Suhaila Salimpour’s Video Catalog

Suhaila’s performance from her 2004 video/DVD, “Suhaila Solo”. Featuring Fathi Al Jarrah on Violin as well as special soloists: Rashid (Tom Ryan) and Isabella Salimpour.

Musicians: Fathi Al Jarrah (Violin), Nabil Elsafi (Oud), Muhannad Elwer (Keyboard), Emad Mezied (Tambourine), Louai Dhbour (Duf)
Suhaila’s Choreography: Suhaila Salimpour
Copyright Suhaila International LLC (Suhaila Productions) 2004. All rights reserved.

In our previous explorations of Suhaila Salimpour’s performance video catalog—“Banat Iskandaria,” “Pharaonic Suite,” 1991 BC, and Unveiled—we have followed the development of her choreographic work to recorded music.

What we haven’t seen is her work as an improvisational performer, and yet this kind of performance—in a nightclub setting with a live band—is at the heart of belly dance as a performance genre. Nagua Fouad. Nadia Gamal. Mona El Said… they were all nightclub dancers.

And what many people might not understand is that Suhaila worked for years in the nightclubs, refining her choreographies, personal style, and musical interpretation.

A Shifting Scene

After Suhaila returned from performing in the Middle East, she took on a new role as director of the Salimpour School of Dance and Suhaila Dance Company. She quickly made a name for herself as a leader and innovator in the field, as well as an artist not afraid to ruffle the feathers of traditionalists or preservationists. As far as she was concerned, her lifetime of immersion in belly dance, surrounded by Arabic music and culture, afforded her the liberty to experiment.

In the early 2000s, other dancers, too, wanted to experiment with belly dance. The dance form became a location for self-exploration and expression through costume, “world beat” and electronic music, and integration of subcultural aesthetics, such as Goth, Punk, Burner, and Modern Primitive, particularly from those communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Tribal fusion was poised to make its mark on the global belly dance scene, soon to be hoisted into the spotlight with Miles Copeland’s Bellydance Superstars.

But before that, another upheaval had affected the already dwindling Middle Eastern nightclub scene in the United States.

Islamic terrorists hijacked four American passenger jets on September 11, 2001. And for the last remaining venues and supper clubs featuring live music and belly dance in the United States—particularly in New York, where many of the clubs couldn’t survive the subsequent economic decline downtown near where the Twin Towers once stood—that was the last nail in the proverbial coffin. As the George W. Bush administration launched attacks in Afghanistan and then Iraq, Middle Eastern communities afraid of persecution, retaliation, and racism retreated into themselves. It was not a time for celebration in the local nightclub.

So, with the disappearance of venues where audiences could see dancers performing to full Arabic and Middle Eastern bands, and a burgeoning fascination with experimentation and performance of the “exotic,” the classic belly dance presentation had all but disappeared in the United States.

Showing the Source

As fusion belly dance established itself as a major player on the festival circuit and growing DVD market, Suhaila felt that dancers were not only unfamiliar with the recent roots of belly dance, but also the foundations of her own work. She had been watching her hard-contraction locks and isolations incorporated into new stylizations with little connection with the culture, music, and storytelling that she still feels are at the heart of belly dance.

She might have just released footage of herself performing throughout the Arab world. But when she left Lebanon for the last time, the airline lost her luggage. Gone were not only thousands of dollars worth of costumes, but also hours of video recordings of her performances in Beirut and beyond. Those live experiences were now just memories.

And of course, she continued to choreograph and create new work. As she produced and developed her full-length stage show Sheherazadewhich does feature fusion and experimental work—she felt that she had to record an intimate performance with a live band for a growing audience of belly dancers new to the art form. It would be in the tradition of the classic nightclub show, complete with a costume change and a show-stopping drum solo. And so, Suhaila Solo was born.

While Suhaila Solo is, of course, not the only solo performance Suhaila has produced since her return from the Middle East, it is the only one she’s released to the public.

Behind the Music

The live show would be nothing without its extraordinary ensemble of musicians. While it might seem that Suhaila and the band rehearsed together for hours before the show, they only had one rehearsal and a sound check.

