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American Tribal: Born in America and Danced Everywhere

Tribal style belly dance is influenced by the movements of the Middle East, but it is an American invention. Keep up with a FREE subscription to the BABA YAGA newsletter.

Tribal style belly dance is influenced by movements and music of the Middle East, but it is an American invention. It shares many common movements with Middle Eastern dance but it places much more emphasis on group performance and smooth and undulating movements and turns.

Several Tribal style formats are perfect for dancers who enjoy dancing in groups but who desire more flexibility than choreographed dances allow. These styles have developed a vocabulary of dance combinations and associated cues that allow them to communicate with each other while dancing. By rotating leadership among the group during a dance, the dancers achieve a smooth and polished response to the music while mixing-and-matching combinations as the musical mood takes them.

Tribal belly dance is often performed for the the joy of dancing together, but it also has appeal as a performance art for audiences.

In a 1996 interview, Carolena Nericcio, the founder of Fat Chance Belly Dance, described the difference between Oriental, folkloric, and Tribal belly dance and warned that Tribal was not based on a change of costume. "Because, what people tend to do is put on an ethnic costume & still do cabaret steps, then call it folkloric or tribal. That's not it! Folkloric steps are very different from ours & from the Oriental. Oriental seems to be much lighter, and more suited for use as a soloist. For example, the gestures may be suited to one person, whereas the folkloric seems more suited to group dances. Tribal style is different altogether in that it blends those two together. You will not get the 'tribal' look until you study the step patterns and body posture... American Tribal Style... blends the two together in a framework of distinctive dance combinations and body posture."— Carolena Nericcio

Kathy Stahlman, a former member of Fat Chance Belly Dance: "Tribal style (belly) dance can be mistaken for a look, but it's an intuitive method of communication. It's the sharing of leadership. It's a trust you place in your fellow dancers and they in you, that you will support their lead and they will support you taking over the lead, that the stronger dancers will not let you fail. It is feeling so connected to all the dancers you're dancing with that, in addition to spotting subtle cues, you can anticipate their next move. It is a true flow of energy between dancers, music and each other's minds."

Solo performances have also become popular, especially since Rachel Brice became an international celebrity.

Many Egyptian and Turkish-style dancers do not consider Tribal style to be belly dance since it is not strictly based on Middle Eastern dance. This generates many heated discussions and articles.

"If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it." — Isadora Duncan.


Courtesy of Liora:
  1. Jamila Salimpour and Bal Anat are considered to be the root of American Tribal Style.
  2. John Compton studied with Jamila and then formed Habhi'ru, a folkloric/fauxloric Ren faire performance group.
  3. Masha Archer studied with Jamila then left and started her own group.
  4. Archer's student, Carolena Nericcio, started her own troupe, Fat Chance Belly Dance (FCBD).
  5. Jill Parker of FCBD left to form Ultra Gypsy, which fused ATS with cabaret, jazz, etc.
  6. Rachel Brice studied with Habhi'ru, Suhaila, Carolena, and Jill, and was a member of Ultra Gypsy. She infused yoga into her dance and, with her talent, costuming and exotic looks, became the acknowledged darling of Tribal Fusion. She formed the Indigo and later toured extensively with Bellydance Superstars.

An extract from a letter to the Editor published in Habibi magazine in Dec 1999:
In response to Safa's article in the last Habibi, "Turbans, Tattoos, and Tassels: an American Export," I thought it would be important to clarify our attitude about American Tribal and how we present it. I have spent seventeen years researching, studying and teaching Middle Eastern dance. My main focus, and the main focus of my troupe... is on Egyptian dance. We very recently brought tribal into our repertoire. We did this because we saw Fat Chance Belly Dance and thought it was a lovely fusion dance, and a really good show, extremely well done! It is not me, but one of the other girls in my group who 'drives' the tribal style. She loves it with a passion, has been to San Francisco to study with Carolena, and does most of the tribal choreographies or structures for our dance group. When we did our own first theater show, the first act was traditional Egyptian dance, the second part was our interpretation and first try at a FCBD-style tribal. We did the tribal act mostly for fun, because it was a good show, and because we loved the costumes. The audience who saw this show loved it and we have been asked to do it again and again all over Scandinavia. Every time we do it, we make sure that the organizers know that this is an American fusion dance, interpreted by us, nothing authentic Middle Eastern at all... There have always been Middle Easterners attending the numerous shows in which we have performed this dance, and they have been happily smiling and appreciative, and often come up to us afterwards and thank us for a fantastic show. [I was told] that some people were offended by facial tattoos. I can understand that if you come from a tribe that has facial tattoos as a tradition, it can be offensive to see them painted on some fusion dancers as a "gimmick." We have taken that criticism seriously and will be more cautious when or if we use the facial tattoos again.
—KA, Stockholm, Sweden.



