A Rough Guide to the Styles of Belly Dance
by Ainsley

North America

American Oriental
    Modern (Solo)
    Modern (Troupe)

American Tribal
    Improvisational Tribal Style (ITS)
    Tribal Fusion


American Oriental

Classic American Oriental

Also called "Vintage Orientale" or "American Cabaret", Classic American Oriental style arose in the 1950's and 1960's to meet the entertainment needs of a growing community of Middle Eastern immigrants. Demand for dancers in the Middle Eastern nightclubs of the day far outstripped the number of qualified immigrant performers available, so North Americans of non-Middle Eastern origin were recruited to fill the gaps. These dancers learned by imitating performers and nightclub patrons from a variety of Middle Eastern countries, creating a style that combined elements of the dance traditions of several cultures.

To please their diverse audiences, Classic American Oriental dancers had to be versatile performers, equally comfortable twirling an Egyptian cane or leading a Lebanese debke line. The influence of Classic Turkish Oriental on Classic American Oriental, however, is particularly evident. Both styles feature veilwork, floorwork, complex chest movements, and the extensive use of zills, all of which can be seen in the footage of Cory Zamora above.

Other names to look for: Aisha Ali, Anaheed, Dahlena, Delilah, Helena Vlahos, Jenaeni Rathor, Marguerite, Mesmera, Rhea, Suzanna Del Vecchio

Modern American Oriental (Solo)

Beginning in the 1970's, Egyptian Oriental style began to exert a stronger influence on its American counterpart as increasingly affordable airfares made travel to Egypt a possibility for American dancers. Modern American Oriental style combines the internal quality of Egyptian dance with a focus on technical precision. Aziza, in the clip above, uses highly controlled movements to interpret the nuances of her music.

Modern American Oriental dancers have their choice of a plethora of props. Traditional props like veil and cane share the stage with Isis wings,
sword, candle tray, fan veils, and veil poi. Dancers use these elaborate props to provide a "Wow" factor for American audiences. Like Classic American Oriental style, Modern American Oriental style often incorporates floorwork and complex chest movements. The use of zills, however, is typically less prominent than in Classic style. Some Modern American Oriental dancers will play zills for only part of their performance, while others, taking their lead from Modern Egyptian Oriental dancers, eschew zills altogether.

Other names to look for: Amar Gamal, Ava Fleming, Ayshe, Bahaia, Blanca, Bozenka, Jenna, Jillina, Kaeshi Chai, Michelle Joyce, Neon, Lotus Niraja, Petite Jamilla, Princess Farhana, Sadie, Sonia, Suhaila Salimpour, Tamalyn Dallal

Modern American Oriental (Troupe)

While Classic American Oriental, like the Oriental styles of Egypt and Turkey, is a solo, improvisational style, troupe performances and choreography have become an important part of Modern American Oriental style. This is likely due to changing performance contexts.

American dancers in the 1960's and 1970's performed long shows to live music several times a week. It would have been impractical to choreograph and rehearse new material for every show and unwise to rely on a rigid choreography when one's live accompaniment might improvise parts of the music. Today, dancers increasingly perform shorter sets to prerecorded music, making the use of choreography feasible. Stage shows and competitions have also become more common, prompting solo dancers to use prerehearsed choreographies to ensure that they put their best foot forward.

The upsurge in staged shows has also encouraged troupe work. I
n contrast to small nightclub dance floors, the ample stage spaces of music halls and theatres can easily accommodate large groups of dancers, and, unlike in the Middle East, where Oriental dancers usually learn their art through observation and one-on-one mentoring, in North America the group class environment provides instructors with an ideal opportunity to teach troupe pieces. Independent professional dancers may also choose, like the members of Belly Dance Soulfire above, to band together for artistic purposes.

Other names to look for: Bella Donna, Bellyqueen (Kaeshi Chai), Niraja Dance Company (Lotus Niraja), Sahlala Dancers (Jillina), Wings of Ayshe (Ayshe), Ya Amar! Dance Company (Sahra Saeeda)

American Tribal

Although its name may suggest ancient origins, Tribal belly dance was actually developed by American dancers in the latter half of the twentieth century. It is a modern, fusion style, not a recreation of the dance traditions of real Middle Eastern tribespeople. The name "Tribal" probably derives from leaflets that the troupe Bal-Anat distributed at their Renaissance Faire performances in the 1960's, describing their group as coming from "many tribes", and the moniker has stuck because:
  • Unlike Oriental dance, Tribal is fundamentally a troupe style and many Tribal-style dancers feel that the name reflects the shared knowledge and collective awareness that allow them to dance together cohesively, especially if they perform group improvisation (explained in more detail below).
  • Some people see Tribal belly dance as an example of neo-tribalism or modern tribalism, a movement to use organizational principles and rituals inspired by tribal societies to create a sense of community in an urban environment.
For more information on the Tribal branch of the belly dance family tree, see A History of American Tribal Style Belly Dance by Rina Orellana Rall of FatChance BellyDance, The Elusive Definition of Tribal Belly Dance by Sharon Moore, and the short documentary film What Is Tribal Style Bellydance?.

Classic Tribal

The origins of U.S. Tribal style can be traced to Classic American Oriental dancer Jamila Salimpour, who founded a dance company named Bal-Anat in San Francisco, California, in the 1960's to perform at the region's outdoor Renaissance Faires. Jamila used her extensive performance experience, both as a dancer and a circus acrobat, to create extravagant, theatrical shows that blended dance traditions from a variety of Middle Eastern cultures with her own innovations.

