I have been studying bellydance since 2013 and performing since 2015. My primary style of dance is American Tribal Style® (ATS®) Bellydance, a modern fusion format that was created by Carolena Nericcio in San Francisco in the 1980s.
A Little ATS History
This style borrows from and was heavily influenced by the tribal bellydance language of Jamila Salimpour, published in her manual, The Danse Orientale (1978). Salimpour was a dancer who studied Egyptian dance and set out to combine different Middle Eastern and Arabic dance forms. She created a new vocabulary for bellydance, based on frequently repeated movements that she saw in what were normally considered improvised dances. She moved to San Francisco in 1958 and began teaching and eventually performing with her company Bal Anat. (Read more about the Salimpour School here.)
ATS also descended from the artistic and freeform style of Jamila Salimpour’s student Masha Archer, who then taught Nericcio. In addition to Middle Eastern and Arabic influences, ATS also incorporates elements of flamenco, Eastern European folk dance, and Indian Odissi dance. The original ATS dance troupe and school founded by Nericcio is FatChance BellyDance, based in San Francisco.
What Makes ATS Different
One of the things about ATS that is unique compared with most other contemporary bellydance styles is that it is meant to be danced in groups improvisationally. Dancers learn a language of moves, cues, and formations, which they can then use in the moment with others dancers schooled in this format. The typical formations include two, three, or four “featured” dancers; if there are more than this number of dancers on stage, the others form a “chorus,” or semicircle in the back of the stage to provide a dancing backdrop and cheering section to the featured performers.
Although I also enjoy Egyptian, cabaret, Suhaila-style, and Jamila-style forms of bellydance, among others, ATS really captured my heart. One reason is that as a performer who is a little shy, I like the group format–many other bellydancers perform solo, which is not my preferred way of performing. Also, I love the beauty and history of the ATS costuming. Although the dance style is modern, many of the fabrics and jewelry pieces we use are vintage, and I really enjoy learning about the history of these costume elements.
I also love ATS because of some of the life lessons being immersed in this world has taught me. Some of the most important things I have learned are
- It’s “We,” Not “Me.” I like the emphasis on “dance sisterhood” (and “brotherhood”–there is a small but growing number of male-identified ATS dancers) and making the group look good. One of the main lessons of ATS is to think about how what you are doing reflects on the others in your formation and troupe. For example, when you are leading the group, you are conscious of giving clear signals, using moves and cues that are familiar to the other dancers. Also, when you are following a leader, you attempt to match the leader’s style and speed, even if you would prefer to do something slower or faster–it’s about the coordination and “flock of birds” look of your group rather than making yourself stand out.
- Support Your Fellow Dancers. Building off of the first lesson, I feel that ATS has helped me to be more conscious of working together with my group and everyone supporting each other, both as dancers and as people. One way that this manifests is regarding body image. ATS welcomes people of all sizes and shapes, as well as ages and ethnicities. I love how ATS honors all sorts of bodies and doesn’t prioritize a certain body type or look. I perceive many other forms of dance to favor younger, thinner dancers, although of course this is not always the case. Although more men are participating in ATS than in the past, it’s still primarily a culture of female-identified people, and it’s refreshing to be involved in a culture that celebrates women as they are rather than creating shame and competition around fitting a cultural beauty ideal. One thing I will say is that in my experience, there are few African Americans in the ATS world; I’d like to see this change. It was exciting and inspiring to see the troupe Tribal Unicorn Collective, a trio of African American dancers, perform at ATS Reunion 2019 (see video below), not just because they were awesome, but also because it was nice to see some black women performing.
- Do Your Best, but Perfection Is Not Always Possible. Of course, as performers, we do our best to condition and strengthen our bodies so we can do the moves, practice so we know what we are doing, and strive to look polished during a show. However, we also know that in dance (especially improvisation), mistakes happen. We learn to keep smiling and keep on dancing when something doesn’t go as planned. In fact, sometimes the audience wouldn’t even realize that we’ve screwed up–unless we make a face, laugh, look embarrassed, etc.
- Practice, Practice, Practice. You can’t improve if you don’t work at it! Putting the time and effort in will result in growth. This also goes along with supporting your dance sisters and brothers–in order to make the group look good, each dancer must do their part to be prepared and give it their all. I also find that lots of practice and focusing on my own learning and improvement is a good way to overcome the inevitable insecurities and jealousies that may pop up.
- It’s Never Too Late to Try Something New. I didn’t start taking regular bellydance classes until I was in my mid-40s in 2013, and I didn’t start learning ATS until 2014. Before I decided to take ATS classes, I had seen some ATS performances and was mesmerized. However, my initial reaction was, “Wow, they are so impressive and beautiful–I wish I had studied this form of dance when I was young.” Then, I realized I could still do it (and did)!
Valuable lessons in dance but also in other aspects of life!