The songs in this particular performance have come to be associated with Suhaila and, by extension, her certification program. In the Middle East, she danced to them nightly, and she says that she felt these compositions “showed where I was coming from artistically,” telling a specific story and taking the audience on a journey.

Dancers familiar with Suhaila’s body of work will recognize the entrance “Set al-Hosen,” and middle songs “Nebtidi Mnein al-Hikaya” and “Yanna Yanna” from Suhaila’s choreographic repertoire. She even performs elements of her choreographies to these songs, but she warns students who might know these dances, “don’t just get stuck in the choreography,” meaning that even when we know a set dance, we must also feel that improvisational freedom, particularly with a live music ensemble.

This is particularly true for two of the songs from this show. Band leader and master violinist Fathi Al-Jarrah played with the phrase order of “Nebtidi Mnein al-Hikaya,” and the appearance of “Sawwah” after the ‘ud solo was entirely unplanned. In the moment, the band just felt that “Sawwah” should be the next piece in the show. And so it was. Of course, when working with a band, an experienced dancer can follow these spontaneous changes, following the these changes that happen in the moment.

The placement of the taqasim have special meaning for Suhaila. The violin solo, she says, represents her heart and soul. The ‘ud is her ancestors. And the keyboard—an instrument that she isn’t particularly fond of in Arabic music—is the present and the future.

In a typical belly dance show, the baladi progression on the keyboard cleanses the palette for the drum solo. Its slow build and accents hint at the faster accents and excitement to come. And as Suhaila performed throughout the Middle East, she became known for her drum solos, and this performance showcases her virtuosic and hard-hitting approach.

She also became known for her inclusion of a zar in her drum solos, based in the ritualistic trance gatherings held in rural communities of Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and Eastern Africa. Suhaila says that even in a performance, when the zar “is done correctly, it will put the dancer in a trance state,” and it’s not just for show.

Throughout it all, Suhaila’s mother, Jamila, watched from the wings. When Suhaila left the stage, Jamila was crying. She begged her daughter to stop teaching, close the studio, and just perform. She felt that dancers needed to see the dance as it was meant to be showcased: in person, with excellent musicians, and completely in the moment. And Suhaila’s daughter, who was barely six at the time, told her mother, “That’s it! I only want to dance to live music!” The apples don’t fall far from the tree.

When you do sit down and watch the solo show, make sure that you settle in for the whole hour and a half, and prepare to be taken on a wild ride.

What to Watch For, Level by Level

Suhaila often tells her students to watch her solo show, but without some direction, it can be difficult to know what to look for. And as we progress, refine our technique, eye, and emotional acuity, we will see different aspects of the same performance. To give you some guidance, here are some things to watch for, depending on where you are in the program.

Level 1

  • Technical aspects of the physical movements
  • Timing and layering
  • Find and listen to the original versions of the songs in the show

Level 2

  • Physical musicality and expression of the instruments
  • Technical elements
  • Deeper exploration of the music: meaning, lyrics, and composers/singers

Level 3

  • Emotional connection to the music
  • Intricacy of layering
  • Overall arc of the show, but also arc within each song
  • Use of the “Grid” on the stage and audience

Level 4

  • Entrances, veil discard, wind-ups, endings, and exits
  • Expression of “in” and “out” as a spectrum
  • Placement and instrumentation of the taqasim
  • Costuming, make-up, and presentational elements

Level 5

  • Being able to explain all of the above to students and pass on the knowledge

Never Compromising

In the higher levels, Suhaila often tells students to watch the solo show multiple times, as a model and guide for their own performances with live music, as well as choreographic compositions. Suhaila says she created her certification program to teach students all of these elements of dancing to Arabic music—from the opening promenade, musicality, emotional connection, and connection with the band. And this is also why when testing for Level 4 in either format, dancers perform a shorter version of the full nightclub shows that dancers used to do every night.

Although Suhaila Solo is the only publicly available recording of one of Suhaila’s solo shows with a live band, she has many others in the vault that will never be released. In fact, there are few performances that she will release to the public these days, because of our recent obsession with recording everything with our mobile phones instead of enjoying the excitement and emotion of live art. If people want to see her solo shows, Enta Omri, or Bal Anat, they have to come see them in person. Otherwise, she says, “they’re not getting the full experience.”

She also says, that at the end of the day, she never wants to compromise what she loves so much: the live music experience.

