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Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2005

Tribal Power

Bellydance superstar Rachel Brice

Special to The Japan Times

Five years ago, you'd have been hard-pressed to find a bellydancer in this city outside of a few Turkish restaurants. These days, Tokyo is teeming with them, not only in restaurants, but at clubs, lounges, fashion shows, raves, parks -- almost anywhere you choose to look. There is the all-bellydance bar Scheherazade in Yotsuya, the annual Maharajan two-day festival featuring literally hundreds of dancers ranging from students to pros, and an ever-increasing range of teachers offering lessons.

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Rachel Brice performing at Aoyama Cay July 15.

Perhaps the surest sign of the depth of this movement is the increasing number of dancers coming from overseas to do shows and workshops in Japan. The most eagerly anticipated has been Rachel Brice, a San Francisco-based dancer and member of the high-profile Bellydance Superstars troupe.

Brice is seen as representing all that is fresh, experimental and modern in bellydance. Unlike the Caberet style of bellydance that most casual viewers are familiar with, Brice explores the Tribal Fusion style. "With Tribal, there are no rules," explained Mishaal, the highly regarded Tokyo-based dancer who recently invited Brice to Japan. "It's not rigid or dogmatic; it's about being innovative and creative, putting together a fusion from all the different cultures you love, even stuff like tattoos or biker culture. It's in sync with the consciousness of young urban women today.''

In Rachel's case, the combination involves a love of the more "bohemian" side of bellydance, 14 years of involvement in Ashtanga and Hatha yoga, a rock 'n' roll attitude (complete with a massive tattoo of a sutra adorned with flowers), and the kind of drive that had her learning her art by studying videos frame-by-frame.

Featuring a strikingly unique look and a dance style to match, Brice's star is rising fast. Her performance on July 15 at Aoyama Cay drew a packed house. And Brice's show -- set to an eclectic mix of the cinematic beats of Amon Tobin, Arabic percussion, and even a rock-out track by The Black Keys -- definitely wowed them.

"I was hoping for some screams," said Brice, in an interview with Tha Japan Times. 'People don't scream for bellydance in the States." And she definitely got what she was hoping for.

How'd you get interested in bellydance?

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Well, when I was 17, I saw a dance company called Hahbi'Ru at a Renaissance Faire in Northern California. They had this really earthy, bohemian vibe. It was really beautiful, and very dark, but at the same time really celebratory. And the women in it were different from those in Southern California [where Brice grew up], where there was a definite idea of what body type you were supposed to have. These women . . . they didn't fit any particular body type, but they had this elegance and pride and self-assuredness I hadn't seen before in someone who didn't fit a particular mold. They were so feminine, but without a hint of vulgarity, just this kind of elegance with sensuality. So many things blew me away at once. The next day I started taking classes.

How have your feelings about bellydance now evolved from your first impressions?

What surprised me is the simplicity of the dance. It looks so complicated and challenging for people who have only seen it, but it really only takes one to five years to really get it. But don't get me wrong, I'm continually working, I don't feel that I have it down. There are so many ways to approach a single move. You have to do these moves, like, 70,000 times till they're so smooth and slow.

What's the hardest move to master?

The chest lift. It's not a mobile part of people's bodies. It's really hard to isolate the chest, especially if you sit in a chair all day long at work. And it's the first thing to go if you don't practice all the time.

Do you prefer improvisation?

That's all I do! I mean, I've started choreographing lately and I enjoy it because it's a whole other part of my brain. But there's nothing on earth like getting on stage and having a piece of music that you know like the back of your hand, and then being able to do a different interpretation of it every time you dance.

Among the Bellydance Superstars, your style is a lot slower, deeper. Do some people have a problem with that?

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Yeah, a lot of people don't feel that it's bellydance. But that's OK. If people need to fiercely defend the tradition of the art form, that's OK. People like to talk about what's Tribal and what's not, what's bellydance and what's not. But when you study dance ethnology, and you see where the intersections are, they're fuzzy. Everything is influenced by everything else, especially when you follow the Gypsies that start in one place and travel around, just picking things up and throwing things out. There is no "pure dance," really. So it's given me a lot of tolerance.

Why do you think bellydance is experiencing such a boom right now?

It's just time, I think. It's a great time for women right now, because in many parts of the world, women are given complete freedom to express themselves. It's a time too for women's sexuality and sensuality to be embraced, and it has been. Women are being given an element of freedom they've never been given before, and a chance to explore who they are. This is one of the first times a dance like this can be considered art and not stigmatized.

Do you find it ironic that in much of the Middle East, the dance can't be performed?

Oh, yeah. But it's probably one of the reasons that it is blooming everywhere else. People love anything with a taste of illegality. In the U.S., most people respond to bellydance but have no idea that it's Middle Eastern; a lot of them think it's from India. So people always ask where it's from, and I love telling them.

For the uninitiated, what's the difference between Tribal and Cabaret styles?

Cabaret . . . it's very, very flirtatious, cute, hands-in-the-hair style. First, in America [back in the 1950s/'60s], there was the whole Hollywoodization of Arabic culture, sort of glamorizing and Orientalizing the whole thing. "I Dream of Jeannie," super-sparkly evening gowns with the belly cut-out, or whatever.

Tribal Fusion is an interpretation of American Tribal Style, started by [dance teacher] Carolina Nericcio. It changed the posture and what it was communicating -- it displays power: shoulders back, chest up, elbows forward. And it brought in a lot of the more rural music of North Africa and India -- the Gypsy element of the deal, rather than the Hollywood element. And Carolina's whole posture and arm cycles, it's all very flamenco. American Tribal style is improvisation, but it's based on a set of movements, maybe 25 or so, that are done with three or more dancers, sometimes two, but generally more. And the improv is based on cues and transitions that are very specific.

What do you say to people who say, "Japanese don't have the body for bellydance?"

People told me that for years! "You can't bellydance, you don't have a belly." "You're too skinny, too Jewish!" (Laughs) If people find something that moves them, and practice till where it doesn't look human anymore, to me that's all it takes. It doesn't have to look like Turkish bellydance. A lot of people say Tribal isn't bellydance, and that's fine. Call it whatever you want. You just have to know that you like it. If you like it, it's all good.

It'll be interesting to see how Japan takes on bellydance and makes it its own. Because the body type is very different, and it's going to look totally different, but it'll settle in and become something of its own.

For a sample of live bellydancing in Tokyo, check out the Eid Lotus 2005: "Fata Morgana" show at Ueno Park's outdoor stage, Aug. 7, from 6 p.m. Tickets are 2,800 yen yen in advance, 3,000 yen at the door (Ticket Pia, 0570-02-9988). For more info, see www.alcamarani.com.

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