When my mother created Bal Anat in 1968, she was merely providing a creative solution to a problem. Her students were skipping her Saturday dance class and spending their weekends at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Novato, California, just north of Berkeley, where we lived. When Phyllis Patterson, the director of the Faire, asked her to rein in her students, who were blocking walkways and “falling out of trees,” my mom proposed a full-length extravaganza featuring dances from around the Middle East. From her rag-tag group of students—-hippies, flower children, and counter-culture kids—-Bal Anat was born.
My mom spent her life collecting anything she could on what she called “La Danse Orientale.” In our house, there was literally a pathway from the front door, through the living room, through the dining room, and to the kitchen, surrounded on all sides by stacks of books, magazines, and my mom’s own handwritten notes. She had to hunt for every little scrap of information on belly dance that she could find. National Geographic magazines. Photos tucked away in a dusty library books. Paintings in funky antique shops on Telegraph Avenue.
From her obsessive research and collecting she created each original Bal Anat dance. And from her experience with the circus she even invented a few, like the snake dance, dancing on water goblets, and of course, the sword dance. In 1999, I took over as director and have since updated and created all new choreographies for a new generation of dancers and audiences. When I began to re-create the core dances, I was worried that my mom might be offended. But when I very gingerly told her that I wanted to remake them, she sighed with relief and said that it was time that they evolve. When preparing for this tour, my mom and I reminisced about old Bal Anat stories and the people who have danced with us through the years. My mom felt such satisfaction knowing she had created such an amazing show that not only changed the face of belly dance but also stands strong under my direction.
Creating the vision for this tour gave my mom a reason to wake up each day, particularly in the last few months before her passing in December. In her final days, she let me film her saying that she felt that this tour was an amazing accomplishment for both our family and the belly dance world. “It’s amazing,” she said. Now after my mother’s passing this tour has taken on another meaning for me. It is a celebration of not only the show and the impact Bal Anat has had on the belly dance world, but also it is a year-long celebration of life and my mother’s legacy. For me, Bal Anat means “family.” When I was growing up, I thought every little girl spent their late-summer weekends dancing with richly-costumed ladies in dark eye make-up and heavy jewelry. Even though I know that this wasn’t a typical childhood experience, each Bal Anat show still feels like a big family reunion. And I know our cast members feel the same. In the spirit of family, my daughter Isabella will be performing as the Finale Dancer, a role I used to dance 20 years ago. Like me, she started dancing with Bal Anat as a Tray Dancer, opening the show, when she was only a little girl. Now she’s all grown up, and closing the show. I wish my mom could have seen her. Thank you for joining us today for this very special celebration of belly dance, family, and tradition.
Drawing from her experience as a performer with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, belly dance innovator Jamila Salimpour formed Bal Anat as a truly unique and exciting entertainment experience. She named it for “Bal,” the French word for a dance gathering, and “Anat,” an ancient Mesopotamian mother goddess: Dance of the Mother Goddess. Entering in a flurry of finger cymbals and richly decorated costuming, the ensemble features at least 40 performers, each performing a different dance, each with its own character and origin. Innovative from the very beginning, Jamila Salimpour’s groundbreaking presentation was the first to integrate dancing with and balancing a sword, a now quintessential belly dance prop. Bal Anat stands at the crossroads of tradition and fantasy, but is always rooted in the traditional dances and cultures of the Middle East, from North Africa, the Anatolian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf, and the Levant. Middle Eastern audiences have praised Bal Anat for its sentiment, reverence, and nostalgia. Every performance of Bal Anat is different, and you’ll never see the same show twice. You might see the fierce women of Morocco, the stately Ouled Nail from Algeria, the flirty 19th-Century Ghawazi from Egypt, or the coy water pot dancers. But you’ll always witness the masked dance of the Mother Goddess, the archetypal feminine creator and destroyer, a tribute to matriarch Jamila Salimpour herself.
Never static or stale, Bal Anat is ever-evolving. When Suhaila Salimpour, daughter of Jamila Salimpour, took over direction of the company in 1999, she revived the show for a new generation of dancers and audiences. She replaced the original dances with all-new choreographies, including the classic Sword Dance, Pot Dance, and Dance of the Mother Goddess. Suhaila invites dancers with high-level certification in the Salimpour certification programs to contribute dances to the show, such as Fan Veil, Voi, Persian, and the Arabian Gulf Khaliji dance. Suhaila continues to add new pieces herself, such as the exciting “Salaam Allay.” We welcome dancers in the Salimpour certification programs to join the global Bal Anat family. Dancers who hold certification in Level 2 in both the Suhaila Salimpour Format and Jamila Salimpour Format are invited to perform with the show. Its groundbreaking blend of the traditional, folkloric, and fantasy has inspired and will continue to inspire generations of belly dancers.
Bal Anat is the past, present, and future of belly dance.