Americans have been reinventing the wheel for centuries, forever assimilating foreign cultures into new traditions to call our own. Our Western ways have created a country of fusion; nearly every art form we cherish, from food to art to entertainment is, in fact, a mélange of inspiration from around the world. As the art of belly dancing rises in America, and especially on the East Coast, a new language emerges with it. Spoken by few and difficult to learn or even understand, this language is bursting with visual dialects and remains a mystery to the untrained eye. A true native speaker, Natalie Brown is fluent in the body language of belly dance. The artistic director of Alternacirque and director of Delirium Tribal, Brown’s fervor for artistic expression manifests itself in her body’s fluid curves.
She slinked to the floor, the metallic beads of her costume jingling the whole way. The other Alternacirque performers mingled in full costume around us. Brown, an Irmo High School graduate, made a home in New Orleans where she attended Tulane University. In a twist of fate, Brown threw out her back in her last year of school, and went in search of a fresh take on rehabilitation. She wandered into a tribal belly dance class at n.o. madic Tribal Belly Dance Company and found her destiny. “I was completely hooked,” Brown said.
After studying under the direction of Lisa Lala, Ali Arnold and Amy Hession in New Orleans, Brown, already a classically trained dancer and musician, could add tribal belly dancing to the list. When Hurricane Katrina hit, Brown fled Louisiana and returned to Columbia, where her friends were currently belly dancing as well, but in the more familiar cabaret style. “I’d been dancing about a year when the hurricane hit,” Brown said. Brown, who claims she was an “odd duck” at Irmo high School, didn’t have plans to return to Columbia. “I swore I wasn’t going to come back to this town,” Brown said. “The universe had other plans. As I started working here, I realized how much potential was here. There’s a lot of arts here, and there’s a huge amount of dancing in this town considering what a small town it is.” Within two months, Brown began teaching tribal classes and had attracted a following; within five months she was performing at Art Bar with dancers shipped in from New Orleans. “I was lucky to find Art Bar,” Brown said. She slowly built a core group of dancers, which would soon form Delirium Tribal.
Ashley Bennett, the red-headed beauty, was teaching yoga in Waycross, Ga. when she discovered belly dancing. After buying what she thought was a yoga DVD, Bennett was surprised to learn that she had invested in what would change her life. What was actually a belly dance DVD captured Bennett’s affections; she soon commissioned a dancing skirt from seamstress Brown, who was working in costuming at the time. “My story intertwines with Natalie’s interestingly,” Bennett said. Before long, Bennett was taking private lessons with Brown. “She was the only classically trained tribal dancer around,” Bennett said. Soon after, Bennett’s marriage fell apart. She e-mailed her newfound mentor and Brown took in her desperate student. “I slept at the top of her stairs on yoga mats for about ten months,” Bennett said. “Now we’ve moved to a two bedroom house.” As their friendship grew, so did Bennett’s interest in and talent for tribal dance. “I started training with her [Brown] pretty hardcore,” Bennett said. Now a vital part of Delirium Tribal and Alternacirque, the part-time nude model and Brown’s roommate had found her place in Columbia. “She came here to start her life over,” Brown said. “It’s been really interesting to watch her grown since she’s been here.”
In the same language as Brown and Bennett, Dana Salley was practicing belly dance, but in a different dialect. “I came up as a cabaret student,” Salley said. Salley began belly dancing in Orangeburg as a girl under the direction of her mother. “She had the kindness in her soul to teach our girl scout group,” Salley said. Salley began formal lessons and later toured with local Columbia musicians, Turku, along with fellow Delirium Tribal member Jessie Padgett. Eventually, Salley joined Delirium Tribal and added yet another flavor to Brown’s melting pot. “We have so many influences,” Salley said.