But until the next solo show, we’ll have to be content with Suhaila Solo.

 

Postscript: Rashid’s Intermission

In the Arab world, as the featured belly dance changed her costume in the intermission, a singer or a folkloric troupe (usually men) would perform to entertain the audience and keep the energy going.

But in Suhaila Solo, we are treated to a performance by Tom Ryan, known as Rashid.

A student of Jamila’s, he danced until his last days, having contracted HIV like many queer male dancers in San Francisco. Suhaila asked him to perform in the middle of her solo shows, so that more people could see his musicality and his soft and elegant style. He was also one of the original tray dancers with Bal Anat, and he performs his tray dance on this recording, too.

We’ll explore the role of the male dancer in Bal Anat, as well as dive deeper into the life of Tom “Rashid” Ryan, in an upcoming blog post.

Suhaila Salimpour’s dance company in a full-length theater production of Sheherezade. Filmed in 2005.

Specialty Artists: Tom (Rashid) Ryan as the Eunuch
Violinist: Fathi Al Jarrah
Producer/Artistic Director/Choreographer/Director/Producer: Suhaila Salimpour
“In The Beginning” Choreography: Jamila Salimpour
Editor: Carson Porter
Post Production: Rough House San Francisco
Copyright 2005 Suhaila International LLC (Suhaila Productions). All Rights Reserved.

The official revival of Bal Anat by the Salimpour Family in 2001.

Choreography:
Producer/Artistic Director
Creative Consultants: Jamila Salimpour, Rashid (Tom Ryan)
The Birth Magic Ritual Choreographed by Jamila Salimpour
Karshlama Original Choreography by Meta Metal
Ghawazee Choreographed by Suhaila Salimpour and Rashid
Snake Dance Choreographed by Suhaila Salimpour
Moroccan Choreographed by Suhaila salimpour
Pot Dance Choreographed by Suhaila Salimpour and Rashid
Algerian Choreographed by Jamila and Suhaila Salimpour
Sword Choreographed by Suhaila Salimpour
Cane Dance Choreographed by Suhaila Salimpour
Tray Dance Choreographed by Rashid
Finale Choreographed by Suhaila Salimpour

Musicians:
Band Leader Ernie Fischbach: Muzmar, Kanun, Mijwiz, and Shebeba
Alex Bettesworth: Tabla
David Brown: Rebaba, Mijwiz, Mizmar, Ney, and Mezound
Chris Caswell: Mizmar, Kanun, Mijwiz, and Shebaba
Melissa Fishbach: Dumbek and Tabla Balade
Kam Lettner: Tabla
Imad Mizyed: Tambourine and Tabla
Brian Steeger: Violin, Argul, Muzmar, and Bendir
Copyright
2001 Suhaila International LLC
All Rights Reserved

Suhaila and the Suhaila Dance Company performing Suhaila’s Percussion Show at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, 1999

Concept, creation, and choreography by Suhaila Salimpour. Music composed by Suhaila Salimpour and Susu Pampanin.

Copyright 1999 Suhaila International LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Suhaila Salimpour performing the “Raks Suhaila” set from her Unveiled DVD (1996).

Director: Bruce Martin
Producer: Grant Cihlar
Produced by 1171 Production Group Los Angeles, California
Choreography by Suhaila Salimpour

Unveiled: Revealing an Integrated Approach to Belly Dance

If you’ve been in the Salimpour School for a while, you are probably already familiar with at least some of the choreographies on Unveiled. And if you are newer to the school, we hope that you have at least watched these recorded performances, familiarizing yourself with Suhaila’s body of performance work. If you’ve been belly dancing for over 10 years, you might even recognize clips of Unveiled from the documentary American Bellydancer.

The dances on Unveiled mark a maturation point for Suhaila Salimpour’s personal choreography, musical interpretation, and integration of her own and her mother’s belly dance formats. Here we also see how Suhaila has blended her study of ballet, jazz, and street dance into a style that still keeps the integrity of Arabic music interpretation. These dances are a true fusion, and are still innovative and—as Suhaila likes to say—“fresh,” even twenty years after they were recorded.

