera. The costuming and general character of the dance were heavily modified at this time. Masabni brought ballet instructors in to train her dancers. Casino Opera can also lay claim to the true origins of the bedlah, or two piece bra and belt costume. Masabni made the modifications to traditional costuming to more closely resemble the Orientalist depictions that her audiences were familiar with. Dancers further modified these costumes so that their movements were emphasized and accentuated, making the dance translate better to a stage setting. Masabni and her Casino Opera can be argued to be the compiler of modern belly dance.
In the early 1900’s Egypt began to make films with dancers. Making the dance suitable for film required a shift in the dancers’ perspective, as choreography wasn’t common. The dances on these films can look somewhat odd to the modern eye, but that is at least in part because the dancers were adapting, once again, to a new need and demand on the dance.
The 1940’s-60s are referred to the Golden Age of Belly Dance, during which these films were very popular and many dancers that remain influential to this day got their name. Examples include Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioka, and Namia Akef. Badia Masabni and her troupe are also part of the Golden Age. Interestingly, the use of the veil as a prop started in the Golden Age, first with American dancers, and then was adopted with Samia Gamal and spread from there.
Cairo’s nightclub scene boomed, and dancers with star-power bloomed. Choreography became more common, along with the practice of hiring choreographers. Some examples of these dancers include Sourhair Zaki, Fifi Abdoum and Nadia Hamdf.
Clubs and restaurants in America also experienced a boom during this time. Due to immigration, these clubs had already existed prior to the Golden Age, and had typically employed imported dancers. Due to increased demand, more and more women from various backgrounds learned the dance form (sometimes even being taught on the job, as some clubs were desperate). The movements at this time were taken as the dancer found them, and put together into a dance from many sources. This blend of dances, styles, and influence are the origin of what is known as American Cabaret style today, though at the time it was more often called Oriental or Nightclub dance.
In 1949, the Salimpour School was founded by Jamila Salimpour. Jamila Salimpour is credited with naming and organizing movements into a format that made the dance more teachable to Western students, who are more accustomed to the rigidity and structure of classical Western dance forms, such as ballet. The Salimpour format is still sought after, and Salimpour teaching resources are used by students in many different modern forms of the dance. Jamila Salimpour also founded Bal Anat for a renaissance fair, which is now the longest running theater-length belly dance production. Bal Anat, like the Salimpour school, is still active.
At the end of the 60s, due to a variety of factors, the Golden Age came to a close in the US. The different centers of belly dance in America separated and began to walk along their own paths.
Dancercize and the Rise of the Hobbyist Dancer
In the early 1970s, bellydance entered the public American consciousness as a means for fitness, rather than as a job. This is the beginning of the hobbyist dancer. By the end of the 70s, teaching belly dance was a financially feasible job, unions had formed to promote professional ethics, and dancers made attempts to connect the dancing world together.
The 80s were a period of decline for bellydance’s popularity in America. The old nightclubs closed their doors, and the dancercise craze died down. Teachers remained, and continued to refine their educational materials through this quiet time. The 90s brought a degree of popularity back with the video revolution. Teachers who had spent the 80s working on their craft could now release their materials in a new format and find willing audiences. Performance videos became common during this time.
Tribal Belly Dance
Dancers in San Francisco were inspired by Bal Anat’s idea of “tribal” dance, in which dancers work together to create a greater production. One woman, Masha Archer planted the seeds for Carolena Nericchio to found Fat Chance Belly Dance, the origin of American Tribal Style (ATS). ATS is a rigidly structured style that was created as a purposeful blending of a variety of influences that gave it an American voice. The costuming was intentionally less sparkly, and the emphasis is meant to be on the connection of the women to one another, rather than on highlighting the beauty of an individual dancer or group of dancers.
The Birth and Growth of Tribal Fusion
Out of Tribal belly dance, tribal fusion was born. The first Tribal fusion group was Ultra G*psy, which was founded by Jill Parker. Jill Parker is often credited as the founder of tribal fusion as a style. Urban G*psy pared down the tribal style of costuming, and worked with modern DJ mixed music.
Heather Stants later founded Read my Hips in Chicago, which had minimalist costuming, electronica music, and a heavier modern dance influence.
Out of these innovations, Rachael Brice arose, and become the poster child for tribal fusion. She fused American Cabaret and Tribal style, and performed as a soloist, which was not common for a tribal dancer. She is credited with the addition of pop and lock to tribal fusion, but she has denied this in the past, and credited her teachers and troupe mates. Rachel Brice and other influential dancers, such as Zoe Jakes (arguably the other poster child for tribal fusion), and Mardi Love were part of a troupe named Indigo, which was largely influential on tribal fusion.
From there, tribal fusion has exploded into the rich, complex, beautiful family of dance that it is today. Many variations and flavors exist within tribal fusion, falling in and out of fashion as the dance continues to change and evolve, as it always has.
This history was written as accurately as the author could suss out from a variety of sources. If you seen an error, please use the contact form to give a correction. This history is also only intended as an overview. There is so much rich history that just couldn’t be included here.
I encourage anyone reading this history to not take me at my word. Please explore, a singular source is never the whole picture! – Sitri