Sicilian/Greek-American dancer Jamila Salimpour is known for many innovations in belly dance (a dance form also referred to as oriental dance, raqs sharqi, raqs baladi, among others), but is probably best known for her cataloguing and naming of belly dance steps between the 1940s and the 1970s. Many practitioners of the dance form use these step names today, whether or not they are referring to the original Jamila Salimpour step itself. Indeed, even the idea of cataloguing and naming steps was revolutionary in belly dance in the mid-20th century, something that many dancers today likely take for granted if they don’t already resent it.
Over the course of three decades, Jamila—and starting in the 1970s, her daughter Suhaila— embarked on building a collection of basic and not-so-basic belly dance movement vocabulary derived steps performed by dancers native to the Middle East, North Africa, Turkish, and Hellenic regions (MENATH).
When Jamila first embarked on this effort, observing and notating each movement, she organized them into step families. Each family has a characteristic element that ties that group of steps together, whether that’s a technical element (such as hip twists), a foot pattern, or a sentiment or feeling.
Beginning with her meticulous observations of Golden Age dancers such as Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca, and Naima Akef on the silver screen; then to performers from the Arab world, Turkey, and Greece dancing in nightclubs throughout California; and through to the superstars of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Sohair Zaki and Nagwa Fouad, Jamila and her daughter created the repertoire of steps now known as the Jamila Salimpour Step Vocabulary.
Students of the Salimpour School of Dance learn to perform these steps as part of their training, working towards embodying the sentiment and intention of each step, not just their technical or body elements. The history and cultural origins of each step are just as important as the physical movements themselves.
Are Some Step Names Orientalist?
Recently, there have been discussions in the English-speaking belly dance scene as to whether or not dancers should re-evaluate what they call specific dance steps, with the implication that some step names are Orientalist or fetishize the movements.
Names such as “Snake Arms” and “Camel” certainly could be interpreted as such, being named for animals associated with an exotic, fantasy land reminiscent of Victorian interpretations of the 1001 Nights. Another step under scrutiny is the so-called “Berber Walk,” which many dancers and others of Amazigh background say is not part of their vernacular… so how did it even get to be called that? No one in that particular discussion thread seemed to be sure. But, yes, those step names could certainly be considered Orientalist.
But other names come up in these discussions, particularly “Egyptian” and “Arabic,” both of which are terms that Jamila Salimpour used to describe a specific step as well as two different families of steps.
The arguments made against the use of these descriptions often include that the terms generalize an entire style of dance or a diverse group of people. One can understand why someone might think that if they don’t understand why these steps are called “Egyptian” or “Arabic.” However, for Jamila Salimpour, she used these adjectives with a more specific intention of “showing her work.”
When she began naming steps, Jamila first wanted to make sense of the movements for herself in a way that kept their original sentiment and elements while also recognizing and referencing their lineage. Her step names weren’t meant to convey a fantasy or imaginary “Orient,” but rather as a vehicle for understanding and, eventually, transmission. (1)
While we cannot say that Jamila was free of Orientalist thought herself, we can say that the step names were not meant to cast a veneer of exoticism over the movements themselves. (2)
So why did Jamila call these steps Basic Egyptian and Arabic?
Basic Egyptian: The Golden Age of Cairo Cinema
After Jamila Salimpour quit performing in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, she moved to Los Angeles. There she lived with Hyganoosh Takorian, an Armenian woman who had lived in Egypt before moving to California herself. The two of them would go to the local La Tosca theater to watch the Egyptian films imported from Cairo, featuring the oriental dance stars of the time. In fact, Jamila often said that Tahia Carioca and Naima Akef were her first teachers.
Some of the very first movements in what became the Jamila Salimpour step vocabulary are performed in plain sight by the Egyptian silver screen stars. Jamila categorized these steps into what she called the “Egyptian Family,” because she first saw them performed by Egyptian dancers, and they shared a characteristic movement: a forward and back twisting of the hips, which Jamila called a “Pivot.” (3)
Watch this video of Samia Gamal, and you’ll see the chorus dancers and Samia Gamal perform Basic Egyptian, Walk with Pivot, Full Spin with Basic Egyptian, and the step that Jamila called Counter-Clockwise Pivot.
