Tribal Fusion and the Nexus of Sound and Movement

Today I want to delve a little deeper into the nexus of the strands of the dance medium. In Unintentional Juxtaposition in Tribal Fusion dance I looked at the nexus of the strands on a macro level. But I'd like to zoom into one aspect of this nexus. I suggest reading this article first to give you a bit more of an overview on this topic, yet it is not necessary in order to understand the content in today's post.

In Valerie Preston-Dunlop's book Dance and The Performative, there are 5 strands that we talk about when we are talking about the dance medium: sound, movement, performer, space and audience. We also talked about the relationship (or nexus) between these strands. This relationship can be juxtaposed, integrated or coexisting.

Integration of Sound and Movement

As tribal fusion dancers, the relationship between the sound and the movement strand is of course very important. In fact, often you will hear teachers say things such as 'embodying the music', 'becoming the music', 'letting the music move you',... These are all terms we are very much familiar of, I am sure. When someone says about a dancer that they have good musicality, they mean that they are embodying the music very well: the music becomes visible through the movements in their bodies.

A good example of a dancer that has good musicality is Violet Scrap. When Violet dances, she brings attention to the music in such a way that I discover layers within the music that I wasn't even aware of. Her use of movement quality and dynamics is so rich that it brings out the different textures that the music holds, and she decides which layer she wants you to listen to. The relationship between sound and movement is completely integrated.

So how does one embody music? Many people would say that this is an intuitive thing, but I like to dissect something that seems intuitive or that seems abstract into something tangible, just for the sake of it. In order to dissect, we have to somehow translate the sound strand into the movement strand. For movement, I would like to focus just on space and dynamics for the time being.

- different volumes in music can be translated in different volumes of movement, meaning that prominent, loud elements in the music reflect with big movements of the body (spatially) and with using strong movement (dynamically) - whereas sounds that are hardly noticeable can be translated as small body isolations (space) with a softer quality (dynamics)

- low sounds invite movements that are going downwards (space), when higher pitched sounds invite upwards movement. For example: we intuitively want to place a hip drop or chest drop on a DUM and a hip lift or chest lift on a TEK.

- monotone long notes (where pitch doesn't change, i.e. the bass sound bagpipes make) invite continuous movement (dynamics) as well as movement travelling in one direction (linear) or in one plane.

There are many more ways of thinking how music translate into movement, feel free to add some ideas into the comments section.

But movement doesn't always have to be a litteral translation of the soundscore. I personally like to think of the body to be an extra layer within the music, sometimes connecting to one instrument, sometimes another and sometimes creating an instrument on its own that somehow compliments with the music. It allows a bit more freedom, as I don't feel slave to the music, but it's still integrating sound and movement.

Postmodern dance ideas often happened through rebellion against the norm. In ballet for example, the movement always came after the music. The music was composed and then choreography was set to this music. Dancers felt that dance never stood on its own, that movement could not be its own art, and that movement was therefore slave to the sound strand. So dancers began to explore the idea of movement standing on its own, either by using silence or by creating movement first and bringing sound in later.

I like what Mira Betz has done in this video (it won't let me embed it here for some reason) She has connected the sound of her heartbeat to a speaker to make her audience listen to her heartbeat live, while she is dancing to the beat of her own heart. Sound and Movement strand are therefore still integrated, yet as opposed to what most tribal fusion dancers do (Sound first, Movement later) it is the movement that is controlling the sound (by slowing down her movement she slows down her heartbeat and vice versa) I think this is a very interesting concept on the relationship between sound and movement.

