American Tribal Style Belly Dance (ATS) is a modern style of dance created by FatChanceBellyDance director, Carolena Nericcio. In 1974 Carolena began belly dancing with Masha Archer and the San Francisco Dance Troupe. Masha’s style was an eclectic blend of classic Egyptian Cabaret, Folkloric and any other influence that she found enticing. Being a trained painter and sculptor, Masha taught her dancers to create art through dance. In 1987, after the SF Classic Dance Troupe had disbanded, Carolena began teaching in a small studio in the Noe Valley Ministry with no goal in mind but to teach people to dance so she could have dance partners.Being young and tattooed, Carolena’s classes became popular with other young people who were living an alternative lifestyle. The Modern Primitives movement was also underway and tattoos and primitive styles of body adornment were the vogue. Carolena and her students performed at tattoo show and conventions and became quite well-know in the City by the Bay.When the need for a name for the dance troupe arose, a friend suggested the playful rhyme: FatChanceBellyDance, based on the silly response dancers often get from onlookers who thing that the beautiful, feminine belly dance is merely an exotic entertainment for their personal pleasure. In other words “Fat chance you can have a private show.”As Carolena and FatChanceBellyDance expanded their horizons at belly dance festivals, they received a mixed response; some people loved the new style, others abhorred it’s departure from strict tradition. Finally, the style was given a name “American Tribal Style Belly Dance” which seemed to calm the fears that ATS would be considered in the same league as the classical styles. The word “American” made it clear that it was not a traditional version, “Tribal Style” described that the dancers were working as a group with a “tribal” look.Back at the studio, a system was evolving. Because of the casual nature of FCBD’s performance opportunities, the dance was largely improvisational. There simply wasn’t a way, or a need to choreograph because things changed at the last minute and the dancers often had to perform without a rehearsal or any information about stage or performance space. Steps were refined and created as Carolena observed how the dancers worked together. She found that since the steps all started with the gesture on the right side, the dancers tended to angle to the left so that the hips would be displayed to the audience. This in turn allowed the lead dancer to be clearly seen by the follow dancers if they took a step back and to the right. Duets, trios and quartets could work in set formations; after the center of the space was established, dancers could set up with the lead dancer ahead left and the follow dancers(s) behind, right. If the stage was two-sided or the audience was in the round, the dancers could flip the lead by facing the opposite direction. In other words, as long as the dancers stayed in formation, the group could face any direction and the lead would change depending on where the audience was situated. Cues were developed for each step or combination, usually an arm or head movement that could be easily seen.
These features, the cues and formations are the brilliance of ATS. Often unnoticed because of the elaborate costumes, fancy steps, excited music and the sheer beauty of women dancing together, the formations and cues are the anchor of improvisational choreography. Even when formal choreography is needed, it is created around the logic of the improv formations and cues.The core concept remains in place, lead on the left, followers to the right. Watch also, for the interaction between the dancers. They always have their attention trained to the lead position, looking for cues as to which step will come next. When the dancers are facing each other and have eye contact the lead is neutral, falling to the dancer that makes the next move.But don’t think too hard! Allow yourself to see the whole picture: women working together in cooperation; a group focused on presenting the dance as one entity.Carolena Nericcio
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