A Choreographer Comes Into Her Own

In the last recording we looked at1991 BC—Suhaila says that she “had something to prove.” She was still relatively new to the Middle Eastern club scene, and she had not moved to the Arab world to perform (even though she was going back and forth, she had not yet relocated). She says that she feels that her dancing then was “aggressive,” and that she had not yet learned how to breathe throughout her performances. But on Unveiled, we see a woman who is not only comfortable with her dancing, but her body as an artistic instrument.

After Suhaila returned after more than six years performing nightly in the Middle East, she didn’t want to make another performance video. The year was 1998, and back then, producing a video was expensive, time-consuming, and physically demanding on the dancer’s body. She also felt that she was moving into a new role in the belly dance world, from performer to instructor. Instead of making performance videos, she wanted to focus on opening and developing the Salimpour School. She had also just married and wanted to start a family.

But her new husband insisted that she document her work, particularly since her experience in the Middle East was still fresh in her body. Indeed, she worked on specific songs night after night, refining them and letting the choreographies develop organically. The constant and regular performing allowed her to doodle with the dances. Her husband suggested that they take the money they received as gifts for their wedding and produce a performance recording.

And the filming process was indeed grueling. The team filmed from 7am to 10pm on a set with a concrete floor. The space was long and narrow from front-to-back, rather than side-to-side, so Suhaila had to adjust the floor patterns of her choreographies substantially in some places just to avoid the side walls… or the big Greco-Roman columns.

You might also notice that when you watch the first set, “Raks Jamila,” (in the black and gold costume) that Suhaila’s skin is shiny. That’s not sweat. It’s baby oil. And Suhaila says that it got into everything, especially her hair, which she had to wash out in a sink during their lunch break to prepare for the filming of the Raks Suhaila set.

But when the long, grueling day of filming had ended, Suhaila and her then-husband came home, he said, “Our grandkids are going to love it.”

Full Belly Dance Sets

Unveiled contains two full, but short, sets, each including an entrance (now commonly referred to as a “Majency” or “Emergence”), a taqsim, and a drum solo. It’s important to understand that these songs are not placed in the program arbitrarily; this is how a classic belly dance set is constructed.

These specific sets are now required for dancers in our program to learn and perform for Level 4 certification, so that we can learn classic entrance step sequences, musicality, and song structure. For the sake of this essay, we’ll look at them together, because they signal a cohesion and maturity of Suhaila’s work, both in the development of her technical format and in her choreographic style.

Even though we have split them up for the sake of presentation on Vimeo, these two sets appeared back-to-back on the original release:

Set 1 (black and gold costume): Raks Jamila, Guitar Solo, Drum Solo (AKA The Level 3 Finger Cymbal Drum Solo)

Set 2 (white costume): Raks Suhaila, Guitar Solo, Maddah, Drum Solo (AKA “Unveiled” Drum Solo)

Signature Technical Elements

In addition to recognizing the seamless integration of jazz and other Euro-American dance forms into her dancing, what also stands out in these performances is Suhaila’s mastery of her body. The hard contraction isolations that had been such a sensation on Dances for the Sultan are now effortless, particularly in the opening combination of drum solo at the end of the “Raks Suhaila” set (12:54).

In Unveiled we also see the musical potential of Suhaila’s glute-driven vibration, particularly in the guitar solo after “Raks Jamila” (7:29) She follows the notes of the guitar with the vibration, and the melody line with her upper body, through undulations, isolations, rib locks and slides, pyramids and Vs. Each movement is musically-driven, a physical and improvisational response to the guitar. We also see vibrations in the guitar solo before “Maddah” as well as in the choreography itself, sprinkled in between phrases as the instrumentation suggests (9:05).

The glute-driven vibration technique was still (and continues to be) quite rare, and it caused quite a stir in the belly dance community after Unveiled had been released. In fact, Suhaila received a letter from a dancer asking, “what was making your belly quiver like that?”

Suhaila had been working on her own format for over 15 years by the time she recorded Unveiled, and over 10 years from the time she recorded Dances for the Sultan. Suhaila describes the performances on Dances for the Sultan as “primitive,” in that her choreographic and technical methods had only started to develop. When she watches Dances for the Sultan, she also thinks, “What a cute little girl.” In only 10 years, she had made great artistic and physical strides in her performances. She says, “If you do the Suhaila Format for a decade,” you too can make such visible and tangible progress.

