The Salimpour Family:     Suhaila     •     Isabella     •     Jamila

Suhaila Salimpour

Suhaila Salimpour is a highly-acclaimed belly dance performer, instructor, and choreographer. As a teenager, she began integrating the Middle Eastern dance passed on to her from her mother, Jamila Salimpour, with her own extensive training in ballet, jazz, tap, modern, and American street styles. She also studied Flamenco with Rosa Montoya, Kathak with the late Chitresh Das, and tap with Tony Award-winner Hinton Battle. Through her work with Boogaloo and tap dancer Walter “Sundance” Freeman (now of Riverdance fame), Suhaila revolutionized belly dance movement through the quick and sudden movements now known as “isolations.”

In the mid-1980s, Suhaila moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles, where she appeared on television series such as Fame and Max Headroom and choreographed various music videos. There she also worked with music video choreographer Michael Rooney. She was also the first belly dancer to be featured on Arab-American television, even before Nagwa Fouad. For six years, she was the featured dancer at the prestigious Arabic nightclub Byblos, where she shared the stage with the most renowned singers of the Middle East. She also had the honor of studying with the late acting coach Sanford Meisner, whose method profoundly influenced her approach to performance and instruction. At this time, too, she produced the groundbreaking solo performance recording Dances for the Sultan.

She spent 10 years in the Middle East as a featured performer in top nightclubs and 5-star hotels in Cairo, Beirut, and other major cities. There she worked with some of the Arab world’s most famous singers, including Ahmad Adawiyya, Sabah, and Amr Diab. Her fresh approach to belly dance movement, musical interpretation, and deep understanding of Arab culture and sentiment made her one of the most celebrated performers of her generation. Her experiences in the Middle East inspired her to create an educational program for belly dancers that valued both virtuosic technique and experiential cultural knowledge.

When she returned to the United States, she sought to fill a need in belly dance for training that emphasized both dance technique and cultural context. She established her school and her five-level certification program. In 1996, she created the Suhaila Dance Company, which to this day performs her choreographic repertoire, which includes hundreds of dances, from the classic to the avant garde. She also revived her mother’s world-famous Bal Anat, a “faux-loric” company that inspired the creation of tribal style belly dance. She also began producing her own recordings of classic Arabic compositions, drum solos, rhythmic teaching tools, and fusion belly dance music. She also continued to produce video recordings of her performances. By the mid-2000s, she had firmly established herself as a leader and innovator in her field.

Always striving to bring belly dance to a wider audience and to theatrical stages, she choreographed and produced the full-length stage show Sheherezade in 2004, featuring the Suhaila Dance Company. For this work, she was nominated for an Isadora Duncan award for solo performance in 2005, the first belly dancer to have received this accolade. Blending her experience as an aerobics instructor in her youth, she created the Fitness Fusion belly dance DVD instructional series for Goldhill Entertainment. Also at this time, she was featured prominently in the documentary American Bellydancer by Miles Copeland, producer of the rock band The Police.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 2009 Suhaila launched the first belly dance online class website. Filmed in her home studio in California, the Salimpour School Online Class website has subscribers from North America to Africa. In 2013, she choreographed Enta Omri, an original concert-length theatrical production set to classic Arabic love songs and performed by the Suhaila Dance Company. Enta Omri has appeared in both the United States and Europe, and continues to tour with its current cast.

In addition to teaching across the globe, Suhaila maintains her second-generation family business, the Suhaila Salimpour School of Belly Dance, in Berkeley, California. Her certification program has also spread worldwide, with satellite schools in the United States and Europe. Suhaila looks forward to expanding the audience for and appreciation of traditional Middle Eastern dance in a distinctly contemporary style.


Workshops, Instruction, Performance.  Email the Salimpour School (Suhaila International, LLC) to learn more about scheduling Suhaila Salimpour for your next workshop.  Suhaila Salimpour, Isabella Salimpour, The Salimpour School dance companies, and Bal Anat are available for performances, workshops, corporate events, and private parties.