Maria Bargas and Jessie Padgett of Delirium Tribal brought their own influences to the table as well. “I took cabaret for about ten years before I started taking with Natalie,” Padgett said. “I’ve been with Natalie for about two years now.” Bargas, from Torrejon, Spain, is one of the newer members of Delirium Tribal. “I do all kinds of dancing…Latin, Flamenco,” Bargas said. “I’m into learning all kinds of dancing.” Padgett and Bargas were in classes together and soon found Brown in the Columbia area. “When I got here most of my girls had been cabaret with a little east coast tribal thrown in for good measure,” Brown said.
American Tribal Style (ATS) is the root of current belly dancing in America. According to Brown’s Delirium Tribal Web site: “American Tribal Style is a modern world fusion created in San Francisco in the 1970s and 80s by Carolena Nericcio, and her troupe, Fat Chance Belly Dance. ATS, as it’s often called, is a combination of Egyptian, Turkish, Classical Indian dances, Flamenco and North African dance styles, among other things. It’s meant to be performed as a tribe or group, as opposed to soloists, and it has an improvisational basis. Dancers take turn leading and following, speaking a fluent, fluid, shared vocabulary of body language with each other. The costuming is also mix of influences, mainly a converted Indian choli, pantaloons, a long and full skirt and Indian, Pakistani and Afghani accessories and jewelry.” Brown is a direct descendant of Nericcio’s training, thanks to her stint in New Orleans at n.o. madic. “As far as technique goes, when I found those guys I was pretty close to the source,” Brown said.
When Nericcio placed strict guidelines on what styles could be categorized as ATS, many troupes were excommunicated from her ‘church’ of dance. “She borrowed from ethnic dances…and turned it into this improv vocabulary,” Brown said. These troupes still use ATS as a root language in their techniques, but the change in style has led to intricate fusions and vernaculars among different groups. “We started close to the original language,” Brown said. “We didn’t feel like handing our creative freedom over to some woman.” Though Brown remains respectful of Nericcio and her ATS, she wanted to expand. “She’s [Nericcio] one of the most of the most imposing and intimidating women I’ve ever met,” Brown said. “She’s a really neat character.” Now Delirium Tribal pulls from ATS, hip hop and improv techniques. “We all speak the same language,” Brown said. “We can jam to any music at any time.” And the music Delirium Tribal dances to runs the gamut from Middle Eastern to techno. “If its got a rhythm, we do it,” Bennett said. It can be hard to decipher what is choreographed and what’s improvised, since the troupe depends on the music to determine its next move. “Over time you develop your own moves,” Bennett said. “We can predict what the next person will do.”
After Delirium Tribal began to see some success in Columbia and Brown’s father passed away in February of this year, Brown quit her day job. “I reached a breaking point,” Brown said. “I wasn’t going to give up my dancing.” Luckily, her love for belly dancing came with a nationwide support system. The belly dance community is a close-knit unit that functions under a strong moral code, progressive beliefs and mutual encouragement.
When the inevitable question of body image presented itself, the women of Delirium Tribal spoke the same language. “The thing about belly dance is you can be any age or body type,” Brown said. “The most beautiful dancers are big women,” Bennett added. For her students, Brown posts on her Web site: “Belly dance is a lovely art form that embraces and looks fabulous on all body shapes, sizes, creeds and ages. Belly dance breaks down body image barriers, gives you great core strength and posture.”
In addition to supporting all body types, the belly dance communities across the country support one another online; many troupes create their own music and much of it can be found on iTunes. Brown said she has spent thousands on downloading songs created by others in her field, and refuses to “steal” the music through free online file-sharing programs. “In the 80s and 90s we didn’t have the flow of information we have now,” Brown said. Now, the belly dance community has the ability to collaborate and learn from each other online. “With tribe.net it’s like being able to reach out and e-mail your rock-star idols,” Brown said. “We get to see everybody’s videos and everything. Back in the day a lot of people had heard about tribal and were getting Nerricio’s DVDs. They liked what they saw, but had no idea how to go about the ATS techniques.” Via the Internet, troupes are able to support each other in a way never before possible. “The belly dance community is very much about supporting each other,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of ethics.”