Maturation of Dance Phrases and Motifs

Unveiled also reveals to us choreographic phrases that repeat in other dances. By recognizing these patterns and short combinations, we are better able to not only understand what we’re watching, but also learn these dances.

In “Raks Jamila,” a phrase familiar to anyone who knows “Bongo Funk” appears early in the dance, but with variations in turn direction and downbeat, beginning with the 8-Count at 1:09. The opening phrase of the Level 3 Finger Cymbal Drum Solo appears twice on this video alone, both in the drum solo and towards the end of “Maddah.” We also see Suhaila riffing on 1-2-3-& with wrist circles, which appears not only here in “Raks Jamila,” but also in “Yanna Yanna” and earlier in “Princess of Cairo,” and we see specific promenade step patterns which appear in both entrance pieces and the end of “Nebtidi Minein El-Hikaya.”

The dances on this recording also showcase the lyrical and full-bodied movement so characteristic of Suhaila’s personal style. She literally throws herself into steps, from the Salaam-Step-in-a-Circle-style turn in “Maddah” to the end of the Unveiled drum solo. As Suhaila often tells her students, her upper body is frequently late, the movement in the spine a lagging a little behind as her feet continue on with the next phrase. Here, too, her practice and performance in her own Home Position is so natural and second-nature at this point that she can let her spine and head just go along for the ride in free-flowing movement.

Fully-Integrated Jamila Format Steps

These choreographies also seamlessly integrate Jamila Format technique into Suhaila’s experimentation with jazz and ballet footwork and body lines. They are woven in and out of the dances because at this point in her performance career, Suhaila has been working with these steps for nearly three decades. They are as much a part of her as her own feet.

These choreographies are the very definition of “Jamhaila.” Suhaila layers, plays with, and changes her mother’s format in accordance to the music itself. This is particularly clear with the Figure 8 Backwalk with pelvic locks in “Raks Jamila” (4:35).

These steps never look dated, vintage, or cliche. The musical and emotional context makes and keeps them relevant. A few examples to watch out for as you re-watch these performances:

  • Spins: Down-Out-Up, In-Out, Diagonal 2/4
  • 8-count
  • Goosh Step
  • Variations on Samiha
  • Circle Step
  • Running Choo Choo
  • Counter-Clockwise Pivot
  • Shimmy Family, particularly 3/4 Shimmy and Forward & Back & Walk-2-3-4

Dancing These Choreographies Today

Even though she created and recorded them over 20 years ago, each is still a living work, now performed by dancers in the Salimpour School today. Suhaila says that when she was recording these dances in 1998, “I didn’t realize that they would be so relevant.” Indeed, they don’t look dated, or particularly “90s” in style. She says, “They are classic openers, and dancers have to learn how to dance to classic pieces and song structures.”

In 2017 and early 2018, Suhaila retaught both “Raks Suhaila” and “Raks Jamila,” and many students reminisced about the first time they had seen these dances on video, or how they had inspired them personally. To keep them alive in our own bodies is to show the longevity of these dances and also how much of a mark they have made on belly dance as a performative art. Suhaila notes that these choreographies stand the test of time.

Dancers in the program are now required to learn “Raks Suhaila” and “Raks Jamila” for the improv-preparation sets, “Maddah” for Suhaila Format Level 3 certification, and the drum solo from Raks Suhaila is the Level 3 Finger Cymbal Drum Solo. And dancers in Salimpour Collectives are learning the drum solo from the Raks Jamila set (known as the “Unveiled” drum solo. Here’s the Edmonton Salimpour Collective performing it in fall of 2017.).

As we watch and learn these dances, we are learning a part of belly dance history and embodying the development and application of the Salimpour Formats.

Suhaila Salimpour performing the “Raks Jamila” set from her Unveiled DVD (1996).

Choreography on ”Raks Jamila” by Jamila and Suhaila Salimpour
Director: Bruce Martin
Producer: Grant Cihlar
Produced by 1171 Production Group Los Angeles, California

Unveiled: Revealing an Integrated Approach to Belly Dance

If you’ve been in the Salimpour School for a while, you are probably already familiar with at least some of the choreographies on Unveiled. And if you are newer to the school, we hope that you have at least watched these recorded performances, familiarizing yourself with Suhaila’s body of performance work. If you’ve been belly dancing for over 10 years, you might even recognize clips of Unveiled from the documentary American Bellydancer.

