Our troupe drums for an American Tribal Style (ATS) dance troupe. Essentially, ATS focuses almost entirely on the group dynamic, as opposed to a cabaret style dance, which focuses almost entirely on a solo dancer.
Tribal style uses a series of cues, call and answer patterns, group dynamics, chorus and duet structures, and occasional chorus and solos.
Let me explain, really briefly, from a drummer’s point of view.
By cues, I mean that the dancers all have a repertoire of shared movements (think rhythms if you are a drummer or kata if you are a martial artist) that they have learned and can all do simultaneously as a group, based on a cue from the lead dancer. The effect is striking, as suddenly all of the dancers spin, shimmy, and dance, in the same way at the same time, with no real warning as to why.
Call and answer determines who is the lead dancer, and that changes throughout the entire performance, adding another dimension to the complexity. The first time you watch, you kind of wonder how they all know when to circle, or change spots, or suddenly twirl.
The group dynamics take a few forms, including some of the dancers falling back to the edge of the stage, and forming what amounts to a chorus line, all dancing together. At the same time a different group of dancers all go to the middle and front of the stage, and form a circle, or triangle, or diamond, and dance together. Sometimes only a pair of dancers will take the center stage (duet) or only one (solo). Where all this group dynamic gets really interesting is when 3 dancers go to the back of the stage, 2 duet to the left, 2 duet to the right and 1 solos in the middle. All dancing within their group, but seemingly ignoring the others. And suddenly, they all gather together again and dance as a troupe and you wonder how they could possibly choreograph and remember something that intricate.
And here is the catch: They don’t.
American Tribal Style is entirely improvised during the performance. The dancers use that shared language, cues for both the dance movements and the group movements, while on stage to create the dance. Each performance is therefore unique, totally based on what that lead dancer or dancers wanted to do at the moment that she led.
What is really interesting is that any ATS dancer can dance with any other ATS dancer, even if they have never met before.
Watching my wife’s troupe meet another dancer, bring her up on the stage, and watch that unknown dancer blend in seamlessly with this group of dancers she has never meet before is amazing. It impresses me every time I see it.
In essence, American Tribal Style has figured out a way to make belly dancing into a community drum circle, but one that knows where it is going and doesn’t lose the beat.
It is awesome to watch.
It makes me really envious.