This May at Tribal Fusion Fest 2011 I had the pleasure of meeting Heather Thompson of Tribal Moon Belly Dance. I conducted a very off the cuff improvisational interview while she worked the Performer’s Registration table. We discussed many dance topics including: American Tribal Style (ATS), ATS vs. freestyle dance, ATS vs. Ballet, underground or club dancing, “Geography” of the environment as it relates to professional club dancing, and costuming.
Heather described her first encounter with ATS via GypsyFire. “And from that day on, everything in my life I was setting towards learning Tribal.” She compared the expectation that she felt as a child to learn dances (ballet, tap, jazz) and be graceful to her current learning which is “a choice of my own”. When she was 13 she stopped her formal dance training to concentrate on her school studies. However she soon found underground house music clubs where she danced all night long. She appraised the complexity of underground club music where she found “that freedom of expression and freedom to move your body”.
Here’s more from the interview:
Alia: You started to talk about the improv part of ATS (American Tribal Style)…so tell me about ATS, you learn maybe 8 count or 16 counts and you look at a physical movement cues, visual cues…
Heather: Well, what I would say is that, each movement has a start and an end. So you have the count, it could be a 2 count move, 4 count move, 8 count move, and I would say it regularly stays in 4 counts. And then there’s that transition moment, between the 4 count, that you can switch the
move to a new move. But the improv is where it really gets its’ magic: where you can create by what you’re hearing to put the move to fit to the music and how its feeling to you. And then, you have a whole group of ladies following you, behind you.
Alia: Right. And then I see it as more collaborative…there’s a teacher in the beginning. But when you’re on the dance floor, each person can play a role in leading.
Heather: Yes, and I think every person has their own style, and their own taste, because they are individuals but yet coming together as a collective and dancing in harmony. (I suppose is how I would describe it). And I also think that you can connect the brainwaves, or you get on the same wavelength. And when everyone’s really connected that it just flows and you know its’ flawless. And I love that…I haven’t experienced any other dance that does that. Yeah and its just amazing. And I’m so glad, I really feel deeply inside that, you know when I saw it “This dance was made for me”. And I feel that other women feel that, and the men too, (they) connect with that. I’m excited, I don’t know how long I’ll do it for, but right now it seems like forever.
…regarding the previous night’s freestyle dancing
Alia: Yeah, I had a lot of fun last night. There was some good DJs, and David Starfire as well …and there was a great, I don’t know if it has to do with our overall subculture being supportive, and, a community, that we’re also very supportive on the dance floor. And even though, there wasn’t as good proportion of men here, there was a higher proportion of men on the dance floor. And it seemed like they were really enjoying themselves, with their freedom. And just doing ‘whatever’, not worrying about what they looked like…just completely letting the music move them.
Heather: Music lifts your body, and you know you can just feel it inside. Yes and I love that. I love that free expression. Yes, and (with) ATS…you’re on the stage, you are in a structure, in a format, but yet to move the structure and the format to your liking is the magic, I think. And also being able to lead all your beautiful ladies and give them the right cues that they need (so) that everyone looks in unison. So it does take a little thought, you know, way more than just being free on the dancefloor, which I still love that. If I didn’t have that I think it would be difficult. But I’m very excited to do
ATS on the stage too.
Alia: Are you going to be performing?
Heather: Yes this evening at 8 o’clock with Kathy Stahlman of Tribal Moon.
Alia: And has she been your only teacher in the last 6 years?
Heather: No I have been learning from Quinn Donovan of Gypsy Fire. Kathy just moved to Bend a year ago, and I’ve been able to tap into her expertise, and learn a lot of skill sets that have improved my dance, and I just love spending time with her, shes a great person. We hit it off really well.
Alia: So even within the ATS format…each teacher you get different things from.
Heather: I would say so, I wanna say that Level One and Level Two appear…to be basic. Because they’re both Carolena trained and that is the way its done. But once you start getting into performance prep…you learn formations and yes it seems there are differences. They’re good differences, and I like both styles. I will always honor both of the teachers greatly and I hope to become a teacher someday myself. (I’m) working towards that.
Alia: Did you have any strong relationships with the teachers when you were younger? Or did you have a personal connection with your ballet or jazz teachers?
Heather: Yes I did. My ballet teacher, as a young adult, I called her and she offered me a job to come and teach little kids ballet so I kept in touch with them. The one teacher Natasha, she was an older
Russian woman and she did pass away, but the other woman that I spoke with, she was still teaching when I was in my 20s….(in Florida)
Alia: How would you compare or contrast the teaching styles of… ballet vs. ATS?
Heather: Well I would say, I find them very similar in the respect that they’re wanting discipline,
structure. They want you to perform themove correctly. And I feel like that’s
Alia: How about the classroom, either the etiquette of the classroom: whether or not you talk during class (or don’t talk); do you ever eat… (What are the) unspoken or spoken rules?
Heather: Well when I was younger, it was the class the whole time, no breaks. And the structure of
having all the girls in the room with the tutus and the slippers and their pink ballet boxes. So you had to have your gear. It is, it’s so similar, I think it’s very interesting. But I would say that with
the Bellydance it’s a little freer because we’re adults and we do talk and joke and zaghareet. And so I’d say there’s a little more freedom and color in the tribal world or the bellydance world.
Alia: You worked in clubs and you were paid to dance on stage at clubs. How long did you do that
Heather: Well I was in my early 20s, 20-22. And it was the Ritz Theater in Ybor city. Yeah we all
had our own little styles there too: baggy pants, tennis little tank tops, or you could go with the glitter disco pants and the platforms. It just depends on the style that was going on that evening. They’d have a disco night every first Friday and so it was all disco. And so that was really fascinating, we were our own little group. I would say there was more men involved ‘cuase there was some really good male dancers. We’d throw down the breakdance stuff.
Alia: Did you…compete against another group to get that job? And was there other people that wanted to dance that maybe couldn’t because you were there?
Heather: No I would say they had their crew of dancers and because I got noticed at the club
because they circle up and you would dance in the circle, breakdancing style. And then I got noticed by one of the dancers that was a regular dancer. I knew the girl who worked the door…and so they brought me into the crew and so that was the best. I loved it.
Alia: So there was a collaborative community, even within the club dancing.
Heather: Yes, and a lot of them had been classically trained in ballet, jazz, and performed on stage for musicals..and so it was a theatrical group of kids that just wanted to have fun and dance, but you get
paid for it. (lol) So it was fun. And then you get up on the little podiums they have set up around the club in different spots and so it was lots of fun.
Alia: How does the geography affect your dancing, you said you had podium…would more than one dancer fit on one podium?
Heather: Yes there was some where three could be on one and there’d be a single one that was maybe a little higher and we’d sometimes switch off of that. Then there was the full stage sometimes and if the DJ was playing up there you could have a couple on each side of the DJ. But its more or less to get the crowd hopping and moving…and they see people dancing and sometimes we’d go out on the floor and just really try to bring the energy of “we’re dancing and this is fun”, “We’re having a good time”. It was really, it was fabulous. I loved it.
Alia: Would, the people who come, would they come week after week? Was there a community of people that you saw week after week come to the club?
Heather: Yes, I would say there were regulars. And it was a bar district, so a lot of the people who worked in the restaurants, after work would come there dance or have drinks. It was a really neat place, they had two different rooms and one room as a pool room. So it was a whole different environment. You could go fromone room to another room to playing pool and listening to jukebox music. So it was a real neat place. It was built in the 1920s and it used to be an old movie theater and yeah it was a real fascinating place.
Alia: Well thank you so much for talking to me.
Heather Thompson with Tribal Moon BellyDance