The dances on Unveiled mark a maturation point for Suhaila Salimpour’s personal choreography, musical interpretation, and integration of her own and her mother’s belly dance formats. Here we also see how Suhaila has blended her study of ballet, jazz, and street dance into a style that still keeps the integrity of Arabic music interpretation. These dances are a true fusion, and are still innovative and—as Suhaila likes to say—“fresh,” even twenty years after they were recorded.

A Choreographer Comes Into Her Own

In the last recording we looked at1991 BC—Suhaila says that she “had something to prove.” She was still relatively new to the Middle Eastern club scene, and she had not moved to the Arab world to perform (even though she was going back and forth, she had not yet relocated). She says that she feels that her dancing then was “aggressive,” and that she had not yet learned how to breathe throughout her performances. But on Unveiled, we see a woman who is not only comfortable with her dancing, but her body as an artistic instrument.

After Suhaila returned after more than six years performing nightly in the Middle East, she didn’t want to make another performance video. The year was 1998, and back then, producing a video was expensive, time-consuming, and physically demanding on the dancer’s body. She also felt that she was moving into a new role in the belly dance world, from performer to instructor. Instead of making performance videos, she wanted to focus on opening and developing the Salimpour School. She had also just married and wanted to start a family.

But her new husband insisted that she document her work, particularly since her experience in the Middle East was still fresh in her body. Indeed, she worked on specific songs night after night, refining them and letting the choreographies develop organically. The constant and regular performing allowed her to doodle with the dances. Her husband suggested that they take the money they received as gifts for their wedding and produce a performance recording.

And the filming process was indeed grueling. The team filmed from 7am to 10pm on a set with a concrete floor. The space was long and narrow from front-to-back, rather than side-to-side, so Suhaila had to adjust the floor patterns of her choreographies substantially in some places just to avoid the side walls… or the big Greco-Roman columns.

You might also notice that when you watch the first set, “Raks Jamila,” (in the black and gold costume) that Suhaila’s skin is shiny. That’s not sweat. It’s baby oil. And Suhaila says that it got into everything, especially her hair, which she had to wash out in a sink during their lunch break to prepare for the filming of the Raks Suhaila set.

But when the long, grueling day of filming had ended, Suhaila and her then-husband came home, he said, “Our grandkids are going to love it.”

Full Belly Dance Sets

Unveiled contains two full, but short, sets, each including an entrance (now commonly referred to as a “Majency” or “Emergence”), a taqsim, and a drum solo. It’s important to understand that these songs are not placed in the program arbitrarily; this is how a classic belly dance set is constructed.

These specific sets are now required for dancers in our program to learn and perform for Level 4 certification, so that we can learn classic entrance step sequences, musicality, and song structure. For the sake of this essay, we’ll look at them together, because they signal a cohesion and maturity of Suhaila’s work, both in the development of her technical format and in her choreographic style.

Even though we have split them up for the sake of presentation on Vimeo, these two sets appeared back-to-back on the original release:

Set 1 (black and gold costume): Raks Jamila, Guitar Solo, Drum Solo (AKA The Level 3 Finger Cymbal Drum Solo)

Set 2 (white costume): Raks Suhaila, Guitar Solo, Maddah, Drum Solo (AKA “Unveiled” Drum Solo)

Signature Technical Elements

In addition to recognizing the seamless integration of jazz and other Euro-American dance forms into her dancing, what also stands out in these performances is Suhaila’s mastery of her body. The hard contraction isolations that had been such a sensation on Dances for the Sultan are now effortless, particularly in the opening combination of drum solo at the end of the “Raks Suhaila” set (12:54).

In Unveiled we also see the musical potential of Suhaila’s glute-driven vibration, particularly in the guitar solo after “Raks Jamila” (7:29) She follows the notes of the guitar with the vibration, and the melody line with her upper body, through undulations, isolations, rib locks and slides, pyramids and Vs. Each movement is musically-driven, a physical and improvisational response to the guitar. We also see vibrations in the guitar solo before “Maddah” as well as in the choreography itself, sprinkled in between phrases as the instrumentation suggests (9:05).

