Devi’s USA Trip & What is Gothic Belly Dance?
Devi recounts her recent travels to the U.S.A & we discover What is Gothic Belly Dance with Rachel Nagy of Melbourne and Saahirah Rayvn of QLD.
Bellydance Oasis Issue 35.
Hi to you all and a Happy New Year to everyone. I am sure you have started up the year excited and chomping at the bit to get back into dance classes. I know this year I have. I find the long Christmas break away from performances, workshops & regular classes an important time to spend with friends & family. It is also important to rejuvenate yourself both emotionally and artistically so you are able to start the year ready to give to your students and audience alike.
I had an extra long break this time around as I decided to go to San Francisco once again before the year was up to take some dance classes & also to visit some friends and family. Many of you may remember Susan Brown, ATS Dancer extraordinaire from N.Z who blew us away at the Sydney Middle Eastern Dance Festival in 2002? Well we are still in contact and I am happy to say she is happily married with 2 gorgeous boys and living in California. She actually met her hubby whilst in San Francisco, learning and dancing with FCBD! I am happy to say she is doing fine and would love to get back to dancing when her boys are a little older.
I also spent some time staying with Carolena Nerriccio and going in to the studio with her each day. As many of you that teach dancing for a living know, it is so much more then just showing up for classes and doing the odd choreography. It really becomes a full time job with all the admin stuff that goes on, the emails, the phone calls, the meetings and the list goes on and one.
Carolena works very hard and it was good to see her organisation and business skills first hand. Of course while I was there I took several classes which were all so informative and not to mention fun but the big day for me at the FCBD studio was the night of MY workshop. Yep that’s right! Carolena had asked me to conduct a workshop on new moves that I had created that work with the pre existing FCBD format. I was pretty nervous as you can all imagine but it all went swimmingly.
There were several of the FCBD gals that attended and a few other girls from San Francisco but what really blew me away was that the majority of people that attended [there was about 20 participants all up] came from all over California or different states all together. I was pretty stoked that they had made such a huge effort to come and see me for an hour and a half workshop! It was also nice to have an ex Sydney dancer Michiyo who now lives in Texas that flew all the way to see me again. It was really lovely to have her there.
So anyway, we didn’t quite get through all the moves but perhaps I may have to make another trip over! The ladies who attended seemed to really take to the moves and FCBD even performed three of the slow moves on New Years Eve.
You should check them out on You tube. They do a BEAUTIFUL job.http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=ARoc0-lrxCU
Apart from doing classes at the FCBD studio I really wanted to do a class with Jamilla Salimpour as I may not get the chance again. I found her so inspirational. She still manages to teach one class per week and I have to say it was one of the sweatiest and fun classes I have ever done. She has a very strong zill focus and has many dance combos that go with the many various zill patterns. What I really enjoyed about the class was that it was fairly challenging but not so challenging that I couldn’t get it. I came away feeling exhausted, invigorated but also that I had learnt something. The other thing that I noticed about her class was the participants. There were dancers that were obviously fairly new to dance and then others that were obviously very accomplished. There were also dancers that had strong oriental backgrounds as well being ATS dancers, Tribal Fusion dancers, Gothic fusion dancers and obviously many based in Suhaila Salimpours format. There really was such a diverse group of dancers with such a range of dance genres under their belt that it got me to thinking about this next article. I thought it about time that we talk about some of the “off shoots” of Tribal style Belly dance. So of course I decided to go with the one that seems to cause the most confusion. Gothic Belly Dance. Since this is not my forte I asked Rachel Nagy of Melbourne and Sagihra Ravyn of QLD. Both have written an article on this topic using their own words, thoughts & experiences.
THE DARK ART OF GOTHIC BELLYDANCE by Rachel Nagy
“All evolution in thought and conduct must at first appear as heresy and misconduct.” – George Bernard Shaw
“The Gothic Belly Dancer is part actress, part vamp, part gypsy, part rebel, part sorceress, and part priestess.” — Tempest
One of the most exciting things about being a bellydancer has to be the continual expansion and evolution of this art form. From its folkloric roots in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures to the decadent and often misleading versions carried to the West via Orientalism, bellydance has spawned more fusion styles than any other form of dance to date. Somewhere along the way, the collision between bellydance and Goth subculture has given birth to what is collectively known as Goth fusion bellydance.
