Turbans, Tattoos, and Tassels

An American Export

by Stephanie Heuer

Being an American living in foreign countries over the last ten years, (Norway, Tokyo, and the Caymans), I am always intrigued when anything is promoted as being “American”. The word itself has many different connotations and meanings, depending on where you are in the world and your country of origin.

I was a young woman during the sixties and seventies in California and the early days of Bal Anat, a Middle Eastern style dance troupe founded by Jamila Salimpour. For me, it was definitely not then what people today generally associate with American Tribal Fantasy dance. Rather it encompassed what was transpiring in our culture in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time, dance that reflected the spirit of the moment, so to speak. Exactly what Jamila was thinking and doing during those early years will hopefully be clarified one day in her memoirs (see article in this issue). But as she has stated before, and also in her Middle Eastern Dance conference paper presentation last year, “Many people thought it was the ‘real thing’ when in fact it was half real and half hokum.”

But it was powerful—richly colored costumes, buzzing hypnotic sounds of the mizmar, syncopated finger cymbal rhythms—a genuine circus-like variety show. Sometimes there were up to forty dancers on stage at once, including sword, pot, and tray dancers, (even an Ouled Nail dancer from Algeria). With sail-like striped veils and mother goddess masks, the end product was one hell of an entertaining show, something new and refreshing but at the same time old with an ancient “tribal” feel to it.

Back then, thirty years ago, there were no well-known schools of Oriental dance, no resource guides, no dance manuals. Much of what was created was based on a genuine love for the dance, inspiration from old movies, and the occasional foreigner who could offer inside knowledge or validate authentic movements.

Those days are gone, along with the flower children and the love generation, but apparently many aspects of this original tribal dance troupe concept have lived on. Through the exchange of dance styles and creative ideas within America, and now the world, American Tribal Fantasy (ATF) has taken on an identity and life of its own. Its definitive clannish look and synchronized feel can even be considered exportable, not only as a concept in dancing, but as a complete package deal. No bells and whistles here, just turbans, tattoos, tassels and lots of attitude.

As Sayf: (from left) Kay Artle, Stina Löfström, Theresa Wallin, Annika Koskinen, Camilla Fogelstöm, Ulla Edenmark.

When I first read a Norwegian article about the Swedish group As Sayf and the subject of ATF, I felt the need to interview their director, Kay Artle. Kay is an articulate, well-balanced dancer, offering a variety of styles and expertise within the group’s repertoire. She has studied Oriental dance since 1982 with Samir Gaber, Bahi Barakat, Rozita Auer, Morocco, Yousry Sharif, Suraya Hilal, and others. Her reputation in Scandinavia speaks of her dedication to understanding the roots of the dance and her commitment to educating her students about its origins and cultural aspects. Her troupe performs balady, classical Oriental, folkloric, Saidi, stick dancing, etc. So you might ask, why have they included American Tribal Fantasy, and how did it find its way to Scandinavia?

In 1996, one of the members of the troupe was surfing the Net, and stumbled across a well-known ATF group’s homepage. She liked “the look of them, and ordered a video. Her troupe enjoyed the video and especially the way the dancers worked as a group, their arms, and the “pride” of the dancers. They were able to take a class on “group improvisation” in Salt Lake City, and decided to add ATF as part of their dancing repertoire. Inspired by new possibilities, they formulated their own interpretation of ATF, modifying it to fit their tastes and needs. They designed their own costumes, ordered the heavy, full skirts typically associated with ATF, painted on some tattoos (no particular meaning to them Kay said, “just for show, maybe relating to the Berber tribes”), and incorporated the arm and hip movements they had learned. The end product was, and is, a Swedish version of American Tribal Fantasy, which of course is rooted in the Bal Anat experience of the sixties in San Francisco, which was an American version of…

In November 1998 I attended a performance of As Sayf in Oslo and was impressed with the synchronized movements, the flowing, soft flamenco arms, rotation of the central choreographic focal points, and the troupe’s concise transitions. I wasn’t mesmerized, a word I have heard associated with other ATF groups, but I did find the whole thing entertaining in a showy fantasy sort of way. After a while the arm movements in unison increasingly reminded me of synchronized swimming in the Olympics. (I am one of those people who actually like that sport, and will sit through the event in its entirety, so repetitious beats and a sequenced routine appeal to me at a very basic level.) I am very sure it is quite difficult to both execute and design the choreography, yet it did not appear overly complex. As with other dance movements, making things look easy can be difficult.

Afterwards I had the opportunity to speak with several people watching ATF for the first time. As one might expect with such a diverse crowd of Middle Easterners and Norwegians, responses were varied. Most dancers in attendance enjoyed it very much, perhaps partly because they understood that it is not really true Oriental dance in any sense of the word, and is a combination of movements, a blending of different costuming (including Indian), with fantasy elements thrown in. The Middle Eastern people I spoke with were disconcerted and confused and didn’t quite know what it was, finding it odd but appealing at the same time.