The glute-driven vibration technique was still (and continues to be) quite rare, and it caused quite a stir in the belly dance community after Unveiled had been released. In fact, Suhaila received a letter from a dancer asking, “what was making your belly quiver like that?”

Suhaila had been working on her own format for over 15 years by the time she recorded Unveiled, and over 10 years from the time she recorded Dances for the Sultan. Suhaila describes the performances on Dances for the Sultan as “primitive,” in that her choreographic and technical methods had only started to develop. When she watches Dances for the Sultan, she also thinks, “What a cute little girl.” In only 10 years, she had made great artistic and physical strides in her performances. She says, “If you do the Suhaila Format for a decade,” you too can make such visible and tangible progress.

Maturation of Dance Phrases and Motifs

Unveiled also reveals to us choreographic phrases that repeat in other dances. By recognizing these patterns and short combinations, we are better able to not only understand what we’re watching, but also learn these dances.

In “Raks Jamila,” a phrase familiar to anyone who knows “Bongo Funk” appears early in the dance, but with variations in turn direction and downbeat, beginning with the 8-Count at 1:09. The opening phrase of the Level 3 Finger Cymbal Drum Solo appears twice on this video alone, both in the drum solo and towards the end of “Maddah.” We also see Suhaila riffing on 1-2-3-& with wrist circles, which appears not only here in “Raks Jamila,” but also in “Yanna Yanna” and earlier in “Princess of Cairo,” and we see specific promenade step patterns which appear in both entrance pieces and the end of “Nebtidi Minein El-Hikaya.”

The dances on this recording also showcase the lyrical and full-bodied movement so characteristic of Suhaila’s personal style. She literally throws herself into steps, from the Salaam-Step-in-a-Circle-style turn in “Maddah” to the end of the Unveiled drum solo. As Suhaila often tells her students, her upper body is frequently late, the movement in the spine a lagging a little behind as her feet continue on with the next phrase. Here, too, her practice and performance in her own Home Position is so natural and second-nature at this point that she can let her spine and head just go along for the ride in free-flowing movement.

Fully-Integrated Jamila Format Steps

These choreographies also seamlessly integrate Jamila Format technique into Suhaila’s experimentation with jazz and ballet footwork and body lines. They are woven in and out of the dances because at this point in her performance career, Suhaila has been working with these steps for nearly three decades. They are as much a part of her as her own feet.

These choreographies are the very definition of “Jamhaila.” Suhaila layers, plays with, and changes her mother’s format in accordance to the music itself. This is particularly clear with the Figure 8 Backwalk with pelvic locks in “Raks Jamila” (4:35).

These steps never look dated, vintage, or cliche. The musical and emotional context makes and keeps them relevant. A few examples to watch out for as you re-watch these performances:

  • Spins: Down-Out-Up, In-Out, Diagonal 2/4
  • 8-count
  • Goosh Step
  • Variations on Samiha
  • Circle Step
  • Running Choo Choo
  • Counter-Clockwise Pivot
  • Shimmy Family, particularly 3/4 Shimmy and Forward & Back & Walk-2-3-4

Dancing These Choreographies Today

Even though she created and recorded them over 20 years ago, each is still a living work, now performed by dancers in the Salimpour School today. Suhaila says that when she was recording these dances in 1998, “I didn’t realize that they would be so relevant.” Indeed, they don’t look dated, or particularly “90s” in style. She says, “They are classic openers, and dancers have to learn how to dance to classic pieces and song structures.”

In 2017 and early 2018, Suhaila retaught both “Raks Suhaila” and “Raks Jamila,” and many students reminisced about the first time they had seen these dances on video, or how they had inspired them personally. To keep them alive in our own bodies is to show the longevity of these dances and also how much of a mark they have made on belly dance as a performative art. Suhaila notes that these choreographies stand the test of time.

Dancers in the program are now required to learn “Raks Suhaila” and “Raks Jamila” for the improv-preparation sets, “Maddah” for Suhaila Format Level 3 certification, and the drum solo from Raks Suhaila is the Level 3 Finger Cymbal Drum Solo. And dancers in Salimpour Collectives are learning the drum solo from the Raks Jamila set (known as the “Unveiled” drum solo. Here’s the Edmonton Salimpour Collective performing it in fall of 2017.).