Untangling the roots of Goth bellydance…
Goth fusion bellydance, or more simply, Goth bellydance, has been emerging as a style unto itself throughout the last ten years, pioneered by artists such as Tempest in the US, and dancers and troupes such as Mai’sah and Raqs Gothique, and Saahirah Rayvn and Sisters of Ishtar in Australia. It came into being long before then however, partly from the longevity of goth subculture, and partly from some dancers’ refusals to wear colourful lycra bedlah and cheekily flutter around a stage lip-syncing to Nancy Ajram songs.
Put simply, Goth bellydance is a darker, more dramatic form of bellydance that draws on a different set of influences to define itself. It is strongly influenced by Goth subculture, and it is largely practiced by women, despite the gendered nature of the Goth scene itself. It rose to prominence around the same time as tribal fusion bellydance, which itself evolved from the deconstruction and reinterpretation of the movement vocabulary and costuming of American Tribal Style (ATS) bellydance. In the US, Jill Parker and her troupe Ultra Gypsy broke away from traditional ATS in the late 90’s to focus on more dark, theatrical works as part of their repertoire, which brought the potential of a less traditional style of bellydance fusion to wider audiences there (interestingly enough, Jill’s troupe did involve a number of male dancers). More recently, and more internationally, Rachel Brice and The Indigo have been drawing on a wide range of influences to create their own distinctive blend of urban dance fusion and dark cabaret. Many of these influences are similar to those which Goth bellydancers also draw upon.
Who are the practitioners of this dark art?
Goth bellydance retains the core foundations of both cabaret and tribal bellydance but goes on to merge it with stylistic elements of Goth subculture (primarily visual aesthetics and music). Mel Rogers, teacher and performer of tribal fusion bellydance amongst other styles, has always preferred to draw on darker elements of the dance in her own work, and is not surprised that so many Goths embraced tribal fusion, and started to infuse it with their own style. “It seems obvious that Gothic and related sub-cultures were attracted to these new styles. At last here was a way to express themselves through belly dance without having to go against their preferences. The darker style of these new belly dances also attracted performers wishing to express different emotions within the dance.” Tribal fusion bellydance became a welcome outlet for more alternative-looking dancers, who perhaps did not feel entirely comfortable in regular classes. Many dancers who started with tribal fusion were soon inspired to move into more blatantly Goth styles of bellydance.
Goth bellydance can be split into two distinct tribes:
- Goths who bellydance – dancers who are Goths 24/7, who wear the clothes, listen to the music, dance at the clubs, and live the lifestyle every day.
- Non-Goths who bellydance – dancers who explore the darker elements of themselves though borrowing the trappings more normally associated with Goth culture and music.
This is not to say that bellydancers from both camps do not cross their respective boundaries from time to time! Some of the most exciting dancing comes from experimentation, whether it is a Goth exploring their “lighter” side or a cabaret dancer delving into a moodier aspect of her onstage persona. According to Mel, “Traditional forms of belly dance should always be honoured but dance should also be allowed to flow and evolve. Dance is not a static art form and should never be forced to remain exactly the same.”
The many attractions of the dark side…
Many bellydancers have been drawn to ATS for the strength and empowerment engendered by its unique movement vocabulary and styling. And while tribal fusion retains this, it also builds on it to create its own contemporary interpretations. Goth fusion takes bellydance to a darker place, particularly subverting traditional stereotypes of female dancers by turning the gaze of the audience back on itself, often seeking to confront rather than comfort. It challenges traditional notions of beauty, and explores different facets of character in the same way that the warrior-fierceness of the ancient Egyptian lion goddess Sekhmet provided contrast to the warmer life-giving energy of the cat goddess, Bast.
