We rarely talk about bellydancing at D.W.R, but when we do, you bet it is worth your time to listen! We chat with Isabelle Mokross, founder of Shakti Fusion Dances to find out more about the niche ATS® Bellydance and her life story in dance.
But first, we got to let the dance speak for itself!
Talk me through your dance journey. Who/What inspired you to begin dance?
“Ironically, my parents wanted me to learn self-defence sports like judo or karate. So when I was 10 years old they took me to one of those classes in the small town (in Germany) where I grew up. I didn’t feel very comfortable because all was about strength, and technique and when I glanced over to the studio next door there was a Rhythmic Gymnastics class going on. Dancers there looked so graceful, expressive and in tune with the music. From that moment I knew what I wanted to learn, and started to go for Rhythmic Gymnastics/Dance classes.”
“Later at the age of 16, I lived in Brazil for one year. In order to make friends and settle, I looked out for Jazz Dance and Hip Hop classes, styles I had danced before apart from Rhythmic Gymnastics. At that time I had never heard about Bellydance and randomly tried a Bellydance class. That changed my life. The understanding of my feminine body as well as my awareness of the movement became stronger and I really liked to express ease and beauty on stage.”
What kept you going?
“When I grew a bit older, I started my studies and work which had nothing to do with dance back in Germany. Over time, I realised how much I missed dancing and that my body felt stiff, unwell and my back was very tight from too much sitting in the office. So I decided to go back into Bellydance and started performing with two troupes in Germany (Studio Mayyadah Pforzheim , Andrea Beer, Cologne).It was fun, kept me healthy and at the same time, I made friends.”
Any difficulties that you experienced dancing? And how did you overcome it?
“When I started bellydancing, I actually had bad posture: rather rounded shoulders and a weak core. Also, from a cultural point of view, I wasn’t used to expressing myself with big movements neither did I have facility with hip movements. You know, in cold climate we tend to rather contract our body instead of extending it to keep warm *haha*
On the other hand I was very flexible, loved props and liked to dance and interpret music, which is due to my Rhythmic Gymnastics background.
So I tried to build on my strengths and to weaken my difficulties by practice, practice, practice. At the age of 25, I again lived in Brazil and I think this was a real turning point in my dance career. I meet and trained with such wonderful and experienced teachers at Centro Cultural Shangrila in Sao Paulo (Credits to Lulu, Mahaila el Helwa, Aziza, Malak, Sahar Fouad) for 2 years. The Brazilian energy, love for dance and powerful hips just made my dance journey! I signed up for many classes and Workshops and ended up dancing 5 days a week and performing at Haflas (arabic for party) or year-end performances. That was the same time when I started ATS® American Tribal Style Bellydance with Rebecca Pinheiro and her Tribe, Carla Basil and her Tribe, Imadamah and Tribal Fusion with Lukas Oliver at Campo das Tribos.
Also, I realised that only dancing and performing is not enough. Due to a knee injury (caused by a motorbike accident, not dance), I became more aware of how to care for my body, preventing injuries and living as a dancer. This brought me to the next decision to do an accredited Bellydance formation at the dance school Shiva Nataraj in Sao Paulo. There I studied over one to five years with dancers of different disciplines such as history, nutrition, anatomy, body conditioning, ballet, etc. “
How would you describe your dance style?
“My dance style is pretty much a fusion, combining 7 years of traditional Bellydance with 5 years of focus on ATS® Bellydance & Tribal Fusion Bellydance. I like to melt with the music and at the same time read small accents in the music. Since I live in Singapore, I focus more on my studies in Bollywood and Classical Indian Dance. The most recent output of this development you can see in several performances in April – July 2019 with a brand new Bellywood Choreography which fuses Bollywood moves with Bellydance moves and also uses a veil – cause I love Props!”
Tell us more about ATS® Bellydance.
