Classic American

Classic American

Creative Styles in Motion

by Gisselle Fobbs

America has long been recognized as the cultural melting pot of the world. Naturally, our development of Oriental Dance has been influenced by exposure to these cultures over the years. In fact, our adaptation and understanding of an essentially “foreign” dance form has been greatly aided and accelerated by the access that we have to the Middle-Eastern subcultures in our country.

Conchi: "My feelings about the dance are pure joy, excitement, strength, and beauty. That is what I feel and try to convey while dancing."

Yet our own American culture has its unique characteristics which have given shape to the dance styles we see here. For instance, contemporary society in America tends to be fast-paced and hectic, and perhaps the generally high energy levels in our dance reflect that; in contrast, the more traditional lifestyles of North Africa and Asia are less hurried and more relaxed, possibly accounting for the less energized and more serene, uncluttered and flowing styles we tend to find there. In America, we are being taught to express, even display, our emotions, whereas in the Middle East society stresses the importance of appropriately suppressing ones feelings and keeping firm control over displaying emotions considered to be inappropriate. We are taught to be flamboyantly creative. This may account for the more dramatic and theatrical body and facial expressions which we tend to find in American dancers.

However, being the amazingly creative people Americans are in all areas, it is not surprising to find an incredible range and variety of styles among American oriental dancers. We are able to identify that this dancer does a great Egyptian cabaret, or that one does Turkish style, or Moroccan, or Saudi, etc. Dancing in Europe for several years where I was surrounded by a variety of dance styles made me acutely aware of the national and regional variations in dance style. But it also made me realize even more clearly that there is something unique about our “classic American” style of dance. Not that it is easy to define! Unlike many of the countries from which the dance originated, America does not have a well-defined tradition which can be traced unbroken through the ages, with its unspoken rules and guidelines to govern dance style. And yet we hear more and more when a performance is described, “She danced ‘American-style.’”

I have developed a system to analyze the elements of dance style in an attempt to more clearly define classic American. Of these nine categories, the first three seem to be most useful in developing an understanding of the “rules” which circumscribe the style, and differentiate it from others:

I. Movements and props used

II. Body and facial expression

III. Movements excluded

IV. Definition of movement

V. Energy levels

VI. Floor patterns

VII. Hand and arm placement

VIII. Musical selection

IX. Musical phrasing

Delilah: "The dance represents the ritual creative process of becoming and unfolding...When we learn to dance we are learning skills for moving through time and space; thus, learning to dance metaphorically means learning to live! I see each dance as a dress rehearsal for the bigger picture...Belly Dance/Earth Dance/Birth Dance equals Life Dance."

I. MOVEMENTS AND PROPS: Dance styles differ in terms of the movements used and the various props employed.

Some of the most familiar images evoked by classic American style are the unique interpretations of movements, such as arm and hand combinations and floorwork, and the incorporation of props such as the sword, veil, snake, water goblet, etc. This emphasis is particularly prevalent in the taxsim and chifi-telli sections of the dance.

One of the unique ingredients in Delilah’s style (Seattle) is the prevalence of intricate arm and hand movements and expressive finger placement. Her arm and hand movements are a unique montage of hand flutters, variations of push-pull arms, poses, shoulder rolls, large to small variations of hand and arm circle patterns, and snake arms.

Swords are a common ingredient in classic American. A particularly skilled example of this can be found on Suzanna Del Vecchio’s video, “Dances From the Heart.” She balances a sword on her chin while doing backbends; she then places the sword on her head, moves to a sitting position on the floor and drops the sword from her head onto her abdomen; there she rolls the sword by executing stomach rolls, and uses her abdominal muscles to flip the flat of the sword from side to side on her stomach.

A focus on extensive veil work is also characteristic of classic American, and it is very common to see the veil used to create various head and body wraps. Conchi recently gave a dynamite performance in Paducah, Kentucky, where she used her veils to create graceful swirls in the air about her, and produce a flowing quality to her spins. Her veil work drew cheers from the crowd. She says, “When someone comes to me after a show and says, ‘This dance is truly an art! I was especially moved by your veil dance, it had so much beauty!’ or, ‘Your double veil gave me goose bumps,’ then I know my dancing has gotten through to the audience.”

In the early days of the dance in America, floorwork was practically a compulsory part of the performance. Conchi and Amaya sometimes begin their floorwork with a Turkish drop, which always stirs a round of applause. Amaya is one of the few dancers who is able to lift herself from the floor while doing a bodywave (backwards camel); she then returns to the floor from her kneeling position doing a camel, head to the floor followed by the shoulders, upper back, and finally the lower back. It is common to see dancers incorporate figure eight hips, rib, and arm and hand combinations into floorwork routines.

