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Anasma on Belly Dance Fusion

Interview by Salome

Salome: What is your personal definition of Oriental dance? What building blocks do you recognize as making authentic Oriental dance what it is?

Anasma: To me, "Oriental dance" finds its roots in Egyptian bellydance. Being in Paris, I trained in Egyptian style "Raqs Sharqi" before I got into fusion, after arriving to the US in 2006. The references for Oriental Dance in France are Samia Gamal, Tahiya Carrioca, Dina, Fifi Abdo, Raqia Hassan, Tito... the Egyptian stars.

To me, Turkish, Pharaonic styles or folkloric dances (Dabke from Lebanon, North African Dances: Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian etc.) do not fall under the category that became my reference of Oriental dance or "Raqs Sharqi".

As for music, I also developed a love for Egyptian music and great classics (Oum Kalthoum, Abdel Halim, Farid El Atrache...). I believe my perspective of Oriental dance is very "European", as opposed to the American approach to bellydance that experiments with different rhythms like 9/8, Turkish styles, pharaonic style etc.

What make Raqs Sharqi what it is? To me, here are the key ingredients in terms of movement: Great extensive hip work, shimmies, circle, lines and figure eights. Even though Samia Gamal did not do shimmies she was a figure eight champion. My Palestinian friend, Nada Sefian, told me "Arabic people can watch the dancer move only her hips, for hours".

Undulations and reverse undulations are a form of figure Eight (vertical body roll). Bellyrolls, bellytucks, bellypops, flutters etc are also an impressive part of the dance. However, to me, the very developed muscular abdominal control comes from the American influence.

A connection to the earth through the hips and the feet and sometimes a celestial connection with a lifted posture, a lot of arm movements. Movements are flowy or sometimes locked (accents) in order to complement the music best and with variety.

In traditional Oriental Dance, there are less shoulder movements or chest movement than you would see in fusion forms. For instance the chest sway is a sort of maya done with the chest. An Oriental Dancer would not do a Tribal Taksim or Inward figure eight with her chest.

Arms and hand movements are more or less a focus for different dancers. Usually, they are relaxed and casual. In the style I learned from my first teacher, Sylvie Abdel Khalek, arms were flowy and airy and a very important aspect of the movement. With my following teachers, the arms were more relaxed. I am glad I had a good basis though because I did not have to think about them so much and could focus on hip work.

Oriental dance is a dance of isolation. To me, it is a form that has been influenced by Ballet posture and turns. These elements have been brought by Mahmoud Rheda. However bellydance is naturally curvy and round, as opposed to the lines and extension of Ballet or Modern. Oriental dance is internal. The moves are very contained in the torso and hips rather than in the legs, and big arm movements.

In terms of philosophy, Raqs Sharqi also has a huge cultural and musical aspect to it, a FEEL and a soul that the Arab speakers will get spontaneously whereas a non Arabic dancer would feel less. To me, the most touching in Dina, beyond her technique, is the intensity of her emotions and her connection to the music. You can read it on her face. She sometimes sings the lyrics along with the musicians.

Finally, to me, the icon of the woman in Raqs Sharqi is that of a beautiful, sensual, sexy, voluptuous woman. This is very empowering to a certain extent. Some women want to be powerful in a more mysterious and martial way.

I distinguish the American Bellydance ("Cabaret style") I was exposed to by a strong technical breakdown of the form, without necessarily working on the feelings, lyrics and emotions that the Egyptian style carries.

Salome: What about fusing with Oriental dance - what elements need to come together for a successful fusion?

Anasma: When fusing Oriental dance, a dancer needs to keep the key ingredients with reasonable proportion. I guess this percentage has not been set as a rule but in order for the audience to recognize bellydance, they need to see enough hip lifts, drops, tucks, shimmies, circles or bellyrolls etc.

A fusion is successful if the dancer has trained enough in each form to understand the philosophy of it. Fusion is OPEN and anybody can find their definition within the larger frame. The most important is to know where you come from and what elements you borrow from different forms. You need to be able to defend your artistic choices with conviction, and to achieve this you need the basic knowledge and exposure to the forms you are using to create your fusion.

To me, fusion is successful if it is clean and visible and you can recognize both forms within the dance: movements need to be sharp and recognizable. Ideally they flow into each other. I prefer the transitions to be smooth rather than have a 2 8 count section of Irish dance and then suddenly have a pure section of Bellydance and then again pure Irish dance... But you have to start somewhere.

Ideally, the dancer should be able to improvise in each one of the fused styles in order to have the most natural blend. For instance, if you do hip hop bellydance, it is ideal if you can improv well as a pure bellydancer AND a hip hop dancer. My recommendation to be a good fusion artist is to start by being strong at one form first. Avoid mushiness. Then, you can mix. Chose one and then build on it. I studied Raqs Sharqi for 9 years before I explored fusion techniques. I have always been attracted to fusion though and trained in many dance styles at a time.

