by Kelley Beeston – Mosaic Magazine, Spring 2017
It is not uncommon to be approached by a member of the public after one of our performances saying that they just had to come and tell us how wonderful it was to watch such empowered women dancing. We are often told that we look incredibly strong, earthy and powerful yet sensual and mesmerising. Sometimes people come up to us and ask if they can look at our jewellery, make a closer inspection of how our hair adornments have been arranged, take a photograph or they may even ask to touch us.
Of course our tribal costume sets us apart from other belly dance styles and is probably the first thing the audience will notice, well before the music, steps and formations, but American Tribal Style® belly dance is a complete package, not just the look. It is the joyful uplifted posture and expression, the zils and zaghareets, the formations, cues and gestures that allow aesthetically pleasing improvisation, the folkloric music with its fast rhythmic phrasing or slow taxeem, the sisterhood of empowered women collaborating together creating something beautiful and yes of course the tribal costume with its ethnic jewellery and facial tattoos.
Women from every culture on the planet have adorned themselves with some form of decoration whether jewellery, scarring, tattoos or piercings. In some cultures these adornments are a rites of passage to womanhood or may reflect status within the society, they may attract or protect, but for ATS® dancers our adornment is an integral part of our costume and reflects our sense of unity and belonging to a tribal aesthetic without belonging to a particular time or place but which creates the desired look.
Much of the jewellery we use comes from the tribal peoples of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India such as the Turkoman or Kuchi. There are also stunning pieces from the Saharan Tuareg and Berber or the Miao silver hairpins from South China. Each piece has its own unique symbolism from the red carnelian believed by the Turkoman to ward off illness and death, the hand of Fatima or Hamsa offering protection against the Evil Eye to the young and women in childbirth, to the upside down triangle representing the female form.
Tattoos have played an important part in the history of ATS® and are very popular within the ATS® world especially on the back as the open backed choli displays the tattooist’s art perfectly. When Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman first started her dance troupe FatChanceBellyDance® in San Francisco, as part of the alternative underground scene in the 1980’s, she found that her own tattooed body attracted other tattooed women. The history of tattoo began over 5,000 years ago and is as diverse as the people who wear them. They can be permanent, semi permanent or even temporary. Today many women have found confidence through the dance and get tattooed as an affirmation of the beauty of their body but it is by no means a compulsory part of the costume.
Temporary tattoos however are used as part of our facial make-up and have their roots in indigenous tribal societies, often associated with being a woman and tribal affiliation. In Berber and Moroccan cultures there is a belief that your ancestors will not recognize you if you do not have your tribe’s tattoos and in our Gratitude Meditation, performed prior to every dance class and performance, we acknowledge our ancestors. So our facial tattoos again represent our belonging to our tribe, our sisterhood and our style of dance.
In my previous article – The Art of ATS® (Issue 70, page 2) I wrote that it was Masha Archer as an artist and feminist who introduced the powerful uplifted posture of the ATS® dancer and changed the presentation of the dance by getting rid of ‘the challenge style’.
Masha felt her job was to enhance the power of the dancer and to make the audience feel privileged to be watching.
She stood up to the club owners who wanted high heels, bare legs and long blond hair by dressing her dancers in pantaloons, believing that the essence of our dance is the torso with the movements being created by flexing the legs and knees. She didn’t want to take her dancers to places where the audience didn’t care about the dance and just wanted to look at the legs.
The pantaloons are long so they blouse over the feet and voluminous being made from 3 to 4 yards of fabric. In Masha’s day with the San Francisco Classic Dance Troupe they would sometimes wear two or even three pairs of pantaloons made from an incredible 6 yards so the fabric would ripple and flow to really show off the movements but under no circumstances would legs ever be on show. Usually the dancers would wear a shawl tied around the hips or on occasion a skirt would be added if there were to be a lot of spinning included in the performance.
