Pride & Joy Day 28: Belly Dancer

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From 2009 until 2016, I lived and breathed belly dance, specifically American Tribal Style (ATS) by the San-Francisco-based FatChanceBellyDance (FCBD). It was the only reason I chose to move to SF. I experienced what was arguably the golden age of ATS.

What makes ATS different from other types of belly dance isn’t only the costume, accessories, and the posture, but also the way the dance or the performance is structured. ATS is a language. ATS dancers from different parts of the world can meet for the very first time and just jam almost seamlessly.

We learn a vocabulary of movements (slow moves and fast steps). Slow moves are arrhythmic and the dancers who follow must match the speed of the leading dancer. Fast steps are based on counts of four. There are a few steps that don’t follow this rule, like the Hip Bump (one count) and the Basic Arabic (two counts).

These movements are the words. A set of them form a sentence. A song is a short story. And (almost) every performance is improv. Sure, we’d map what movements fit in a song, and for bigger performances, we’d do rehearsals, but there’s such a sheer adrenaline in dancing for the first time with strangers to a piece of music you may or may not recognize.

But even before I started focusing on ATS, I had been mesmerized by belly dancing. I always think it’s insane how you could isolate a movement in one part of your body. Isolation takes muscular strength.

In 2007, I joined a gym in Jakarta. A year later, the gym added two more studios and asked what kind of classes the members would like to have. I wrote “belly dance.” About a month later, I met the person who changed my life, Miftahul Jannah.

She brought me out of my shell. Like all other true teachers, she never stops learning. She encourages all her students to learn, not only from her but from other teachers, including the ones in Jakarta. There was (and is) so much drama amongst belly dance teachers in Jakarta, each claiming their version is the original.

My teacher, my friends, and I formed a belly dance troupe called Velvet Raqs. With our parent dance company Dancewave Center, we performed sold-out shows at prestigious venues. Dancewave Center also teaches Hip Hop and Bollywood and we were the first dance company in Indonesia that merged and presented different dances on one stage to tell a story.

They’re still performing in Jakarta (well, maybe not this year because of the pandemic), with my brilliant friend (and brilliant dancer) Rani Adityasari helming the plot and the story. I’m so proud and so envious of them.

I love languages, and learning ATS from DVDs wasn’t enough. I created pseudo-ATS pieces for our performances, but the pull of real ATS was too strong. So, in 2011, I left everything behind and came to San Francisco.

ATS took over my life for seven years. It gave me friends, confidence, posture. It justified my love for make-up, costuming, and jewelry.

I remember manning the FCBD desk at a Bellydance Superstars event at Brava Theater SF. I just got dumped a few hours before. But I wore my make-up and a (slightly) brave face while every tall man, every ginger man, every man wearing Adidas Samba shoes, reminded me of ex.

“Hey, I know you,” a woman said at the end of the show.

I looked up but didn’t recognize her. Maybe she mistook me for someone else.

She took out her iPad, tapped and swiped, and turned it to face me.

There I was, dancing on her screen with Blue Diamonds, FCBD’s student troupe. All smiles.

“You took my breath away.”

It was at Bissap Baobab SF, at a party for FCBD’s 25th anniversary.

I could feel my eyes light up and I smiled and thanked the woman. That day, March 1, 2013, was the day I thought my life had stopped, but ATS sparked it back to life.

I no longer dance as much as I’d like to. It could be the seven-year itch. In my neck of the woods, American Tribal Style has lost its charm. It could be the effect of Tribal Fest going down in flames after its co-founder’s and his friends’ misogyny and homophobia were exposed.

This outfit isn’t a true ATS ensemble since it’s less elaborate. I hand-sewed the top, the headdress, and the belt with antique assuit. The teal pantaloons were done in Jakarta for a group performance with my Bay-Area-based troupe Taksu Tribal at Seattle’s Cues & Tattoos. I’m wearing my antique silver jewelry, kanthshri necklace from Rana Tharu (Nepal), and the gigantic (and sharp) Gokhru cuff from Kohistan.

Whenever we started our ATS classes and at the backstage before every performance, we’d do a series of moving meditation called the Puja. It helps ground us whilst making sure we thank and acknowledge the space we dance in, the ground we dance on, the music we dance to, our teachers, our ancestors, and the people we dance with. It sounds at best hippy-dippy and at worst cultural appropriation. But to me, it represents the best years of my life.

Maybe one of these days, I’ll go back to dancing ATS.

Photography by Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta.

Dancing with Blue Diamonds, FatChanceBellyDance’s student troupe at FCBD’s 25th Anniversary – Bissap Baobab, SF (December 2, 2012).
Photographer unknown.
Velvet Raqs pre-performance at Dancewave Center’s Hafla
(Top L-R: Yuska, Miftahul Jannah, Merita Gidarjati; Bottom: Rani Adityasari)
– Shisha Kafe Kemang, Jakarta (July 1, 2012). Photo by Putri Susilo.