The annual Massive Spectacular charity fundraiser provides the perfect introduction to an increasingly popular and incredibly diverse dance movement commonly referred to as tribal, or tribal fusion. Tribal dance has a boundless capacity to absorb ethnic and popular culture from around the world, but it’s best known as the contemporary manifestation of belly dance. Belly dancing can be traced back more than 6,000 years to the golden dawn of civilization, where magic and fertility rituals were all the rage. Our popular conception of the belly dance in the West only goes back as far as the 18th century, when it was exported from Turkey, India, Egypt and various points in the Middle East and the former Ottoman Empire. But the style itself is all-pervasive and as old as any tradition on earth. Its ability to absorb and transmit countless styles and cultures throughout the course of time is a testament to its mysterious power. Immediately recognizable despite its diversity, it seems to be tracking a parallel course of history as it resists the ever-changing ideals of perfection, progression, classification and finality.
The costume of the tribal dancer is the first thing that example of tribal dance’s potential for penetrating mainstream culture would have to be the beautiful Zoe Jakes of Yard Dogs Road Show and Beats Antique renown. A bit of a phenomena in the world of tribal fusion, she’s far more than just a pretty face. Almost as if to underlie this fact, she came out wearing a kabuki mask for her first number, removing it at brief intervals to draw attention towards the one feature of a dancer most often taken for granted. It's often hard to express complex ideas in dance unless they’re pinned to a strict narrative structure, but Zoe Jakes has the rare talent to do it in clever ways. By alternately concealing and revealing her subtle facial expressions, she turned a fusion of belly dance, whirling dervish and pop and lock street dancing into a smart, sexy and skillful piece of performance art. It's no wonder she has such a strong following, and there's no shortage of YouTube videos dedicated to this tribal goddess to prove it.
Local troupe DEA used masks as a bold visual device as well, increasing the ambiguities of identity by removing them, jigsaw puzzle fashion, one a piece at a time. Mandala Dance Works stepped up the high fashion as well, by cannibalizing sections of pink tutu to fill out their costumes, topping off their punk rock ballerina ensembles with matching pink mohawks. But the edginess of contemporary tribal dance doesn’t end with costuming. The boundary-pushing power of movement was best exemplified by UNMATA, whose dance began on the floor with a heaving and writhing body-pile before moving through a series of pounding and relentless attacks of dance defiance. You'll either loveUNMATA or hate them, but the audience at The Railhead at Boulder Station definitely loved them. The nitro-fueled estrogen attack of UNMATA might put a lot of mainstream audiences into their scary place, but this dance troupe is definitely food for the soul and an obvious favorite with their peers.
Wearing heavy boots and a long vintage skirt, The Lady Fred pieced together a most unlikely combination: tribal dance and silent film. She devised a unique style all her own with an understated movements which demonstrated that just as much, if not more, could be conveyed with restraint as with abandon. At times, with some help from the hazy blue wash of stage lighting, she even created the illusion that she was inside a silent screen film. Local performer Aradia opted for more color. While many performers fell back on the thumping hip-hop bass of contemporary dance music for immediate emotional appeal, Aradia hearkened back to the 1970's with the deliciously exotic melting-pot style made popular by musicians like George Abdo and Eddie Kochak. Her technique was also the closest thing at the Massive Spectacular to what might be considered old school belly dancing. With her feet seeming to do twice as much work as the rest of her body, she demonstrated the serpentine fluidity that's made belly dancing almost synonymous with sensual desire. Aradia made it look effortless and enjoyable, which is probably the hardest thing of all to do.
Some might argue that tribal dance is meant to be an ensemble affair, and Jill Parker and the Foxglove Sweethearts certainly gave credence to that notion. Beginning in an almost lackadaisical fashion, the movements of this troupe drew the observer in with gentle seduction and then transfixed them with threading and weaving dance sequences that could have kept an audience enthralled all night long. Unfortunately, even the body of a tribal dancer has its limitations. Many more performers took the stage at this year‘s Massive Spectacular, and none of them deserve to go without mention: Frank Farinaro, Matthias Lauwers, Kami Liddle, Auberon, Kalae Kaina, Michaella Maning, Ashley Lopez, Sciahina, Caro Dumanni, Pip E-Lysaah, Raphaella, Bella Saffe, Natalie and Stardust all brought high levels of excellence to the stage.
The entire production was strengthened by the fact that each new soloist and dance troupe was so very different from the last. Rather than diluting the overall style, each unique contribution added one more color to an already exotic dance tradition. Every novelty, whether it was brand new or unearthed from the distant past, became instant material for a performer unafraid to take a chance with it. And there was something to suit every taste, even for the detached observer. Perhaps the most eye-opening moment of the night was when Zoe Jakes struck a strange pose downstage that drew more than the average volume of zaghareets from the largely female audience. Like Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, Zoe stuck out her tongue with defiant humor. The goddess Kali is typically represented with dark blue skin and four arms, a sword in one hand and a severed head in another. The significance of her long red tongue is somewhat ambiguous, but the fact that she wears an entire necklace of severed heads, like a string of giant mushroom caps on a garland, is not.
Kali has her cultural equivalents in practically every religion throughout history: Cybele, Nuit, Nyx, Sekhmet, Demeter, Artemis, Isis and Hecate are just a few embodiments of the dark goddess, mysterious and seductive figures that are associated with the moon, the forest, fertility rituals, orgiastic dance, death, childbirth and time. Even Judaism has its ongoing affair with Lilith, who is alternately depicted as a demon and as Adam’s first wife (who left him because she refused to be subservient). Some argue that the black meteorite housed in the holy Kaaba, which Islamic pilgrims must circle seven times, indicates an earlier goddess worship prior to the prophet. Even the New Testament presents the Christian worshipper with a character popularly known as Salome, the beguiling step-daughter of King Herod, who danced in order to procure the severed head of John the Baptist. The ego-destroying rampage of a dark goddess might be one of the most frightening things an "enlightened" civilization could ever face, but it may also be the most liberating, freeing up latent energy which has been too long encumbered. Dark goddesses threaten to wound the overweening pride of those obsessed with dominating mother nature and manipulating other human beings. But for each hand Kali uses to decapitate a head, she uses another to alleviate fear and to offer blessings for those who seek her help. Kings, totalitarians, despots, tyrants and other self-deifying figures must consider her the greatest enemy, but those who seek true knowledge might consider her the greatest friend. Let there be no doubt: these goddesses of transformation will have the last word, the last laugh and the last dance.
ArtsVegas: Covering Las Vegas Art and culture since 2009.