The traditional tiered black ATS® skirt with coloured trim was introduced later by two of the FatChanceBellyDance® dancers. Paulette Rees-Denis had brought back a large tiered skirt from a trip to the Renaissance Faire and the girls loved the idea and started making their own. However, Rina Rall had made hers too short so she added a coloured strip to lengthen it. The hip shawls remained but then Carolena came up with the idea of replacing their jangly belts with the tassel belt. She had been given some strips of shisha cloth to which she attached woollen tassels to accentuate the bouncy hips. Tassels are a traditional part of dress for many nomadic people from Northern Africa, Morocco and Algeria whilst the embroidered shisha mirror fabric is from India. So these two elements from our dance origins combined to make a perfect marriage for ATS® costuming. Our costume doesn’t pretend to come from any particular place nor is it a reproduction of authentic tribal dress. It is an eclectic mix of ideas influenced by artistic design and individuality, the dancer’s purse, the dance itself and browsing through old photos and National Geographic magazines. It evolved with time and experimentation into the classic ‘old school’ costume of turban, long sleeved black velvet choli, black skirt over jewel coloured pantaloons, coin bra and tassel belt. The black skirt with coloured trim is worn hanging full from the hips and truly flies during spins. The much bigger but lighter 25 yard or fluffy skirt was a later addition to the costume and is tucked at the hips replacing the tassel belt.
Masha wanted to accentuate the midriff in order to show off the dance but also wanted her dancers to be dressed rather than scantily clad in just a bra. So she introduced the choli, a garment worn by Indian women, which allowed arm movement because of a large gusset under the arm but also showed off the bare back by being completely open save for the tie fastenings. One of Masha’s students, Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman, founder and creator of American Tribal Style® bellydance, remembers that they had a hand drawn tissue paper pattern which they would pass around. Each dancer carefully reproduced the pattern on to a flattened brown paper grocery bag making whatever individual adjustments were needed to create the best fit. Different sleeve lengths added variety to the designs, from short cap sleeves to three quarter or full length, whilst the flattering V neck made the neck look longer and was perfect for showing off the gorgeous tribal necklaces. They were also cheap to make as they took so little fabric, only half a yard enabling the dancers to create many costumes with just one basic black skirt and assorted cholis. In pre-internet and Ebay days the dancers had to source their eclectic costuming from the San Francisco import and second hand clothing shops, with vintage and recycled dresses being the favourites for cholis.
Carolena has recently returned to her fashion business roots and in addition to running her very successful FatChanceBellyDance® company is now designing clothing under the brand name Bessie (named after her mother) which she sells in her shop in Half Moon Bay, California, alongside a fabulous range of ethnic jewellery she calls Nakarali. In her youth she studied clothing design and production at the Pacific Fashion Institute, followed by textiles and weaving at San Francisco State University. Her fascination with ethnic textiles and garments brought a realization that these garments used the hand woven loom width fabric efficiently with no wastage of fabric which would have taken the weaver a long time to make. Excess fabric could be tucked in a pleat to be let out at a later date when a child grew taller, whilst the tie fastenings could be loosened to allow for pregnancy and bigger breasts. Her study of the choli led her to conclude that the tiny fancy ornamental cholis, made by a young girl barely in her teens for her wedding, were to show off her handiwork rather than having a flattering fit. She still sells her own pattern for those wishing to sew their own choli and each pattern piece neatly fits to utilize every scrap of fabric.
ATS® dancers always wear a choli and would never just wear a bra on its own.
The coin bra as worn by FatChanceBellyDance® was originally introduced by Masha who couldn’t afford the expensive bras and belts sold by her teacher Jamila Salimpour. It was proving difficult to drill holes into coins without the right equipment so she hit on the idea of scavenging all the San Francisco charity shops and buying up loads of saint medallions, which were easier and prettier than fake coins. These she sewed onto a bikini top creating a beautiful and flattering bustline by graduating the medallions in layers. Carolena borrowed one of these bras when she danced with the San Francisco Classic Dance Company and later, she and her FCBD® dancers, continued the theme adding their own personality with a variety of charms, coins and odds and ends. My own bra is personalized with some special charm adornments, each meaning something to me, a little silver goddess, some scissors, a snake, a Mexican Day of the Dead sugar skull and a lucky hare.