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  • Mail:  Salimpour School of Belly Dance, 3060 El Cerrito Plaza #351, El Cerrito, CA  94530
  • Phone:  510-527-2400

Isabella Salimpour

Isabella Salimpour is a 3rd generation dancer, actress, and singer. As the daughter of master belly dance instructor and performer Suhaila Salimpour, and granddaughter of Jamila Salimpour, Isabella has been on stage since the age of 2 and assisting in her mother’s workshops since the age of 8. She learned belly dance from her grandmother in the traditional way of watching and following in the living room of their family home, and Isabella is one of the first dancers to be raised on her mother’s codified and classicized method of belly dance. She has performed with the Suhaila Dance Company since she was 7, and in 2014 performed in her mother’s most recent theatrical production, Enta Omri, where she danced the featured solo. She has taught both adult and youth classes, and in 2015 she was the youngest dancer to teach at Tribal Fest (on her 17th birthday). She is also a core member of Bal Anat, which she hopes to direct one day as her mother and grandmother have before her.

Apart from belly dance, Isabella has a diverse background in dance and theater. She has studied a variety of dance forms with esteemed instructors, training in ballet (at both the San Francisco Ballet School and The Berkeley Ballet Theater), modern, lyrical, jazz, tap, and hip hop. She has studied theater at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT), the Berkeley Repertory Theater, and the Contra Costa Civic Theater, and has been performing in community theater productions since the age of 9. In high school, she played several lead roles in her school’s plays and musical productions. She also studied voice at the California Jazz Conservatory (formerly the Berkeley Jazzschool) under Trelawny Rose, known for her work on the hit TV show The Voice.

In addition to being an accomplished performer and instructor, Isabella recently graduated high school as an honor student, earning both academic and community service awards. Currently, she is an undergraduate student at Rider University (NJ), where she is earning her MFA in Musical Theater.

Jamila Salimpour (1926-2017)

Jamila Salimpour was one of the most influential and innovative teachers of belly dance in the 20th century. She believed that belly dance, or La Danse Orientale as she called it, could and should be a truly artistic dance form with high standards, levels of achievement, and rigorous training. Her methodology, cataloging, and systematic approach to teaching belly dance has left an indelible mark on the form and continues to be learned and studied by thousands of dancers around the world.

She is best known for creating the Jamila Salimpour format, a comprehensive collection of steps and movements used by professional and casual dancers throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Born Giusippina Carmela Burzi to a Sicilian and Greek immigrant family, she grew up in New York City. Her first exposure to Middle Eastern dance came from her father, who saw the (in)famous Ghawazi dancers while stationed in Egypt with the Sicilian Navy.

When Jamila was 16, she toured with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, where she performed acrobatic acts with the elephants.

After she left the circus, she moved to Los Angeles, where she would frequent the local movie house to watch Egyptian import films featuring the stars of Oriental dance at the time, such as Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca, and Naima Akef. In an effort to understand what she was seeing, Jamila imitated their movements and began to name each step she saw. Because Los Angeles had become a center for immigrants from around the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, Jamila found herself attending parties, celebrations, and festivals. From these gatherings, she also identified and catalogued steps and movements characteristic of these communities.

She then moved to San Francisco, where she owned and operated the famous Bagdad Cabaret, being the first woman to own a Middle Eastern nightclub in the United States. In the mid-late 1960s, she found herself in the heart of Hippie Counterculture, befriending Country Joe McDonald, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. She taught wildly popular belly dance classes, as San Francisco “flower children” sought new and subversive ways to express themselves through movement.

In 1968, her students disappeared from Saturday classes. Jamila discovered that they had been attending a new theme event, The Renaissance Pleasure Faire, and apparently become quite a nuisance. The entertainment director asked Jamila to rein in her students, and Jamila proposed a full-length stage presentation of fantasy and folkloric belly dance, which became Bal Anat. Bal Anat, or “Dance of the Mother Goddess,” is now the longest-running belly dance show in the world.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Jamila was an editor of and writer for Habibi magazine, a periodical dedicated to belly dance news and history. She also produced some of the first belly dance festivals in the United States as well as developed the structure of the now-ubiquitous weeklong workshop intensive.

In 2013 she was awarded the Isadora Duncan Award for Sustained Achievement, and in 2018, World Arts West will be posthumously honoring her with the Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Field of Ethnic Dance and Music.

Jamila was also, of course, also the mother of groundbreaking dancer and choreographer Suhaila Salimpour. Jamila and Suhaila worked together throughout Jamila’s entire life to develop and evolve belly dance as a professional dance form.

Jamila spent her twilight years continuing to teach her format at her daughter’s dance school in Berkeley, California, and creating new finger cymbal patterns. She passed away peacefully in the Salimpour family home in 2017, and her memory lives on in her daughter Suhaila, her granddaughter Isabella, and in each and every dancer in the Salimpour School and member of Bal Anat.