My thoughts on ATS® – part 1

If you have little information about ATS, and would like to know more, for once I’m going to suggest you view the video above first, then read what follows, then watch it again with the new information you have. And while you read what I have to say, keep in mind that I am no expert, have only been doing ATS® for a year, and therefore I don’t know everything there is to know about the style, and I might have misunderstood some of what I learnt. And of course, as this is a condensed version, I am probably missing a lot. Now, with the caveats in place, let’s get on with it.

What is it?
ATS® stands for American Tribal Style, and it is a fusion dance style that started in the 80’s in the West Coast of the US, developed by Carolena Nericcio with Fat Chance Belly Dance. It takes inspiration and moves from traditional belly dance, and other dances from the Mediterranean, North Africa, Middle East and even India, and combines them with modern knowledge of anatomy and even with some artistic ideas to create steps that display the dancer in the best possible way, in a physically safe manner. The most obvious influence that people tend to pick, aside from traditional Belly Dance, is Flamenco, in the overall arms and hands posture, and “floreos” (hand flourishes).

So it is not traditional belly dancing?
No. As I said above, it is a fusion style, and while most Middle Eastern people would be able to recognise individual moves, they wouldn’t recognise it as typical Middle Eastern dancing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a fusion style!

How does it work?
It consists of group improvisation to a certain agreed vocabulary (you might think of these as “steps”). The vocabulary includes slow and fast moves, done within established formations; moves are “cued” to other dancers using particular non-verbal signs, so they know what’s coming next. The dancer leading the group improvises, using the steps in the ATS vocabulary, and the other dancers pick these up and follow the leader; the idea is to make it so seamless and synchronised as to be confused with a choreography.

The formations are nearly always of 2 to 4 people; if there’s more than 2 people dancing in the group, some of them can stand aside in what is called a “chorus”, to either do simpler, complimentary steps to what the soloist central group is doing, or to play the zills. The soloists will change and rotate during a performance, and within each group, there will also be leader changes, so each individual dancer’s musicality will direct the dance. Therefore, no two performances will ever be alike even when having the same dancers and the same music.

What music does it use?
The fast vocabulary uses zills and is almost always done to a 4/4 rhythm, as the steps always have a count of 4. You can use nearly anything with a strong 4/4 beat, I’ve personally used artists as diverse as Rob Zombie, Depeche Mode and George Michael for drilling or practice at home, but that’s because I am weird, you wouldn’t find these used for a typical performance or class! What you will probably find instead is more what feels like traditional folk Middle Eastern music as long as it has a strong beat; Helm is a favourite band. Other popular options is Balkan Brass bands, and of course there’s the music with a more modern flair written specifically for ATS® like Phil Thornton’s Nexus Tribal.

What do they wear? any reason why?
The traditional ATS costume uses a choli (short top with an open back), pantaloons, one or more skirts, usually made of very light cotton fabric… These skirts nowadays have a bottom diameter of 25 yards (roughly 22 metres) and are tucked and wrapped in a lot of different ways, but at the start they were much smaller. These basics can have different extra adornments: a coin bra, a belt, a hip scarf, a tassel belt, fringe belt… The head can have a turban, a headdress, or more commonly nowadays silk flowers. Traditional Middle Easter jewellery is seen often, not just for the neck, hands and arms, but also for the head. Facial markings simulating tribal tattoos used to be popular, bindis and facial jewellery are almost always found too.

Sometimes the cholis have a front “apron” that covers the stomach; I’ve always worn body stockings when wearing my Tribal costumes, and I’ve even seen people wearing very tight camis under their cholis, so the costume itself can be very modest and offer a surprising degree of coverage.

Each element of the costume has been added for some specific functionality. For instance the open back on the choli makes it easier for the followers to view the movements of the back/shoulders clearly and pick up the cues better. The skirts can be hitched up in different ways to “bounce”, spiral and fly, and accentuate the movements when viewed from a distance. The pantaloons keep the legs covered and modest when doing turns and spins. The tassel belts accentuate the sharper hip moves like shimmies, and the fringe belts accentuate the full body moves like undulations and slower turns.

Now with the new information you have, try to view the Fat Chance Belly Dance video again, trying to figure out how the dancers communicate, the formations, and leader changes. Knowing it is all improvised gives it a whole new angle, doesn’t it?

Coming up: what I think about it.

Making of the FCBD choli

Cholis are great classwear, and absolutely *vital* for performance if you do ATS. They are relatively easy to find, but mostly what is sold is on the smaller sizes. Some vendors, like Flying Skirts, do bigger sizes, but while these are ok, the arms can be a bit too small around the top. Or maybe, what you’re after is not what is on offer.

