Changing Names: Why will no longer consider ourselves to be a “tribal fusion” troupe-
If you are active in the “belly dance community” it is likely that you have heard the phrase “tribal belly dance” or “tribal fusion”. For those who are new to these terms, they have been used to describe an “alternative” style of belly dance (a word fraught with its own controversies) to the more iconic American Cabaret or Egyptian styles of the dance form. Differences can be seen in the music, costuming, and movement quality between these styles, with “tribal fusion” typically using more modern electronic music and darker heavier costumes. Movements are more fluid and serpentine, while also incorporating sharper isolations akin to pop and lock stylizations.
This aesthetic emerged in America the 1990’s and remains popular today. It was born out of American Tribal Style belly dance, a format founded by Carolena Nericcio in the late 1980’s. She took inspiration from Jamila Salimpour and her style, as seen in her troupe Bal Anat. Yet Salimpour did not use the term “tribal”, and instead referred to her style as “folkloric fusion”. She identified it as fantasy, as it did not represent a specific dance from a specific culture. She blended influences and incorporated some invented concepts into the style, like sword dancing and snake dancing. Salimpour has sometimes been retroactively named the “Mother of Tribal Fusion”, however the introduction of the word “tribal” seems to have occurred around Nericcio’s time. She identified the surge of the modern primitive movement as an influence, but states that she did not call it “tribal style” when she first began developing and teaching her format. When questioned about the origin of the name “American Tribal Style” in a 2004 interview, Carolena said that someone else named the genre following an early performance. She said that she did not like the title at first, as she felt it did not accurately describe what they were doing, but she felt that it was more convenient to let it stand. When dancers like Jill Parker branched out from Nericcio’s style, they brought the word “tribal” into their own genre’s title as a reference to their stylistic origins. Thus “Tribal Fusion” was born.
Recent years have seen an increasing number of dancers questioning existing terms for styles and movements. In early 2020, Nericcio changed the format’s name from American Tribal Style (ATS) to FatChanceBellyDance Style (FCBD Style), saying that “The term ATS no longer serves us as a community. It is time to let it go.” Amy Sigil, creator of Improvisational Tribal Style (ITS) and director of Unmata, has also changed the moniker of her format to “Improv Team Sync” beginning in January of 2020. She said that “If this word puts up any walls for any movers that I may encounter, then I wish to make that change.” Donna Mejia, Professor of Dance at CU Boulder, has posed the use of the term “Transnational Dance” or “Transnational Fusion” as a respectful alternative. However, it seems that not long after the introduction of that term that dancers in Central and South America expressed concern regarding the negative connotations associated with the word “Transnational” in their countries. It is reminiscent of the Transnational Corporations operating unethically in Latin America. “Transcultural Fusion” has been offered as an alternate option. “Trans”, meaning “above”, alludes to how cultures exist beyond national borders and how nations contain more than one culture within them. This instance shows how searching for appropriate verbiage is complicated, and why it is an ongoing cross-cultural conversation. Donna Mejia and Amy Sigil have been active in facilitating these discussions and have organized a symposium “Gathering at the Delta” to further explore these issues. Mejia explains that “I could no longer complicitly co-sign the label Tribal Fusion. It was too dismissive of the harrowing experience of tribal peoples on all continents.”
There have also been changes in movement terminology within the community. Some dancers have decided to use anatomical descriptions for movements so that they are clear and appropriate. April Rose uses terms like “tilting hip diamonds” or “hip figure 8 on the frontal plane” in her format Dance Cohesion. Other dancers, such as Violet Kind, creator of Fly Fusion, went with shorter invented names instead. She has recently changed the names of two common belly dance movements that are used in her format. The “Egyptian” is now referred to as “Twister” and “Arabic” is now called “Body Rock”. She said that the previous names did not make sense, posing questions like “Why are we calling this Egyptian? Is this representative of all that is Egyptian? No.” The original names for these movements (and many others) were assigned by American born dancer Jamila Salimpour, in her manual Danse Orientale in 1978. She did not create these movements, but rather codified and standardized them for teaching purposes. These terms have been passed down from teachers to students for so long that for many they are deeply engrained. However, Donna Mejia explains that “Reconfiguring our language and terminologies is a liberating step away from a colonialist history that impoverishes us all.”
There has been some criticism that these changes in terminology are primarily originating with dancers in the United States. This is significant, as the terms being questioned are inherently colonialist in nature. In the past, “tribe” has been used to identify another group as less advanced or less developed. In some cases, “tribal” was used interchangeably with “primitive” or “savage”. The word “tribe” is not linked to a specific group, as it is commonly used to refer to indigenous peoples around the world. While each has faced similar struggles with colonialism, they are not homogenous or interchangeable. Some Native Americans/First Nations prefer the term “nation” rather than “tribe”, as it provides a level of autonomy. Under US law, “tribe” is applied as a bureaucratic term. It is used to provide programs and services to indigenous groups, but they must be recognized as a tribe to access these rights. Casually using the term “tribe” diminishes their political, legal, and social status as Sovereign Nations. It is important to note that the word used to establish legitimacy in this country is one that is tied to painful stereotypes.