Undeniably one of the biggest attractions to Goth bellydance is its visual style; from costuming and make-up, to choice of props, use of persona, lighting and other onstage mise-en-scene. Ma’isah, director of Melbourne troupe SerpentSkirt and owner of a Yahoo web discussion group dedicated to Goth bellydance since 2001, agrees that the main look is “black, lots of it, and fishnet. Also, chains and D-Rings… Costume has been towards the industrial belly dance look of black and dark colours and contrasted with metal accessories. It’s in essence taking our goth club wear and music and modifying it to a modern/tribalesque belly dance base.” Mel Rogers adds that “darker colours, metallic embellishments, funky pants, chunky tribal jewelery and adapted folkloric wear like Assiut material and mirror belts” have also been embraced by dancers wanting a contrast to the glitz and other colourful attributes of contemporary cabaret costuming.
There are many different types of Goths (eg. Glitter Goths, Romantic Goths, PVC Goths etc), who provide a rich source of influences from which Goth belly dancers can find inspiration for costume and make-up. This includes particular historical eras such as Medieval, Renaissance, Victorian, Edwardian, 1920’s and 1930’s; subcultures such as Punk, Metal, Cyber, and Steampunk; ethnic influences from a myriad cultures; and other genres or themes of interest including Burlesque, Circus and Vaudeville, and Mythology.
Props are used to complement the chosen “look” and they generally tend toward the dramatic in the form of swords and daggers, veils, fans, masks, and fire (candles, poi, staffs, fire fans). When performing, Goth belly dancers often adopt a persona to help tell a story: dancers may choose to evoke the vampish spirit of 20’s silent film star Theda Bara, or they may become a feisty warrior goddess like Kate Bush in her Babushka music video, or even become a character that the dancer has created specifically to tell a story – a technique that both soloists and troupes use for striking effect. Lighting and staging in professional shows add to this deliciously dramatic brew – dry ice, shadows, dark draperies, chandeliers, candlelight, spotlights, anything that evokes a dark, disquieting mood. In contrast, stark minimalist styles (think German Expressionist cinema of the 30’s) are also be reinterpreted for contemporary appeal to suit the context of the performance and to serve the creative vision of the dancer.
Music is another key component of the Goth style. It is rare for Goth fusion bellydancers to use pop songs and traditional classical Middle Eastern music; rather they choose a darker palette of sounds that spans heavy industrial beats, drum n’ bass, electronica, all the way through to lush, atmospheric fusions of Eastern and Western music. In terms of actual bands, Ma’isah lists Gothic industrial/electronic bands such as Covenant, VNV Nation, Brudershaft, Front 242, Front Line Assemble, Switchblade Symphony as primary sources of music for her dancing, in addition to Goth/steampunk bands “like Johnny Hollow that use dark electronica and cellos, and artists like Stellamara and Wench that use a lot of Near and Mid-Eastern instruments and/or vocalizations and create haunting soundscapes”. Some dancers have even started mixing their own music, which is an exciting development in itself! While Goth bellydancers generally prefer different styles of music, they are not adverse to dancing to a traditional live drum solo or a suitably moody taqsim piece; the main different would be that they would give it a darker spin than a cabaret or tribal dancer would. Ultimately, it is the music which guides the structure and aesthetics of the dance.
The final component of what sets Goth fusion bellydance apart from tribal fusion or other fusion styles is tricky to define; it is that certain something, that subtle blending of stage presence, musical interpretation and pure spirit that elevates a dancer from being pleasantly watchable to utterly spellbinding. While Goth fusion maintains traditional bellydance movements at its core, it is this other intangible quality, combined with the costuming and stylistic elements, that truly sets it apart from other bellydance styles. Mel states that “intensity, sorrow, passion, anger, fear and power” are some of the key emotions used to bring a performance to life. Although other dance styles might touch on these in choreography as well, they generally do not have to sustain them for the length of the performance. Whether a performance is choreographed or improvised, a Goth bellydancer must have both the technical skills as well as the strength of character necessary to maintain the illusion. It is not as simple as donning a Goth-inspired costume and moving moodily around a stage; audiences can always distinguish someone who is faking an emotion from someone who is dancing from the heart, regardless of what style they are dancing in.
