History and Evolution of Tribal Odyssey Bellydance
Sometime in the year 2000, after viewing FatChanceBellyDance* videos and studying their "Improv & Choreography" video, I attended Kajira Djoumahna's workshop on American Tribal Style* belly dance (ATS), sponsored by Artemis in Maryland. I was not immediately in love with the style, I thought it seemed "Intermediate level" and rather boring. But I wanted to learn about this new concept of group improvisation.
I learned a lot from Kajira's workshop! Experiencing the group dynamic was a big eye-opener, something that hadn't come through while watching the videos. Now I understood the allure of tribal dancing!
A Collaboration Between Friends
I let the information percolate for a while, then asked my dance friend Miramar (Winchester VA) if she wanted to work up a common repertoire we could both teach to our students. I wanted to develop a movement style that felt comfortable to my Egyptian-based foundation but also include a taste of Miramar's American belly dance style.
That was in late 2000. For the next two years, the members of my troupe, Pearls of Rhythm, and I refined and developed the combinations, cues, lead-throwing, and group formations as we danced together. It seemed like every time we danced, there were more questions to answer! Without the active participation of my dancers, I doubt that I could have developed this group improv format. Miramar also provided feedback and suggestions from working with her students.
After two years of development, Tribal Odyssey (TOBD) had about twenty combinations (including five combos that Miramar contributed) and my troupe knew the format well enough to enter the (2002) East Coast Classic belly dance contest in Virginia Beach and take home the 2nd Place trophy. We were competing against troupes that were performing choreographed routines; and according to one of the judges I spoke with afterward, she didn't even realize our number wasn't choreographed!
Refining and Streamlining the Method
During the years I was developing Tribal Odyssey with my troupe, I was also teaching it in every class; and in Winchester, Miramar was teaching it as well, although not continuously. She and I chatted on the phone from time to time to discuss how our students were picking up on the improv format, what worked well and what didn't. I began organizing the material into a step-by-step syllabus to introduce students to the combinations and staging a little at a time, so they could more easily process and understand it. Eventually, this became the progressive levels that the TOBD format has today. After testing each new idea we would add it to the program, for instance, Miramar's circle formation for Tribal Veil. Adapting and refining steps and staging always gave us a lot to think about, and required a group trail to make sure the new idea worked in each situation, and also fit into the established protocols.
Over ten years after beginning this journey, I've added six finger cymbal patterns, six veil combinations, and eight skirt combinations, and a dozen sword combinations to the repertoire. Tribal Odyssey currently has about forty combinations.
I also compiled the Tribal Odyssey Reference Manual so my students could find answers to any questions they had when dancing outside of class. I even use it myself to make sure I teach the material correctly!
NOTE ABOUT THE MANUAL: The earliest printing I know of for certain was 2002 although there could be earlier printouts; most of my older editions of the Manual are gone, either sold or given away. Every three years or so I updated the Manual to include any new steps (skirt, veil, etc.); and then reprinted it. At the back of the Manual in the Step Description section, I have always included Miramar's original Step Descriptions for her combinations. For my own combinations, I used my own descriptions. I've always given full credit to Miramar for her combinations and descriptions, whenever I can either online or in print. In each new edition of the Manual, I've tried to improve and clarify the information; and the next edition will have our new Tribal Sword combinations and staging. But I want to emphasize that one thing I've always been careful of is crediting correctly whenever possible. I believe in (and teach) proper credit for music, ideas, combinations, whatever it may be. Some details of the information may be lost along the way, and the passing time may make memories falter, but my intentions have always been transparent and honest.
I started working on the first "Level One" TOBD instructional video around 2006. Miramar and I began filming at my home studio; she doing the Warmup to her favorite music, and I doing the combination and staging instructional breakdown. We were using our favorite American belly dance music, by the Desert Knights. We hadn't actually gotten permission though. One of the reasons for this was because originally these first DVDs were intended just for our students - mine and Miramar's - to help them at home. (I had written to Adam Burke of the Desert Knights in 2005 about using their music, but we didn't actually receive written permission from him until 2009.)
However - have you ever written, filmed, edited, and produced a DVD? And designed the graphics for the label and cover? If not, let me assure you it is a lot of work, so insert years of work here. I had no training or classes in any of this, I was just learning as I went along. Now I was beginning to see the bigger issue of music copyrights, so I even began recording music for us to use (again, learning to do this on my computer as I went). I can't even begin to describe how much work this was! Not that I didn't enjoy it, I enjoyed it very much. But the fact is, I started to see that this DVD had to go out in the world, and not stay restricted to just our immediate students.
Here's where things get sticky.
I've always given Miramar 50/50 credit for this entire body of work, from creating Tribal Odyssey, to the DVDs. But now that I could actually see how many hours (money, sweat, and tears) went into producing this ONE DVD, before we signed any contracts together, I wanted something as concrete from her. Miramar has a major in Arts Administration so that seemed a perfect partnership: she would take care of the business end, while I continued to produce the content - or something along those lines... And we tried to work out these details, but it became very difficult to communicate clearly. Around the end of 2010 we formalized our partnership in a meeting and signed a contract together, and almost immediately our entire business partnership and friendship began to disintegrate. Within four months (by March of 2011), she broke off contact and refused to communicate with me; and this is where we are today. Since I really only know my end of things, that's all I can say about why it happened; but it was heartbreaking to go through. Ironically, it was at this time that Jareeda published Miramar's article, "Tribal Odyssey: Evolution of an Art Form" in their "Matriarchs of Belly Dance" issue, Winter 2011.
From reading her updated version of the "Evolution" article, I understand that Miramar is now teaching an evolution of TOBD called Tribelle Chic. As of late 2013, I haven't seen a performance of it yet but I would love to and to communicate with her and her students again. I wish them the best on their journey.
Loving Something Means Letting Go
We are carrying on here; ever since the very beginning, Tribal Odyssey has been a part of my weekly classes, a unique addition to the curriculum I've always taught: classic belly dance technique, finger cymbals, props, and various folkloric styles of Mideastern Dance. I feel Tribal Odyssey group improvisation helps my students develop and understand the art of belly dance in a wider and deeper way than either choreography or solo improvisation alone. That's why I've opened the doors to let others experience and even teach this format without restriction; the soft, yet strong and earthy feeling of the movements are unique among standard group improv belly dancing, and Oriental dancers, especially those who love Egyptian style, may find this format quickly feels like second nature to them.
This is still an ongoing journey; and we enjoy sharing the experience with others.