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Faux or for Real?

by Salome

Spend five minutes on any Belly dance forum and you will encounter an ocean of opinions on which styles are and are not real Belly dance. Moreover who, within a given style, truly embodies it or not. It can be an overwhelming topic for the new student. In fact, most newbies are surprised to learn there are multiple styles at all.

No absolute evidence exists that allows any one country to claim ownership as the originators of Oriental dance as a folk tradition. Its variations are indigenous to Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey...

But, in the relatively recent past, Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon were the only countries that promoted the folk tradition into a performance art - to a large degree. These three countries each maintain distinct styles. All three equally legit, with the Egyptian style trumping in popularity (see "A Brief History").

All dance forms are comprised of particular elements, that when combined, create the genre. Here, I hope to offer a jumping off point and so will share the six core elements (I identify) in Oriental dance: movement, movement expression, music, purpose, costume and essence.

To spot Turkish, Egyptian and Lebanese oriental, watch the native professional dancers - keeping in mind the above mentioned building blocks. Start identifying families of movement used, how they are expressed on the body and where, the music used and how she responds to it on all levels, what the dancer is accomplishing, the costuming of the style and the dancer's culturally distinct essence/attitude.

There are as many personalities as there are dancers. Soheir Zaki, Nagwa Foud, Fifi Abdo, and Lucy are all Egyptian style Oriental dancers. Yet, are naturally, unique individuals whose personality filter through their presentation - making it their own. And that is true of every style.

Over time, coupled with instruction, you should begin to be able to tell the styles apart and will start to notice what is common to the style, what is creative license and what is personality. Here, I have tried to include video examples that show a retro and contemporary version, where applicable.

Egyptian Stars Tahia Carioca and Randa Kameal

Lebanese Stars Yousra Hanem and Amani

Turkish Stars Sema Yildiz and Tanyeli

For a collectioni of other Turkish videos visit Turkish dance from youtube.

For most, this is the starting line for the faux or for real dissension. Some consider the following styles to have full, little or no relation to the styles above. Myself, I see American oriental as a half sister and the rest as inspired by... theatrical dance forms. Not inferior, mind you, but all different animals.

American Oriental (aka cabaret belly dance) began in the late 1950's as Middle Eastern cabarets began to appear in New York and California. These nightclubs featured bands that were comprised of new Americans that often hailed from different areas of the Near and Middle East. As a result the music was frequently distinct with elements you wouldn't find in, say, a strictly Armenian, Turkish or Persian arrangement.

The dancers (those on stage and in the audience) were also of varying ethnicities; Armenians, Lebanese, Turks, Egyptians, Persians, each with the distinct dance styling of their respective countries. At that time there were no Belly dance schools, the early non Middle Eastern dancers learned, coincidentally, as it is learned in the East. By observing and imitating.

The American Oriental dance style that emerged was born out of the cabarets and reflected the Eastern fusion environment created by the patrons and professionals alike, and also carried an American 'accent' in many of the core elements.

American Oriental stars Aida and Suhaila

Next up we have American Tribal Style (ATS). But first, I feel I should mention Jamila Salimpour and her legacy since it was the precursor to ATS. So, in a tiny nutshell... Jamila Salimpour, an American style Oriental dancer, formed a dance troupe called "Bal Anat", in 1968, when the opportunity to perform in an outdoor theme festival (Renaissance Pleasure Faire, California) challenged her imagination to create a variety show.

As a former acrobat with the Ringling Brothers Circus she patterned the Bal Anat format after a "circus-like variety show". The structure consisted of a crescent formation, with each dancer taking center stage to perform a 3 to 5 minute dance and then falling back into line.

The costuming effect Jamila produced was that of 'tribal'. The show had a theme of so called "old styles from the Middle East" and each dancer had a character. Jamila drew on her background dancing with "Algerian water glass dancers, pot dancers and magicians", and incorporated her version of Ouled Nail, Turkish, and tray balancing, among many other "varieties of entertainment". Indeed Jamila says it was she who introduced the act of sword balancing to American belly dance.

Many became enamored of her theatrical presentation and believed it to be the real thing. Jamila's Bal Anat style would come to be emulated all over the United States, with new practitioners adding their own spin to it. Masha Archer and later her student Carolena Nericcio are most notable for shaping what we recognize as present day ATS.

The first video is of John Compton. He was a featured soloist in Jamila Salimpour's Bal Anat in the early 1970's and the video reflects that influence. Even though it is no longer a prominent style I include it to give a progression. The second clip is of Fat Chance Belly Dance in American Tribal Style.

John Compton in Bal Anat style and FatChanceBellyDance in ATS

The last style I'm touching on is Tribal Fusion. This is the most recent branch to gain massive momentum and stand on it's own as a widely practiced style in America.

"Tribal Fusion is a form of modern belly dance generally referring to a combination (fusion) of American Tribal Style Belly Dance and Cabaret or Egyptian style belly dance. It frequently incorporates elements of Popping, Hip Hop, and modern, but often drawing from many traditional forms such as Flamenco, Kathak, Bhangra, Balinese, and other folkloric dance styles. In tribal fusion, dancers expand on the elements previously fused to form ATS, to make their style unique and more relevant to their contemporary experience". - Wikipedia

Tribal Fusion stars Urban Tribal Dance Company and The Indigo