The Gilded Serpent presents...
Tribal Bible Reviewed
by Shelley Muzzy/Yasmela
American Tribal Style Dance’s popularity is undeniable and the ATS movement and its
various offspring have grown rapidly in the last 10 years. Kajira Djoumahna,
author of the definitive Tribal Bible, has just released the second
edition of this book. The new expanded Tribal Bible has taken 3 years
to reach the public, and it is full of all things “tribal”.
This thick over-sized format book with a full color collage on the
cover of dancers in the genre known as American Tribal is a must
for anyone interested in tribal style dance and/or the history of
the dance form we know as bellydance.
the dearth of historical studies about Middle Eastern dance
and the phenomenon of its popularity in the west, The Tribal
Bible is a welcome addition to a slowly growing body of literature.
The Tribal Bible,
second edition, begins with a definition of American Tribal Style
Dance as dictated by the guru of tribal, Carolena Nericcio of Fat
Chance Belly Dance, considered the founder of the genre. Definitions
of some of the offshoots that are similar but that don’t quite
conform to the strict ATS appellation follow. After a lengthy and
confusing attempt to label the myriad variations of tribal style,
Kajira moves on to the history section. She traces the evolution
of ATS from Jamila
Salimpour’s seminal early 60’s and 70’s
troupe Bal Anat and from the interpretation of Middle Eastern
dance that sprang up on the West Coast at that same time. As one
would expect, there is a long section on Fat Chance Belly Dance,
the troupe who coined the name, American Tribal Style. There
are several excellent interviews, beginning with a fascinating piece
with Masha Archer, Carolena’s teacher, followed
by interviews with Carolena Nericcio and Suhaila Salimpour.
It would have been nice to include Jamila’s comments on her
own very important and influential contributions to the modern Middle
Eastern dance movement, but I know how difficult getting an interview
with Jamila can be. Instead we must be content with her daughter
Suhaila’s childhood memories.
the history is a section called “Arborescence, the Old School.”The
analogy to a tree with many branches is apt. This chapter includes
a long interview with John
Compton about the evolution of his premier folkloric
troupe, Hahbi’ru. I loved this part. The interview
captured John’s distinctive personality and traced the fascinating
paths of some of the dancers who left Bal Anat to start their own
groups. Kajira includes written portraits of some of these early
pioneers and their varied approaches to combining folkloric dance
with more traditional “bellydance”as well as other dance
The next chapter,
titled “Arborescence, The New School”, transitions us
to the present with sections on Gypsy Caravan, Lunatique, Portland’s
Circle Dance Company, Read My Hips and other early
tribal troupes who splintered off from FCBD. There is an interesting
section on tribal groups in other parts of the world, and an essay
on tribal style as solo work that I found particularly intriguing
since the very essence of ATS and tribal is the concept of group
improvisation. Kajira relies heavily on contributions from outside
sources, so the writing style throughout is somewhat uneven, dependent
on the literary abilities of the writer. Chapters on the roots and
history of costuming and jewelry, make-up and henna follow. These
latter sections include tips and ideas and of course, lots of pictures.
In fact, one of the nicer elements of the book is the copious amount
of photos. There are extensive photos of costumes and jewelry, many
of them photos from the author’s collection and the collections
of other dancers. It was nice to see photos that were different from
the tired old ones we always see. They would be even more exciting
if the quality of reproduction was better.
chapter on music includes a glossary of terms with some simple explanations
of rhythms. There is a section on finger cymbals and an interesting
section on Turkish spoons. Kajira does a good job of explaining why
tribal dance relies so heavily on strong, simple rhythmic structure
and simple steps and offers suggestions for expanding group repertoires
to include more complex musical compositions from other areas of
the Near East. There are suggestions for appropriate music and a
short sub-chapter about working with live music.
The next chapter,
Movement, is a large section of the book devoted to a breakdown of
movements with detailed explanations. Of course we all know you can’t
learn to dance from a book. There is no substitute for a live warm
body. Kajira reiterates this point, so this section may be more helpful
to dancers already steeped in the ATS technique. I’m sure there
are some good ideas and suggestions for innovation within the form
in this part, although it was definitely geared to dancers who already
had the background. Throughout the book Kajira takes opportunities
to encourage dancers to further their study, do research and to search
for ways to expand their understanding of the dance and music.
Among the several
excellent pieces written by other tribal dancers included in various
chapters, I was particularly impressed by a piece by Natasya
Katsikaris called “The Importance of Knowing and Honoring
our Cultural Sources”. I found it well written and articulate.
There are numerous passages about what tribal style means both to
the author and to those involved in the form. For a lay person like
me, it almost feels like proselytizing. But this is the perception
of an outsider. I wonder if this book could have been written with
less evangelical fervor and more objectivity? If you are involved
in the tribal culture you will find ample support for your feelings
and theories throughout this volume.
This and Gypsy That”is a lengthy chapter on the Rom (Gypsies).
Obviously this is an area of great importance to Kajira, as her devotion
of so much space to it confirms. Unlike the rest of the book, which
attempts balance, this chapter is very passionate. Because of this,
the writing loses some of its professionalism. While I applaud Kajira’s
efforts to draw attention to the political correctness of the term
Rom, as opposed to the pejorative Gypsy, and I understand her desire
to educate us, I found any comparison between the misconceptions
confronted by bellydancers and the genocidal persecution of the Rom
throughout history naive.
slights of middle class American women dressed up in fantasy
clothing dancing to co-opted music and the plight of an entire
group of people that has been systematically targeted for extermination
One path is chosen;
the other is the karma of birth. To imply that because the public
reacts to an image of “bellydancer”in a negative or salacious
manner means we can somehow relate to the accumulated pain of an
entire group of people encourages an insidious kind of cultural imperialism.