Juxtaposition between Sound and Movement strand

dancing in silence:

One of the first dancers ever to use the idea of dance in silence was Mary Wigman in her Witch Dance. (There is no video of this, yet there IS video of a later version of the original Witch Dance, yet this video does have a soundscore)  In its time, it was the most contemporary thing anyone had ever done. It was just not done to NOT dance to music, so it was controversial and fresh. But apart from the controversy, what I find interesting is that dancing in silence strips the dance down to just the movement. Sound can sometimes provide distraction that doesn't always add to a performance, sometimes it detracts. I would say that the relationship between sound and movement here is juxtaposed. Because the sound of silence invites stillness as opposed to movement, therefore there is a juxtaposition between the two strands.

moving to soundscore:

Another (perhaps clearer) example of juxtaposition could be when a dancer softly undulates to a song that invites dynamic, strong and large movements. Or vice versa, the song has a continuous, soft quality while the dancer manically shakes and vibrates through the space. There is a clear opposition between sound and movement in that case. Often juxtaposition invites an uneasiness with the audience, something doesn't sit quite right. I believe this can be an excellent tool. Say that I were to make a dance about i.e. being an outcast. the fact that sound and movement are juxtaposed can be related to the idea of feeling like you don't fit in. At the same time, your audience will perhaps feel alienated from you because they cannot relate to the experience, therefore mission is accomplished as the artist is truly bringing the idea of the outcast to the performance.

Coexisting relationship between sound and movement

A coexisting relationship means that there is no connection between the two strands, they just live side by side. Whereas juxtaposition is literally trying to do the opposite of what is expected, coexisting strands bare no relationship whatsoever.

The best example of a choreographer that uses coexisting strands is of course Merce Cunningham. I saw my first Cunningham piece in 2004. I hated it. I wanted to walk out of the theatre. Why? because I didn't get it. The Kinaesthetic Gap was so big for me that I wasn't getting anything out of the performance. I knew Merce was an important choreographer but I really didn't get why, looking at that performance. But the day after we had a workshop with one of the Cunningham company members and I learnt the process behind the product/performance, I understood why he was one of the most important choreographers of the 20th century. He completely broke the relationship between sound and movement by asking John Cage to write a 90 minute soundscore while he (through the use of chance - i.e. rolling a dice) works with his dancers on a 90 minute movement score. Only during the dress rehearsal would sound and movement be put together. Cunningham was not interested if it worked or didn't work, he was interested in taking away the expectation of what works and what doesn't and that was his reflection of life: nothing means anything, everything is just stuff that happens.

Having that background knowledge changed my relationship on how I watch a Cunningham performance.

But is it still Tribal Fusion?

The idea of dancing to silence or to make the sound and music strand juxtaposing or coexisting is clearly not new in contemporary dance, yet in tribal fusion it's a fairly new concept. The question is: if tribal fusion is in definition about embodying the music, will it still be tribal fusion if we were to dance in silence, or if we were to juxtapose the movement and sound strand? Perhaps not, but perhaps the exploration is still worth having. We can figure out what to call it later...


Unintentional Juxtaposition in Tribal Fusion

In Dance And The Performative, Valerie Preston-Dunlop talks about the Nexus Of The Strands of the Dance Medium. With the strands, she refers to 5 elements that make up a dance performance - Performer, Sound, Space, Movement and Audience (this last one was added in her lecture on this topic, as it is not in the book)

Performer refers to age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, body type, costuming, body piercings, hair, make-up, tattoos, props used by the performer (such as veil, cane,...) as each of these elements will influence a performance in a different way, this influence might be subjective to the eyes of the viewer, but they influence nonetheless.

Sound refers to the music or sound score used in a performance, as this will undoubtedly also have an influence on the performance as a whole. In this strand we think of the lack of sound/music also being in this category. Or the sound of breath, shoes (for tap, flamenco), or finger cymbals.

Space refers to the space in which a performance takes place. This can be a theatre, cabaret, outdoors but also a club, a hafla or a restaurant. It also refers to any props on the stage, such as chairs, backdrops and it also refers to the lighting used on stage.