Arabic Family: The Private Party Steps
In the Arabic Family, we leave the realm of the professional dancing stars of the cinema and enter the realm of the private home.
As Jamila was learning what she called at the time oriental dance, she was invited to attend and sometimes perform at community gatherings throughout southern California.She noticed that a particular shuffling step was common at the majority-Arab events. This flat-ball step, with one foot in front of the other in a slight turn out, never more than a few inches away from each other, with a little rock in the upper body is one of the basic steps of most of the vernacular dances across the Arab world and North Africa. It’s also common throughout Iran and Central Asia.
The professional Egyptian cinema dancers did also perform variations of this movement, often adding an undulation of the lower body, letting the pelvis “scoop” as they locomoted across the stage.
Watch Tahia Karioka perform this step:
And Naima Akef does her own variation in Tamr Henna:
Other Steps Named after Places
There are two other places named in the Jamila Salimpour step vocabulary: Algeria and Turkey. Why is that?
The Algerian Shimmy is named for Fatima Ali, a dancer from Algeria whom Jamila saw in the Arabic nightclubs who claimed to be descended from the Ouled Nail. Whether that part is true we’ll probably never know, but it made for a great story at the time. But Fatima Ali was from Algeria, and so the Algerian Shimmy—a doubletime up-and-down action of the hips performed on the balls of the feet—was named as such.
The Turkish Walk and Turkish Backwalk were named for dancers from Turkey who performed these steps often as part of their personal style and repertoire. Both include undulations of the torso, which are common in Turkish professional and vernacular dancing of the mid-20th Century. The Turkish Drop, of course, was also named after a Turkish dancer, Tabora Najim, who was famous for spinning and falling to the floor in a backbend with her legs tucked up underneath her. This acrobatic movement is still a crowd-pleaser for those daring enough to try it.
There had been other steps named after places and people, but they fell out of practice or were absorbed into other movements, such as the Ghawazi (a three-quarter timing step on the balls of the feet with corresponding hip twists) and the Tunisian (a chasse-like step on the balls of the feet with coordinating undulations up-to-down of the upper body).
Steps Named After People
Some steps in the method reference specific people, paying homage to the dancers whom Jamila first saw perform them. Through these names, we can trace the exact origin of these steps, such as:
- Ahmad Shimmy, also known as Three-Quarter Shimmy on the Down, named after Canadian dancer Ahmad Jarjour;
- Maya, also known as a Figure 8 Up-to-Down, named after Syrian dancer Maya Medwar;
- Zanouba, a fulltime grapevine with oppositional arm and head movements, named for a dancer at the Fez in Los Angeles;
- Samiha, named after a dancer who performed an asymmetrical syncopated three-quarter shimmy.
Steps Named After Related Dance Forms
Around 2016, Suhaila and her team decided to include basic Debke steps in the Jamila Salimpour step vocabulary, much to Jamila’s delight. Jamila loved Debke dance and music. So the Jamila repertoire now includes five basic steps from classic Lebanese style Debke. You can see many of these steps in this video of a choreographed performance featuring singer Fairouz.
The Jamila Salimpour repertoire also includes one lone step named Three-Quarter Flamenco, named for its heavy and quick foot action that resembles that done in Flamenco dance itself.
Steps Named for Their Intention
A few steps in the Salaam Family are named for what they mean or what they evoke, rather than what they do or where they are from. These include the Salaam Step, the Greeting Step, and the Horse Step. “Salaam,” while technically meaning “peace” in Arabic, is also a common greeting or term used to welcome people into your space. So the Salaam Step has an arm action that evokes saying hello. The Greeting Step, too, has arm and upper body actions of a welcoming sentiment.
