Belly Dance

American Tribal belly dance

Tribal group in Cardiff

Tribal style belly dance is a completely new style, invented in the West coast of the USA in the 1970s. As opposed to raks sharki, where dancers often perform solo, American Tribal Style is performed by groups of dancers who improvise their dance and perform mainly in theatres or during festivals.

Usually one of the dancers leads the improvisation and gives signals and cues to the other dancers, to indicate which movement she is going to perform next. Thus, the dance looks seamless and fluid without interruptions. A tribal performance can also include pieces where the focus is on one or two dancers performing a duet or a solo, while the others provide background. American tribal belly dancers perform with or without props, such as finger cymbals or swords. A signature move of tribal belly dance, is the tribal back-bend, which is done standing up and with the back bending back, in a way that it looks parallel to the floor. It looks very unhealthy for the back, but I was told that the secret to avid injury is by starting the bend from the knees, rather than the lumbar region of the spine.

Although the original American tribal is done in groups, nowadays there are also solo performance. For example, I have seen Rachel Brice perform solo. In particular, there are new styles that have developed from the original, performing fusion of tribal with various other dance genre. For example, Anasma offers a good example of hip hop belly dance fusion and also of fusion with other dance forms. However, fusion then becomes a completely different dance form at some point. The traditional tribal, invented in America in the 1970s, is a group performance, where the sense of community and connection between the dancers is very important.

This may be because its conception corresponded with a particular wave of feminism, which developed in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s, to which we owe the rediscover and appreciation of belly dance as a form of dance that empowers women. Nowadays, American tribal is a very important part of the community dance scene (at least in the UK). At every hafla, one can see groups of tribal dancers who look like they are having a great time and loving the creative experience of dance, but also the group cohesion and cooperation that American tribal fosters. While American tribal was first developed by women and, even today, the majority of its practitioners are female, there are some male tribal dancers. For example, the Uru Tribe, which can be seen on YouTube, is an entirely male tribal dance troupe from America.


The precursor of tribal style belly dance is Jamila Salimpour, a California based dancer. Jamila, in the 1960s, decided to incorporate different styles of dance into her own style, drawing from various Northern African and Middle Eastern countries. Jamia Salimpour incorporated in particular folkloric and ethnographic elements into the dance and the costumes and she founded a troupe, called Bal Anat.

Following Jamila’s example, other dancers mixed various folkloric elements together, to create a new and unique style. One of the oldest and most famous American tribal groups is Fat Chance Bellydance, founded by Carolena Nericcio. During the last two decades, American Tribal style has become popular all over the world and it is featured in the repertoire of many dancing groups, including the ‘Belly dance Superstars’. Two famous tribal dancers who perform with the Bellydance Superstars are Sharon Kihara and Rachel Brice.

Heath show

Tribal costumes

The costumes that tribal dancers wear are also a fusion of various traditions, deriving from many folkloric sources, such as tribes from Central Asia and Northern Africa. American tribal belly dancers usually wear gypsy style long layered skirts, a short choli, a bra decorated with coins, hip scarves with fringes, heavy silver jewellery and turbans. Tribal dancers also often paint their faces with khol or kajal and sometimes tattoo their bodies. A lot of items used for tribal dance are imported from Asian countries such as India and Thailand, as there they produce many of these ethnic looking items used in tribal dance. Also, the best jewellery comes from Asia or Northern Africa.

Tribal Music

American tribal belly dancers dance to a great variety of music, both traditional and pop, from various countries including India, Egypt, Northern African and Middle Eastern countries. Western contemporary electronic music, hip hop and rock are also used. At the beginning, in the 1970s and 1980s, they used mainly repetitive and earthy percussions. Nowadays, almost anything goes and I have seen tribal groups perform to the most varied things, even to Western pop songs. In general though, tribal dancers use music with percussions but also ambience, with wind instruments such as nay and strings.

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Valeria is a dance researcher completing a PhD in dance and heritage. Valeria also teaches and performs as a belly dance but also enjoys learning ballet, jazz dance and other dance genres.

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