I later heard there was an Oriental dance teacher there from Paris (who prefers to remain anonymous) who had lived in Algeria and Morocco. She had rather strong opinions about the show, and I decided to interview her. She was teaching Balady at the local African Studies Centre, and had definite ideas on what should and should not be done in the context of Oriental dance. She said that the experience of American Tribal Fantasy “…offended me to my soul…The music, which was Tunisian, didn’t match the Spanish flamenco-influenced arm work at all.” She went on to point out her concerns about the misleading appearance of being a “tribe” with its costuming and tattoos. In many indigenous tribes tattooing has significant meaning, depicting important turning points in one’s life, tribal connections, or other notable lifetime events. She said that the ATF tattoos were “just obviously for show, but someone who didn’t know that difference might think they were some sort of real tribe.I might add that this individual also feels that the Western influence over the years in Oriental dance has corrupted it in many ways, not enhanced or preserved it.

After I explained to her that ATF was created originally in America, and was based in fantasy with Oriental overtones, she looked at me knowingly and said, “Oh, American. Well that explains everything…sort of like McDonalds”. (She wasn’t aware that I am American.) Although I was not quite sure what she meant by the comment, I have found from living abroad that there is a common generalization that anything American is commercial, well-marketed, or to some degree mass-produced. Somehow she associated this form of dance with that opinion.

I also questioned Kay Artle about how the Middle Eastern audience accepted this form of dance. She said that she felt they generally loved it. And as to the Western audience she said, “Tribal somehow appeals to some inner belief in us Westerners in the dream of the Orient.” In other words, it can appear like something that it is not, and yet satisfy our fantasy about what it should be.

ATF is now gaining a following here in Europe and has become an appealing addition to the Oriental dance format. But I have personal concerns about the popularity of this dance style. By merely adopting the outer trappings, are these pseudo tribes misleading the general public and endangering our hard won gains as a legitimate art form? For example, by using music that is Middle Eastern, people assume that the dance comes from that geographical area. Does it really matter what is stated in the dance program or how it is introduced? People hear the music, and make a direct association. Perhaps if ATF had its own venue, separate from Oriental dance, and if it were set to dance music that was not so closely associated with Middle Eastern (for example New Age), possible misunderstandings might be avoided.

My second concern is with the name itself, which has been imported, along with the “look”, to Europe. As a foreigner, language issues have been a big part of my adjustment and comfort in the countries I have lived. As I discussed earlier, the American tag is at times associated with commercialism and mass production abroad.

And then there is the word tribal. An accepted definition of tribe is “a group of families under a recognized leader with blood etc. ties, and usually having common culture and dialect.” ATF groups are pseudo tribes, not real tribes, and it would be more accurate to call them a troupe or group. This may seem like a trivial issue in America where the style is understood and accepted, but in Europe people make take a literal translation of “American Tribal Fantasy” and think they are seeing some sort of indigenous people performing some ancient dance. This is certainly not the case.

Artists serious about promoting Middle Eastern dance have been trying for years to take out the whole fantasy concept in order to give our dance form more professionalism and legitimacy. Now we are purposely putting in an element that literally translates “in the imagination, unrelated to reality.” Doesn’t this seem like a step backwards? Now try putting all three of those words together with their literal translations and see what you get.

Dance grows, changes, and is a reflection of what is happening at certain points in culture and society. In the past several decades we have witnessed many shifts in the presentation of Oriental dance, both in costuming and the popularity of movements. Do we have an obligation as a group to police and regulate these changes? As dancers creating new ideas and concepts based on extant traditions, do we have a responsibility and obligation to indigenous peoples to respect and preserve their traditional, folkloric, and original dance forms? For instance, when tribal groups incorporate in their presentation a symbol or costume enhancement from another culture, should they be concerned that they may be offending an indigenous tribe somewhere?

It is tempting to adopt the attitude that “anything goes” when one is operating within the paradigm of Oriental fantasy. Boundaries can become very hazy and undefined, and it is easy to succumb to satisfying the audience’s whims, or doing something because it is fun. However, when a new form is created and becomes popular, it is often imitated and exported. The attitude exists that if it works there, it should be OK here, or anywhere. As proponents of the art form of Oriental dance we should not lose sight of the larger context within which we are striving for legitimacy.

Stephanie Heuer (Safa) was first inspired to learn Oriental dance after watching a performance of the Bal Anat troupe at the Renaissance Faire in 1973. She studied with Aida al Adawi (Andrea Hughes) and Jamila Salimpour for the next five years. Other instructors or dancers who have greatly inspired her over the years are Shareen el Safy, Mona Said, Samasem, Suhaila Salimpour, and Sohair Zaki.

Her career pursuits in Computer Science lead her to Japan, where she spent two years teaching engineering analysis in Tokyo, Taiwan, and Seoul. She also served as the liaison between the Japanese and their American counterparts. Working for Hewlett Packard over a ten year period, she had a variety of responsibilities, including computer programming, technical writing, and eventually a management position in World Wide Data conversion for the first CD roms released in the late 1980’s. She has lived in Japan, Korea, Bonaire, Venezuela, and the Cayman Islands. She now lives in Norway where she teaches dance, sponsors workshops and writes for dance publications. dignityrocks@gmail.com

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