American Tribal Style In Australia

by Devi Mamak

Originally published in The Palace. Issue 31, October 2002

My fascination with American Tribal Style (ATS) began when my teacher at the time, Kaiya Seaton showed me a Fat Chance Belly Dance (FCBD) video. What I thought was a woman dancing to a mirror turned out to be two dancers in perfect synchronisation.

In 1999 I had the opportunity to go to San Francisco and naturally took as many classes as I could with the team at Fat Chance Belly Dance. I was totally hooked! Upon returning to Australia I was struck by the obvious: I was now a tribal dancer without a tribe and without a teacher. So I sat down and did little thinking. My conclusion? I told myself, “If no one can teach me, I will teach others what I know and I’ll build a tribe.” So in 2000 I started teaching ATS right here in the Blue Mountains.

Over time, the class has steadily grown, as have the needs of the students. We now have a troupe, Ghawazi Caravan which, besides performing at corporate functions, festivals and parties, has a regular gig at a local cafe. We have even danced for the refugee detainees at Villawood Detention Centre, and what an amazing audience they were. We can’t wait to dance for them again!

People often mistake ATS for “authentic” Bellydance. It is actually a contemporary dance form, which uses improvisational choreography, drawing technique from many countries, including the Middle East, India, Central Asia, North Africa and Spain. The costumes are similarly inspired.


In June 2002, the Assistant Director of FCBD, Karen Gehrman came to the Blue Mountains to conduct ATS workshops. Not only did we have dancers come from the Blue Mountains and Sydney, but also the Central and North coasts, Canberra, Melbourne and even Western Australia.

I wanted to make the weekend a totally enjoyable and affordable one for everyone, so after discussing it with my students we decided, in the true spirit of tribal, to open our homes to the out-of-towners. I was lucky to have Alaine Haddon-Casey from W.A. and Karen ehrself staying with me.

Besides the weekend workshop, informal performance night for all and Monday teaching methodology discussions with my guests, Karen and Alaine, I topped it off with a private lesson with Karen before the advanced class on Monday evening. She helped me clarify several of the movements and taught me a whole heap of new ones that the team at FCBD has added (as they constantly do) to the repetoire.

Karen was a wonderful teacher. Her clear instruction and lovable sense of humour made it much easier to retain the information that we covered over the three days. She had the ability to remember all our names straight off the bat, related to all of us in a very personal way and tailored the class as she went along to meet all of our needs. She was, and remains, truly inspirational.

The feedback from the participants throughout the workshops indicated that the weekend was a hit. As the events organiser this was a great relief. On a personal note, my only complaint was that it was way too short.