Genre Buzz – American Tribal Dance

American Tribal Style Belly Dance or Tribal Style Belly Dance (also known as ATS or Tribal) is a modern style of belly dance created by FatChanceBellyDance  director,  Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman.  American Tribal Style Belly Dance is clearly defined and documented with the primary characteristic being that of group improvisation.

Manhattan Tribal, led by Director Mimi Fontana, is the New York City Sister Studio of FatChanceBellyDance and has been present in Dance Parade since the first one in 2007.

Tribal is generally performed in a group, often at community events such as festivals and parades, with tribal dancers typically favoring a look provided by wide-legged pants gathered at the ankles (aka pantaloons), tops known as cholis and full skirts.

Manhattan Tribal ATS Contest (640x397)

Tribal style

The early roots of tribal bellydance is accredited to Jamila Salimpour who fostered a fusion of costumes and folkloric dances styles from the Middle East, North African, Spain, and India (such as the  Banjara gypsies of Rajasthan) and began teaching what she knew and performing all over California and the West Coast. Using traditional folkloric dance elements and costumes inspired by traditional and ethnographic traditions, she presented on stage through Bal Anat a colorful dance company which included musicians, singers and dancers to create a “souk” or almost circus feel. Taking what she herself had learned from native dancers from Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon who were dancing in the United States, she began to catalogue “belly dance movement” and began creating a basic repertoire terminology which is still the basis for Tribal Style and American Tribal Style repertoire. Jamila’s Bal Anat “paved the way for others to use a fusion of the various regional dances of the Middle East and North Africa as inspiration for their own version of bellydance.”

In the 1970s, a former student of Jamila Salimpour, Masha Archer, began teaching a directing her own troupe, San Francisco Classic Dance Company. In her work, Masha blended together the diverse elements of Bal Anat into a single cohesive dance style which she simply styled as “bellydance”. Whether this was done in ignorance of the different stylistic origins, or as a conscious aesthetic choice, this approach was some of the earliest and most notable bellydance world fusion work in America.

Masha’s student, Carolena Nerriccio, is credited with codifying the first dance style and format to bear the name “tribal bellydance”. She has registered their signature style American Tribal Style Bellydance, and over the last two decades plus, Carolena has grown her format and brought it to the mainstream bellydance community through videos, music compilations, and performances and workshops around the world. Dancers inspired by Carolena’s work with ATS have since created multiple offshoots of the style, some retaining true stylistic elements of ATS while others have evolved quite far from the original form.

Tribal Style today represents everything from Folkloric inspired dances (such as the original Bal Anat) to a fusion of ancient dance techniques from North India, the Middle East, Spain and Africa. As a general category, Tribal Style covers many flavors of American Belly Dance both the folkloric inspired and fusion and cross over styles which explore modern, jazz, dance theatre, and hip hop with belly dance, as well as fusion with traditional classical ethnic dance forms like Bhangra, Bharata Natyam, Flamenco and now even Polynesian and West African Dance.


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Improvisational choreography

American tribal-style belly dance’s movements are inspired by folkloric dances of the Middle East, North Africa, Spain and India. ATS is a method of improvisational choreography, using a vocabulary of movements and cues allowing the dancers to communicate while dancing. The knowledge of the dance vocabulary allows ATS dancers from different regions to collaborate even if they have not previously danced with each other. Though it is a modern dance, the feeling is ancient and connected, with its vibrant costuming, music, use of zils (finger cymbals), movements and interaction between the tribe of dancers.

American Tribal Style belly dancers always use finger cymbals or zils, but the focus is on the group as opposed to emphasizing solo performance. There are two families of movements: slow movements and fast movements.

  • Zils are worn but not usually played while performing “slow movements”. (However, for example, if the featured duet trio or quartet are dancing to a Moroccan 6 rhythm, members of the chorus may choose to accompany them through playing their zils.)
  • During “fast movements”, the zils are meant to be played. The most common rhythm played on the dancer’s zils is the right-left-right pattern. Certain “fast” movements require the dancers and chorus to play the military zil pattern. Other, less frequently played patterns include the Moroccan 6; some troupes experiment with 9/8 Turkish rhythm.

ATS features call-and-answer performance with other dancers or as a whole group as well as, more uncommonly, solos. Often there is a chorus that provides a moving back-drop while the featured duet, trio, or quartet is the focal point. Dancers take turns coming out of the chorus in duets, trios and quartets because if, for example, five dancers were to come out into formation, the sight-line (view of the leader) is not as effective. Groups of 5 or more are generally used towards specific formations to improve this site-line issue.

The principal dancers and the chorus work in an improvisational manner. Formations for the principal dancers and the chorus are also formalized in the ATS format to maximize dancer visibility to the audience and likewise maximize group visibility of the leader. The leader is always farthest to the left, followers to the right. Dancers angle their bodies to the left to be able to clearly read the leader’s cues. The same rule applies for members of the chorus. When the dancers face each other in a circle, the lead is neutral. The next movement can be proposed by any dancer in the circle.

The cues and formations are the secret behind group improvisational dance. They allow the dancers to move together without choreography. Sometimes, troupes will create formal choreography while still using the ATS-specific formations and cues.

MT Group Photo Expanded 2013


The style is also characterized by costumes derived from many “folkloric” and various traditional tribal costuming resources and is often composed of layers of large tiered skirts or 10-25 meter/yard skirts,  a short choli often with a plunging neckline, over which a bra decorated with coins and textiles sits, a headdress or hair decorations, one or more hip scarves with yarn, tassels or fringe, and a heavy layering of oxidized silver jewelry (such as these personalized hand stamped pendants made from sterling silver). The jewelry commonly originates from Central Asia, from any number of nomadic tribes or empires (e.g., Kuchi, Turkoman, Rajasthan) and is often large and set with semi-precious stones or, when mass-produced, with glass. Dancers frequently “tattoo” their faces with kohl or kajal. Make-up is usually eye focused with heavy use of kajal.

I can only speak for my troupe in terms of the evolution of costuming style. My teacher, Masha, encouraged us to wear a choli and pantaloons, a fringe shawl, lots of big chunky jewelry and a headdress or some sort of embellished hair worn up. The coin bra was optional. When FCBD first started we used that format, but the dancers started finding other pieces, like the full skirts and tassel belts. It was a bit of a mish-mash at first, but we eventually standardized our look to be choli, bra, pantaloons, skirt, shawl and/or tassel belt, headdress mandatory and of course lots of jewelry.

“American Tribal Style Make Up And Costuming,” an interview with Carolena Nericcio by Sheri Waldrop

SOURCE: Wikipedia. Photos provided by Mimi Fontana.  For class information, contact Mimi Fontana at