I’ve reviewed the Folkwear-FCBD pattern in the past. Make no mistake, my issues with the pattern are still there, although I have found that the pattern works half-decently if using stretch materials, with some caveats. I’ve used the pattern already in the past to do all the cholis I’ve posted in this blog so far, and a couple more. This time, I was using 2-way stretch and 4-way stretch velvet in black and purple to make two cholis.

First things first: the fabric choices. I am testing some fabrics, and went for a cheaper 2-way stretch (at £3.99 a metre) and a more expensive 4 way stretch (at £5.99 a metre). One metre of the 1.5m fabric was enough to make one choli with long sleeves. I found that while the cheaper velvet does give better support, it does feel rather stuffy, very thick and it doesn’t breath well. I would wear it if I’m going to be dancing outside in cold conditions, but it does feel a *touch* restrictive. The more expensive velvet has more stretch, feels a bit less supportive, but moves with you better, and is shinnier and softer to the touch. I also used 2.5cm (1″) black cotton twill tape, enough to go the full length of the underbust band, and for the top back laces.

I worked with the pattern extracted from the original Folkwear. I used Swedish paper to trace the pieces, making sure I also copied all the marks. This allows me to keep the pattern intact, and as the Swedish paper wears out, I can replace it easily.

Choli pattern pieces layout

Choli pattern pieces layout

I started by cutting the pieces. Since stretch velvet is very tricky, and it doesn’t really mark well with chalk, I folded the fabric in half, making sure that the pile of the fabric laid properly (stroking downwards) and that the maximum (or only) stretch happened sidewways. I pinned the pieces onto the fabric, making sure I was pinning both layers of fabric. This saved me the drawing time, and also ensures both sides of the velvet stay put without sliding.

If you look at the pieces, you will notice two things: one are the arrows; these help you figure out how to lay the pieces over the fabric to avoid cutting them on the bias; the other is that one of the pieces seemed modified from the original. I’ve wanted to do cholis that allow me to wear them on their own, with an underwear bra underneath; I know they are supposed to be supportive by themselves but that has never been the case for me, and with my bust, I need a bra. The back piece, if you follow the traditional style, opens in a sort of triangle, so I thought of widening the bottom of the back piece to cover bra straps. That’s what you are seeing there. I made the base of the piece twice the size of the original, to the centre, and tapered it to the top.

Cut pieces

Cut pieces

For the sleeves, I measured the top of my own arm, the length I wanted the sleeves to be (halfway up my forearm), and note these down. I measured the diagonal between dots and marks on the underarm gusset, deducted that from the arm circumference, and used that to trace a rectangle, using the length plus a couple of cm for seam allowances. Very important: don’t do what I did with the black one, and make sure that the sleeves are both cut on the pile, and with the stretch sideways, as this will give you more freedom of movement. For the underbust band, take your twill tape, wrap it around your ribcage and tie it up with a bow; cut the length necessary for this, fold in half, and mark 2 1/2 to 3 times the width of the tape, and the length of this half over the fabric. When cutting, make sure you transfer all the marks and alignments to both sides, you can see how I did this on the image above.

Front parts assembled

Front parts assembled


To assemble, start by joining the two triangles for the front top. Then add the bottom one, use the marks to align it further. I’ve found that I actually need to cut the inner one by about 3cm to get a better fit, but this changes with the fabric I use, so cut as expected. Then join the front with the back pieces; if you’ve modified the back as I did, make sure that the longer part of the trapezoid that is your new piece is at the bottom, and that the slanted part is towards the inside; use the marks on the front piece to remind you which side is which.

Once you’ve done the front, assemble the sleeves. Start by adding the gusset, it’s rather tricky and not quite clear how to do it, so check the photos below. Basically, you are adding two consecutive sides of the square piece to each of the edges, at the TOP (remember to check the pile if you’re using velvet!). Pin the rest of the sleeve; you will have to put it on after that and adapt the shape to your arm so it follows your shape as closely as you want it to. I like mine quite close, as I think it gives a very stylised look. Mark this, open up the sleeve, and finish up the bottom: it will be far easier to do before sewing the sleeve along!. To finish mine, I do a rolled hem with the overlocker, then I fold this rolled hem up up and do a straight stitch with the standard machine. Once you’ve done this, sew the gusset and seam in place.
Gusset location and pinning Gusset location and pinning 1Gusset location and pinning 3

To attach the sleeves to each of the front parts, fold the sleeve in half, and mark the centre top. Attach the bottom side of the torso section with a pin, and mark the centre point (this might or might not coincide with the actual seam). Join both centre points, and pin all along each side. Depending on the size of your arms, you should have the sleeves attached and then a section where front and back pieces join. Sew it all; then finish off the internal edge in a manner similar to the sleeves: do a rolled hem with the overlocker, then fold it and sew, or do a full rolled hem wrapping the raw edge inside; your choice will depend on your fabric and machine. You will end with two mirrored pieces.

