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Spirit and spectacle 

The Tribal Fusion Faire heats up December

Let’s face it: December is a hard month to live through. Aside from the chilly weather and seasonal affective disorder (abbreviated SAD), there’s not much to do that doesn’t directly involve holiday spirit: holiday concerts, holiday sale events, holiday-related art shows. The carols begin to infiltrate every store you enter, and will soon do the same to your soul.

It’s why Wendy Oliver chooses to hold her annual Tribal Fusion Faire in the month’s early days. It’s something different.

SWORDS AND SWIRLS :  Seba displays the vibrancy of costume and motion. - PHOTO COURTESY OF WENDY OLIVER
  • SWORDS AND SWIRLS : Seba displays the vibrancy of costume and motion.

The faire, which brings together tribal dancers, international cuisine, and vendors from around the globe, takes place at the Veterans Hall in San Luis Obispo. Since founding the event in 2003, Oliver has seen a great influx in the number of participants.

“We have people come from all over the world,” Oliver explained. “It’s definitely outgrown its pot, so to speak!”

Oliver carries around a stack of papers about three inches thick, a hefty workload necessary for organizational purposes. She narrates as she shuffles through each page: “This is the floor plan for the vendors. ... Here are the bookings for the hotels for all of the teachers and performers. ... .”

Putting together a two-day festival is no easy task, and besides balancing her stack of papers, she also juggles several online selling accounts while planning her husband’s tour with his band Black Uhuru—though you won’t catch her complaining.

“When you love something, it’s not work,” she said.

Prior to starting the faire, Oliver had been selling her wares at festivals for 35 years. She once organized reggae festivals as well, which is how she met her husband, one of her few co-coordinators.

In its eighth year, the multi-faceted tribal fusion event she brought into being isn’t a mere celebration, but a bazaar and a pop-up institution as well. According to Oliver, there will be 200 performers and two dozen vendors at this year’s event, going down Dec. 10 and 11. Wares include homemade crafts and such imported goods as clothing, jewelry, and textiles from the Middle East, North Africa, India, and the Mediterranean.

ADORNED IN SOPHISTICATION :  Amel Tatsouf has been practicing her art since childhood. - PHOTO COURTESY OF WENDY OLIVER
  • ADORNED IN SOPHISTICATION : Amel Tatsouf has been practicing her art since childhood.

The faire also melds belly dance from Turkey, Egypt, India, Pakistan, and many other countries. The history of belly dancing, though centuries old, is widely overlooked. The term “belly dance” is the American term for the form, although what’s known as “belly dancing” is better described as a collection of many styles from different cultures. Westernized belly dance is somewhat of a hand-me-down tradition, having gained more unique qualities since its adoption into Western counter-culture in the late ’60s.

American Tribal Style, for example, started with a woman named Carolena Nericcio, who took influences from the many different regional belly dances she learned from her mentor, Masha Archer, in the early ’70s. ATS, as it’s called, is a contemporary version of early Raqs Sharqi, an Egyptian dance style, translating to “Dance of the Near East,” marked by more choreographed group dances. American Tribal Fusion is an offshoot of ATS, fusing it with contemporary dances such as hip-hop and breakdancing.

In keeping with belly dance’s fluid, ever-changing nature, performers and teachers at the Tribal Fusion Faire will exhibit a wide range of personalized interpretation. Consider Amel Tatsouf, an Algerian-born woman who’s been practicing her nation’s dances since learning them from her grandmother as a child.

“In Algeria, it isn’t called belly dancing,” Tatsouf explained of her background. “It’s just dancing. We do not separate the arts: dancing, singing, cooking. Everything is part of another.”

Though she pulls from her roots, she’s always evolving.

“Fusion always existed,” she went on. “Culture influences culture. ... Fusion is the freedom to do something beautiful. It is all about communication and expression. It’s the dancer’s responsibility to make it an art form.”

Then there’s Edenia—who mixes American Tribal Style with popping and locking—and the well-known, one-name enigma Tempest, the creator of Gothic belly dance, or, as she’s dubbed it, “Nouveau Noir” dance. Tempest designs her own costumes, which have an art-deco flair, and moves to a combination of traditional Arabic folk and industrial and gothic sounds.

The faire will also offer a workshop with Alysha, a certified yoga instructor, on stretches and muscle exercises that improve stability. A dancer by the name of DeVilla will teach another workshop on stage makeup, and Nathaniel Johnstone (a member of the popular steampunk band Abney Park) will collaborate with Tempest to discuss the importance of musical awareness in dance.

DARKLY DRAMATIC :  Tempest dominates the stage with her seductive attitude. - PHOTO COURTESY OF WENDY OLIVER
  • DARKLY DRAMATIC : Tempest dominates the stage with her seductive attitude.

But watching the dances, too, is certainly mesmerizing. At first, nuances fly past. But after getting past the first level of entrancement—the fascination with the scintillating bodies in bright, glittering costumes—viewers become so involved in the movement that it becomes difficult not to notice the subtleties. Some dances are slow and graceful, with motions so delayed it’s hard to believe the dancer is moving at all. Some are so quick, audience members’ eyes are deceived by their pace. The dances are undeniably sensual, with moves designed to accentuate the female form. All employ a delicate twisting of the wrists, a see-saw motion of the hips, and an undulating stomach.

Anyone can dance. The feeling is liberating and joyful—and once you get started, it may be hard to stop.

“We get at least one person who joins the community a year. That one person—a year is worth all of the work to pass on the excitement of the dance,” Oliver said.

Of course, to truly learn takes concentration and focus. The dances involve slow motions similar to those of Tai Chi, requiring great strength and muscle coordination.

Despite style differences, universal sentiments resonate throughout the belly dancing community. All agree that dance is about conveying a story, and although there are male belly dancers, celebration of femininity is a key element.

“It’s about being a woman,” Tatsouf explained, “loving yourself, honoring yourself, celebrating yourself.”

Oliver dances to the same beat: “Really, it’s a woman, sisterhood, goddess festival.”

Rachel Molli Fields is an intern for New Times. Contact her via Arts Editor Anna Weltner at


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