When folks say Tribal Bellydance they are usually referring to American Tribal Style belly dance or some variation thereof. Fat Chance Belly Dance (FCBD®) states in their web site FAQs:
What distinguishes Tribal from other styles of bellydance is the way in which steps, movements, gestures, even costume, are redesigned to suit the common denominator of a group dancing together. The music is selected for its clarity, the steps for their universal application and yet, whether performed as choreography or improvisation the result is one of simple elegance and rhythmic style.

Carolena Nericcio, the director of FCBD, is the most prominent exponent of this style, which she calls (and owns a trademark for) ATS®. ATS® is termed a group improvisational style, with the dance combinations chosen on the fly by the group leader and signaled to the rest of the group with standardized ATS® cues. Carolena also owns the trademarks FatChanceBellyDance®, FCBD® and American Tribal Style®.

There are a lot of contenders for who-created-American-Tribal-Style, including Jamila Salimpour, who taught Masha Archer, who taught Carolena, but Carolena's efforts to codify and organize her vision of a group dance style was the one that got broad recognition, especially when Rachel Brice, who studied with both Jamila's daughter Suhaila and with Carolena, became a dance superstar. Carolena's decision to trademark the name American Tribal Style® was and is controversial among many tribal dancers; Carolena's own videos have her describing her format as "our version of American Tribal Style." So, reason some, what gives her the right to own the label? However, Carolena has spent many years developing her brand and much of what is considered Tribal is now based on her work. She wants American Tribal Style to reflect her research, teaching and performing.

Carolena does NOT own, nor does she attempt to control, the various other styles of 'Tribal' that have evolved.


Several excellent, non-ATS dancers have felt the need to clarify what "Tribal" dance is; simply putting on a tassel belt and dancing together does not meet the criteria.

Asharah offered some definitions for Tribal belly dance in a 2011 article in Fuse. She states: Tribal belly dance must have roots in American Tribal Style (ATS) and/or the Jamila Salimpour format, the dance stylizations that led to the development of the Tribal aesthetic, movement vocabulary and musical selections.


is a derivative of TRIBAL, and it comes in all flavors. Soloists and group choreographies, as well as the group improv, are common. Non-ATS movements and dance combinations are incorporated. Again, from Asharah:


ITS is, like ATS, based on group improvisation and performed using cues. It is strongly associated with Amy Sigil, who started out with Turkish belly dance and ATS and has been building her distinctive ITS vocabulary for a decade.

At least one Middle-Eastern dancer has noted the advantages of the group improvisational format and adapted it for more traditional dancing. Anthea (Kawakib), a noted Middle Eastern dance performer and teacher in the USA, has developed a group improvisation format called Tribal Odyssey, which she describes as an ITS based on Egyptian-style dancing. She describes it as a "follow the leader or group improvisation style of dancing... uses natural posture and both sides of the body in combinations based primarily on Egyptian beledi-style movement... unique Staggered Line formation allows the group to face any direction - useful when dancing in the middle of an audience or in other unusual performance spaces. This format, with an extensive repertoire of over thirty dance combinations, includes Veil work, Skirt moves, as well as accompanying Finger Cymbal patterns. This repertoire is unique to TOBD; the combinations are not derived from any other group improv format such as Fat Chance, Black Sheep, Wild Card, etc. This gives Tribal Odyssey dancing a look all its own."


Music for group improvisational dancing is limited to that which has rhythms compatible with the cues and combinations known to the group that is dancing.

ATS®: Carolena Nerrico, writing for Jareeda in 2006, identified the best rhythms for Tribal style as Saudi, Maqsoum, Masmoudi Saghira, Rumba, Fallahi, Malfuf, Ayoob, Karachi, Wahda Saghira, Chiftetelli, and Masmoudi.

TWO-BEAT MEASURES 1 e & a 2 e & a
Ayoob: D . . . D . T .
Karachi T . . . T . D .
Wahda-Saghira: D . . . T . T .
Fallahi: D T . T D . T .
Malfuf: D . . T . . T .

FOUR-BEAT MEASURES 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
Saadi D T . D D . T .
Maqsoum D T . T D . T .
Masmoudi Saghira D D . T D . T .
Rumba D tt T t T . D t

EIGHT-BEAT MEASURES 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 5 & 6 & 7 & 8 &
Chiftetelli D . t t . t t . D . D . T . . .
Masmoudi D . D . tt tt T tt D tt tt t tt tt T .