Meanwhile, Columbia is beginning to support the art form as well. “We’re starting to turn heads,” Brown said. Thanks to venues like Art Bar and the Columbia Music Festival Association (CMFA), who grants the troupe free rehearsal space, alternative entertainment is growing in the underground of the Capital City. “Were all kinda bustling around and trying to get space for rehearsal,” Brown said. “I walked in there [CMFA] by accident and I ran into Mimi Whorl. She said it was free and I burst into tears. I don’t know if we would exist without the CMFA.”
Of course, no art comes without criticism. “Older women look at you like you’re a prostitute,” Brown said. “I think the biggest problem when you’re a belly dancer is that people have preconceived notions of what that is, and more often than not they’re erroneous.” Though the origins of belly dance, which was developed under strong feminist ideals, are still being researched, Brown said most people think of an “oversexed glam women shaking her boobs and hips in your face.” “They have this notion that it came out of sultan and harem type of things,” Brown said. “It is very sensual, there’s a sensual aspect to it, but it’s not sexual at all. When I’m dancing, I’m not dancing for my boyfriend, I’m dancing for me.” Brown added that people are usually surprised with what they see at a Delirium Tribal or Alternacirque performance. “The most impact we have is on other women,” Brown said. They’re very touched by what you do, especially when they see we have older women on the stage and different body types. It’s a really really powerful and feminine mess we’re putting out there that I’m very proud of.”
Brown and Delirium Tribal believe their art form to be empowering, created by women for women, and demand its audience give the proper respect at performances. According to the Brown’s Web site: “Generally, we don’t find it very becoming if someone yells ‘Shake it, baby.’ We work hard at our art form and hope it will be accepted as such. Also, though it is a tradition in Cabaret styles to accept money in the belt or (sometimes) in the bra strap, Tribal dancers tend to frown on that. Please show your appreciation by tipping in our basket. If you touch our dancers, you’re likely to get punched in the nose.” Though Tribal dance can be very sensual and often erotic, it is not meant to arouse the masses. “If you love yourself, everybody can appreciate that,” Bennett said.
Currently, Brown is working to correct what she said is quickly becoming a concern for the Columbia audience. “One of the biggest criticisms is that we’re performing in front of cars in a parking lot,” Brown said. So, she’s been working on backdrops for upcoming performances. “Next month we’re wanting to build platforms so we can start going up and make it 3D,” Brown said. “The backdrops are actually turning out to be interesting…we can do all sorts of things with them. Our sets are changing the way we put on shows.” Along with Brown’s backdrops, Delirium Tribal’s costumes are all homemade as well. “We’re very ‘jack of all trades’,” Brown said. “We’re a little crunchy hippie anyway.”
With Delirium Tribal in full swing, Brown saw the opportunity to expand. Steve Oswanski, of Fire and Motion, a fire performance group that uses tribal and aboriginal techniques, met Brown at his first show ever at Riverbanks Zoo. Brown felt a spark, and with the addition of Fire and Motion to the troupe, Alternacirque was born. “We’re kind of playing with everything,” Brown said. To complete the equation, Delirium Tribal did some unorthodox recruiting. As soon as they saw Susan Osbaldiston’s incredible self-taught Hula Hooping skills on her MySpace page, they knew she would complete the circle. Osbaldiston became interested in Hula Hooping when she saw the happiness it brought to other performers. “I taught myself,” Osbaldiston said. “When someone’s doing it they look like they’re at peace.”
Oswanski, of Fire and Motion, joined forces with Brown’s group in August of 2007. A second fire performer, Nate Addy, merged with Alternacirque in March. After only a few performances together, the cluster is tight, claiming to mix business with pleasure often at personal parties and outside of the show. Oswanski and Addy are close friends and said they spend as much time at each others’ houses as their own. Both fire performers keep day jobs in the education field as “alternative teachers.” “It’s more of a paid hobby,” Addy said. “We definitely need day jobs.” Oswanski is the Coordinator of Outreach at the Riverbanks Zoo and Addy is a science educator at Columbia’s Mad Science. “We do fun science,” Addy said. “Think Bill Nye the Science Guy…It’s kind of my job.” Oswanski has performed for his students, but Addy is a bit more reserved. “I like to juggle, but I don’t light anything on fire during class unless its called for during the experiment,” Addy said. “For the longest time I couldn’t be on stage, but I’m loosening up.”
