Greetings, dancers! Abby here, from the “Mothership” in California.
New students at the Salimpour School often ask me: What’s the difference between the Suhaila and Jamila formats? Do I have to do both?
The short answer: At the lower levels, the Suhaila Salimpour Format (SSF) is about learning physical technique, and the Jamila Salimpour Format (JSF) is about learning steps and sentiment. If one doesn’t start with the Suhaila format, they won’t have the physical technical training to execute the steps in the Jamila format. If one doesn’t do the JSF, they’re missing out on key historical and cultural elements of belly dance as a professional dance form with roots in the Middle East. (For the sake of this blog post, I’ll be using the term “Middle East” to refer to the regions of the eastern Mediterranean, western Asia, and North Africa.)
But that’s not the whole story.
Let’s start with a little background on the development of each format.
In the Beginning…
Each step in the Jamila Salimpour format is derived from steps and movements performed by real people in or from the Middle East. When Jamila was observing dancers in films from Cairo, casual dancing at cultural gatherings, and nightclub performers in the United States, she wanted to make sense of what she was seeing.
Jamila Salimpour began her cataloging of steps in the 1930s, and essentially ceased in 1974. She organized what she observed into what she called “Step Families,” which we still use today. At Suhaila added steps that she observed on her travels to the Middle East, at her mother’s request. Jamila herself never traveled to the Arab world; Suhaila, however, traveled there multiple times as a teenager, and eventually spent 10 years working as a professional dancer throughout the Arab world. Suhaila, at her mother’s request, added steps such as Stomp Step with a Shimmy, 3/4 Shimmy Spin, and most of the Salaam Family. Through both of their contributions, the JSF was, for the most part, set and codified by 1978.
Each step family has an overall sentiment or feeling; some step families are also characterized by a shared technical element. For example, the Basic Egyptian family steps feature hip twists (except for the Five Count, which has no hip work at all) and have an outward action. These are the steps that were and are performed by professional dancers. The Salaam Family is connected by the fact that these steps are all “party steps” or movements that one might see at a family gathering, wedding, or other celebration; most of them have a fulltime bounce down, driven by small demi pliés. The Arabic family features shuffling steps that mostly stay in place, the legs are kept close together, and the sentiment is demure, coy, and sweet; this family is also much more internal than the Egyptian family steps. As you learn the steps, you will noticed that some sentiments cross over between steps and families.
You might be wondering… if the Jamila Salimpour Format includes culturally-derived steps, why do I need the Suhaila Format? Can’t I just use the steps in the Jamila Format? Well, you could, but you’d be missing out on your full technical potential to interpret the rich, complex music to which dancers perform today.
The Music Changes
In the late 1970s, professional dancers in the Middle East commissioned longer, orchestrated compositions specifically for performance from well-respected composers. When recordings of these pieces reached the United States, often bootlegged from a tape recorder hidden in a patron’s purse at a nightclub, dancers were struck by the complexity and changes in each piece. These compositions were often full-length sets, or included now-classic entrance pieces such as “Set El Hosen” and “Mishaal.”
Before these pieces reached North America, dancers in American nightclubs mostly only improvised to folk songs with few tempo or rhythmic changes, such as “Ya Ain Moulaytin,” “Salaam Allay,” “Hizzy Ya Nawaem,” or Turkish folk songs such as “?i?eler,” or “Rompi Rompi.” Sometimes Armenian and Greek pieces would be included, such as “Tamzara,” (a folk dance song in 9/8 time) or “Miserlou.” A set would include a fast, upbeat opening song, a slow taqsim for veilwork, followed by another upbeat or medium tempo folk song, followed by another slow taqsim to which dancers often performed floorwork, then another upbeat song, a drum solo, and a fast closing song. This is what we now refer to as the 5- or 7-part set. But these new pieces coming out of the Middle East required deeper listening and greater planning, increased technical skill, set choreography.
By this time, Suhaila, now 12 years old, had learned every step in her mother’s format inside and out. She had been playing with the character, sentiment, and technique of each step the way a little girl might play with dolls.
When she heard this new music from the Middle East, she knew how she wanted to dance to it, but did not yet have the physical technical ability to execute her vision. So, she broke down each step in her mother’s format into their essential elements: foot pattern, hip work, upper body, arms, and any other technical elements. From there, she was able to create new movement that better suited the rich music composed for dancers from the Middle East. From this work came the development of her own format. Additionally, she worked with her mother on several iconic choreographies that heralded a new era in musical interpretation of belly dance music. From these collaborations came “Hayati” and “Joumana” (the first belly dance performance to ever be selected for the prestigious San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival). Some people like to separate mother from daughter, but Jamila herself wanted Suhaila to develop belly dance as a genre beyond the boilerplate steps of the JSF.