The word “tribe” has long been culturally appropriated, used by corporations to encourage employee or customer solidarity and by groups attempting to inspire the atmosphere of sisterhood. Bicycle manufacturers Yeti Cycles came under fire publicly this past summer for calling its meetings “Yeti Tribe Gatherings” and has since removed the word from all its marketing. There are plenty of alternative terms- family, community, alliance- that project the same concept without diminishing the true meaning of the word. It is a practice that white-washes indigenous cultures and traditions, which is particularly harmful, as practicing indigenous culture has been forbidden in the US and Canada at times historically. This is not an identity to be used and discarded when convenient. “Many tribes of indigenous origin did not/do not have that luxury or editorial agency in their lives.” says Donna Mejia, “A weekend festival gathering of dancers who’ve gained entrance to a community through paid instruction do not share the same cultural, demographic, and physical umbilical cord. Most certainly, no matter what adversities they have traversed as individuals, they have not experienced the shock of collective genocide and persecution for their way of life.” While the word “tribe” is not exclusively an indigenous word, it does have implied meaning when used in these contexts.
During a discussion group in October 2020, Amy Sigil presented the personal experiences that spurred her format’s name change as a case study of sorts. Although she started questioning terms and names back in 2011, she did not take any definitive action until she moved to Redding, California in 2020. This town is on the Wintu, Winnemem, Pit River, and Shasta tribal land. She attended a local Pow wow where there was a bulletin board that anyone could put dance flyers on, including those outside the community. When considering hanging up a flyer for “Improvisational Tribal Style” at this venue she thought, “Absolutely not.” After that, she began to ask herself why that did not feel right, and concluded that ultimately she did not teach “tribal” dance. Following this realization, she began meeting with local indigenous leaders to seek better understanding and guidance. She was made aware of the struggles of the Winnemem Wintu (People), who due to a clerical error by the US government in the 1940’s, were left off the Federal Tribal Registry. They have no reservation, no government funding, and all treaties with them were broken as a result. While they are recognized by the state, they are not federally recognized, and cannot call themselves a tribe. Unfortunately, they are not the only tribe facing this same problem. This was pivotal for Sigil, as she had bought the name “Improvisational Tribal Style”, called her group a “tribe”, and made money off it for decades. She did all of this while the Wintu were not even permitted to use the word to get the basic services and rights that they deserve. Jack Potter, chairman of SupportTheTribe.net, told her that “the land makes the law”, and that the spirit of the land was encouraging her to change the name. He said, “You found your name, and you don’t need to say the word “tribal” anymore.” It was liberating for her and she announced the name change the next day.
The title “tribal belly dance” or “tribal fusion” gives the impression that specific “tribal” dances are being presented or referenced. This can be misleading, as many dancers (ourselves included) who use/d this term are not citing specific “tribal” dances, but are using the word to broadly reference the “other”. Overwhelmingly, the movements in this genre cannot be directly traced to distinct “tribal” communities, and are instead inspired generally by a culture, region, or movement style. So why do we call this dance style something that it is not? It seems that while Jamila Salimpour recognized many of these stylistic elements as fantasy rather than fact, this aspect has not always been communicated to students or audience members. For a long time, these terms and practices simply went unquestioned within the community. Thanks to technology, we are more connected now than ever before. It has opened new lines of communication and allowed for a wider exchange of ideas. This global citizenship has fostered a greater sense of awareness, understanding, and responsibility surrounding our roles in this larger community.
Despite continuous growth, this community remains “underground” in many respects. It is not commonly seen on traditional dance circuits, on television, or among major arts funders. Discussing this genre of dance with audiences or outsiders requires a fair amount of explanation and elaboration, even under its former title. Thus, the question that arises is, does this community even need a name if it must be explained regardless of what it is called? Can it be substituted with a blurb in a program or a statement on a website? The words we use are important. Even if they may seem harmless on the surface, they may have unforeseen consequences. Doug Herman, a Geographer at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, said that “Naming is an exercise in power. Whether you’re naming places or naming peoples, you are therefore asserting a power of sort of establishing what is reality and what is not.”
All four of us in Winds of the Moon began our journey with belly dance with the same instructor. She referred to the style she taught us as “Tribal Fusion”, so when we began our own troupe, we identified this as our style as well. We feel that this description no longer suits us. We are by no means experts or authorities in this area, but we simply had to do what felt right for us. Surely there will be more questions and changes that will arise as these discussions develop, and we will continue to examine our practices going forward. We are guests in this dance form, as none of us are from source cultures, and as such we pledge to continue to listen, learn, and grow.
Congrats for getting to the end! This ended up being more of an essay than a blog post, but there was a lot that we had to say. Much of this is just the tip of the iceberg and a list of some resources has been included below if you would like to dive further into these ideas yourself.
Bellydance TV Vol. 2, 2004 Interview with Carolena Nericcio:
An Open Letter to My Dance Community by Donna Mejia (English and Spanish Versions):
Key Concepts for Dance Researchers in the Age of Fusion with Donna Mejia (Free Access):
Information about Gathering at the Delta:
3 Fly Fusion Name Changes by Violet Kind:
On Jamila Salimpour:
Orientalism Lecture by Edward Said:
More on the Winnemem Wintu and their struggles:
Additional Resources Recommended by Donna Mejia: