American Tribal Style Belly Dance

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American Tribal Style Belly Dance (also known as ATS) is a modern style of belly dance is currently known as FCBD style, created by FatChanceBellyDance director, Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman.[1] The primary defining characteristic of American Tribal Style Belly Dance is group improvisation. Tribal is generally performed in a group, often at community events such as festivals and parades, with tribal dancers typically favoring a look provided by wide-legged pants gathered at the ankles (also known as pantaloons), tops known as cholis and full skirts.[2]

Tribal style[edit]

The roots of tribal bellydance are accredited to Jamila Salimpour,[3] who fostered a fusion of costumes and folkloric dances styles from the Middle East, North African, Spain, and India (such as the Banjara of Rajasthan). Salimpour began teaching and performing all over California and the West Coast. Using traditional folkloric dance elements and costumes inspired by traditional and ethnographic traditions, she presented on stage through Bal Anat, a colorful company of musicians, singers, and dancers that created a "souk" or almost circus feel. Taking what she had learned from native dancers from Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon who were dancing in the United States, she began to catalogue "belly dance movement" and began creating a basic repertoire terminology which is still the basis for Tribal Style and American Tribal Style repertoire. Jamila's Bal Anat "paved the way for others to use a fusion of the various regional dances of the Middle East and North Africa as inspiration for their own version of bellydance."[4]

In the 1970s, a former student of Salimpour, Masha Archer, began teaching and directing her own troupe, San Francisco Classic Dance Company. Archer blended the diverse elements of Bal Anat into a single cohesive dance style which she styled as "bellydance". Whether done in ignorance of the different stylistic origins or as a conscious aesthetic choice, this approach was some of the earliest and most notable bellydance world fusion work in America.

Archer's student Carolena Nerriccio is credited with codifying the first dance style and format to bear the name "tribal bellydance". She has registered their signature style American Tribal Style Bellydance, and over the last two decades plus, Carolena has grown her format[5] and brought it to the mainstream bellydance community through videos, music compilations, and performances and workshops around the world. Dancers inspired by Carolena's work with ATS have since created multiple offshoots of the style, some retaining true stylistic elements of ATS while others have evolved quite far from the original form.

Tribal Style today represents everything from folkloric inspired dances (such as the original Bal Anat) to a fusion of ancient dance techniques from India, the Middle East, Spain and Africa. As a general category, Tribal Style covers many flavors of American Belly Dance both the folkloric inspired and fusion and cross over styles which explore modern, jazz, dance theatre, and hip hop with belly dance, as well as fusion with traditional classical ethnic dance forms like Bhangra, Bharata Natyam, Flamenco and now even Polynesian and West African Dance.[6]

Improvisational choreography[edit]

American tribal-style belly dance's movements are inspired by folkloric dances of the Middle East, North Africa, Spain and India. ATS is a method of improvisational choreography, using a vocabulary of movements and cues allowing the dancers to improvise together while dancing. The knowledge of the dance vocabulary allows ATS dancers from different regions to collaborate even if they have not previously danced with each other.[7]

American Tribal Style belly dancers always use finger cymbals or zils, but the focus is on the group as opposed to emphasizing solo performance. There are two families of movements: slow movements and fast movements. Zils are worn but not usually played while performing "slow movements". (However, for example, if the featured duet trio or quartet are dancing to a Moroccan 6 rhythm, members of the chorus may choose to accompany them through playing their zils.) During "fast movements", the zils are meant to be played. The most common rhythm played on the dancer's zils is the right-left-right pattern. Certain "fast" movements require the dancers and chorus to play the military zil pattern. Other, less frequently played patterns include the Moroccan 6; some troupes experiment with 9/8 Turkish rhythm.

ATS features call-and-answer performance with other dancers or as a whole group as well as, more uncommonly, solos. Often there is a chorus that provides a moving back-drop while the featured duet, trio, or quartet is the focal point. Dancers take turns coming out of the chorus in duets, trios and quartets because if, for example, five dancers were to come out into formation, the sight-line (view of the leader) is not as effective. Groups of five or more are generally used towards specific formations to improve this site-line issue.

The principal dancers and the chorus work in an improvisational manner. Formations for the principal dancers and the chorus are also formalized in the ATS format to maximize dancer visibility to the audience and likewise maximize group visibility of the leader. In most traditional ATS formations, the leader is farthest to the left, with followers behind and to the right. Dancers angle their bodies to the left to be able to clearly read the leader's cues. Similar rules apply for members of the chorus, whose leader is at the far left. When the dancers face each other in a circle, however, the lead is "neutral"; the next movement can be initiated by any dancer in the circle. Thus, maintaining eye contact is important when dancers are in a circle.

The cues and formations are the secret behind group improvisational dance. They allow the dancers to move together without choreography. Sometimes, troupes will create formal choreography while still using the ATS-specific formations and cues.


The style of ATS is also characterized by costumes derived from various "folkloric" traditions and cultures and is often composed of one or more long, full, tiered (usually 25-yard) skirts over full pantaloons; a short choli top that bares the midriff, over which a bra decorated with coins and textiles is worn; a decorative headband, turban, and/or hair flowers and other decorations; one or more hip scarves with yarn, tassels, or fringe; a decorative belt, often with tassels, coins, and/or medallions; and much oxidized silver jewelry. The jewelry commonly originates from Central Asia, from any number of nomadic tribes or empires (e.g., Kuchi, Turkoman, Rajasthan), and is often large and set with semi-precious stones or, when mass-produced, glass. Makeup usually focuses on a dark eye and red lip, and a decorative bindi is often worn. Some dancers "tattoo" their faces with kohl or kajal.[8] Dancers may perform barefoot or may wear dance shoes or sandals.

I can only speak for my troupe in terms of the evolution of costuming style. My teacher, Masha, encouraged us to wear a choli and pantaloons, a fringe shawl, lots of big, chunky jewelry and a headdress or some sort of embellished hair worn up. The coin bra was optional. When FCBD first started we used that format, but the dancers started finding other pieces, like the full skirts and tassel belts. It was a bit of a mish-mash at first, but we eventually standardized our look to be choli, bra, pantaloons, skirt, shawl and/or tassel belt, headdress mandatory and of course lots of jewelry.

"American Tribal Style Make Up And Costuming," an interview with Carolena Nericcio by Sheri Waldrop [8]


  1. ^ "Bellies and Hornpipes". San Diego Reader. 2008-08-20.
  2. ^ Andrea Perkins (June 27, 2001). "Out of Egypt". MetroActive.
  3. ^ "Jamila". Retrieved 6 February 2011.
  4. ^ [1] Archived May 31, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ "About | FatChanceBellyDance®". Retrieved 2014-04-18.
  6. ^ "Tribal Bellydance dot org!". Retrieved 2014-04-18.
  7. ^ "Tribal is Easy". Retrieved 11 December 2011.
  8. ^ "Fat Chance Belly Dance Press". 2012. Archived from the original on July 22, 2012. Retrieved June 15, 2012.
  • Kajira Djoumahna (2003). The Tribal Bible, Exploring The Phenomenon That Is American Tribal Style Bellydance. Santa Rosa, CA: BlackSheep BellyDance. ISBN 0-9728486-0-6.
  • Tazz Richards (2000). The Belly Dance Book : Rediscovering the Oldest Dance. Concord, CA: Backbeat Press. ISBN 0-9700247-0-3.