Jamila Salimpour and Suhaila Salimpour are a family dynasty in American belly dance. Jamila (born 1926) is the Matriarch of Belly Dance in the United States and the Mother of Tribal Belly dance. Inspired by the great dancers of Egypt’s Golden Era, she was a cabaret dancer in the early West Coast clubs of the United States. She applied the same technique to her Bal Anat troupe (a gathering of many tribes) but with different stylization and costuming to different music to achieve a different sentiment. She was the first to develop and codify a belly dance format, and she created a finger cymbal method including over 44 patterns.
Suhaila Salimpour (born 1966) grew up with her mother’s format and Bal Anat while learning Western dance; she spent a decade performing in prestigious night clubs with live bands in the Middle East and Los Angeles. In 1996, she began the Suhaila Dance Company. In 1999, she took over direction of Bal Anat and launched the Suhaila Salimpour Belly Dance certification program, the most extensive and thorough belly dance curriculum available. She launched the Jamila Salimpour Belly dance certification program in 2007 to further augment and expand the Salimpour School. Her own format, first developed in 1978 has revolutionized the way that belly dance is understood and taught today.
The Salimpour Effect on Belly Dance
Jamila Salimpour was born in New York City in 1926. She grew up hearing her father’s stories of the dancers he saw in North Africa when he was in the Sicilian Navy. Jamila joined the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Baily circus at the age of sixteen. At nineteen, she moved to Los Angeles where she became connected to a diverse but close-knit group of Middle Eastern immigrants. With this new community, she once again became engrossed with Middle Eastern dance. As there were no teachers of the dance, she researched and learned what she could by watching, listening, and reading. Few if any clubs on the West Coast had belly dancing at that time, so Jamila began by performing mostly for woman-only groups. She also taught off and on to small groups of students. By her late 20s, when belly dancers were now allowed and featured in the clubs, Jamila performed regularly in restaurants and nightclubs.
Around 1960, Jamila was recruited to perform in San Francisco where she eventually settled permanently. There she owned part of a night club and danced fulltime until she married at the beginning of 1966. After marriage, Jamila’s husband forbade her from dancing. She immediately got pregnant, and Suhaila was born later that year. Jamila sold her half of the nightclub and taught belly dance to bring in money to the family.
In 1968, Jamila’s Bal Anat first debuted at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire featuring folkloric and fantasy dancers, with the authentic displayed right alongside hokum. Jamila’s dance format technique and Bal Anat presentation began the tribal movement and stylization that would soon take root in the belly dance community.
From 1966 to about 1984 is considered Jamila’s greatest period of teaching. She turned 40 in 1966, so she was a mature woman who had already been involved in the dance for 20 years. She had seen the original Egyptian movies imported from Egypt within a year of their Cairo debuts. She had connections that gave her the latest music recordings and trends from the Middle East. She was present and watching as the dance arrived and grew on the West Coast. And she, herself, played a significant role in how the dance was taught. She observed elements from various dancers and codified the steps into families. She added structure and timing. Her famous finger cymbal method included over 44 patterns. By 1980, her format was documented in a manual and video tape series, including several important additions and concepts from Suhaila.
Born in 1966, Suhaila grew up around her mother’s classes. Jamila did not instruct Suhaila directly. Instead, Suhaila picked up her mother’s format by sitting and observing the classes when she was a small child. Jamila enrolled Suhaila in ballet, jazz, and tap at a very early age, so Suhaila learned Western dance technique and developed a Western bodyline. Simultaneously, she was cataloguing her mother’s format in her head by watching her mother teach. Inevitably, Suhaila began to fuse and overlay what she was learning as a young child. She layered her mother’s iconic format onto a well-developed Western posture, allowing for even more range. By the age of nine, Suhaila was teaching with her mother. By the age of twelve, Suhaila was teaching by herself and traveling out-of-state to teach Salimpour format workshops by herself.
But Suhaila was also continuing to develop as a dancer. She saw the gaps in her mother’s format and wanted to find a way to further expand the movement vocabulary and possibilities. She began to write and document her own format and way of explaining the dance that expanded the format exponentially. Dancers before had talked about breaking down certain moves and maybe a few isolations. But Suhaila was the first to break down all movements completely to reintegrate as either percussive or fluid movements. She began seeing all forms of dance and movement differently by exploring how they could be orientalized and how to represent different stylizations within oriental dance. As a young teenager, she watched and studied popping and locking, the latest urban dance craze, being developed and evolved right in San Francisco. She brought this additional isolation work into the dance throughout her middle and high school years.
The music imported from the Middle East began changing, as well. In the 1970s and 1980s, complex and layered compositions became more common. In some cases, composers were creating for dancers instead of singers. Jamila and Suhaila were riveted by the changes in the music and were eager to properly represent the new sound. With Suhaila’s training, the two collaborated on choreographing several signature pieces including Joumana, Maharjan, and Hayati.
Breaking down and isolating movements was not anything new. Many belly dancers had their one signature move or two that called for a break or isolation of some sort. Jazz and modern dancers experimented with isolating movements. Poppers and lockers were breaking down any body movements possible. Suhaila, herself, identified and then developed a formal method to separate the glute muscles from the leg muscles for hip work; this, alone, revolutionized how belly dance was taught.
What Suhaila did for belly dance was to take the overall concept of isolations and breaks and apply it to ALL (not just a few) belly dance movements with an orientalized approach. In the late 1970s, Suhaila added many isolations (pelvic locks, chest locks, interior hip squares, etc.) to her mother’s format; these were included in Jamila’s Danse Orientale manual published in 1978. She taught dance by identifying specific muscles that were the primary force behind each movement. For the first time, belly dancers were being taught to move from the inside out by moving their muscles. She applied timing, downbeat, and directional options. Her method also provided a means to teach and train layering. Suhaila’s method allowed for more layering, thereby giving students greater capacity for movement, expression, and individuality. Now, all dancers could learn all isolation possibilities and all layering options as a matter of course and regular training.
Jamila is called the mother of American tribal belly dance because of the significant influence of her technique as applied to her Bal Anat troupe and presentation. Equally significant are Suhaila’s influences to tribal fusion. Suhaila was the first to bring in the breaks, isolations, and layering that are now commonplace elements of tribal fusion belly dance and, in fact, many stylizations of belly dance today.
By the time Suhaila graduated high school in 1985, Suhaila had her format mostly outlined as she had been teaching and developing it for nearly ten years. She spent the next decade performing in the night clubs (prestigious Byblos in Los Angeles and in the Middle East). During that time, she put both her mother’s and her own format to the test, continuing to fine-tune and develop. After retiring from her night club career, Suhaila began, and continues today, to teach, choreograph, and direct fulltime in addition to her theater performances (solo and group). In 1996 she created the Suhaila Dance Company. In 1999, Suhaila launched the Suhaila certification program and took over direction of Bal Anat. In 2009, she launched the Jamila Salimpour certification program.
Suhaila’s format would not exist without Jamila’s. Jamila’s format is belly dance history, giving an outline of the basic step families with classic Egyptian stylization. Although a full and solid format on its own, Jamila’s format was expanded and enriched by the introduction of elements from Suhaila. Then, as she taught her mother’s format, Suhaila wanted options to expand beyond the basic steps and stylization. She created her own format that encompassed her mother’s step families but allowed for limitless options, layers, and stylizations. Both Jamila’s format and Suhaila’s format have transformed how belly dance is analyzed and taught today.