American Tribal Style

by Kajira Djoumahna

The roots of American Tribal Style dance can be found in the late 1960’s in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Jamila Salimpour is credited with beginning this eclectic fusion approach to Middle Eastern dance in her presentations at the Northern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire with her seminal group, Bal Anat. However, it is important to recognize that Jamila did not call this fusion blend of influences “Tribal” or anything other than “Bellydance.” In fact, her daughter, Suhaila, told me, “The whole split in America between Tribal and Cabaret styles is really funny to me. My Mom never taught any differences. My Mom’s troupe was a little of this, and a little of that. Many of the costumes and dances were inspired by pictures in the National Geographic, but our finale was always a cabaret style dance. So, it wasn’t tribal style, it was more like an attempt to give the audience a thirty-minute education in the dances of the Middle East, cabaret style included!”1

Carolena Nericcio

I believe what people remember most from these influential beginnings is more a certain feeling derived from watching Bal Anat, as the ancient roots of past and present cultures seemed to be evoked. The colorful costumes and facial tattoos worn by many of the dancers seemed to recall a tribal culture, whether or not they were truly authentic. We must try to keep in context the fact that during this time the world, and especially San Francisco, was on the cutting edge of experimentation, undergoing a modern renaissance if you will. It was a time different from any other in our history as far as creative energy and limitless horizons. Add to that the fact that Jamila is an excellent show person, knows how to set an entertaining stage, and how to keep an audience enthralled, and it is no wonder her ideas were so successful ­— and still legendary even thirty years later.

The credit for naming this style of Jamila’s as “California Tribal” or “American Tribal” probably should go to Morocco of New York.2 Morocco felt it was an apt name for this new style that was uniquely American in its fusionary approach, since it did not accurately represent any particular tribe from any particular place. Dancers and teachers on the West Coast of the U.S. embraced it, and this new presentation of Middle Eastern dance as done only here in California (at that time) had a name of its own!

The next step in the evolution of this form came from one of Jamila’s students, Masha Archer. Masha went on to begin her own group, the San Francisco Classic Dance Troupe, and her own classes. She developed her own interpretation of bellydance, partly as a means to take the dance out of the cabaret/nightclub environs that were about the only outlet for an Oriental dancer in San Francisco at that time. Unlike Jamila, who attempted to recreate a traditional Middle Eastern Dance group, Masha’s style was focused more on the artistic side of a group presentation. She “added more uniformity to the new style by not distinguishing between the regions and simply identifying it as ‘bellydance.’”3 As she and her students continued to evolve, their approach shifted more towards American and European aesthetics and ideas, including the use of non-Middle Eastern music, costume and stylings of movement.

One of Masha’s students is my teacher, Carolena Nericcio of San Francisco’s FatChanceBellyDance (FCBD.) I asked Carolena what attracted her to Masha Archer as her teacher.

Have you ever seen her? If you could meet her in person, you’d know what it is. She’s the most powerful woman I’ve ever met in my life. The way I’ve evolved, power and presence is more important than being pretty. It seems that women are supposed to be quiet, pretty and feminine. That ideal has never really appealed to me. This woman (Masha) was strong and sure of herself, and incredibly capable. I was swept off my feet! I remember going to my first class (1974), being this little fourteen-year-old with no social skills, no idea what was going on, and I decided “I want to be just like her!”

…I was so young when I started studying with Masha. I had absolutely no reason to question her or to look for anything else, so I stayed with her two or three times a week for at least seven years. I danced in her troupe, and was very close to her family. I absorbed her because I was obsessed with how glamorous she was in this really strong way that she is. I just wanted to walk in her footsteps. So I did this sort of traditional East Indian thing where you find your Guru and do everything they say. It never occurred to me that she had a “style;” I just thought she was what bellydance was.

One thing that occurred to me years later was that she wasn’t a “bellydancer”, she was an artist…a visual artist. She has a Midas touch when it comes to creating art. I think she just happened on dance at some point, and decided to dance for awhile. What she did with the dance was just incredible. I don’t think she was concerned at all whether something was traditional or considered culturally appropriate; she just had a feeling for mood, timing, rhythm, and what to do.4

Karen Gehrman (l) and Rena Rall of FatChanceBellyDance.

Carolena took ideas from Masha’s classes, Jamila’s approach and her own sense of style and began working on what would become the primary interpretation of American Tribal Style Bellydance we know today. I asked Carolena whether Masha’s style, or Carolena’s American Tribal Style, had anything to do with Jamila Salimpour’s format.

