Improvisational Transnational Style: What’s in a name?

The belly dance community as a whole doesn’t get a lot of tea. I mean, troupes have their own share of internal drama, there’s always that one girl who stands directly in between you and your mirror in class, and people have opinions about… well, everything when it comes to culture, identity, performance styles, costume choices, appropriation, trademarking, and so on.

But sometimes new ideas take hold of a community of people who are dancing in a way that has existed for at least decades – if not centuries – and the community then has to decide whether it will respond in kind or with aggression.

This week, that’s happening.

A photo of Amy Sigil, founder of improvisational transnational style, on stage.
100% yoinked this without permission from the Unmata website and I’m so sorry. Photo credit: UNMATA

What’s happening?

On Monday, Amy Sigil made an announcement on Facebook:

We are changing the name of ITS to… ITS! Improvisational Tribal Style is now Improvisational Transnational Style! We will be working on transitioning the websites and marketing in 2020.

In a comment on the same post, she added:

It’s time to move away from the word Tribal. With Donna Mejia’s blessing we are adopting her terminology of Transnational. “Tribal” is a loaded word for us here in the Americas. Right now I live 1 mile away from the Wintu tribe, very close also to the Pit River, Klamath and Shasta Tribes. We are not dancing tribal. We are a transnational style and I am so proud of this. I am excited to rebrand and also keep the same letters! This is the biggest decision I have made with this format and I hope it is received with love! ITS I love you!

So what does this mean?

Amy’s proprietary format, ITS, will now be known as improvisational transnational style. This only refers to ITS itself, so if you are dancing outside that format, nothing has changed.

People who dance with FatChanceBellyDance will still be ATS/tribal dancers (I can’t imagine Carolena Nericcio will change the name any time soon).

The rest of us are going to have to make up our minds about how we choose to brand ourselves.

What’s good about it?

Sometimes it’s weird to call yourself a tribal dancer because you know that the follow-up question is going to be, “What tribe?”

To be honest, I think this is a really healthy acknowledgement of cultural appropriation. I’m not necessarily qualified to have an opinion about cultural appropriation because I’m a white American man who belly dances; I’ve definitely faced certain criticisms from people who have really strong opinions about how I definitely shouldn’t do the thing I do (that’s a whole other blog post; there are a lot of things I do that I definitely shouldn’t do according to a whole bunch of people I don’t know).

In general, though, there’s a certain cultural sensitivity that we should all operate under (I’m not talking dancers here; I’m talking people). I have my doubts that many people have asked Native Americans for their perspectives on the name. I know I certainly haven’t. We probably should have.

I will also say that transnational seems like a better, more descriptive title to begin with. Our dance blends a lot of dance forms from very diverse cultures across the globe, so transnational is appropriate and accurate. Tribal is only a descriptive term for people who already know what it is.

It’s a lot safer to change the name of a dance style that feels wrong, though, than it is to just assume that nobody’s hurt and that it isn’t going to cause problems.

I also think Amy was anticipating a much harsher reaction than she has seemed to receive so far – her hope that this change will be received with love seems like both a hope that people will adopt the change (and thus effect the positive change she wanted to achieve by making this move) and an acknowledgement that our community can be a little prickly when things change.

Personally? I support it.

I can’t say I’ll do a good job of remembering what to call myself now (it’s been 10 years; words become muscle memory).

But I think it’s a good idea, and I’m going to try to be mindful of it.

I also think it’s a great reminder for our individual practices. We need to acknowledge our dance’s cultural heritage as we grow as dancers. This isn’t the chicken dance.

So let me reintroduce myself. Hi! I’m Brice. I am (among many, many other things) a transnational-style belly dancer.

It’s kinda got a ring to it, don’t you think?

What do y’all think about the change? Do you support it? Do you think it’ll be easier or harder than trying to remember to date things with the right year?

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