Tribal Corner by Alaine Haddon-Casey

An interview with Devi Mamak and Susan Brown

Originally published in Bellydance Oasis Magazine
Issue 9, July – September 2002


Well, it’s been a huge month. Living in San Francisco and studying with Fat Chance Belly Dance (FCBD) director, Carolena Nericcio was definitely a highlight. I was also invited to perform at the American Tribal Dance Festival in Northern California. What an incredible experience that was – and the shopping!! This month I’m off to the Blue Mountains for more training with Karen Gehrman, Assistant Director FCBD. I won’t be alone this time, Clair and Sarah from my Saturday class will be joining me over there.

In the next edition, I’ll be sharing some of these experiences in greater detail. But for now, I’d like to introduce you to two other ATS teachers. Susan Brown of “Tribe” is based in New Zealand. Susan conducted a very successful ATS workshop at the recent Sydney MED Festival.

Devi Mamak is based in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales and is the driving force behind the Karen Gehrmann training to be held in mid-June. Devi is one of the few fortunate enough to have received training direct from FCBD and we are pleased to be able to access such high quality training through her efforts.

Both Devi and Susan come to ATS via a variety of dance genres. However, ATS is their main love. I always find it interesting to explore how people – especially teachers – came to ATS and what appeals to them about this style, so I asked a few questions:


“Two women – Carolena & Rina – dancing together, their expressions of absolute joy. Their postures proud and strong, but beautiful. Their movements were so confident yet elegant. It was the most powerful display of feminine energy I have ever seen. And their costumes! OH MY GOD!!! YES! That was me.” – Susan Brown


When did you start MED?
Did you commence with ATS or work through Raks Sharqi first?
Do you have a background in dance?

  • Susan: 1998. Raks first. Yes… I’ve been dancing since the age of nine, studying classical ballet, international dance, and jazz. In my high school years I performed Kapa Haka (Maori culture).I moved to Australia in 1988 and saw a bellydancer for the first time in a restaurant. She made her way around the tables, and me being extremely cocky, thought “I can do that”. Then when she got to my table, she just stood there, and I thought “how boring”, until I realised she was just rolling her belly! Well, there was no way in hell I could do that, and I decided right there and then I would learn to bellydance!In 1997 I lived up in Tonga, and learned their Taulunga. When I returned home to NZ, in 1998, I started lessons with Sandra Bogart, in her American West Coast style. And, I loved it! I felt good doing it and my body loved it. I was hooked immediately. The following year, I had an opportunity to learn Tahitian and Hula with an Hawaiian woman, Naya.
  • Devi: I did ballet for a number of years as a child. Last year I was studying classical Indian dance (Odissi style) and recently I started Flamenco classes. I started with MED in the Blue Mountains,about 7 years ago. My teacher, Kaiya Seaton taught a variety of styles but mainly the traditional Raks Sharqi flavour. Then I saw the Fat Chance “Live” video! I was fortunate to be able to spend 2 months in San Francisco in 1999. Naturally I took as many dance classes as I could and I’ve been hooked ever since.

What captured your interest in ATS? What do you love about it?

  • Susan: EVERYTHING! EVERYTHING!… Someone sent me a copy of FCBD’s Live video. It hadn’t been rewound, and before I even turned the TV on I could here the music through the speakers. Just a simple folk song backed up by two drums . When the picture came on, what I saw has remained etched in my memory to this day. It stirred something deep in me, I connected to its magic. (I can’t tell you how many times I have told this story!) Two women (Carolena & Rina), dancing together, their expressions of absolute joy. Their postures proud and strong, but beautiful. Their movements were so confident yet elegant. It was the most powerful display of feminine energy I have ever seen. And their costumes! OH MY GOD!!! YES! That was me. I wanted to be just like them. I love the make-up; it’s often been said, but it is a ritual painting your face. I love the costume. I love the heaviness of all the layers. I love to feel laden. I love the sound it all makes. I love my choli’s. I wanted one of those so badly.And my belts, they are my favourites, my creations. I love how they anchor everything else down. When dancing Raks Sharqi in front of other belly dancers I loved my two sparkly cabaret costumes, but dancing in them out in public I felt vulnerable and I didn’t appreciate the behaviour and comments I heard from men. (It sucks, I know, but that is the reality).I love the music ATS uses. (I can tolerate a full Egyptian Orchestra for about, oh, 2 point 5 seconds!). I am on the endless search for the perfect piece… I also love the community. It has a secret magic that can only be experienced. And, of course, I love the dance itself. I love dancing with other women. I love that bond we have. Dancing together, you can’t help but smile at each other. It’s more than a smile though, it’s deeper than that. Oh, and, no choreography, nothing to have to remember and stress over. Just coming together to share that magic. I love the discipline and the precision of ATS, it totally suits my personality and teaching philosophy. This dance is my passion, I literally live it.
  • Devi: At first glance it was the costumes, but really it was much more than that. The posture, elegance and synchronicity of the dancers. The hands (I love the hands), and the zills. I am a classical piano teacher and to be able to dance and play music (my two passions) at the same time is what makes it really gel for me. I also love the philosophy of being ‘at one’ with your fellow dancers, so that not one dancer stands out from the other, loving your body no matter what shape, size or age you are and finally, dancing a style which can only be described as strong and sensual.

