Last night I drove an hour to attend a workshop in Toledo by Paulette Rees-Denis, founder of Tribal belly dance troupe, Gypsy Caravan. While I have to admit to being quite starstruck, Paulette is no distant diva. She is warm, down to earth, and has a smile to light up the darkest day. Aegela hosted the workshop at her studio, and having taken classes on occasion with the lovely lady, it was fun to be a fellow student with her.
I felt like I already knew Paulette. I learned Tribal from Angie Hay (a.k.a. Angie Never) in Columbus, who had learned directly from Paulette. When I moved away from the area to Northwest Ohio, there were no belly dance classes being offered in my county, so I decided to teach, and I began with Tribal. Angie was always so helpful when I had questions, and she recommended that I get some of Paulette's videos to refresh my memory. I did so, and also purchased Paulette's biography, Tribal Vision. Last night she signed it for me! I have subscribed for some time to Paulette's online newsletter and have been published there twice. We have corresponded a little via email. But actually meeting her in person was such a sweet treat!
Paulette has been belly dancing for 30 years, but she has been a dancer since childhood. Her mother still dances Flamenco at age 86! In addition to Flamenco, Paulette has extensive training in ballet, jazz, and African dance forms. She was Tribal pioneer Carolena Nerricio's first student and was an original member of her troupe in San Francisco, Fat Chance Belly Dance. They had their first performance in Paulette's backyard. Paulette eventually moved to Portland, Oregon and began teaching her own group improvisational belly dance style. Carolena's format is called ATS (American Tribal Style), and she has requested that other groups do not use this name. Paulette refers to her dance as Tribal, and one common name for non-ATS formats is Tribal Group Improvisation (TGI).
In a nutshell, Tribal belly dance combines movement vocabulary and aesthetic elements from dances of the Near and Middle East, India, Spain, North Africa, and the Romany (Gypsy). It is specifically a group dance which uses a system of cues, transitions, and intuition in a lead-and-follow format, having a homogenous "flock of geese" effect. It looks choreographed but is in fact art created in the moment, improvised within a structured form. The emphasis of Tribal is on a trusting community.
"Fusion" forms of dance that have erupted from Tribal often veer in directions away from any cultural roots of style and music, and in my opinion, no longer qualify as belly dance. While Paulette's form is contemporary and embodies many influences, her band, Gypsy Caravan, uses traditional Middle Eastern music and rhythms. The music is more simplified than classical Oriental to allow for the lead-and-follow format. And her dance is solidly grounded in traditional movement vocabulary. It is at once a modern, interpretive dance and a distinctive form of belly dance that is descended from American Vintage Oriental, earthy and organic but light and graceful.
I found Paulette's technique and teaching style to be of the highest quality. Aegela, who specializes in Egyptian Oriental and Folkloric, especially appreciated her emphasis on the importance of knowing the Middle Eastern rhythms and being able to play them on the zills, as well as teaching movements and combinations on both sides of the body. With Paulette's training in the various dance forms I mentioned, I think her style can be considered a true fusion, particularly with its distinctive jazz influence. Unfortunately some dancers are insufficiently trained in the forms they are supposedly "fusing", but this is not the case with Paulette. She is a true fusion dancer.
Paulette is not concerned with the "style" her students dance, but rather that they become good dancers and learn to express themselves creatively within the community context. Her style and posture are very natural to the body. She wants to be able to keep dancing forever, so she moves in a way that will not cause injury. She also feels that whatever style belly dance one does, Tribal can be incorporated. I used to teach mostly Tribal belly dance, but for the last year and a half, I've been focused on getting back to the roots of Egyptian Oriental. Lately I have become interested in revisiting that Vintage Oriental style I originally learned at Habeeba's in Columbus. Now I am moving toward putting all of my experience together in the vein of the recent trend of "Tribaret", designated as the "new classic" form that returns to American Cabaret (Vintage Oriental) roots but incorporates elements of Tribal. So I guess I am coming full circle!
If you get the chance to study with Paulette, do not pass it up! She is beautiful (even more so in person than in pictures) inside and out and is a wealth of experience and artistry. Thank you Paulette from the bottom of my heart for traveling to Toledo. I hope you will return soon! And thanks to the incomparable Aegela for hosting this truly memorable event.