One of the most contentious issues is about what Goth bellydance actually is. Purists do not regard it as a true form of the dance because it does not conform to traditional styles (cabaret or tribal), and it can be confronting for people who are not familiar with the concept of “Goth subculture”. In contrast, there are those who believe that it is just bellydance with black costumes, and does not present anything particularly new or innovative.
Dancer, teacher, writer and costume designer Tempest, one of the most well-known faces of Goth bellydance in the US, has spent a large amount of time and energy educating diverse audiences about the phenomenon of Goth bellydance, and disagrees with this polarization between what is acceptable in bellydance and what is not. “Gothic Bellydance can be based on traditional cabaret or tribal style movement vocabulary/musical interpretation (or both) – where it differs from traditional bellydance is in several specific areas. Gothic Bellydance is the fusion of bellydance with the music, aesthetic, and theatrical qualities of the Goth subculture. The performance must be dramatic and theatrical, which means having an underlying story (either explicit or subtle) that is expressed through the movements, music, and costuming – and most importantly – strong stage presence.” While a goth fusion piece might look entirely different from a cheeky cabaret number or a spirited folkloric dance, it still draws upon the foundational elements of what constitutes good bellydance – technique, training, and the ability to inject one’s personality and spirit into it.
In regard to the actual movements, Tempest explains that Goth fusion takes core elements of bellydance and remodels them according to the kind of performance that is being presented. “The movements themselves take on one of two qualities – either very slow and exaggerated, or hard-edged and sharp – depending on the story and music. Because of the diversity of the Gothic subculture – a performance that embodies the Romantic or Neo-Victorian aesthetic will generally be softer and slow, very elegant, where an Industrial or Cyber performance will make more use of staccato, pop-and-lock, and very strong actions. That is, taking traditional bellydance movements and “gothifying” them – you can (and SHOULD) still recognize the bellydance base in the heart of the movement and how it is applied to the music.”
“Bloody goth bellydancers – who do they think they are?!”.
As with any new style of dance, Goth bellydance has its admirers and exponents, and it also attracts its fair share of critics and detractors. Posts about Goth bellydance on Tribe.com or the Bellydance Australasia web group often provoke some interesting discussions between members. To educate people about Goth bellydance, Tempest created the online Gothic Bellydance Resource, which answers all the most common questions that people have about the style and gives tips to aspiring Goth bellydancers, as well as a series of performance and instructional DVDs exploring different aspects of the style.
Brisbane-based dancer and teacher Saahirah Rayvn specialises in goth fusion, and is dedicated to educating the wider Australian dance community about the beauty and diversity of Goth bellydance. She runs the Black Widow School of Bellydance and the Sisters Of Ishtar Gothic Bellydance Ensemble student troupe, and is also a strong presence on the Bellydance Australasia web group. “Goths collectively are tagged with misconceptions by a mainstream society, a society that feels the need to label and file everything they face today. Gothic bellydancers not only face this issue but also the age old argument – Should bellydance be fused or be kept pure?” Saahirah believes that Goth bellydancers should always be prepared to step up and handle challenges faced in the pursuit of their art, whether it is through responding to unusual questions intelligently, or informing people about Goth bellydance and its roots. Her advice – which could apply to any style of bellydance – is to “treat other dancers the way you want to be treated, respect your bellydance roots, and always behave in a professional approachable manner around your bellydance peers, audience and at events.”
Educating audiences, particularly in Australia, is an arduous task, undermined by the lack of large-scale performance opportunities that could expose audiences to this style of dance alongside other more familiar styles. In other urban centres of the world, there are whole festivals and shows dedicated to the presentation and celebration of Goth bellydance. In Australia, Goth bellydancers now have a more visible presence. They tend to find performance opportunities at less-mainstream outlets which might suit their target demographic, but don’t often introduce them to a wider audience base. Since audiences – and indeed other dancers – may not understand what is being presented, the dancer often has to work harder to command the same levels of recognition and respect. And ultimately, it is all about respect. Saahirah agrees. “To get respect we must respect the danceform and our peers. Gothic bellydance is not everybody’s cup of tea and dancers should keep this in mind. It’s OK not to like everything you see – however its not ok to flame and judge others who have worked very hard in their dance.”
