I shuffled into the studio just in time for warm-up when Martina popped in a hip-hop tune. Am I in the right class?

‘Front-right-back-left, front-right-back-left…..’ our rib cages obeyed Martina’s command through the chest isolation drill, followed by an ‘up-down-switch-switch’ with the shoulders. Only during the hip shimmies did it resemble what I expected from a belly dance class. Still, she ran through the entire class, including the choreographed routine, without a chime of Middle Eastern music. I was left not feeling like an Arabian princess, but my mid-section got a REALLY, REALLY good workout.

It’s hard to contain Tribal Belly Dance on one plate because there are so many interpretations. Also known as Tribal Fusion, it blends modern dance styles such as Jazz and has only been around since the 1990s. Its predecessor, American Tribal Style Belly Dance (ATS) evolved just 10 years earlier and can be traced to San Francisco’s Carolena Nericcio and her troupe, ‘Fat Chance Belly Dance’. ATS is distinguished as an American interpretation of folkloric and belly dance styles.

A search on tribal belly dance’s biggest names – Rachel Brice, Kami Liddle, Zoe Jakes, turns up beautiful undulating bodies that recall exotic cultures from unidentifiable eras. Though belly movements remain the focus, their styles vary from softly slithering S-curves to popping ‘n locking like mechanical dolls. Layers of fabrics and textures make up the low-rise skirts, wide pants and decorated midriff baring tops that they wear. Belts, tassels, tattoos and dark eyeliner complete the look, along with enough hip chains, armbands and shiny dangly things to activate a metal detector 50 metres away. This slap-chop of incoherent ingredients is then stirred through a tangle of bass beats peppered with gypsy-like melodies, creating a spectacle that delights all of one’s senses.

Many who are familiar with ‘traditional’ belly dance may furrow confused brows at the ‘tribal’ style. However, both have evolved out of the dance form’s persistence and ability to captivate its audience.

At the Chicago World Fair in 1893, a clever man named Sol Bloom had a not so innovative idea to boost attendance by bringing in pretty, midriff baring dancing girls. As much as they shocked the conservative Victorian society of that time, they also attracted curious onlookers who came from all over to see this ‘belly dance’. Though said to be from Egypt, to spectators who knew little about the Orient, its origins mattered only to draw association with an exotic culture. Soon, the clever men in the Egyptian film industry got wind of this interest, and quickly repatriated their newly discovered ‘traditional’ dance. The silver screen produced sequin and chiffon embellished starlets Samia Gamal and Tahia Carioca.

Belly dance criss-crossed the Atlantic over the next few decades, dazzling audiences on both seaboards. From snakes to swords, it constantly introduced new gimmicks; these dancers could even balance chairs in their teeth while wiggling about! Its latest focus on enhancing the artistry of the dance form is largely credited to a clever woman named Suhaila Salimpour. Suhaila, from the belly dance lineage that began with her mother Jamila Salimpour, was inspired by the structured training she received in ballet and jazz. Such was not prevalent in belly dance, so she catalogued each belly dance movement, established a standard for execution and devised five levels of certification. This raised the bar in belly dance performances and aided the cross influence of dancers and dance styles that was fundamental to the creation of tribal belly dance. The fuse was lit when tribal belly dancer Rachel Brice, who had been teaching classes to Pixar Studios employees, was introduced to Miles Copeland, bigwig manager of Sting and The Police, who then launched the Brice-headlined ‘Belly Dance Superstars’ stage production in 2003. The explosion that followed blasted belly dance into the mainstream and women into dance studios.

For Martina, who has been belly dancing since the early 2000s, tribal belly dance enables her to incorporate belly dance movements with her jazz dance background. Because of my similar dance background, my body easily understood her choreography, though it surprised us as I had only met her a few days before filming the video. The main hip-shake movement is incredibly easy – go on, give it a try – stand up, bend your knees slightly, and clench your right butt cheek, forcefully, that’s it – voila, your hip moves right. Now release and clench your left butt cheek, and your hip moves left. That’s all, the rest is a strong core, patting-head-while-rubbing-stomach coordination and artistic style, all of which take years to develop. Martina has a tongue-in-cheek style that reminds me of a cabaret performer from the 1920s.

With its start as a curio act, belly dance is now a respected dance form that challenges the skill and artistry of other dance styles. Tribal belly dance is today’s evolution, yet it retains belly dance’s foremost purpose to entertain its audience. The next evolution is anybody’s guess – ‘Tribal-Belly-Tap-Dance’ perhaps? If anybody manages that, I’d certainly feature you in GlobeDancer!

Martina performs, teaches, and choreographs. She is also the director of the energetic Ginger Blue Tribal Belly Dance Troupe. More on Martina, plus videos of recent performances, on bellyfringe.com.