View more photos in the Gothla Belly Dance slideshow.
When New Jersey-based dancer Tempest created the Gothic Belly Dance Resource in 2003 as a means to "codify" the east-meets-west, modern-meets-traditional style of dance that was developing organically across the United States, she was met with controversy.
"People would say, 'This is an abomination,'" she recalls. But for Tempest and others like her, the criticism of belly dance purists seemed unfounded. "In Egypt, they dance about pain and sadness. Some of the most classic belly dances are about lost love in this dramatic sense. It's not that alien to dance the dark side."
Tempest is now considered a foremother of the gothic belly dancing (GBD) or "raks gothique" movement, which punctuates cabaret belly dance and tribal fusion styles with Western dance elements and gothic or industrial music.
The popularity of GBD has grown immensely in recent years, with clubs like Ruin in L.A., Chamber in Anaheim and Skandal in Riverside serving as a showcase for the dancers. The leaders of GBD, who have studied traditional Middle Eastern dances as well as the region's history and culture extensively, have released successful DVDs, toured and regularly travel to host workshops across the U.S. and Europe. Last year, Tempest and Sashi, an Orange County-based dancer and instructor who incorporates tribal fusion techniques with industrial music, launched Gothla US, a "gothic hafla" that combines weekend-long workshops with a Saturday festival featuring twelve hours of performances and merchant booths where dancers can find costumes and accessories.
"When Tempest started doing her stuff, it all made sense to me, because I had already been adding storylines that involved the shadow side, that fine line between the life and death instinct in the story behind the dance, which really is what gothic belly dance is," says Sashi. "It's not just black eyeliner, lipstick and dark music - it's the story that you portray."
At the second annual Gothla US, which took place last weekend at Cal Poly Pomona, the stories took precedence over the finely crafted costumes and elaborate make-up and hairdos.
"It's more of an artistic statement," says Asharah, one of the instructors at Gothla US, who is as well known for her pop-and-locking skills as she is for her knowledge of belly dance traditions.
Ascendance, a troupe featuring Sashi's pupils, dealt with seduction and submission to a Puscifer soundtrack. Meanwhile, L.A.-based Elysium Dance Theatre used this year's steampunk theme and Joanna Newsom's "Peach, Plum, Pear" to tell the tale of a broken automaton and the scientists who learn to accept her. At the Saturday night gala show, where the instructors performed, Asharah waged a battle against "complacency" while Callisto, Sweden's premier GBD instructor and an expert on weapon choreography, channeled ancient warrior goddesses.
Callisto says that her stories do represent a "feminist agenda," that "women can show their bodies and be powerful and beautiful and feminine and not objects."
But while the stories and messages present in GBD are the most crucial factor, the image is hard to ignore. Given that this is a fusion style, there is no uniform look and, last Saturday, the mostly female attendants hit the stage in styles ranging from lace harem pants to steampunk bustle skirts sitting low enough on the hips to expose the midriff. The accessories featured lots of heavy silver with ample use of cross and spider motifs and jewel-toned floral headpieces. It's a fashion that is moving from the dance community to the club crowd.
"That's how I think a lot of people get into it," says Ascendance's Keri Weir of GBD fashion. "They see something that they like, whether it's an aesthetic or something like that and they kind of find their way to learning how to dance as well."
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By instilling a jolt of modern experimentation while still retaining a reverence for this traditionally Middle Eastern form of movement, gothic belly dancing is coming into its own as a genre. It's a constantly evolving style where pushing both physical and artistic limitations isn't just accepted, but is encouraged.
"It's not something that you're going to go to Egypt and see," says Asharah. But, it's something you won't want to miss in the U.S.
Elysium Dance Theatre performing at Gothla US 2009, filmed by Clockwork Couture.