For the underbust band: sew the two pieces together along one of the shorter sides; wrap the fabric around the twill tape and fold the raw edge inwards along the top so you have a nice even edge. Pin. The twill tape will add stabilisation to the choli, and will also prevent the fabric from stretching, which would quickly wear out the garment. You will use the centre seam to mark the centre of your choli. Also important, if you are using stretch fabric, make sure you stretch the fabric while wrapping! It will stretch further when sewing, and if you don’t take this into consideration, you might end with the fabric bunching in a nasty manner.

Now add first one, and then the other half pieces to this band, making sure that the raw bottom goes *inside* the opening of this band, like a sort of sandwich. For my body shape, I need to get the inner corner of each front piece about 3cm further than the centre. This makes the pieces overlap in the centre and gives more coverage. Now, starting at the centre point and going outwards, sew along the top of the band, making sure that you’re sewing through both of the fabric layers of the band, the twill tape and the choli body. This will ensure that if the band fabric starts stretching, it will do so outwards, and you will have a good chance to catch it. Also, if you’ve modified the back piece to be wider, you might need to fold the bottom edge on the inner area to compensate for the angle the piece sits at. Again, whether you have to do this, or how much to adjust, will depend a lot on your body shape.

Knot, finish and trim off all the bits of thread hanging out. Pin two pieces of twill tape on the back; I prefer mine around 8cm from the top, but the location might change depending on your body shape. Have a friend tie both laces and verify that everything fits as necessary; you might have to adjust the location of the ties. Once you are happy with the ties, sew them in place and finish off the ends. You might want to gather the inside piece right above the breast to create more of a sweetheart line, or, depending on your bust shape, you might need to soften up the cup shape created by the three pieces. Again, these are modifications that you will only figure out by yourself once you’ve put it together, and will also depend on your choice of material.

Bonus: If you followed the indications above to make the choli that covered your bra straps, you will have a suitable garment, but the bra band will still be visible. There’s a very simple way of solving this. Use leftover fabric from your project, and cut a band a bit longer than the back opening, and about double the width of your bra band plus a bit more. Finish off the short edges, then sew the fabric into a tube. Unhook your bra, slide this tube over your bra band, re-hook, and move the band into place to cover the whole area. Now put your choli on. The underbust band should cover pretty much everything, and the actual bra band will be hidden further by this tube.

The return of the teal bra…

Teal Bra, finished

Teal Bra, finished

I thought I was finished with this project, but I was never *quite* happy with the silver/copper/bronze/gold mix. What can I say, I like matchy-matchy. I’d have loved to keep it as silver only, and that was the original plan, but the gold on the trim was overpowering, cascading first into the beading, then into the wires and the centrepiece.

A couple of weeks ago I found someone selling a bunch of antique Indian bells, of the kind used in the anklets for Khatak dancing. I’d originally wanted to use these for decoration but hadn’t been able to find a local source. And when they arrived and I re-strung the bottom beads and removed the silver coins, and replaced them with the bells, which *did* look significantly more “together” with the rest, it became obvious that the silver trinkets would have to be replaced too. I was lucky enough to find replacements in antique gold very inexpensively at Hillary’s Bazaar’s Etsy shop, so also a UK source.

I sewed all of these pieces back on, created a lining in black polycotton, removed one of the pieces from the centre that had been digging into my diaphragm from day 1, added lobster clasps to the bottom beading so they can be removed at will (and also used elsewhere if wanting to), and finally, added some Swarovskis in Peridot AB (green with iridiscent sheen), Jonquil AB (yellow with iridiscence) and Moonlight (a very pale smoke) to the centrepiece to add some interest to it, and will carry the same motif to the belt.

I’m a lot happier with the unity it has now, even if it meant that the glorious plans I had for a kuchi-button-heavy belt had to be replaced with a different approach. I will still use those buttons on a different piece, but this will on all probability end being used mostly for those *almost* Tribal performances that happen with the Egyptian troupe, or for Fusion pieces with a mermaid skirt in similar colour.

Inspiration: Masmoudi DC at Split Tribal Fest, 2013

In the interest of fairness, I have to disclose that the three people dancing in this video are my Tribal Fusion teacher, my ATS teacher, and her understudy. They performed this at Tribal Remix earlier this year, and again for Split Tribal Fest, although the setting for Tribal Fest made it quite more impressive.

And do yourself a favour, head over to YouTube to view the full-sized HD version.
Enjoy!

Making a bindi

Aside from doing my own costumes, I’ve been known to make jewellery, specifically items that I wish I could buy but never found, or never found anything I liked well enough. An example of this was a Victorian/Art Nouveau choker made with real garnets that I wanted, but every piece I found available was either made with crystals (or worse, plastic) or not made in a style I liked, and vintage pieces were prohibitive (and still not what I had in mind). So, some years ago I bought a few findings, wire, garnet beads, and created the choker of my dreams. And promptly gave it away to a friend for her wedding.