II. EXPRESSION: Dance styles vary in the manner and degree to which they use the body and facial expressions to express or create a desired mood, feeling, or idea.

The classic American dancer typically portrays a wide spectrum of emotions and plays various roles, ie., joy, yearning, the shy maiden, a regal demeanor, the coquette, a sultry siren, etc. Many classic American dancers attempt to embody and express stories or ideas through their dance performances. The style is essentially dramatic in its nature.

Kathryn Ferguson: "I like gestures that come from individuals, not gestures that are copied. I want to have insight into the person I am watching, not seeing a dancer trying to be someone else. (Although) dance has to be rooted in traditional movement...once the dancer has great technique, she or he truly can be original."

Suzanna’s performance on the “Moon Over Denver, Vol. I” video is an excellent example of polished dramatic talent in a dance piece. Halfway through her performance she faces the audience for a moment to set the mood with both hands on the floor in front of her while kneeling on one knee, with the opposite leg extended out behind her. She then takes a step forward with her right hand, then her left, her fingers facing in. Then with both hands still on the floor and sitting on the leg of her bent knee, with eyes fastened on the audience, she gradually lowers her torso to the floor while slowly executing shoulder rolls. This entire combination is accompanied by a facial expression that can only be described as stalking one’s prey. The overall effect paints a breathtaking picture of a beautiful, but deadly black panther silently following its victim through the jungle.

III. MOVEMENTS EXCLUDED: Some cultures do not permit certain movements in the dance because they see them as being “taboo” because they express sentiments or feelings that are unacceptable, undesirable, or unaesthetic.

Throughout the years of the development of Oriental Dance in the United States we have struggled to shatter its negative image. The history and reality of certain aspects of the dance in other lands, coupled with Hollywood’s portrayal of Oriental Dancers as prostitutes, bi-sexuals, exotic dancers (Burlesque) and nymphomaniacs, is a battle we valiantly fight. We attempt to educate the public through the print media and performances at international fairs, public school presentations, and TV and radio talk shows. Because pelvic bumps and grinds, and bust shimmies have been associated with Burlesque and strip shows, they are taboo in classic American style because of the image they portray to the public.

IV. DEFINITION OF MOVEMENT: The amount of physical definition given to a movement may be characteristic of a particular style of dance.

There is such a variance among classic American dancers in this regard, that it is not terribly useful in defining this style. As a general rule, however, movements such as the camel, rib work, arms and hands, variations of figure eight hips, and shimmies are larger, rounder and more deeply defined than in other dance styles. Many dancers, such as Delilah, display deep definition in all of their movements. The hip figure eights and arm and hand movements in the introduction performance on the “Dance Delilah Dance” video are a clear example of deep definition in the hips and arms, giving Delilah a snake-like appearance. Suzanna combines varying degrees of definition in her style, whereas Delilah’s style is characteristically well defined; yet they are both examples of classic American style.

Amaya: "I dance to express a wonderful combination of music and physical spirit. Often I will laugh out loud because it is so much FUN. When I dance, a magical energy circle is created...I send energy out, the audience receives it; they vicariously dance through me and send me their response which I in turn devour and send back out to the audience magnified once again. I see my dance direction becoming more explorative as I get older and certainly less concerned about restraintive issues such as 'Is it authentic? Is my costume the latest?' I am suppose to create, supposed to be creative, supposed to explore. After all, I am an artist."

V. ENERGY LEVELS: Energy levels in dance styles can be understood in terms of a) muscle exertion, b) shifting of speeds, and c) different movements in a musical measure.

The skillful application of these three aspects of energy level can produce powerful dramatic impact and capture the rapt attention of audiences. This is very true of classic American because of the wide variations in energy level which are found here. Although this is not a particularly useful category in defining the uniqueness of classic American, as a general rule dancers using this style fluctuate more frequently in muscle exertion than in other styles. The shifting of speeds and the number of different movements in a musical measure are techniques which are broadly interpreted by classic American Dancers.

A. Muscle Exertion: The amount of exertion used in a dance will cause movements to appear smooth and flowing, serene, dramatic, electrically charged, etc. The application of muscle exertion can be likened to a surgeon’s scalpel: a knowledgeable hand will use it with skill and accuracy for the health and benefit of the patient; in untrained hands, it can cause injury or death to the patient. Applying insufficient energy to a dance can cause it to appear sloppy or dead; using too much energy at inappropriate times can cause movements to appear tense, disjointed and stiff. An absence of fluctuation in the energy level can cause a dancer’s performance to appear monotonous. Using the correct amount of muscle exertion in a movement or combination can be a powerful tool to project a specific mood or feeling, such as serenity, joy, passion, a regal aura, drama, etc.