At this time, Suhaila also began adding movements into her belly dance performances that were not a part of her mother’s format. These include the hard-contraction movements that emerged out Suhaila’s training in jazz dance as well as from her work with Boogaloo dancer Walter “Sundance” Freeman. These movements include interior hip squares, pelvic locks, arm waves from out-to-in, hard contraction arm waves in both directions, rib and pelvic pyramids and Vs.
Breaking it Down, Putting it Together
In JSF Level 3, students learn to manipulate the JSF, layer JSF movements over JSF movements, and add SSF layers. Not only does this burst open the creative and technical possibilities inherent in belly dance as a professional performance genre, but it also gives us greater versatility in how we choose to interpret Arabic music. In the school we jokingly refer to this process as “Jamhaila”: a blending of the Jamila and Suhaila Formats. It is also how Suhaila began to experiment with her mother’s format when she was younger, and explore the potential in the steps, while adding her own hard contraction movements and layering techniques.
What does this mean? Let’s look at some examples:
8 count phrase using three steps in the JSF.
Concept: Breaking out of the idea that JSF is only to be used in large musical chunks.
Steps: CCW Pivot 1U1D [1-2], 3/4 Shimmy on the Up [3-4], Full Spin with Syncopated Pivot Shift Step [5-8].
Feet: L foot flat, R relevé in jazz 3rd, demi plié on “2” [1-2], step ht db R flat-footed, going F [3-4], stepping ht db R, making CW turn, going R [5-6], come up onto ball of L foot [&(7)], step R foot flat to complete full CW turn , touch ball of L foot in jazz 3rd .
Hips: Tw ft db L [1-2], alt 3/4 glutes dt db R [3-4], home [5-6], tw L [&(7)], tw ht db R [7-8].
Arms: L arm mod 5th, R mod 2nd [1-2], both mod 2nd [3-5], high 1st , R hand behind head, L hand at L hip [7-8].
Cymbals: 3-3-7 [1-4], 3-1-3-1-3 [5-8].
Here we haven’t manipulated the JSF movements out of their default sentiments or timings; we’re only breaking them up into smaller bits to fit more into one count of 8. Also notice how that if you wanted to repeat this phrase, you would have to reverse (mirror image) the entire combination, because you end with your weight on the right foot.
JSF layered over JSF:
Concept: Layering steps and step families in the Jamila Format, choosing a dominant sentiment.
Steps: Algerian Shimmy with the upper body and sentiment of Arabic 1.
Feet: Touch-step ht db R in relevé
Hips: Alt glutes dt db L
Torso: Und U-D ft db UB
Arms: Back of R hand over mouth, palm facing out, L arm in mod 2nd.
Cymbals: Running 4s and 5s.
Notice how the arms emphasize the coy, shy feeling of the Arabic 1 step, even though the lower body is performing the Algerian Shimmy. Here we are also layering the Arabic Family over the Shimmy Family.
SSF layered over JSF:
Concept: Combining the steps of JSF with the technical elements of SSF.
Overview: Five Count with alternating interior hip squares and optional rib cage locks.
Feet: Stepping ht db R in relevé: cross R behind L, step L in place [1-2], step in place in releve, 3/4 timing ft db R [3-4], reverse [5-8].
Hips: Alt int sq CW ht db F [1-8].
Arms: Mod 2nd [1-8].
Optional Layer: Rib locks ht db F [1-8].
The Five Count is a JSF movement, and by default, it does not feature hip work. The interior hip square is a distinctly SSF movement, refined and codified by Suhaila in the 1980s, after the 1978 JSF cut-off. The rib locks are a true layer, as codified by Suhaila within the context of the SSF.
Two Formats, One Vision
As you work in both the SSF and the JSF, remember to keep the two formats clearly separated in your head. The SSF refers to base technical movements divided up in the body; the JSF refers to steps and step names that encompass the whole body. We must also understand that there are movements that we do in the SSF that are not JSF. While it is true that the JSF came first, we use our SSF technical foundations to do the steps in the JSF. The formats feed into one another, weaving back and forth. When you are learning the two formats, be very clear with yourself which one is which.
It is also important that when you are learning the steps of the JSF that you aren’t approaching them as though they were drills. Each step comes with a built-in cultural context and origin. Sometimes the origin is right there in the step name: Basic Egyptian, Algerian Shimmy, Turkish Walk, Turkish Backwalk, Basic Taqsim. Practice physicalizing and embodying the character of each step. Pretend to dance like Samia Gamal when doing your Walk With Pivot on an Angle. Embody the archetypal matriarch when doing your 4/4 Shimmy. Channel a coy sister at a family house party when dancing your Arabic 1.
If you are in the Salimpour School, it is essential that you train simultaneously in both formats. Doing so will make you a strong technical dancer with fantastic musicality and a wealth of historical and cultural context on which to draw from when composing dances, either in improvisation or choreography.