In May 2015, Carolena Nericcio published some playlists for what she terms "Dancing in Flow" classes. In short, music to accompany "follow the bouncing butt" classes, during which the teacher provides no verbal instructions, feedback or comments. Students simply follow her. Helm, Solace and Phil Thorton comprise the majority of her list as of August 2015. The playlist is on Carolena's May 8 2015 blog.

Anthea, developer of the Tribal Odyssey ITS, has published an album of songs, Now to the Sky, on CD Baby. "10 tracks of rhythm-driven instrumentals, with melodic top lines and rich undercurrents, combining elements of funk, belly dance, and dub reggae washed in harmonic synthpop."


The costuming for 'classic' American Tribal style is distinctive; folkloric pieces such as large tiered skirts and pantaloons, costume tops adorned with coins and hand-woven textiles, and hip belts loaded with tassels and fringe are customary.

Tribal fusion often replaces the skirts and pantaloons with Melodia-type stretch pants. The tops may be no more than a simple cropped leotard. On the other hand, the costumes may become more ornate, as the dancers start channelling steam-punk heroines, Art deco ladies draped in assuit and lilies, or dance-hall girls from the Mata Hari era.

Classic ATS costume pieces:



Kristine Adams, Fat Chance Belly Dance: Who We Are: video interview with Carolena Nericcio about her dance career, ATS, what it is and what it is not.

Anthea, Tribal Odyssey Bellydance, Web. Instructional materials for the Tribal Odyssey group improvisational format are available from this website.

Anthea's Tribal O music album is available on the CD Baby website.

Masha Archer studied with Jamila Salimpour for two or two and a half years and then established the San Francisco Classic Dance Troupe and performed with them for a decade. . She was not interested in keeping the dance "authentic" for authenticity's sake. She wanted a dance that she felt was appropriate for the modern western woman. A tall and striking beauty, she is still very active as a high-end jewelry designer.

Asharah performs both Orientale and Tribal belly dance and frequently writes about the integration of Orientale dance with Tribal Fusion styles.

Rachel Brice is arguably the most famous tribal fusion solo artist in the world and has held that position for almost a decade. She apologizes to no one for not fitting into a neat category.

Isadora Bushkovski (Izzy) in a stellar performance to the music of Beats Antique. This is a dancer who does not yet have the audience she deserves.

John Compton started out with Jamila Salimpour's Bal Anat and went on to co-found Hahbi Ru, which he described as folkloric rather than Tribal.

Kajira Djoumahna teaches her own version of Tribal, the BlackSheep Belly Dance format, and sponsors an annual Tribal Fest that brings together the most famous names in Tribal.

Maura Enright, Bal Anat, The Mother of Tribal Belly Dance, Web.

Maura Enright, Jamila Salimpour, Circus Performer, Belly Dancer, and the Mother of American Tribal, Web. Jamila is almost completely retired, but her daughter Suhaila Salimpour has gone on to make her mark as a performer, teacher, and choreographer. Bal Anat, Jamila's old troupe, continues with Suhaila as director.

Maura Enright, Costume Patterns Using Geometric Shapes:

Maura Enright, Oriental Dance Rhythm Diagrams and Descriptions, Web. Rhythm diagrams and fills with links to examples.

Liora, History & Costuming of Tribal Bellydance, Web.

Carolena Nerricho, ATS Dancing in Flow Playlist, web.

Carolena Nerricho, FCBD Tribal Basics Vol. 2 Makeup and Costume, Web. FCBD no longer sells this video; they have it available for free as a streaming video on their web site.

Carolena Nericcio, About ATS. Fat Chance Belly Dance, directed by Carolena Nericcio, is arguably the most influential Tribal organization in the world.

Carolena Nericcio, Tribal Rhythms, Jareeda Magazine June 2006, Print.

Carolena Nerricio published several Dance in Flow playlists on her May 8 2015 blog.

Carolena Nericcio, FCBD Class formats: The chart includes the level, the step name, the DVD on which it is taught, and a link to a video example of the step.

Manca Pavli, What is Tribal Style Bellydance, Video, Web. Several Name dancers discuss their Tribal style. Carolena, Kajira, Paulette, and Jill Parker have strong definitions of what they do and how they differ from other styles of belly dance. Kami Liddle, Amy Sigil and Rachel Brice describe themselves as evolving, without much reference to other styles. Amy says her style includes tough love and fierceness and that she now prefers to label her style world dance. Rachel Brice says flat out that she doesn't know how to describe herself anymore... she is now influenced by anything and everything and does not expect to be dancing the same next year as she does this year.

Jamila Salimour claimed that she organized the group Bal Anat when the local Renaissance Fair complained that her student dancers were overrunning the event. Jamila drew on her circus background to design a format that is still famous (and imitated) today.

Amy Sigil tours the world with her dance company, Umata.

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Updated: December 2017
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