American Tribal invades the heart of Santa Fe

Arizona troupe teams with local Mosaic

By Antonio Lopez In Pasatiempo May, 1999

The only time I wish I weren’t a dancer is when a man from another tribe falls in love with me or one of my sisters. His family would fight a war to stop him marrying a ghaziya. How can you marry a daughter of a Maazin? A dancer and singer who performs in front of others? They call us by the name ghaziya. To them, it’s an insult. But to us, it means we invade their hearts with our dancing.
– an unnamed member of the Egyptian Maazin dancing family, quoted from
The Serpent of the Nile by Wendy Buanaventura

At some point during the Romany (Gypsy) migration from India across North Africa, the travelers influenced the regional dance Egypt. Because they were not Islamic, foreign women could assume the role of professional dancers, taking on the name ghaziya, which translates as “outsider” or “invader” alluding to the dancers’ Romany origins.

Dancer Carolena Nericcio has no problem with such a moniker. In fact, she has ghawazee in Arabic script tattooed across her back.

The Bay Area performer who founded the FatChanceBellyDance® troupe savors the image of ghawazee dancers who entertained Napoleon’s occupational army by balancing on their heads the soldiers’ swords then stealing the weapons when the soldiers got drunk , or the Gypsy performers who mesmerize the audience while picking pockets.

When Nericcio performs this weekend with Santa Fe’s Mosaic Dance Company and Arizona’s Blue Dragon dance troupe, you won’t lose personal belongings but you may  lose your heart. There performers are practitioners of American tribal style, a modern-dance form based on Middle Eastern dance but developed in the United States.

Invaders of the Heart: An Evening of American Tribal Style® Middle Eastern Dance takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday May 15, n the Benitez Cabaret at the Radisson Santa Fe hotel. The event will feature choreographed pieces, a solo by Nericcio and East Indian dance pieces, candle trays, swords and veil dances.

“I can see taking over a place by working on the emotions instead of physical fighting,” Nericcio said from her San Francisco studio and home of the FatChanceBellyDance troupe. “When we are onstage, we definitely are trying to capture the audience through the emotional rather than with the physical.”

American tribal style was developed in the 70s by Jamila Salimpour who taught Nericcio’s teacher Masha Archer. Nericcio is known for influencing the style with her creation of a system of improvisation cues. Through her mail-order business in the Bay Area, Nericcio has spread American tribal style throughout the country via instructional videos.

“This is the first tribal concert in New Mexico,” Mosaic Dance Company founder and artistic director Myra Morris said. “It’s historical because we are taking Carolena’s premise of improvisation with cues and transitions built in and bringing people together … We’re testing the underlying philosophy, which is that anyone who can learn this language can do this dance.”

Nericcio explained the subtle differences between North African dance forms and American complements.

“Oriental and cabaret are very similar, if not the same thing, with one dancer dancing to live music in a sequined or beaded two – piece costume.”  Nericcio said. “That’s authentic belly dance coming our of Egypt.”

“If you dance ghawaze, it’s folkloric. It’s from the countryside and movements are not so intricate. Tribal is an American adaptation. It looks very authentic and grounded but it’s a blend of North African, Egyptian, a little Andalusian, and East Indian.”

Such a mix of cultural styles comes from the Roma influence on Middle Eastern dance.

“If you look at the Romany trail as they left India, what started as the earliest form of belly dance and the earliest forms of flamenco are very similar.” Nericcio said.

“You can tell it was the same thing but got separated – the stomping of the feet, the shaking of the hips, isolatioins, and the use of castanets for flamenco and zils for belly dance.”

In American tribal-style® dance, pinned-up elbows and flores (hand movements) have a flamenco flavor; shimmies and figure eights are Arabic; head slides, arm movements and some turns are East Indian.

The costuming reflects the dance form’s cultural diversity. Dancers wear fringed skirts resembling a flamenco or Gypsy’s dancer’s dress; East Indian mirrored belts; Arabic pantaloons, coin bras and wound-scarf headdresses; Tunisian tassels, cowrie shell adornments representing fertility, and facial makeup resembling tribal tattoos.

Bellies remain uncovered which is frowned upon in Egypt but since the dancers are American, “we can get away with it,” Nericcio said.

The costumes are designed for “the accentuation of and the beautifying of the female body,” she said. “The belly is an important place; it’s where birth lives for nine months.”

Nericcio believes American tribal style is a bit of a misnomer. What makes the form tribal is not its origins but the way dancers interact.

“When you think of tribal, you think of a tribe because (the dance form) is from North Africa,” Nericcio said. “It’s not; it’s just an American concept.

“The concept of tribal is like having an intentional community. There are laws that everyone must abide by onstage.

“In tribal community, like a democracy, you vote laws into existence until you vote them out. You can change a rule before you go onstage but once you are on the stage, you can’t.”

Nericcio believes “American tribal style” is an inelegant term.

“I’d prefer to call it modern tribal, which I think more accurately describes it,” she said. “When I think American, it changes it in my mind. From a point of cultural freedom, it is American.”