Since late January, I’ve been taking classes with Mimi Fontana at Manhattan Tribal. An official Sister Studio of Fat Chance Belly Dance, it’s the best and only place in Manhattan to learn authentic American Tribal Style (ATS) as created by Carolena Nericcio. So far, it’s been a really positive experience. The classes are always efficiently run and instructive, but also very therapeutic and relaxing. Emphasis is placed equally on executing the steps correctly and knowing the proper terminology for them. In particular, I love the special pamphlets the studio has prepared with a breakdown of each weeks’ classes and the steps learned in each. It’s a great tool for home practice as you inevitably forget something no matter how thorough your after-class notes (Mimi is always telling us to bring a journal). Mine is currently hanging next to my bed on my Inspiration Wall.
From day one, Mimi’s natural charisma and general quirkiness made me feel right at home despite the impersonal atmosphere at 440 Studios. One of the ways in which she fosters this sense of community is through a monthly Chat & Chew. On the last Sunday of the month after Level 3 finishes, all the dancers are invited out for some grub at a local cafe or restaurant. I haven’t attended one myself (I’m still feeling a bit shy), but I hope to soon.
One of the best things about classes at Manhattan Tribal is that there is almost always a company member attending. It’s a great resource having a variety of experienced dancers to watch and learn from. Plus, the number of inside jokes in the room is hilarious (I always find myself laughing along even if I don’t get it.). These guys have a joke for everything. Seriously.
Starting at Level One is always a humbling experience after dancing for almost seventeen years, but I find this particularly true with ATS. I rarely feel uncomfortable in a dance class, but when leading an ATS quartet, I’m straight up scared. What if I do the step wrong? What if I fail to cue correctly, and I confuse my fellow dancers? What if no one smiles at me when we’re changing positions in that circle-thingy!? Mimi almost always has to remind me to breathe when I’m leading (Apparently, oxygen is conducive to good dancing. Who knew?).
The best part of our beginner group improvisation, though, is when a less experienced dancer is put in the lead. A really beautiful transformation takes place. At first, they look around themselves at a complete loss and feeling a bit foolish. Then with Mimi’s assurance (sometimes it takes a few classes to reach this point), they take their first steps. One young woman in my class this past Sunday didn’t know what to do, but all of a sudden she just went for an Egyptian on the left foot and not exactly in time with the music. It was so awesome, and I was so excited to follow her. I am addicted to that moment when, new dancers first trust their bodies and start Dancing with a capital-D. I can’t wait for the day when I’m knowledgeable enough to teach. I want everyone in the world to have that experience. I love it. I love it. I love it.
The correction that I’m currently grappling with is to make my movement subtle. I’m on the thin side, and when I was first starting, I got super jealous of the girls with more to shake. Everything they did looked so much bigger and juicer while I bumbled around looking like an awkward twig. So I started exaggerating. If there was an opportunity to layer a belly roll or an extra hip lock, I took it. However, with ATS, bigger is not always better. Instead, it’s all about finesse and quiet precision. Learning how to turn off all my exaggeration-switches is going to take some time, but I know it’s going to add some extremely healthy variety to my dancing.
Studying ATS has been one of my favorite bellydance experiences. I think of ATS as a basic vocabulary that all Tribal Fusion dancers should be able to speak in the same way that ballet is universal art form. If you know your basic barre vocabulary, you’re instantly a part of a world-wide community of dancers, but you have to know your foundation before you start expressing your own artistic point of view. Everyone knows that you can’t write an essay before you know all the letters in the alphabet, but I think a lot of dancers skip over their beginner stage because they think it’s inferior. Little do they know that it’s the most exciting and important part of their dance training! If you spend a lot of time perfecting those foundational movements, you’ll be a fabulous intermediate and advanced dancer. If you jump right into the juicy stuff, it won’t be pretty.
But anyways, if you haven’t already, check out Manhattan Tribal! You won’t regret it!