Sometimes, the process is different though. We start with the fusion in itself and this is a good approach too. A lot of tribal fusion dancers start their training in Tribal fusion. In this case, it is good to be curious about Indian dances (Kathak, Bharat Natyam), Flamenco, Egyptian style, Hip Hop... that influence the current form.

Salome: On you tube I've seen Oriental fusions with everything from Irish step dance to ballet, burlesque and beyond. Do you think any form of dance can fuse well with Oriental? And if not, what qualities does the other dance genre need to posses to work well together?

Anasma: I believe certain forms blend better with bellydance than others. For instance, now, Hip Hop is easier for me to fuse with my Bellydance technique than Wushu (Martial arts).

Indeed, Hip hop is a great form to fuse with bellydance because certain (standing) chapters of the Hip Hop encyclopedia are very isolated, like Bellydance: popping (contractions of any body part), tutting (geometrical arm work), waving and liquid (flowy watery movement, my favorite and most natural blend for bellydance), dime stopping and ticking (click-click-click... stopping at the drop of a dime... that is using the idea of locks in bellydance, otherwise called "Accents"), voguing (glamorous pauses, like in bellydance) etc. However, I find Breakdance (Hip Hop on the floor) much harder to fuse with bellydance! To see an example of the fusion, check out the trailer for the "Bellydance Hip Hop Liquid Fusion DVD".

In this approach, I bring in both backgrounds. If I do hip hop arm work (such as tutting or waving), I am wary to bring some hip movement at the same time (mayas, shimmies). This requires a strong layering technique.

Personally, I would not blend Burlesque and bellydance, because I do not want to undress bellydance. However some of the bellydance techniques can definitely be used by Burlesque dancers, stripers, pole dancers... Bellydance is sensual, it enables development of fluid movements and body awareness so this would serve any dance form. Actually, "Omy" ('internal' or 'interior' hip circles starting at the waist), are common in many dances: African dance, Hawaiian, Salsa... The execution is different in each style but I believe that Ethnic dances have a common root. You find hip bump in Kathak. Hip hop and Salsa have "body rolls", what Bellydancers call Undulations (applied to the whole body, extended to the head and knees in the case of hip hop).

I think that Salsa offers a great ground for blending footwork and hip work. Tango too (Fayzah - Dance Spiral). Even points from ballet (Sabah from the Superstars is a great example). Amar Gamal to me is a fusion artist in the sense that she brings a Latin and ballet touch to her Oriental style. It is her signature and it is strong and beautiful. I am dreaming about a martial arts Bellydance fusion and will be working on it. It is a challenge because of clashing philosophies. In Martial arts, movements are not just pretty they have a purpose: fight the enemy... Martial bellydance (sigh). I will keep you posted ;)

Salome: What about fantasy, creative license... do you consider these explorations to also be fusion or do you see fusion as needing to be two (or more) established dance forms?

Anasma: To me, the "Fantasy" trend is a form of fusion between bellydance and theatrical concepts: storytelling, character presentation and development. In addition, having a theme such as "Fantasy" is very smart in order to have a more cohesive show and program. I support the idea of a deeper meaning in belllydance and a story line within a full theater show. I think it makes any show stronger. To me "Fantasy" brings another layer of understanding to bellydance. I am into theater anyway. I think theatrical techniques are important to bellydance.

Now, in terms of dance technique, all the "Fantasy" performers are not necessarily fusing different dance styles with bellydance but this is fine.

Salome: At what point does an Oriental dance fusion become to far removed from Oriental to be a true fusion? Or do you feel there are any boundaries?

Anasma: Boundaries... Bellydance fusion is no longer bellydance if other bellydancers cannot distinguish any bellydance technique in your presentation. And everybody is subjective. For some people, any fusion, even by the slightest proportion, is an insult to Oriental dance. For others, like me, you can never fuse enough.

In a way, I have periods when I do not feel like a "bellydancer" any longer. Sometimes I define myself more like a Dancer that knows bellydance or a World Dance Fusion artist rather than a Bellydancer per se. Because Belly dance , in people's mind, is still the traditional dance form that I have defined. However, I had a great experience at Rakkasah West this spring 2009. I was forced to do a traditional piece because my song could not be played a second time by Djinn within the same live set. I had not really worn an Egyptian costume for months or interpreted an Egyptian song. And it turned out to feel good to do the pure form. YEY I can still do it naturally and gracefully! It was my first great love after all. Little "checkups" are good from time to time.

In the end, I would still say I am a bellydancer, because even when I teach fusion, I take it from the standing point of bellydance. I do not give jazz or hip hop classes. I teach bellydance.

Salome: What, if any, fusions do you see happening in Egypt, Lebanon or Turkey with native dancers?

Anasma: Honestly, I have not watched the dancers from Egypt, Lebanon or Turkey enough recently to say what the current fusion trend is over there. But in the past, I already mentioned that Mahmoud Rheda brought some Western elements (ballet...) to the folkloric dance to present and enhance them on stage. However, I can talk about France more. I can definitely say that the American approach of bellydance (popularized a LOT by the Bellydance Superstars around the world) has brought technique and breakdown to many dancers around the world. The American bellydancers have also created spectacular props such as: double veil, sword dancing, candle tray dance, wings of Isis... that are now arriving in France, for instance, that tends to be more traditionally Egyptian based.