The dark future…
So, where does this leave Goth bellydance in Australia today? It is difficult to predict, and ultimately creates more questions than answers.
Where will it go next? As tribal fusion evolved from ATS, what will evolve from Goth bellydance? Will it achieve a cohesive and comprehensive dance vocabulary of its own? Is this a sustainable style in a country like Australia? Are audiences interested enough? Will audience education create more performance and teaching opportunities for Goth bellydancers in Australia? And what about the boys – where are the male Goth bellydancers and troupes? Will the largely scattered Goth bellydance communities of Australia start to pull together to create festivals and events of their own? And will they then start being invited to perform at international ones? And ultimately – will Goth bellydance achieve the respect it deserves?
I throw down my sword in challenge and wait…
Gothic Bellydance Resource: http://www.gothicbellydance.com/gothicbellydance/
Tribe.com – Gothic Belly Dance: http://gothicbellydance.tribe.net/
Bellydance Australasia web group: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bellydanceaustralasia/
Raqs Gothique web group: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Raqs_Gothique/
Ravenna is a writer and bellydance/teacher (and also a goth) who is currently based in Cairo, Egypt. While she has been more busy investigating the Egyptian hip-hop scene in recent times, she reports that she has not seen any goth bellydancers in Cairo – as yet.
“There is a misconception that Gothic Bellydance is an offshoot of Tribal. Even though the addition of Tribal with your Gothic repertoire creates a stronger less airy feel to a cabaret base, it is not a form of Tribal. However, Tribal Bellydancers are naturally drawn to Gothic Bellydance because they are themselves attracted to the alternate fusions and so are drawn to opportunities to express yet another facet of their being.” – Saahirah Rayvn
What is Gothic Fusion Bellydance by Saahirah Ravyn
Gothic Bellydance was born when the first little Goth girl started Bellydance classes. Unlike other dancers, Goths have a very different way of wanting to express themselves. It is impossible for them to completely conform or dance like anyone else in their class. They will always stand out from other mainstream Bellydancers because of their looks and the dark emotional way they dance. The Gothic subculture loves drama and theatrics so this naturally spills across into their Bellydance technique.
As more and more Gothic girls took up Bellydance, this gave rise to a common trend or way of dancing between Gothic girls. There was similar selection in music, costuming and make-up. They also have a penchant for concocting weird and wonderful creative choreographies.
Goths are fascinating to mainstream society and this is mirrored in the Bellydance world. As Goth girls defined their style of dance and took to the stage, Non Gothic dancers were attracted and intrigued.
Essentially Gothic Bellydance is kind of a subculture in Bellydance. It grew just as the Gothic subculture grew from the punk culture only difference is that while the Gothic subculture grew from a common like in music followed by dress and lifestyle. Gothic Bellydance was born from a common way of expression through similar types of music, costumes and the use of theatrics and drama. So you have the Gothic subculture growing predominantly from music and the Gothic Bellydance culture growing from creative self-expression.
Gothic Bellydance will have many inspiring influences fused with the most dominant being traditional or cabaret Bellydance and Tribal fusion Bellydance, Other influences are Bollywood, Asian, African, hip-hop, Flamenco etc ECT. So really Gothic Bellydance is a sub – fusion, meaning it’s a fusion of a fusion.
Gothic Bellydance also has inspirations direct from the Gothic subculture itself such as Industrial, Romantic, Victorian, Medieval, Babydoll and albino ECT. These subcultures within a subculture give rise to an array of costumes; expression, music and styling that can be used in Gothic Bellydance. Currently the styles of Gothic Bellydance include Industrial, Tribal based Gothic Bellydance, Gothique Noir, Gypsy Noir, Ritual, Punk with my creations being Gothic Burlesque and Victorian Gothic Bellydance. These styles reflect the dancers, subculture, interests, and lifestyle and Bellydance background. Naturally because of the universal creativity of Gothic Bellydancers, there are new styling being born everyday.
Gothic Bellydance is mostly performed by those who are Gothic, who live and breathe the subculture. However this is not exclusive with many gothfriendly or non- goth Bellydancers wanting to experiment. They also can make captivating Gothic Dancers in their own right sometimes rivalling the true Goth.