I’ve never met Jamila, and I’ve never studied with her, but from everything that I can see from people who have studied in the Jamila school, it’s definitely the same base. I didn’t see exactly what happened, but I feel Masha was an artist who studied with Jamila, saw what Jamila was doing, and put her own signature on top of it. I saw what Masha was doing and I put my signature on top of that. I can still see the clear connections. I’ve read interviews with Jamila, and I’ve listened to how she put things together, and it all makes sense. She (Jamila) came from a circus background, and was really into presenting a show. Masha was an artist who was really into presenting a design, so I can see where I got my theory of presentation. I would definitely credit it to Jamila. Maybe someday I’ll get to meet her. I’d like to thank her in person!5

I asked Carolena when she became aware that she was developing a unique personal “style” of dance.

When I started teaching my classes, I began saying everything she (Masha) had said. Then people started asking me questions, “Where did this step come from?” and, “What’s the difference between the Egyptian and the Arabic?” I thought, “I don’t know! I’m just saying what my teacher said.” So I had to start doing research, and as I did so I began to realize certain things. Then I started adding things of my own. Somehow this style that people see as distinctively mine got created, but to me, it’s just what my teacher taught me.

So in terms of the actual physical style of the dancing, it’s the same, but in terms of how the troupe (FatChance) uses the choreography, there was a certain point where my dancers started having a dialogue with me. Such as: “It would be easier to see if we were all facing at an angle”, “it would be easier if the chorus kept a half moon” or “it would be easier if the lead person stepped forward a little”. I was open to them, because I wanted us to be successful. I wanted them to tell me what they needed to do to succeed. Then the whole troupe thing about how we do choreography, how we do improvisation, and how we read off of each other started to evolve about five or six years ago. But to me, the style of the steps is still the same, with maybe a little more strength, because I’m more physically oriented than Masha was.6

As Carolena developed her style, her vision once again brought ATS back closer to its folkloric Middle Eastern roots, including the musical selections and movement vocabulary, while still keeping true to her own sense of what makes a good show for an American audience. There are other styles of bellydance in America we call “tribal,” including theatricalized presentations of actual tribal dances of specific tribes of people from the Middle East and North Africa. Although they certainly are tribal, that is not what “American Tribal Style” is. ATS is strictly an American fusion of elements from many countries along the Romany Trail and heavily influenced by simply what works for the dancers and an audience of Americans. As Carolena has said, “The uniting factor of the three teachers in the ATS lineage is the passion for the essence of the dance form as opposed to representing an exact replica of the original Gypsy dancers.”7

Carolena believes that we need to distinguish between what is cabaret and Oriental, what is folkloric, and what we call American Tribal Style.

What people tend to do is put on an ethnic costume and still do cabaret steps, then call it folkloric or tribal. That’s not it! Folkloric steps are very different from ours and from the Oriental. Oriental seems to be much lighter, and more suited for use as a soloist. For example, the gestures may be suited to one person, whereas the folkloric seems more suited to group dances. Tribal style is different altogether in that it blends those two together. You will not get the “tribal” look until you study the step patterns and body posture.8

Even the choice of name reflects Carolena’s desire to clarify the uniqueness of her troupe presentation:

I didn’t want a name for my dance troupe that would be as hard to pronounce as my own last name! I didn’t feel any connection to Arabic names because I’m not Arabic. There’s that story about when I was young and dumb, I would tell men I was a bellydancer and they would ask for a private show. I would think, “Fat chance!” I told my friend Jim (Murdoch), who’s a clown, with a rather subtle but ongoing sense of humor, and he just said, “Oh! Fat Chance Belly Dance!” I just knew I wanted it! The first group of dancers absolutely hated the name. They couldn’t believe I’d picked such an appalling, inelegant moniker to describe them. But I knew what I was doing—I’d picked an American phrase for an American Tribal Style troupe that was simple and catchy, that no one would be able to forget. To it’s credit, no one has forgotten it yet!9

Carolena and her dancers developed into a fine art the concept of “leading and following” that has been the hallmark of FatChanceBellyDance, the thing that, to me, makes ATS so unique. I asked Carolena whether it were she or Masha who developed this concept, and she replied:

Both. Masha taught us improv by just never choreographing. We didn’t know anything about counting music, which foot we were on, or cues. We just did it. FCBD came up with the format, but it’s based on the common sense one uses when composing choreography, i.e. the smoothest transitions, steps that work well together, etc…10

I have not found in any other dance form so far, and certainly not in any Middle Eastern styles, this artful capacity for group improvisation while keeping a clean, coherent presentation and not straying so far into the realm of modern dance that the roots are lost. In order to do this, all of the dancers’ movements must be very precise; for example, all chest circles must move to the left, movements are always led with the right hip, etc. Without some simplicity and uniformity it would be impossible to follow leaders during a group improvisation.