Oswanski started playing with fire thanks to an old girlfriend. “I started in California and was living with a gal who picked it up in Hawaii,” he said. “We were doing laundry and she pulled tube socks out of her laundry baskets and started doing all these crazy patterns.” Oswanski then researched fire performance techniques online and with the help of his former girlfriend discovered a great talent. “I used to practice by using makeshift stuff, like tennis balls on strings,” Oswanski said.
Oswanski and Addy attribute much of their success to their knowledge of science. The performers use three different fuel types to create different effects, and can even change the color of the fire. “We know which chemicals burn which colors,” Oswanski said. “We use white gas, lamp oil and we have a handful of concoctions we mix. Boric acid and lamp oil make green fire.” By combining science and art, Fire and Motion puts on a mesmerizing show. “I don’t want to give away too many secrets,” Addy said.
The techniques Fire and Motion use originated in New Zealand and were used by the Maori tribes there. The Westernized versions of the Maori’s art form, which utilized sand bags tied on strings, include chains and fire. The Kevlar wicking on the poi and other types of expensive tools used in fire performance allows the fuels to burn at extremely high temperatures. “I burnt all of my eyelashes once,” Oswanski said. “We have first and second degree burns off and on.” Fortunately, the guys have the benefit of their $5 million insurance policy.
The performers pull inspiration from various sources in what Brown called an “organic process.” “Sometimes it’s a concept we want do or a new prop we want to work with, and most often it’s the music that drives it,” Brown said. “You get inspired by different things, that’s the thing about being an artist, you’re never sure where your inspiration is going to come from.”
In a private performance, the fire roared above a silent night as the men in black spun in sync like a flaming machine. Their circling left rings in the dark pavement and this impromptu show promptly got the attention of a nearby police officer. The blue lights flashed as the performers quickly extinguished their flames. “It’s happened before,” Bennett said. Next, the women exhibited their blazing talents. Brown balanced a flaming sword on nothing more than her petite hip, then her head, and both women performed with fire fans that appeared as nothing more than fiery extensions of their bodies. Because Alternacirque’s fire performances are strictly choreographed, the music plays a big role in each demonstration. “When you get into dancing with fire, you can do the technical hits,” Oswanski said.
He and Addy are able to synchronize their movements with the music this way. “Just be hot,” Oswanski said, and then alas, “I’m out of fuel.” At the March Art Bar performance, the crowd went wild over Alternacirque’s fire show. “I can’t even drink hot coffee,” Art Bar audience member Michael Norton said as the performers extinguished flames in their mouths. “I had heard there was belly dancing and fire shows at Art Bar, but I always found out about it after the fact…and low and behold, there it was in the paper in front of God and everyone.” The Art Bar parking lot was swamped with spectators and words of amazement flew back and forth. “They definitely know what they’re doing,” someone whispered. “I was not expecting to see this,” Damien Eikerenkoetter of Philadelphia said. “It’s erotic, it’s sensual…it’s beautiful. We need more stuff like this in Columbia.”
The members of Alternacirque have most certainly been brought together by the entertainment gods, as Columbia is crying out for inspiration.
“I wandered in here [Columbia] and it was all waiting for me,” Brown said. “We’re still so new that were still trying to figure out how we all work together…its still experimental.” As Columbia’s underground art scene experiences a cultural uprising, the invoked muses of our city graciously present themselves and the ball’s in everyone’s court to get inspired. “That’s the thing about performance art, it’s doing things other people have only dreamt of,” Bennett said.