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What is Tribal Belly Dance?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Tribal belly dance is a form of belly dance which is influenced by ethnic dance traditions across the Middle East, rather than stemming from a specific cultural tradition. You may also hear tribal belly dance referred to as “tribal style belly dance.” The largest school within the tribal belly dance community is probably American tribal style belly dance (ATS), popularized by the FatChanceBellyDance troupe in San Francisco, California.

The school of tribal belly dance emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, when dancers began mixing their styles, integrating moves and techniques from various belly dance traditions to create their own distinctive style. The “tribal” in tribal style belly dance is a reference to the idea that many of the dance techniques from from ethnic tribal dancing, which is extremely diverse and varied. American tribal style originated at FatChanceBellyDance in the 1980s, and it has become one of the most widely taught tribal styles.

Some purists point out that tribal belly dance is not strictly authentic, in that it does not come from a specific school of belly dance. Tribal style belly dance incorporates elements of Egyptian-style cabaret dancing, nomadic tribal dancing, and a variety of other dance forms from the Middle East, and sometimes dancers may integrate moves from other regions such as Polynesia as well. Since tribal belly dance is a medley of styles, some people fear that it creates a wrong impression of belly dancing culture, as some of the moves and costumes are rather suggestive.

Essentially, tribal belly dance is a sort of free flowing fantasy vision of what belly dancing can be. It typically places a heavy focus on performing as a group, rather than offering solos, although a few individual solos may be included in a group performance. One dancer typically leads, with others following and accompanying the dance on hand cymbals known as zills. Tribal belly dance is characterized by an improvisational style, with dancers learning sets of steps and moves rather than choreographing entire dances.

The costumes used in tribal belly dance are often quite fanciful, with long, flowing skirts, minimal tops, and jingling jewelry in the form of necklaces, belts, and bracelets. Tribal belly dancing requires athletic skill, as the dancers must be able to perform a wide range of moves, and it also requires stamina, as good performances can be quite lengthy, but people of a wide range of body types are welcome at tribal belly dancing classes and performances.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon301778 — On Nov 05, 2012

Tribal belly dance tops are skimpy? Compared to what? I love tribal style belly dance. Women of all ages and body types are welcome, styles of dance and costuming from all over the world are welcome and music of all types can be used. It is truly "American" Tribal Style -- a melting pot from all over.

And what is "real" belly dance? What is done in Egypt? Lebanon? Turkey? They all have their own styles, and they are all "real."

By allenJo — On Mar 01, 2012

@SkyWhisperer - You’d need some special music in the backdrop. I think that tribal belly dance music is definitely similar to the “real” stuff if you will; the stuff that I’ve heard is very authentic.

Of course it’s all an interpretive art form so in the end you can do what you want, even incorporate modern music if you want. But the dance moves are choreographed to the music so I think you would have to be very selective about the music.

By SkyWhisperer — On Feb 29, 2012

@everetra - Well, there is one big difference. These are group dances, not solo performances. I think it’s the corporate nature of this type of dance that really separates it from original belly dance performances of the Middle East, not the kind of clothes they’re wearing.

Honestly I haven’t seen many dances that incorporate the tribal belly dance but I think it would be cool. Choreographed tribal belly dance performances in public would be even better!

Imagine a “flash mob” of tribal belly dance performers out in the public square, dancing to a mix of ethnic tunes!

By everetra — On Feb 29, 2012

@Mammmood - I agree. I think that tribal belly dance costumes will resemble a mish mash of fashion statements from the West along with the feel of traditional middle eastern attire.

I don’t have a problem with the issue of it not being “real” belly dancing. We live in a multicultural society and the fact that we can incorporate belly dancing in any capacity demonstrates how open we are to other cultures.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these tribal belly dance skirts made their way onto catwalks during actual fashion shows. You see just about everything in a fashion show.

By Mammmood — On Feb 28, 2012

I know something about the belly dance costume. I am from the Middle East. I grew up with the real belly dancing, so I am surprised to see that there is an Americanized version of it called tribal belly dancing.

Of course I realize that the Americanized version will be customized and so it doesn’t exactly follow all the forms and dance moves of the original middle eastern ballet dance styles, but I am okay with that.

I am just pleased to see that some of the art forms from my culture have made their way into popular culture here. My belief is that people should be free to interpret these artistic expressions in any way that reflects their individuality and creativity.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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