“ATS® Bellydance stands for American Tribal Style® Bellydance (short form: ATS®). This modern dance form was created by Carolena Nericchio-Bohlman in San Francisco, CA. by Fat Chance Bellydance® (short: FCBD®) in the 1980s. ATS® is a worldwide dance phenomenon bringing dancers from all different countries together and its popularity has since spread all over the globe. In Asia, ATS® Bellydance is most strongly represented in China, Japan, Korea & Taiwan. In Singapore, ATS® Bellydance is being taught by me at my dance school Shakti Fusion Dances since 2017.
ATS® Bellydance is a graceful and powerful dance combining slow and fast steps inspired by Bellydance, Spanish Dance and Indian Dance in the form of a dance improvisation. The specific dance steps and the dance practice contribute to an improved body awareness, increase flexibility and fitness. Dancers usually play finger cymbals during their dance. Nowadays, there are many variations of ATS®, so-called movement dialects. Those include ATS® with Fan, ATS® with Baskets, ATS® with Veil, ATS® with Sword.
When people hear about American Tribal Style® Bellydance for the first time, they tend to put it either in the box of Bellydance or in the box of a native dance. However, the word ‘Tribal’ refers to the idea of a tribal culture. From a dance perspective this means having an alpha leader, a beta leader and a clan who follows in order to create dance improvisation. The tribal culture is also translated into beautiful adornments, intricate costumes as well as body tattoos.”
How did you come across ATS® Bellydance?
“In 2014, I was looking to learn finger cymbals to improve my bellydancing. At that time, I had only danced Bellydance and couldn’t find Bellydance teachers in Brazil who would just focus on finger cymbals. So I decided to attend an ATS® Bellydance class because playing finger cymbals is an integral part of dancing ATS® Bellydance. When I entered the dance school “Campo das Tribos” lead by Rebeca Pinero in Sao Paulo, Brazil, I was stunned, fascinated, … a fragrance of incense, 2 cats, a constant vibe of finger cymbals and a friendly tattooed & pierced receptionist. I glanced through the window to see the class: students and the teacher had a smile on their face, they were dancing together and enjoying themselves. It seemed like they were communicating with each other through their steps, I had no idea how. But it felt very organic, pure and so harmonious to me….I took the class and felt that there were a lot of things that I had not experienced before in such intensity during my Bellydance practice the last 7 years: interaction with dancers, eye contact (OMG I was so shy!!), letting go of choreography and just dancing what comes to our mind when you listen to the music.”
How is ATS® Bellydance different from the traditional belly dance we usually see?
“ATS® Bellydance has some characteristics that distinguish it from Middle Eastern belly dance: ATS® emphasizes on group performances instead of solo performances. The dance itself is improvisational and dynamic because dances in the class room or performances are created on the spot.
When you learn ATS® Bellydance, it is like learning to speak a new language. You will learn steps and cues to communicate with other dancers non-verbally. The founder of the dance style calls it a “codified dance language” in which it is possible to dance with dancers all over the globe because all speak the same dance language. There is no need for choreography, unless more intricate performances are the goal. This nature of improvisation asks for trust, confidence and collaboration amongst the dancers. There is no such competition about who is the better dancer because what matters is how dancers can function together as a troupe. This fact creates a very friendly and supportive atmosphere inside and outside the classroom which is our SISTERHOOD!
I remember me and my former tribe Imadamah in Sao Paulo choosing our costumes by a method I had never seen before: Each of us would put their skirt, pantaloons pants, choli and accessories on the floor to then compile outfits for each dancer, no matter whose clothes they were – this is an example of real sisterhood in which you want the best for the tribe, not yourself!
In general, ATS® costumes are less revealing yet very colorful, compared to traditional Bellydance. As ATS® Bellydance focuses on the dance art itself; the body is more covered to not distract the audience from the performance by looking at single dancers’ body, hair, etc. This means that even woman who cover themselves for cultural and religious reasons can still consider to practice/perform because no skin has to be shown. “
What made you decide to pursue it full-time?