B. Shifting of Speeds: Although the tempo of the music may not vary, the speed of the dancer’s movements can be varied depending on the steps used. The expressive quality of the dance will vary depending on the amount of shifting of speeds which is produced through the succession of movements.

Once again, the introduction performance on “Dance Delilah Dance” is useful to demonstrate this concept: Delilah begins with a quick walk using directional changes, lowering the energy as she poses twice. She then picks up the pace again as she walks while her veil is unwound, used through a succession of spins, and then discarded. She then begins a gradual shift in energy by executing figure eight hips, hands, ribs and stomach movements. She once again speeds up with hip drops and a few spins before bottoming the energy by lowering herself to the floor to begin a floorwork segment. As a result of the frequent shifting of energy levels, one does not notice that the music has not varied in its steady, quick tempo.

C. Number of Different Movements Within a Musical Measure: The number of “Different Moves per Musical Measure” (DMPM) is a useful concept in analyzing how various energy levels and dramatic effects are created in a performance. Dancers and dance styles may also vary in their characteristic use of a particular number of DMPM’s. Some dancers may use only one or two DMPM’s, while others will characteristically use three or more. Kathryn Ferguson’s performance in “The Copper Flute” on her “Dances From the Casbah” video is a perfect example of three or more DMPM.

On the other hand, there are those dancers who utilize what I call “The Sprinkling Effect,” which is the blending of various DMPM’s. For instance, the main body of a dancer’s performance may be composed of three or more DMPM’s, but will be sprinkled here and there with a measure or so using one or two DMPM’s as a means of altering the energy level. Whether the “sprinkled” measures are used to drop the energy as moments of tranquility or accelerated it as shots of spice, the effect is the same: the audience’s attention is focused on the dancer. Amaya’s performances are mainly composed of one to two DMPM, with a sprinkling of three to four DMPM, using hip, rib and head accents. For example:

Suzanna Del Vecchio: "Dance performance for me is an opportunity to fully be in the present moment. Whether I am doing a choreographed or free style program, I am forever amazed at how difficult it is to just allow movement to happen without fear of forgetting choreography or thinking about what to do next. When It does occur, it is wonderful and very fulfilling."

8 camels with 8 side steps walking in a circle (1-16 counts)

2 basic steps across stage to left (1-7), 1/2 turn left (8)

2 basic steps back (1-8)

4 left hip drops (1-4), 1 basic step across stage to right (5-7)

1/2 turn left (8)

1 basic step back (1-4)

(here comes the sprinkling)

step back on left foot (5), pose (6)

drop shoulders and head back (7)

lift shoulders while snapping head up (8)

pose (1-4), 1 right shoulder drop (5), 1 right hip drop (6)

double rib drop (7-8)

Although Kathryn Fergusen’s performance on “The Copper Flute” is predominately three DMPM’s, it is a unique blending of front torso drops, head flips and accents, bodywaves, quick directional changes and poses, which create the dramatic flair for which she is known. She says, “Sometimes I work with the melody, sometimes the percussion. I also work ‘against’ the music. If it is extremely fast, I slow my movements down. I enjoy stillness. We are too busy in the dance. It is soothing to be still and leave moments empty. I like to use drama, which can be developed through accents and line.” Here is one of the combinations from her choreography which consists of eight counts:

2 small hip circles to the right, standing in place (1-2)

touch left foot to side moving head to left as an accent (3-4)

2 right back Tunisian hip twists (5-6)

1 chest lift (7), 1 body wave ending with head tilted back (8)

VI. FLOOR PATTERNS: The dancer’s movement on the stage will produce different designs or patterns depending on the combination of dance movements and direction changes used.

There do not appear to be particular floor patterns which are characteristic of classic American. Classic American dancers display various floor patterns ranging from something as simple as dancing in a circle, or moving forward and back then side to side to form a cross, to more intricate designs such as a cloverleaf or zig zag pattern. The lack of expectations in this area for dancers in this country allows for creativity and unlimited dramatic possibilities.

VII. HAND AND ARM PLACEMENT: Many dance styles have characteristic hand and arm positions and postures which predominate throughout the dancer’s performance.

Since classic American style sets no boundaries in this area, the dancer is free to do as she wishes. Some performers incorporate a ballroom or ballet influence in their dancing through the posture of their arms and hands, projecting a light, airy, butterfly-like image. The following are a few examples of how this feeling might be achieved:

HANDS: Ring and middle finger together in a relaxed downward curve, thumb approximately 2 1/2″ below middle and index fingers. The lack of muscle exertion used in this hand position allows the hands to be graceful extensions of the arms.