How do you see ATS as differing or being similar to ‘traditional’ MED group or troupe work or folkloric styles?

  • Susan: This is a hard question to answer. Firstly, I have not had enough experience with MED group/troupe or folkloric styles to really comment. So, from the experience I have had and drawing from the experience of my students who dance both ATS and Orientale, ATS, to me, seems more structured and more controlled. It’s a precise team effort and it’s often arythmic.
  • Devi: Folkloric styles are culturally based and are a representation of a particular region. ATS is a collection of different styles spanning the globe. This is reflected in the costume. The similarity lies firstly in the group performance and secondly in improvisation – although troupe or folkloric styles presented today seem to be choreographed.

How do the students react to the discipline of ATS?

  • Susan: They love it! Yes, totally. The answer to this is in the question. It is the discipline. It’s a whole different like-minded mindset – you either ‘get it or you don’t’. 
  • Devi: I think most students find the arm work most difficult. The improvisational choreography can also be daunting for some – especially those accustomed to choreography. It takes a certain amount of discipline to be aware of your fellow dancers and surroundings; this is crucial to ATS. However, the payoff is the real connection that grows between all the dancers.

What are the main challenges for a ME dancer learning ATS for the first time?

  • Susan: The immediate obvious challenges are zills, arm work, basic shimmy and zhagareeting freely. Everyone has put on a set of zills and had a go with them, but to actually ring out a rhythm while dancing the right steps, is another story. Arm work – having them lifted 99% of the time new students find excruciating. Practise builds strength… Getting a clear ‘up, down, up’ on each hip in our ¾ shimmy, without that shake/vibration in it is a mission. And letting a zhagareet rip without crumpling with embarrassment is a confidence trip in itself. My students add this: “getting the moves exactly right, because they have to be, because that’s the whole look”, “to remember to differentiate between ATS and Raks Shaqi, and remember they’re separate genres”. And once again, “it’s a whole different mindset – you either get it or you don’t”.
  • Devi: Arms, the posture, doing movements on the right and not following through on the left, keeping the elbow up and still (not flapping it about) and the ‘stillness’ of the upper body.

Do you see ATS as being a series of steps and movements or is there something else that distinguishes it?

  • Susan: Once you get beyond those steps and movements there is something that distinguishes it from anything else. It’s the something that words cannot describe. It’s some form of tangible energy that I can only describe as magic.
  • Devi: ATS is definitely a series of very structured steps but there are elements to the style that make it different from other dance genres. These are principally improvisation, zilling, strong arm movements and posture. Put together these elements provide for a very ‘strong’ dance style which is not how many audiences view MED. There s little veil or stick work.There are very few solos as the beauty of ATS largely falls on the synchronicity of the group as a whole. In relation to other differences, ATS only uses music in certain time signatures.

How do you find audiences react to ATS?

  • Susan: THEY LOVE IT! Women especially. They don’t hesitate to tell you how beautiful you are, how inspiring you are, how sensual it is, how powerful it is, what incredible energy it has, how it’s done something to them but they can’t explain it. They will open themselves right up and quite emotionally describe how they feel about what they have just seen and experienced. Older women gush for ages, there is something about it that takes them back to what might have been. And then, they want to learn it. It stirs something ancient within them. An awakening. Men, on the other hand, will comment on the technique, the music behind it, or ask whether I’ve been to Egypt. 
  • Devi: So far everyone I have talked to loves it. It is not what they expect. Most people think of cabaret when they think of belly dance. Not just the dance style, but the costume as well. The most common comment is how elegant and strong it appears.