"Ethnic" style, as her invention was dubbed at the time, with its earthy, pseudo-historical aesthetic and troupe format, stood in stark contrast to the glitzy Oriental solo style that was then performed in San Francisco's Middle Eastern nightclubs. For more on Jamila and Bal-Anat, have a look at this excerpt from the DVD American Bellydance Legends.

Hahbi 'Ru, directed by John Compton, carries on the tradition begun by Bal-Anat. John Compton and Hahbi 'Ru's c0-founder Rita Alderucci were both students of Jamila Salimpour and members of Bal-Anat in the 1960's and 1970's.

Other names to look for: Awalim Dance Company (Ziah Ali), Boo-Saada Dance Troupe (Cassima and Yasmela), The New Bal-Anat (Suhaila Salimpour)

Improvisational Tribal Style (ITS)

Bal-Anat presented a variety show of Middle Eastern-inspired dances, and, in that sense, "Classic Tribal" describes a performance framework and mode of costuming rather than one cohesive dance style. In the 1970's, one of Jamila's students, Masha Archer, founded her own troupe and began to impose uniformity on the style's technique and costuming. Carolena Nericcio trained with Masha for seven years before forming FatChance BellyDance (FCBD), shown in performance above, in 1987.

Carolena adopted Bal-Anat's half-moon chorus configuration, from which small groups of dancers emerge to perform short routines, and Masha's elevated, flamenco-inspired upper body posture, established a codified movement repertoire, and created a system of cued improvisation: the troupe is guided in performance by a lead dancer who indicates what movement is coming up next with a hand or body gesture. To facilitate cuing
, most of the dance is performed with troupe members facing the diagonal so that they can all see the leader, who, in the video above, is the dancer standing in the lower right-hand corner (from the audience's perspective). Different dancers may act as leader over the course of a performance.

Carolena called her invention "American Tribal Style" (ATS), a name she has since trademarked. "Improvisational Tribal Style" (ITS) may refer either to ATS or to cued Tribal improvisation that does not follow the FCBD format.

ITS troupes generally dance to Middle Eastern folkloric music, but ITS costuming combines elements from around the world. The standard ensemble includes pantaloons, tiered skirts, tassel belts, coin- or cowrie-covered bras, Indian cholis, and turbans or hair flowers. Zill-playing is a central feature of  ITS, while props are rarely used.

Other names to look for: Black Sheep Belly Dance (Kajira Djoumahna), Devyani Dance Company (Megha Gavin), Gypsy Caravan (
Paulette Rees-Denis), Manhattan Tribal (Mimi Fontana)

Tribal Fusion

Any performance that merges ITS with another dance style can be called "Tribal Fusion". The term is most often applied, however, to a style pioneered by Jill Parker, an original member of FCBD who left to found Ultra Gypsy Dance Theatre in 1996.

Building on ATS movement vocabulary, Jill reintegrated choreography into the style, introduced Western-influenced music, and pared down the classic ATS costume. The use of choreography allows for more intricate movements and closer musical interpretation than is possible in Improvisational Tribal Style. Props like sword and veil, rarely seen in ITS performances, have made a reappearance in this style, while zills are played less frequently.

This brand of Tribal Fusion, sometimes also referred to as "Alternative Tribal", was popularized by Rachel Brice, the dancer in the video above, who was one of the first Tribal Fusion dancers to perform as a soloist. Her muscular, highly-controlled style is informed by dance teachers Jill Parker, Carolena Nericcio, and Suhaila Salimpour and by her extensive yoga training.

For more, see Tribal Fusion by Heather Stants.

Other names to look for: Asharah, Darshan, Deshret Dance Company (Ariellah), Domba (Heidi Alexander), Kami Liddle, Mardi Love, Mira Betz, Moria Chappell, Samantha Emmanuelle, Sharon Kihara, The Indigo (Rachel Brice), Urban Tribal Dance Company (Heather Stants), Zoe Jakes

Combo-Based Tribal

Combo-Based Tribal style is the innovation of Amy Sigil of UNMATA. Dancers rehearse long (32 count +) combinations of movements derived from ATS, hula, and hip-hop and use these combinations as a basis for group improvisation. A lead dancer will cue a rehearsed combination, then one or more short (8 count) "filler moves" adapted from the ATS format to give the troupe time to regroup before she cues the next long combination.

Tribal Fusion dancers started a trend of dancing to Western music that is picked up in Combo-Based Tribal. UNMATA typically dances to electronica and other types of alternative music.

The first piece that UNMATA performs in the video above is improvised, with the dancer in the lower right-hand corner (from the audience's perspective) acting as leader. The second piece is choreographed.


"Tribaret" is the term used to describe any style that blends Tribal and Oriental influences.  The name itself is a combination of the words "Tribal" and "Cabaret" (another term for Oriental style).

Tribaret is a nebulous category: it can encompass anything from a performance that pairs strictly Oriental dance technique with Tribal costuming to a complete fusion of the movements, music, and costuming of both styles. The related term "Glamour Tribal" refers specifically to the marriage of Tribal technique with Oriental costuming. Few people identify exclusively as Tribaret-style dancers. Instead, a Tribaret performance is something a primarily Oriental- or Tribal-style dancer might do occasionally for fun.

Ansuya is the best-known dancer whose performances regularly integrate aspects of both Tribal and Oriental styles. In the video above, her movement vocabulary and musical interpretation are mostly consistent with Classic American Oriental style, while her music is a Middle Eastern/Western fusion and her costuming merges the chiffon and sequins of Oriental style with the heavy jewellery and tassels of Tribal.