Movement refers to the movement used. We refer here to what we call in choreology as the structural model of movement, and can be divided yet again into 5 sections: space, dynamics, actions, the body and relationships (between body parts or between the different dancers on stage)

Audience: is there audience participation? This could be in the sense of cheering, clapping, zaghareeting, or in a restaurant, the dancer inviting members of the audience to dance with them.  Again this will change the performance completely, hence why it's an added strand.

We can give a very clear analysis of any performance, using these strands. We can clearly write out which tendencies a style of dance has in regards to body type, gender, age, sound, space, ... There are of course, like anything, exceptions on the rule.

Nexus of the strands of the dance medium:

Valerie continues on in her book and refers to the Nexus of these 5 strands. The nexus refers to the connection, the relationship between the strands. This relationship tends to be: coexisting, integrated or juxtaposed.

Let's take a look at these terms:

integrated relationship between the strands means that one strand goes hand in hand with another. For example: a ballet dancer that is dancing in a tutu and ballet shoes, performing the movement vocabulary of ballet, using a soundscore of Tchaikovsky and dancing in the Royal Opera House. Each strand is completely integrated.

coexisting relationship between strands means that there is no link whatsoever between two strands. A great example is Merce Cunningham methods of working where he works with John Cage on a new performance piece. The music and movement are created completely separate from one another and dancers don't get to hear the music until the dress rehearsal.

juxtaposition is where two strands are juxtaposed against each other, and therefore creating a contrasting effect. A hip hop dancer dancing flamenco in ballet shoes for example. Or a ballet dancer dancing to punk music. (Karole Armitage) It is often intended to cause discomfort for the viewer, or to express a clear message to the viewer about the relationship by showing the contrast.

Through my own research in Tribal Fusion I found that Juxtaposition is a relationship that is often present between the strands. Many people often talk about 'good fusion' and 'bad fusion'. With the use of Valerie's ideas I believe we can find a clear way of describing what makes something work and why. Juxtaposition is something that often sits funny with the audience. The question is: was it the performer's intention to create this discomfort or not? I personally am all for juxtaposition from time to time, it is a good thing to challenge the audience, in my opinion. However, I believe it is important that this is an intentional choice.

To give you an example:

- The tribal fusion movement vocabulary consists mainly of gestures (body isolations) and body designs (poses) and the head-tail axis is very vertical. Yet, the space that is used these days is often grand theatre stages. Movement often does not get adapted to the big stage, and lighting often doesn't get used in an attempt to reduce the size of the stage. Hence there is a juxtaposition between the Movement strand and the Space strand. Movement gets lost on the big stage, yet it is not the intention of the performer to create a message with this juxtaposition.

- The tribal fusion costuming often consists of Afghan Jewellery, yet music that sometimes is chosen is dubstep/electronic/hip hop with no relationship whatsoever to Afghan culture. This is a clear juxtaposition between the Performer strand and the Sound strand, yet again, this juxtaposition is unintentional. Often the decision is made on the basis that they are following a costume aesthetic from one tribal fusion performer and following a sound aesthetic from another tribal fusion performer - but from the viewer's perspective that does not know this context, this link is missing and the relationship between sound and costume doesn't make sense at all.

These are just two examples, but there's a long list of situations where unintentional juxtaposition takes place. My aim with this post is to ask questions, to think critically about the choices we make as performers, about what message we want to send to our audience members. Because sometimes we send out the wrong message, but we don't quite understand why that is.

Contextually for us a lot of the relationships we make between the strands make sense, but for someone new to Tribal Fusion especially when coming from a different dance discipline, these relationships are often unclear. This is what Valeria refers to as the Kinaesthetic Gap. It is a gap between performer and audience, where an intention of the performer gets missed by the audience because of lack of information. This often causes discomfort or confusion or an 'I don't get it' response. If that is our intention in the first place, no harm is done, but if our intention was to invite our audience into our experience, this approach will eventually create alienation towards the art form.