Hollywood has certainly played its part in the development of the coin bra as a part of belly dance costuming both in the US and Egypt but it started to evolve during the Orientalist age with dancers like Ruth St Denis, so it is not an authentic tribal garment. However many women in the nomadic tribes had to carry their valuables with them as they travelled and the safest way to do this was to wear them either as jewellery or sewn onto garments or even into the hems of their clothing. A few years ago I visited the Laya tribe in Bhutan’s Himalaya where the women stitch their little silver spoons onto their jackets.
Masha’s ultimate costuming statement was to add the turban, much to the distress of the club owners who wanted long flowing locks. Masha’s feminist side did not want to portray her dancers as sparkly, cute and sexy but the artist within her would look at portraying the beauty and form of the dancer. The turban wrap allowed a perfect line to the head enabling the follow dancers to read the cues and gestures from every angle rather than having the neck and head hidden under a mass of flowing hair. This headdress has evolved over time starting out as a simple scarf wrapped around the head. It was Jill Parker who one day produced a large sarong and created a bigger headdress, which she said was Nefertiti inspired, and which the FatChance girls loved and developed into the full blown elaborately adorned turban which has become an intrinsic part of the ATS® costume. The steps and movements themselves have also evolved to accommodate the weight and size of the turban as it can easily weigh upto 3lbs once all the flowers and ethnic jewellery has been added. People sometimes believe that it is an authentic part of our costume adding credence from true tribal traditions and so have asked about cultural misappropriation. Although there are many cultures wearing turbans, particularly amongst men, it has also been worn by women and was especially fashionable in Europe during what was known as the Orientalist Age through to the flappers of the 1920’s. Carolena has truly mastered the technique of wrapping the turban wearing a base of 3 yards of black cotton wound around the head and close to the face then adding lighter coloured scarves around the crown to add width and height, which enhances the uplifted posture of our dance form. It also sets off the traditional ATS® make-up of dark exotic smokey eyes lined with kohl and deep red lips. Our costumes are big and bold so need plenty of make-up to bring out the facial features ensuring we do not disappear beneath the fabulousness of the costume.
Fashions have changed over the years with FCBD® experimenting at several performances without head wraps or minimal headdress – and so began the introduction of the ‘flower hair garden’ which still balances out the richness and volume of the rest of the costume but retains a regal elegant look and has become incredibly popular with ATS® dancers. The hair is always worn tied back in bun or plaits to reveal the neck and head placement giving good sightlines for the follow dancers who need to pick up the information that will tell them what is going to happen next, but in recent years the turban has enjoyed a revival as dancers again follow the lead of their master teachers as FatChance revisit their roots.
And last, but by absolutely no means least, is the final element we put on to complete our ATS® costume – our zils or finger cymbals. For as our founder and mentor says “if you are not playing finger cymbals you are not dancing American Tribal Style belly dance”.
Many years ago at my first belly dance class my teacher would gather the students at the end of each class and together she would have us repeat a mantra “I am beautiful on the inside, I am beautiful on the outside, I am a Goddess”. I used to feel silly, lacking confidence and self esteem. Today my dance troupe, Kalash Tribal, always meet up to get ready together – it’s part of the ATS® ethic of togetherness allowing us to bond as we make the transformation from our every day lives into performer, taking on average 2 hours to get in to complete costume. But now as I put on my make-up, don the costume and place the zils on my fingers I can walk on to the stage with my tribal dance sisters knowing that each of us truly is a Tribal Goddess.
Kelley Beeston is based in Devon and teaches and performs with Kalash Tribal.
She is a graduate of FatChanceBellyDance Advanced Teacher Training and a Tribal Pura International Sister Studio Continuing Education (SSCE) Instructor.
Resources, Books and Websites:
Tribal Talk newsletters 1997 – 2001 – FCBD
ATS Magazine – FCBD
The Metropolitan Museum – www.metmuseum.org
Africa Adorned – Angela Fisher
The Tuareg – Henrietta Butler