RIGHT ANGLE ARMS: One arm above the head, the other arm extended out to the side, in line with the shoulder and slightly curved with elbow up.

SIDE ARM EXTENSIONS: Arm slightly curved, elbow down at rib height, hands between chest and shoulder height.

ON HEAD: Both wrists resting on top of head, palms towards audience, elbows in line with shoulders.

Other dancers project an earthbound or heavy feeling with the following:

HANDS: Thumb, index and baby fingers extending sideways, ring and middle finger together with slight downward curvature. The amount of muscle exertion necessary to extend the thumbs, index and baby fingers sideways tends to give this hand position a somewhat stiff appearance.

SIDE ARM EXTENSIONS: Elbow down, arm deeply curved, palm at waist to rib height.

ON HEAD: One arm extended to side as explained above, index finger and heel of other hand on side of head with fingers toward back of head.

Some classic American dancers prefer the first choice and others the second. Then there are those creative dancers who are able to combine the two together to fluctuate the mood between earth and air. Whatever the choice, all are within the vast realm of classic American.

VIII. MUSIC: The origins of the music often dictates the style of dance, whereas other dance styles are able to utilize music from various traditions. Because of the influence of various cultures in the United States, many classic American dancers piece together musical selections from various countries. For example, the entrance may be Egyptian, the second section Lebanese, the third, Turkish, etc. On the other hand, some dancers who would be considered to have a classic American style focus on music from one particular country. The lack of restrictions in this area enable the classic American dancer to be as creative in musical selections as she is in other facets of the dance.

IV. MUSICAL PHRASING: This category covers the number of times that a combination, or variations of that combination, are executed to the repeats of the musical melody, or phrase.

Since classic American style has no pre-conceptions about how musical phrasing should be interpreted, dancers are free to translate the moods and feelings inspired by the music into meaningful movements.

Three possible methods of musical phrasing are exemplified in Suzanna’s interpretation of the musical repeats in the musical composition “Nelli,” on her video “Dances from the Heart.” The first phrase is 32 counts long, consisting of a repeated sixteen-count melody; this entire musical phrase is repeated again four measures later.

The first presentation of the melody is an example of Repeating a Combination Without Variation:

1a: Standing diagonal left, shoulder shimmies (1-3), 4 spins in place to right (4-8)

1b: Repeat 1a on counts 9-11 and 12-16.

As the melody is repeated to complete the phrase, Suzanna gives an example of using a Variation of the Combination:

2a: Standing diagonal left, three right hip drops (1-3), 1 right turn using right back hip twists (4-8).

The next eight counts are a blending of this combination (2a) and the first (1b).

2b: Standing diagonal right, 3 left hip drops (9-11), 4 spins in place to left (12-16).

Next follows a new 32-count musical phrase (3a & b) consisting of a repeated 16-count melody, and after that the original phrase is repeated. Through the first half of this segment, a variation of the last combination (2b) is executed. In the first part of the second half of this segment, there is an example of a Completely Diverse Combination, with no similarity to the other combinations used with this phrase:

4a: Facing front, arms out to sides, touch right foot to right side (1-2), touch left foot to left side (3), 1/4 turn left crossing arms over chest (4), arms out to sides (5), shoulder shimmy (6), 1/4 turn left (7-8)

4b: Repeat combination 4a continuing 1/4 turns to left.

These examples are a few of the possible ways to interpret musical phrasing. Some dancers might choose to use combination 1a for the full 32 counts of the phrase. On the other hand, some dancers compose movements for every measure of eight which are totally diverse from each other.

Since classic American style has no restrictions for the interpretation of musical phrasing, the dancers are free to translate the moods and feelings inspired by the music into meaningful movements.


What is classic American? There do seem to be certain qualities that set it apart from other styles. These were mentioned in sections I, II and III: emphasis on hand and arm movements and floorwork, use of props such as sword, veil, snake, etc., dramatic and creative body and facial expression, and the exclusion of movements associated with the dance’s “negative” sexual image.

However, it has also become clear from this analysis that another quality which sets it aside from more tradition-bound forms of oriental dance is its creativity and unbounded expressive possibilities. It is a style which has endless possibilities for self-expression.

Giselle Fobbs is a dancer, teacher and choreographer with over twenty years experience in various dance forms, including oriental, tap, ballet, modern, ballroom and Indian temple. She has recently returned to the U.S. after seven years performing and teaching in Germany.

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