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American Tribal Style Belly Dance: Improvising a Feminine Subjectivity

By Molly Mitchell
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CarolenaAmerican Tribal Style emerged in the 1980s as a restructured dance form—in terms of both costume and movement—that counters prevailing stereotypes of belly dance. By insisting on a group format, it demonstrates the communal bonds that many women experience through their participation. By presenting as a collective, dancing to each other as well as to the audience, and, most importantly, witnessing one another on stage, the tribal dynamic performs women’s relationships to the dance, to each other, and to their own sensuality that are more complex than simple attempts to seduce the crowd.

Historically, belly dance was received by audiences in the United States through the lens of a colonial, masculine subject interpreting the Oriental dance as a feminine erotic spectacle staged for his personal consumption. Nineteenth-century European and American travelers sought out female performers and relayed back to an avid West sensationalized stories of their choreographic and sexual exploits. This cemented the reputation of belly dance in the West as a display of feminine sexuality intended exclusively for male titillation.

During the 1960s and 1970s a growing wave of American women reclaimed belly dance as a form of female empowerment. To them, belly dance celebrated a specifically feminine erotic agency grounded in the expressive movements of a woman’s hips, abdomen, and torso. Many women found self-esteem through a dance vocabulary that they felt helped them negotiate a space in which they could accept and celebrate their bodies, outside of Western norms of beauty and comportment. But when they performed for the public they often encountered the entrenched view that their performance demeaned them as sexual objects of the male gaze. This lack of agency accorded to the belly dancing body is symptomatic of a Western subjectivity that locates the dancer in economies of representation that are Orientalist, and that privilege the gaze as an exclusively masculine enterprise. The American dancers’ newfound agency went largely unregistered by nondancers.

In American Tribal Style, the dance studio becomes the grounds for resisting this image of the dancer as passive, sexualized spectacle. Within the structure of group improvisation, everyone is leader and follower, performer and witness, in an ever-changing flow. The gaze is defetishized, becoming a medium of communication and exchange among dancers in a circuit that includes the audience but does not pander to it. American Tribal Style thus provides an intervention into the masculine, colonialist model of subjectivity through its emphasis on women’s collectivity and improvisational communicative practices that center on the dancer’s body.