My thoughts on ATS® – part 1

If you have little information about ATS, and would like to know more, for once I’m going to suggest you view the video above first, then read what follows, then watch it again with the new information you have. And while you read what I have to say, keep in mind that I am no expert, have only been doing ATS® for a year, and therefore I don’t know everything there is to know about the style, and I might have misunderstood some of what I learnt. And of course, as this is a condensed version, I am probably missing a lot. Now, with the caveats in place, let’s get on with it.

What is it?
ATS® stands for American Tribal Style, and it is a fusion dance style that started in the 80’s in the West Coast of the US, developed by Carolena Nericcio with Fat Chance Belly Dance. It takes inspiration and moves from traditional belly dance, and other dances from the Mediterranean, North Africa, Middle East and even India, and combines them with modern knowledge of anatomy and even with some artistic ideas to create steps that display the dancer in the best possible way, in a physically safe manner. The most obvious influence that people tend to pick, aside from traditional Belly Dance, is Flamenco, in the overall arms and hands posture, and “floreos” (hand flourishes).

So it is not traditional belly dancing?
No. As I said above, it is a fusion style, and while most Middle Eastern people would be able to recognise individual moves, they wouldn’t recognise it as typical Middle Eastern dancing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a fusion style!

How does it work?
It consists of group improvisation to a certain agreed vocabulary (you might think of these as “steps”). The vocabulary includes slow and fast moves, done within established formations; moves are “cued” to other dancers using particular non-verbal signs, so they know what’s coming next. The dancer leading the group improvises, using the steps in the ATS vocabulary, and the other dancers pick these up and follow the leader; the idea is to make it so seamless and synchronised as to be confused with a choreography.

The formations are nearly always of 2 to 4 people; if there’s more than 2 people dancing in the group, some of them can stand aside in what is called a “chorus”, to either do simpler, complimentary steps to what the soloist central group is doing, or to play the zills. The soloists will change and rotate during a performance, and within each group, there will also be leader changes, so each individual dancer’s musicality will direct the dance. Therefore, no two performances will ever be alike even when having the same dancers and the same music.

What music does it use?
The fast vocabulary uses zills and is almost always done to a 4/4 rhythm, as the steps always have a count of 4. You can use nearly anything with a strong 4/4 beat, I’ve personally used artists as diverse as Rob Zombie, Depeche Mode and George Michael for drilling or practice at home, but that’s because I am weird, you wouldn’t find these used for a typical performance or class! What you will probably find instead is more what feels like traditional folk Middle Eastern music as long as it has a strong beat; Helm is a favourite band. Other popular options is Balkan Brass bands, and of course there’s the music with a more modern flair written specifically for ATS® like Phil Thornton’s Nexus Tribal.

What do they wear? any reason why?
The traditional ATS costume uses a choli (short top with an open back), pantaloons, one or more skirts, usually made of very light cotton fabric… These skirts nowadays have a bottom diameter of 25 yards (roughly 22 metres) and are tucked and wrapped in a lot of different ways, but at the start they were much smaller. These basics can have different extra adornments: a coin bra, a belt, a hip scarf, a tassel belt, fringe belt… The head can have a turban, a headdress, or more commonly nowadays silk flowers. Traditional Middle Easter jewellery is seen often, not just for the neck, hands and arms, but also for the head. Facial markings simulating tribal tattoos used to be popular, bindis and facial jewellery are almost always found too.

Sometimes the cholis have a front “apron” that covers the stomach; I’ve always worn body stockings when wearing my Tribal costumes, and I’ve even seen people wearing very tight camis under their cholis, so the costume itself can be very modest and offer a surprising degree of coverage.

Each element of the costume has been added for some specific functionality. For instance the open back on the choli makes it easier for the followers to view the movements of the back/shoulders clearly and pick up the cues better. The skirts can be hitched up in different ways to “bounce”, spiral and fly, and accentuate the movements when viewed from a distance. The pantaloons keep the legs covered and modest when doing turns and spins. The tassel belts accentuate the sharper hip moves like shimmies, and the fringe belts accentuate the full body moves like undulations and slower turns.

Now with the new information you have, try to view the Fat Chance Belly Dance video again, trying to figure out how the dancers communicate, the formations, and leader changes. Knowing it is all improvised gives it a whole new angle, doesn’t it?

Coming up: what I think about it.

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