“My dream was always to work with dancing. When I was just graduating, I opted against it because society and family tells us to choose a respected profession. A profession, with which we can make our living with and which brings us fame – doctor, lawyer, manager, etc.
So going that path, suggested by my family/society, I gained financial independence and saw myself achieving, growing professionally. But with that also the pain within myself grew. I got sick more often, felt unhappy and stressed. From a hobby dancer, I became a hobby teacher in Brazil and later in Germany. I love to teach and to see how students are learning and growing. When I settled in Singapore, I knew that a new start brings new opportunities with it. At the same time, I missed my ATS® Tribes from Brazil and Germany and remembered my first ATS® teachers’ words: ‘The Tribe is within you!’.
I knew it was the right decision to build a new SISTERHOOD here in Singapore!”
What are the challenges you faced when you began to teach dance? How did you overcome them?
“No one in Singapore knew me as a dancer: I already had three Bellydance friends here in Singapore when I settled. They helped me a lot to get better feeling about what to do and whom to approach. In order to make myself known, I started dancing at Haflas and giving Trial Workshops in different studios.
Studio space is very expensive: I was certain that it didn’t make sense to rent my own space. So I started reaching out to local dancers and luckily a friend of mine knew a dancer, who just opened her new studio and had space for me to teach classes.
I haven’t taught in Asia before; There can be cultural differences sometimes. Not only in the way of teaching but also in the way the body of different cultures is trained and used to certain movement patterns. Now my classes are pretty mixed with different nationalities and personalities. I try to observe and be flexible in my teaching as much as possible to give my students the best experience and learning possible.”
Any wise words that you keep in your heart when the going gets tough?
“The seed will always carry fruits, we do not always know when but eventually it will happen!”
Please define what Community means to you!
“Community for me means a group of people with the same interest/aspirations who support each other and are willing to learn from each other for the greater good of the community. I am looking for partners in the future to support and co-create. In the past I have worked together with “Temple of Fine Arts” and “Fest of Love” Since the beginning of my teaching here in Singapore, I am co-working together with Zena from Merzly Oriental Dance. The idea is to make tribal style dance not only a fitness or social activity but to make it a lifestyle.”
What are your thoughts on our current dance community?
“The current dance community in Singapore is quite diversified. I see many different dance styles and skilled teachers. Also festivals and competitions for Bellydance or other styles can be found all year round. As creative director of Shakti Fusion Dances, I wish to be an active contributor and supporter to the dance community as well as the local art and entertainment scene here in Singapore.”
What do you hope to see in the future for the Singapore bellydance scene?
“I hope that traditional Bellydancers and Tribal Bellydancers will collaborate even more in the future. One step towards this aspiration is the yearly World Bellydance Day organised by Mai Sooriya-Arachchi and Ayumi Kaneko as well as the Tribal Bellydance Fusion Halfa organised by Shakti Fusion Dances for the third time in a row. And I also hope that this article will create more interest for woman to join the ATS® Bellydance Movement to grow the Tribal scene here in Singapore and to collaborate with other ATS® Bellydance Tribes in Asia.”
To all dancers that intend to pursue dance as a career, any words of advice for them?
“Patience, Persistence and Versatility”
Finally, any events in the upcoming months that we will be able to catch you at?
“Yes of course! We have many. In April we will have a Belly Fusion Hafla at Club 5 @Parkroyal Hotel Kitchener Road, 12.30pm. On June 22nd and 23rd we will be at Street Festival at Bugis+ for the Asia Global Bellydance, while on 27th July we will have a Tribal Bellydance Fusion Hafla at Kazbar, 7.30pm. Finally on the 12th and 13th October, we will have the Yalla Top Star 2019!
For more details, you may check out Shakti Fusion Dance Singapore.
For women looking to pick up a dance hobby or start an exercise regime, ATS® is a lively social dance that is suitable for beginners and for people who prefer to learn and perform in groups. I you are a professional dancer you may consider to join as well to work with different improvisation concepts and new steps.”