That’s one of the things that either appeals to people or it doesn’t. When I start to present that “only the left arm comes up”, or “always turn to the left”, people either like it because it’s disciplined and they can remember it, which is exactly why we do it, or they feel like I’m imposing some sort of unwanted restraint on them, which I’m not. Those people would probably be good soloists because they’re willing to move in different directions, they’re constantly creating. That’s great, but another person can’t follow that improvisationally. So what we’ve done is to dilute the cabaret movement to make it broader and a lot more repetitive. Some people come to my classes are really bored doing the same thing week after week, over and over again. For those people there’s a whole other world out there, but for people like me that need the repetitive motion to build the muscle quality, you can count on it! When you see another dancer doing it, you know you’re doing the same thing, and you can let go of having to count, or having to stare at her. You know that when you see a certain arm gesture, that it’s accompanying a certain foot step. You’re already doing it, so you can go on to thinking about what’s next. It’s definitely a different process.11

This emphasis on group improvisation led to certain choices in music, and live music is rarely used by FatChanceBellyDance.

I really gave it (live music) my best shot. But it’s very difficult to get musicians to hold the kind of rhythms that we want and not get bored. We really need a lot of repetition. I think what people don’t realize is that Oriental dance music and folkloric dance music are two different things. We definitely need the folkloric. There are not a lot of folkloric bands. Sirocco is the only one I’ve found that can really lay down that powerful mizmar and tabl beledi base, and just stay on it until I cue them to change.

In the early years, FatChanceBellyDance shows were all improvisational. Now choreography has been added to their repertoire, and some shows are improvisational, and others choreographed, depending largely on the venue.

We definitely have divided our shows into two things, one of them choreographies, the other the improvisation. In the beginning, we didn’t know how to do choreography. We hadn’t developed enough of a format to all do the same thing. It took quite a few years of improv and getting to know one another’s movements before we could even consider it. So now, when we dance at the cafes, which are often little, strange shapes that you can’t really count on being the same because tables are moved around, or waiters are going by with food, we just do improv. You really can’t do choreographies then! You’d be a mess—terrified that if you got off, you couldn’t get back on. But if we’re doing something on a big stage, at the Ethnic Dance Festival, or one of the big bellydance festivals, or our show at Theater Artaud, we decided we couldn’t just noodle around out there! We knew we needed a real structure. It was hard for us, none of us really wanted to do it, because it meant counting and being worried and not missing a cue… We blew it quite a few times! I have videos with some really incredible mistakes… But it was the two environments, the stage and the cafe, that pushed us into the choreographies and the improvisational.

With us, our choreographies are based on our improv style. I don’t know if that’s true with other dance forms or styles. I suspect the reverse is often true for them. The way we do our choreography is based on what we’d be doing if we were doing improv; the sight lines are still the same, the angles are still the same. The presentation is a formal improv of sorts.

It seems essential to the idea of “tribal” to have others to dance with. This style is definitely group-oriented. Everything done in this version of ATS is done with the group in mind, including costuming, music and movement stylizations. Carolena has done rare solo performances, although somewhat reluctantly, such as at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in 1995.

That’s not something I’d planned on. They actually encouraged me to do a solo audition. I generally don’t allow the girls to do solos. It’s OK to dance solo at a friend’s party, but in terms of being hired out, I insist on two or more dancers always. I really want the tribal part to come through and the camaraderie of women to come through. So I really had to think long and hard about it before I decided to do it. It was a challenge I really needed, but I didn’t want to contradict myself. So I decided to do something different. I danced without the big headdress, and did only the belly rolls and taqsim, as that’s my favorite part. I didn’t really care whether I got in or not. I really wanted the troupe to get in, and it really disappointed me that they picked me and not my troupe! I was very insulted. But it was kind of neat that they took something so subtle as my solo presentation. I didn’t move around the stage, I just stood there and did belly rolls and flutters. So that just proves you don’t have to be all over the place to get their attention. It was a nice experience, but it’s not something I can see basing a whole new career on!