My aim in this art is to move away from the 'us and them' culture that seems to be happening globally. Speaking to many tribal fusion artists all over the world about how they integrate with the rest of the dance community in their area, there seems to be a big gap between 'what we do and what they do'. Which is a shame as Tribal Fusion is one of the most beautiful and inspiring dances I've ever seen. I want to find out why there is this distance between tribal fusion and other dance forms and see how we can bridge this gap.

Yesterday, as part of Tribal Remix Salvador, Bela Saffe started a discussion with the participants about many of these issues. I think it is so great that dialogue is happening about this. A good point she made is to appreciate that this is still such a young art form. Violet Scrap added that it is during a time when so much access to any art is available through youtube, social media,... so we are influenced by so many sources.

I also think that in a dance style where inclusion is such an important element (which is a beautiful thing), perhaps we have shied away from critical thought about these elements, to protect this sense of inclusion. But maybe there is room for both: if we invite constructive critical thought about Tribal Fusion as an art yet respect the quality of the inclusive nature of Tribal Fusion, I believe it can be a win-win.

I would love to hear your input, so feel free to comment.


Preston-Dunlop, V. (2014). strands of the dance medium. London: Laban. Lecture: E-stream

Preston-Dunlop, V. & Sanchez-Colberg, A. (2002) Dance and the Performative: a choreological perspective - Laban and beyond. Hampshire: Verve Publishing.


There was quite a bit of discussion regarding this post on social media. I find it great when discussion is happening, and I've really enjoyed reading people's different viewpoints on the topic. I'm in no way an advocate of 'the truth', I just like to share my points of view. Not all feedback has been that helpful. For me, comments like: 'yes, I agree! I don't like Tribal Fusion for this exact reason!' or comments like: 'Urgh! I am so bored with people trying to criticise what I do!' I don't see how this is in any way creating an interesting debate on the topics touched on in this article. In fact, it creates yet again an 'us and them' culture, even within our own community.

As a reaction to one of the comments on this post (which was on facebook, not on this blog page) that was in the tone of the above comment, I posted a reply. I wanted to share it here too, because I think it has some valid points that need to be addressed also. My mind is never static, in fact, I change my opinions quite frequently when new info, new thought becomes available. I find this fascinating and I love people's views on what I write, however different of mine it may be. If we openly discuss each other's differences with an interest in what each of us has to say and why, we are really onto something here...

Here is the response about the 'I am tired of people criticising my dance' comment. I decided not to post the original comment that I am responding to, because I didn't see it as relevant to the response below. It was a comment that I have heard more than once in the tribal fusion community and therefore my response was more a general response to these kind of comments.

''If the tribal fusion community is about community and inclusion would that not mean that there can also be a place for people to have questions about the art form, respectfully, without feeling that they cannot share their views on an art form they dedicated their life to? If inclusion and community is only towards those that share the same views of 'everything is wonderful all the time', then I believe that is a big alarm bell. As it turns out, many tribal fusion artists do want to have these conversations. I believe there is a place for everyone. If discussion of the art is not someone's thing, that is of course totally ok. However that doesn't mean this discussion is not worth having. I have written this article not because of an isolated view I have, but because of talking to many artists. In the 15 years I've been in the fusion dance world these questions came up on a regular basis from within the community. People that have dedicated their lives and dance careers to tribal fusion, not outsiders that know nothing about this art. So it is not a phenomenon of outside dancers dissing this art, as it is people that care and love the art that are having questions. A phenomenon I often notice within tribal fusion is that people that have any form of criticism get a backlash of others trying to defend the current state of the art and basically silencing people's valuable thoughts and feelings. So much so that they don't dare to speak up publicly and go with the flow of 'everything is amazing' just because they are worried of being shunned from their very own community. I believe it is important to be kind and respectful to the artists in our community, yes, but we can have critique without cattiness, name calling, finger pointing, backstabbing and other unfavourable behaviour. But it goes both ways. As I think there is room for everyone.''