I’m sure that this was not Kajira’s intention; however,
if I drew this conclusion, I’m certain there is at least one
other person who will do so as well.
The Tribal Bible
is an “apologia”for the form, if you will…it seeks
to enlighten us on many levels. I do feel at times as if the author
is talking about a life style rather than a dance form. And I suppose
to some dancers, it is a way of life. There is repeated emphasis
placed on the concepts of bonding, healing, empowering, and connecting
throughout the book. From the sound of it, American women are desperate
to connect, to be part of a tribe, to belong. ATS seems to be the
answer for some of us. With all the talk of inclusiveness and tribal
style being the refuge for rebels, the Tribal Bible sets out a lot
of rules. As in any group that seeks to define itself, I can’t
help but think of Animal Farm: “All animals are equal
but some animals are more equal than others.” While this
may not apply here, I urge the reader to be careful about drawing
hasty conclusions. This is a book of the history of a certain style,
not of the entire form of Middle Eastern dance.
In the chapter 8, “Imitation,
Innovation and Ethics”, Kajira writes,
that this is a dance of OURS. Our very own American Style
Bellydance!…We don’t have to adopt or support
another culture’s moral or religious standards if they
are not comfortable for us personally. We don’t have
to buy into any political agenda. We don’t have to
feel bad because we’re not of Mediterranean descent,
olive skinned or don’t speak another language.”
I think I understand
what Kajira is saying, and I applaud the fact that she urges us later
in this chapter to study our roots and to honor them, but there is
something that bothers me about this statement. ATS is not bellydance
as the rest of the world, including its root cultures, understands
it. It IS an American creation, but it still introduces itself as “bellydance”and
borrows heavily from the form, even though many practitioners qualify
their declaration by adding the word “tribal style.”It
is easy for outsiders to become confused, and indeed, as a community
we are still in the process of defining ourselves. No one should
feel bad about the things over which they have no control, but it
is important to consider the consequences of taking the bits and
pieces of a culture that you find useful or comfortable and discarding
the rest because they don’t fit. Sometimes it’s healthy
to challenge our comfort zone. It forces us to expand our levels
Throughout the book
there are some rather broad assumptions drawn, a few things left
out, and some leaps of faith required, but it is impossible to cover
everything in one book and to please everyone. I felt the author
missed an opportunity to place herself and her dance style in a more
global context. In the end, every book is a subjective work of the
author’s logic, research and imagination. Practitioners of
ATS or any of the ATS offspring will especially appreciate the Tribal
Bible. The interviews with Masha and Carolena and John are wonderful.
The photos alone make the book worth owning.
some bumps and rough spots, this is an important book.
If you are interested
in the history and evolution of Middle Eastern dance in all its various
manifestations, this is a good chronicle of the American Tribal movement.
If I were a Tribal Style dancer, I would rush to get a copy of the
Tribal Bible before it runs out of print again! Kajira did an admirable
job of pulling lots of disparate facts together.
covers it all, including cultural co-opting, and she works
very hard to be fair and unbiased.
The Tribal Bible
concludes with a chapter on ritual dance, the author’s conclusions,
an update from the first edition, and a series of testimonials from
dancers who are involved in the style, as well as a nice list of
resources. Kudos to Kajira Djoumanha. This book is a huge undertaking!
It is readable and entertaining, a laudable overview of the tribal
dance phenomenon. Sometimes ponderous and rambling, it is still a
worthy contribution. It’s a pricey book at $40, especially
when I have paid less for better quality, but it is self-published
and I have no doubt cost a fortune to produce. It is an important
work in a field where little is available. If you are at all fascinated
by the genre, you need to get this book. It is packed with information
and great pictures and good ideas, just be sure to pick your way
carefully through it and realize it is a book written for a very
specific target group. If you are in that group you will love it.
If you aren’t, you may still find it interesting and worth
The Tribal Bible,
Exploring the Phenomenon That is American Tribal Style Bellydance,
by Kajira Djoumahna. Retail:$40 Wholesale and quantities available.
Publisher, Distributor & Author: Kajira Djoumahna, PO box 14926,
Sant Rosa, CA 95402-6926. www.blacksheepbellydance.com,
a comment? Send us
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for
other possible viewpoints!
with the Dance: a Performance Critique of Aziza by Shelley Muzzy/Yasmela
are several dancers on the scene that I admire and enjoy watching
again and again, but I just saw one that made me stop in my tracks,
sit right down on the floor, and pay attention.
Revisited by Yasmela/ Shelley Muzzy
response to the improvisational passages in Middle Eastern music
illustrate the depth of our understanding of the rich texture and
nuance of the culture
Emperor’s New Clothes by Yasmela/ Shelley Muzzy
Until we see ourselves in the context of a larger society, no one outside of
our community will accord us the respect we desire.
Remembrance & Requiem: the Best “School”That
Ever Was, Part 1 by Morocco/ Carolina Varga Dinicu
I looked at her & said, “If I can’t do better than that, I’ll
hand in my feet!”A case of having more guts than brains.
vs. Amateur: What is the Difference? by Nisima
There are dancers of every gradation in between the two labels of “professional”and “amateur”:
dancers who work at dance jobs intermittently, or have part time jobs in addition
to regular performances