A Gothic bellydancer, sets a scene, is broodingly mesmerising, dramatic – completely understands what Gothic is and can portray that through their dance. Costuming and choreography are well thought out and very creative.
Gothic fusion Bellydancers often tell a story and take on the persona of a character, so quite often we are good little actresses with possibly a background in theatre, contemporary dance or circus. Usually during a Gothic performance, The audience will be held so captive, they are absolutely silent. After the performance is finished there is often a momentary silence followed by thunderous applause. This is because Gothic Bellydancers are so different, a stark contrast between tribal and cabaret performances. Even between each other, no one Gothic dancer is the same as the other. A magic spell has been cast with the dancer holding the key to release the audience when she wishes.
Music will range from classical such as Danse Macabre, ethnic with dark undertones – some good tracks can be found on Strange Flesh, Darkwave, Industrial and well just plain weird such as the music found on Serpentine Rouge. Music on this album brings visions of nightmarish carnivals and bazaar stallholders.
Music artists commonly used are Pentaphobe, Shiva in Exile, Knossos, Collide, Solace, Rammstein, the Cure, Blind Devine. This is endless with these artists being but the tip of the iceberg. New music artists that appeal to a Gothic bellydancer, emerge regularly. Old music artists are rediscovered as trends within Gothic bellydance ebb and flow.
For myself, Gothic Bellydance is a journey of self-discovery. It does not have the restrictions of Traditional or Tribal genres in Bellydance. By this I mean, you don’t have to do something a certain way. For instance, Tribal has set combinations. A Gothic Bellydancer will look at a combination and then change it to suit what they are trying to express. We have the freedom to change an arm position, mood or body angle and substitute it with something that adds drama to the dance. To me Gothic fusion Bellydance is more than a dance. I see myself as a performance artist constantly growing within my dance.
There is a misconception that Gothic Bellydance is an offshoot of tribal. Eventhough the addition of tribal with your Gothic repertoire creates a stronger less airy feel to a cabaret base; it is not a form of tribal. However, Tribal Bellydancers are naturally drawn to Gothic Bellydance because they are themselves attracted to the alternate fusions and so are drawn to opportunities to express yet another facet of their being. Tribal also does carry with it a more mysterious aura that lends itself well to Gothic Bellydance. Tribal lends a reverence, serenity and some spirituality to Gothic fusion. Also the ethnic undertones of tribal that echo temple dance, asthetic poses and combinations really add meatiness to the Gothic dancer.
Cabaret or traditional Bellydance is more the ethereal goddess, sparkling at the end of a dark passage. Holding veiled secrets in a candle lit temple.
So, you have an interest in Gothic Bellydance? Where to now?. To embark on an exploration into Gothic Bellydance can appear very daunting. There are very few teachers who specialise in the artform in Australia at the moment. However all is not lost. If you are not Gothic, you can become Gothic friendly by researching both the Gothic subculture and Gothic Bellydance on the Internet. Youtube is a fantastic site to watch Gothic bellydance videos for inspiration. Also there are Gothic Bellydance groups on Yahoo and tribe where you can chat with other Gothic Bellydancers.
If you are not Internet savvy, get to know and befriend a Goth. Go to a Gothic Nightclub where you will get great exposure to fashion and music. Ask around your bellydance peers if they know of anyone who does Gothic Bellydance that you can speak to.
I myself am always happy to help along a budding Gothic Bellydancer on their journey of discovery into the dark genre that is Gothic Bellydance.
email firstname.lastname@example.org. Website www.myspace.com/gothicbellydance
So hopefully that clears up some misconceptions or any confusion you may have on Gothic Belly Dance. I will look forward to seeing many of you around as I am doing a fair bit of traveling again this year. Carolena will once again be visiting us in November for Teacher Training & perhaps General Skills. If you are interested in either of these fabulous opportunities please send me an email. Check out the website for more info or to see if I will be in a town near you: www.ghawazicaravan.com and if not I hope to see many of you at this years Sydney Middle Eastern Dance Festival. It’s the 20th year!! Can you believe it?! Hope to see many of your faces then. Bye for now xx