Salome: What is your motivation behind creating fusion? I'm interested too about your perspective on costuming for fusion in general and also specifically for your belly dance hip hop fusion.

Anasma: I create fusion to express myself the way I am and want to be. I am half Tunisian and half Vietnamese. I was born and brought up in Paris. I lived for a little bit in India before I moved to New York City in 2006. I am a mix, a blend, a melting pot. For instance diner at home could start with Spring rolls (Vietnamese), followed by grilled lamb ribs (Tunisian cuisine), and served with Thai perfumed rice. Afterwards, having a bell pepper and tomato Tunisian salad. I see my dance in the same global way.

Naturally, I have always been attracted to fusions and meetings of cultures, and open to learning different arts forms (theater, piano, gymnastics) and dance styles (Bellydance, Hip Hop, Salsa, Modern Jazz, Modern, etc).

I also do fusion because I need constant new material, physical challenges and inspiration. I need to grow as a dancer and even though Bellydance is extremely rich and endlessly evolving, learning different dance forms is a great source of creativity to me. I love taking beginner classes in styles because it makes me humble and reminds me where I started from in bellydance. Being a beginner in African Dance for instance enables me to relate to my students better and learn how to improve my teaching methods.

Finally, I also do fusion because it gives me more freedom to express my stories. I also want to expand beyond the traditional icon of the sexy sensual woman. Creating different characters, telling stories, using miming techniques, gestured movement and facial expression, are fun things for me and enrich my performance.

To me, dance in general (any form) is not only about movements and esthetics. Like any form of art, the performer/ artist/ painter/ musician/ dancer, needs to touch and be in touch with their emotions and express a message beyond the technique. It is about connecting and taping into another source and giving the audience the opportunity to see, smell, feel the world with a different perspective. Technique is necessary but not enough. This applies to bellydance and to any other form... and because of this holistic vision, I think it is fine to create your own fusion.

In terms of costuming for fusion, I would like to use the term balance. You need enough of each element to recognize both dance forms you blend or to recognize bellydance and the character you have chosen to incarnate. Usually, I design my costumes with an uncovered belly, bra and belt. From there, I sometimes cut Vietnamese dresses and re-adapt them.

As for the Hip Hop bellydance costume, my pink costume is a pretty good blend: the hoodie, some tribal silver jewelry and the belly visible and the hips enhanced. Bellyqueen has some cool costuming for their Drum battle piece with hoodies. Unmata is another group that uses hoodies. Hip hop bellydance needs to have a street flair... Bright colors, fishnets etc.

Salome: Why do think creating fusion has become so popular with dancers in the US?

Anasma: To me fusion is so strong in the US because of a couple reasons:

History. America is a young country (compared to European countries). Historically it is a blend of European immigrants and cultures. The necessity for tradition is not as strong as in Europe. Because it is younger, mentalities are more open to mixes in the US. There is a belief of the self made man, the land of opportunities. USA is a freer country in this sense, to me, as an outsider.

American bellydancers learn about Turkish bellydance and different folkloric styles. And it is common to learn zills as a beginner. In France, I did not even know that Turkish dancers had a different style from that of the Egyptians. Thus, to me, it is easier for Fusion to be created in a freer context.

There is a less important Arabic community (proportionally to the rest of the total American population) than in France for instance, where Couscous has become a national dish. In France, the Arabic immigration is strong because of historical migrations, protectorates, colonization.

A lot of bellydancers in Europe start bellydance because they actually have Arabic blood (like me). At the age of 14, I was looking for my origins. I found them through bellydance in a way. I connected with my people not through language but through movement. Like many second generation children, I speak only a little Arabic and have adopted the French culture and assimilated many French values. So, once more, with less attachment to the lyrics and culture in the American bellydance I was exposed to, it is -to me- one of the reasons why Fusion is so popular in the US. American Fusion Bellydancers have appropriated themselves an Oriental Style, and this is great. They do not try to copy, they are themselves.

Salome: Some dance forms inspired by Oriental dance, like ATS, Tribal fusion, Suhaila's pop and lock influence in American Oriental... really took root and have had longevity. What makes a visionary and their fusion or influence have longevity?

Anasma: Visionary: it was new and a breakthrough at a certain point in time in the history of bellydance and it changed the picture of bellydance forever. Like Isadora Duncan brought Modern dance by going against the predominant Ballet... The forms you mention (Suhaila, ATS, Tribal fusion) are visionary because they have become references that are acknowledged by any bellydancer. Suhaila's technique can be used by both Fusion and Cabaret dancers. The concepts have longevity because other people believe it is revolutionary. They are acknowledged by their peers and following generations as trend setters.

Longevity comes from a clear and strong vision (preferably) from the beginning. The other common trait from the styles that are visionary is that their founders have created documentation, methods and schools or trainings around their vision. The founders travel around the world and instruct other dancers and have become master teachers.

You can visit Anasma at her website