Still, as part of that work, and as part of the costume making process, I accumulated certain materials: silver plated jewellery findings, silver-plated wire, beads, some tools, flat back crystals. Part of that still gets used for beading (see the new teal bra for details), but others were left unused. I also finally discovered a spirit gum that allowed me to wear bindis without falling off my face, and therefore I started searching for bindis I liked. Sadly, most of the bindi makers I liked live abroad, and the shipping for their teensy but lovely items was prohibitive (think about 50% or more of the cost of a bindi). What to do? Elementary: since I had nearly all the materials, I’d try my hand at making them myself.

I checked a couple of tutorials online and realised that the process was rather simple, just paste what you wanted over a suitable base. I picked acetate sheets, and my supplies, and used a suitable glue (E6000). If you want to try your hand at making one, you can follow my instructions. The process is not difficult, but it can be very fiddly, as you’re dealing with very small parts. You will need:

assorted findings, crystals and stones

assorted findings, crystals and stones

  • acetate sheets: you can find these at craft stores
  • masking or paper tape
  • suitable glue: I’ve read GemTac works, but I’ve also read it’s not really suitable; if you’ll be bonding stones or crystals to metals, you might want to use something a bit sturdier, so I picked E6000 (also recommended often for crystal embellishing and jewellery)
  • a wax pencil or picker is not necessary, you can use tweezers, but the picker makes your life easier
  • stones, crystals, pearls, findings, whatever you want to put on the bindi, this is where your creativity comes in!

Pictured above, an example of materials you’d need, which has antique bronze and antique silver coloured findings, abalone shell cabochon, a 7mm Swarovski, and quite a few other smaller Swarovski crystals of assorted sizes So, now that you’ve got everything you need, how do you do it all?

mock-up bindi

mock-up bindi

  1. pick your supplies and have it all at hand.
  2. needless to say, remove any child or pet, make sure you’re working in a well ventilated environment, and if you’re going to be cutting findings and not just using crystals, make sure you wear protective gear
  3. over a stable background, put together a mock-up of your desired bindi: arrange the findings, stones and crystals in a way that you find pleasant, take note of whether any finding needs a more even base or has bits sticking out that might result in unbalanced crystals; see example of this on the right
  4. if you have a rogue finding, you will need to grab a file and file down the offending parts; quite often you might want to remove unwanted parts of findings (like connecting rings), or split findings into several parts to have more versatility; for each of these, you will need to file down the edges by hand (again, example of modified pieces on the right)
  5. cut a piece of the acetate about half bigger than your finished bindi, secure to your working surface with masking tape to make sure it stays put
  6. first layer of the bindi

    first layer of a bindi

  7. with a thin piece of wire, or a match, or something equally thin, smear some glue over the acetate, and following your chosen glue’s instructions, start building your bindi: use the wax pencil to pick up each piece and arrange them over the glued-up acetate, starting with the bottom layer; I prefer to start from the centre outwards, as it helps to keep it all balanced; this first layer for me tends to be metal findings
  8. once your foundation layer is done, add the second layer, if required, in the same manner: this is when I add crystals or gemstones and other accents
  9. nearly finished bindi

    nearly finished bindi

  10. it will look a bit messy; I’d let it cure for 48 hours, and after that time, cut carefully around the edge of the bindi, then go through the nooks and crevices of the findings and crystals with a needle or a pin to remove leftover glue

If you want to minimise your glue waste (and mess!), you can assemble your mock-up over paper, then trace the outline before putting the acetate on top, so you just put glue within the outline. I should also warn you that the glue does get everywhere, and even if you are careful, you will find globs of it all over the bindi no matter how careful you are, that’s why it is vital to do the final step and remove the leftover glue after it’s had time to cure.

As I said, not difficult, but rather fiddly, worth doing if you’ve got the materials lying around or you require a particular colour combination, but keep into account that crystals do sell by the 50s or 100s, so you might not want to do this for a one-off project unless you’ve got the items already. You can also make these as cheap or expensive as you want: I only use Swarovskis or gemstones or vintage stones in mine, and quite a few of my findings are silver plated, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do cheap and cheerful versions. I did a few trials with resin 4mm stones, and found that while they do look ok, when comparing them with Swarovskis, or even EIMASS (English) crystals, they were not catching the light as well. And that is what I wanted them for: as embellishments, and therefore they needed to be as sparkly as possible. The beauty of this, however, is that you could also use vintage costume jewellery, or broken jewellery items instead of crystals and findings. You’d still need to clean them up, but if you are after a very specific look, it might be something to consider. And you could make other facial adornments, not just bindis.

Now, if you still want bindis, but don’t want to do them yourself, why not head over to the shop to look at the ones I’ve got for sale?

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