Lastly, the Horse Step is named for the Upper Egyptian dancers who perform with and imitate their own dancing horses, involving a kind of alternating loose front attitude of the gesturing leg. Variations of this step also appear in Debke dance and other vernacular dance throughout the Arab world, usually performed by men.
Watch this vintage footage of dance, folklife, and more.
What About The Rest?
So, apart from the few steps named after places or people, there are over 100 additional steps named after a characteristic hip or body action, timing, footwork, shape or floor pattern.
Steps that are named for their hip or body action include:
- Pivot Shift Step
- Twist Step
- Bow Step
- Counter-Clockwise Pivot
- Stomp Step
- Stomp Step with a Shimmy
- Running Choo Choo and its variations
- Choo Choo
- Singles on the Up
- Singles on the Down
- Bounce Step
- Brush Step
- Goosh Step and its variations
Steps named for their foot pattern include:
- Forward-and-Back-And Walk-2-3-4
Steps named for their timing or rhythm include:
- Five Count and its variations
- Four Count
- Eight Count
Steps named for the shape they make or their floor pattern include:
- Circle Step
- Crescent Step
- Figure Eight Backwalk
- V Step and its variations
The Responsibility of Transmission
Here we can see that Jamila was not exotifying these dancers or their movements. Nor was she attempting to co-opt them as her own creation. She wanted to make sense of them for herself, then, of course, when she began teaching, she wanted a way to ensure her students understood what she was conveying. “In giving names to steps,” Jamila once told Shareen El Safy in an article for Habibi Magazine, “it meant you could say ‘Arabic Two’ and immediately everyone would know what stance to take, and the step.”
The famed Egyptian choreographer Mahmoud Reda wished for such a system himself when he was working with his dance company, the Reda Troupe, in the 1960s and 1970s. In an interview with Shareen El Safy for Habibi Magazine, Reda said that adopting standardized terminology would be “a good idea for the art itself, because every art has its definitions.” He continued to say, “it will be good for the class, for any class, even in my country, and in my class especially. Then I can talk instead of showing. I can say ‘this movement after this movement.’… And because Oriental dance is popular in many places now, it will be a good idea that we have the same names and talk the same language.”
So, as students of the Salimpour School learn these movements, it is imperative that they also learn and embody their cultural origins and contexts. Suhaila Salimpour is quick to include background information on the movements, and coaches her authorized instructors to do the same; none of them teaches these steps in a technical vacuum, reducing them to body movements alone. To leave out the stories behind each step would not only be a disservice to the current students, but also to the many dancers, performers, and community members in the MENATH diaspora for whom these steps are part of their vernacular and professional repertoire.
1. Practitioners and instructors of belly dance/oriental dance have been debating the value of standardized terminology and codification since at least the 1960s. Arguments for it include that doing so would facilitate the transmission of steps from instructor to student/choreographer to company member, while arguments against it include that it would excise opportunities for creativity and/or that doing so is imposing “Western” values on an “Eastern” dance form (an argument that relies on a false and inherently orientalist dichotomy itself).
2. It’s also important to remember that Jamila Salimpour saw herself as on the margins of North American society herself. She was a first-generation American who didn’t speak English—only Sicilian Italian—until she was five years old. Her Sicilian-Greek heritage marked her as an outsider at a time when being anything other than a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant was seen as “other” and inferior. When she and her second husband—an Indian Katakali dancer—searched for a home together in southern California, they were frequently denied because they were a mixed-race couple. And then, of course, her third husband, Ardeshir Salimpour, was an Iranian immigrant, whose family practiced Shi’a Islam.
3. The FatChanceBellyDance step names still use the term “Pivot” in their vocabulary as well, as evidenced in movements like “Pivot Bump.” Carolena Nericcio, creator of FCBD in the 1980s, studied with Masha Archer, a former student of Jamila Salimpour. The original FCBD steps, including their own Egyptian Basic and Arabic steps, have their naming origins in Jamila’s original step movement vocabulary, even though they have a different style and posture than that taught in the Salimpour School.