What seems to distinguish the ATS groups from the more traditional Oriental approach is the feeling evoked by the group. A tribal troupe can give one the impression that it is at once ancient and modern, primitive and highly evolved. The eclectic costuming, influenced from areas throughout India, the Middle East, North Africa and Spain makes such a statement as to lead people to believe it is representing an actual tribe from these countries, when in fact, it is strictly an American invention. The costuming tends towards natural fiber fabrics, old textiles, coins and tassels, lots of jewelry, often from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan or India, elaborate headdresses and bindis from India and facial “tattoos” from North Africa. To achieve sparkle on stage we often employ shisha cloth (mirrored and embroidered textiles from north India) and mozunas (shiny metal disks) from Morocco or beze from Turkey. The dancers are well-covered; almost every inch that can be adorned is! We at no time use plastic sequins or gaudy appliques, and the beads are used judiciously. Props such as swords or baskets can be used to dramatic effect in this style, and we always play our finger cymbals.

Carolena described how FatChance-BellyDance costuming presentation evolved within the process of the group:

Originally when I danced with Masha, we wore pantaloons and no skirt, a hip shawl with no belt, & a choli with a bra. Also a small headdress with a lot of jewelry. When I first started teaching, I advocated the use of that type of costume. Then one day someone came in with a big, beautiful skirt from the Renaissance Faire. At first I said, “no, we don’t wear these”, but when I put one on I realized they were really nice! So then we all got skirts. At some point the hip belt came in, and eventually the headdresses started growing bigger. We actually needed more material to pin our ever-increasing amounts of jewelry to, something with a secure base. So the headdress has evolved pragmatically. The facial tattoos were not my idea; someone else thought those up. Someone else brought in bindis. Whenever someone would discover something new that they liked, we’d all want it. So it got to the point where one person would go shopping for something, and bring enough for everyone. It became a fun, playful kind of thing. The costumes used to be less uniform than they are now. We’ve tried bras with vests, I’ve tried various tunics. It was sort of a “survival of the fittest”. The tunics would get snagged, the vests were too revealing or else covered the body shape too much. If the headdresses were too tall, you couldn’t balance a sword. So out of trial and error our costuming has evolved.

An audition for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival also had an impact on the group’s costuming:

The judges at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival weren’t really happy with us in the beginning! I can’t even watch our first audition tape, it was so horrible! That’s when we got a clue that if we were going to work on a big stage, we were going to have to come up with something more solid than what we had. They used to have time to give critiques (they no longer do so), and they were the ones who suggested we get uniform costumes. We fought that, because we felt the colorful aspect was enough. But we tried the black velvet look just to see if it would appeal to them. It did, and they were impressed, so then we decided to all go with satin one day, or velvet one day, or flowers, etc. Their suggestions really helped. They never criticized our technique—they felt we were strong dancers—but they did give us copious notes regarding our stage presentation. I took them all to heart and worked on every aspect because I really wanted to get into that festival. And we did! It’s to their credit. Dancers can get a lot of valuable experience auditioning there, but always remember they’re not the end-all or be-all of approval, and they’re not the ethnic police! They’re a commercial business and they take what works for them. Try to take their criticism constructively.

Costuming choices were also influenced by the practicalities of performing the movements of the dance. In addition, the dance has been influenced by the limitations imposed by certain costuming innovations.

One thing is we can’t do veil work because we can’t drag them over these headdresses! Also we can’t do any rolling about on the floor with them. We can, and do, back bends both standing and to the floor; but cannot do forward bending or they’ll come off. We can do sword work if we make sure our headdresses are on correctly. I have great admiration for those dancers who are able to dance with swords bareheaded. I could never do that! Our headdresses also tend to keep us very upright. We tend to wear a lot of bracelets and rings, and have run into problems in dances where we’d like to link arms or hands because we catch on each other’s costumes or just don’t get the purchase we had tried for. So we tend not to come really close to one another. Sometimes we have to pin down our tassels on our belts if there are too many people spinning closely together, because they’ll tangle.

We also have settled on our current look because it flatters all the dancers as well as the movements—like with the cholis, which cover the upper arms so we don’t have to worry about that involuntary shimmy of the triceps and can be confident that not too much is showing. We never remove our zils, and our hand movements stay away from the body.

Carolena told me of the history of tattooing in FatChance-BellyDance:

In the beginning, there was a big hoopla about the tattoos, because then, a lot more of us were tattooed than now. That was just a pure stroke of fate, though, because most of us were already tattooed before we even met. We liked that, we were all kind of wild. At that time, many of the students had friends who would be considered “alternative”, and were interested in learning bellydance, but weren’t about to go to a class where their tattoos, or piercings, would be considered an aberration… People felt comfortable (in my classes), they could relax. They weren’t expected to look or be a certain way. They could have any kind of body type, or any hairstyle. We’ve had hairstyles and body types, tattoos and piercings of ALL kinds! It’s really a San Francisco thing to be visually unusual. I think people felt comfortable coming to my classes because they weren’t being examined, they would be admired. I think that in general, people who cultivate an alternative look, as outgoing and confident as they seem to be with their decision, would really rather be around people like themselves…

There’s a joke that goes something like this: the only difference between tattooed people and un-tattooed people is that tattooed people don’t care! Un-tattooed people kept asking us what they mean, but they just mean we have tattoos!

Although not technically a tribe in the traditional sense, with kinship ties and inherited social mores, many aspects of the internal group dynamics of FatChanceBellyDance and other ATS groups can be seen to have similarities to the cohesion and group dynamics in tribal societies.

It’s that tribal thing; if you make the effort to come to class, I’ll meet you more than half way. But, you have to pay attention and respect myself and the elder students in the class. We in turn will support and nurture your efforts…I’ve really listened to and observed my students over the years. I pay attention to what they want, and if it’s something I can provide, I do. I’m very fair, but the class structure is also disciplined. I think people appreciate that balance…

There’s also the female affirmation…I know that in my classes, people definitely like the grounded female energy. It’s not based on looking good for men. It’s based on looking good for ourselves and sharing with other women. I’m happy that they feel that way.

This is the most challenging form of bellydance I have encountered. Why? Because it is ever changing and never the same. Yes, the movements are predictable, kept simple and very stylized. But new movements evolve constantly. Musical interpretation is highly attuned, because in order to effectively improvise as a group together, each member of the team or tribe needs to be very aware not only of the music but of each other. Developing flowing transitions come only with practice and repetition, and dancing with the group.

The very things that make it a challenge also make it powerful. This style requires a bit more discipline, and one needs to want to succeed as a group, not as an individual. The individual succeeds as the unit does. No one person is better or worse than another. This is an unusual concept in today’s society and one worth exploring. We used to be a much more cooperative race. It is said that dancers in this style seem to be dancing with and for each other, more than as a performance for an audience. It can be a powerful experience to dance with a “tribe”­—with a group of people that you know well from countless hours spent in each other’s company while dancing. Practicing the old ways in new forms of dance such as this can help us return to our roots as people, women, men, dancers and musicians.


1. Kajira Djoumana, “An Afternoon with Suhaila,” Jareeda, May 1996.

2. from an interview with Morocco conducted by Kajira Djoumana, December, 1998.

3. Rina Rall, “The Lineage of American Tribal Style,” TribalTalk, Vol. 2 #3.

4. Kajira Djoumana, “Ignorance is Bliss: An Interview with Carolena Nericcio”, Crescent Moon Magazine, March-April 1996.

5. Ibid., Djoumana, “Ignorance is Bliss.”

6. Ibid., Djoumana, “Ignorance is Bliss.”

7. Ibid., Rall, “The Lineage of American Tribal Style”

8. Ibid., Djoumana, “Ignorance is Bliss.”

9. Ibid., Djoumana, “Ignorance is Bliss.”

10. from an interview with Carolena Nericcio, December 1998.

11. Ibid., Djoumana, “Ignorance is Bliss.” Remaining quotes in article are from this same source.

Kajira Djoumahna resides in Santa Rosa, California, where she teaches ATS classes based on the FCBD format. She commutes weekly to San Francisco (two hours one way) for classes with Carolena. She is a member of ThirdTribe, a division of FatChanceBellyDance, and the director of her own ATS troupe, Fata Morgana. Kajira has enjoyed teaching this format from Florida to Oregon and from Long Beach to Mendocino. She has a dance background of ballet, modern and aerobic dance as well as many of the classical and folkloric stylings of the Middle East, and has taught and performed several, until recently settling into ATS for groups and classical for soloists. Other areas of special interest for her are the Berber rituals and dances of North Africa, as well as culture and dances of the Romani people. Kajira is a Certified Massage Therapist and Reiki Practitioner.www.blackshepbellydance.com

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