As we watch and learn these dances, we are learning a part of belly dance history and embodying the development and application of the Salimpour Formats.

Suhaila Salimpour and the Suhaila Dance Company performing Suhaila’s Percussion Show at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in 1997. The production features original versions of several choreographies including Suhaila’s well known Renaissance Sword choreography.

Choreography and Music Arrangment by Suhaila Salimpour
Suhaila’s drum Solo Composed by Ziad Islambouli.
Copyright 1997 Suhaila International LLC. All Rights Reserved.

“Zai El Hawa” and “Tamr Henna” Sets from 1991 BC (filmed in 1990).

Choreography Created and Performed by Suhaila Salimpour
Produced by Francis Delia and Suhaila Salimpour
Directed & Photographed by Francis Delia
Line Producer: Eileen Fields
Assistant Cameraman: Nicolas Glover
Second Camera Nicholas Glover, Gary Walker
Audio: Rob Boyle
Copyright Suhaila International LLC. All Rights Reserved.

1991 BC: Suhaila Plants Seeds for the Future

By Abigail Keyes

The last time we saw Suhaila on film was her deliberate, architectural, and experimental choreography on Dances for the Sultan. There she had just begun her innovative work of integrating hard contraction isolations and jazz dance footwork into the belly dance canon. Her musical interpretation was intentionally experimental, deviating from what a dancer from “over there” might do with the same music. When we see her two years later in 1991 BC, and the difference time makes is striking.

But first, let’s talk about the production itself.

1991 BC was filmed at Cabaret Tehran, which at the time was one of the most popular Middle Eastern nightclubs in Los Angeles. At the time of the video’s filming Suhaila had been a featured dancer at Cabaret Tehran for several years. But because of budget constraints, the man responsible for lighting her live shows also ran the lights for the filming… and the lighting for her live shows became the lighting for the video recording. Suhaila did not re-take the performance, because she and the crew only had the resources and time for one take. No do overs. We’re stuck with the multi-colored party lights and the fog machine.

And, of course, we can’t over look the dramatic entrance via sarcophagus (which was, apparently, more Jamila’s idea than Suhaila’s) or the feather cape, which was all the rage in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Just look at the fabulous Fifi Abdo.

But if we look past the production values, we can see a huge technical and expressive leap in Suhaila’s dancing since her last performance video, Dances for the Sultan.

 

Suhaila Format in the Spotlight

The last time we saw Suhaila on video was In Dances for the Sultan. There she uses her mother’s format very deliberately. Steps like Running Choo Choo and Singles on the Up are obvious. Counterclockwise Pivot appears in its default form. Circle step is unadorned and without layering. The movements are straight out of the Danse Orientale manual, with only a few experimentations in what Suhaila calls “Jamhaila.”

However, in 1991 BC, literal Jamila Format steps fade into the background to make room for the jazz and lyrical fusion that makes the Suhaila Format so versatile and expansive. Yes, the 3/4 Shimmy on the Up appears repeatedly, but the layers that come along with it make the original Jamila Salimpour step barely recognizable. She layers the classic 3/4 Shimmy on the Up with interior hip circles, and the 3/4 Shimmy on the Down with undulations down-to-up over an in-out-place foot pattern with wrist circles… which appears in “Yanna Yanna” a few years later.

This performance heralds the vibration as we know it today—a movement Suhaila developed herself. While it made a minor appearance in Dances for the Sultan, here Suhaila demonstrates its musical versatility. She layers pelvic locks, squares, and other hip movements underneath it, while highlighting drum rolls and other melodic and rhythmic phrases. In addition, Suhaila Format pelvic pyramids and Vs feature heavily here, particularly over the rhythmic breaks in “Zay al-Hawa” (around 3:45), in which they are set over foot patterns that match the strings, while the hip work accents the percussion. We also see the further integration of jazz and lyrical dance, complete with fan kicks, chaine turns, and push turns. These technical elements are articulated so seamlessly, that the viewer has no inkling of their difficulty. And that’s the point.

The intricate layering of this performance showcases a mastery of technique that Suhaila had been refining in her regular nightclub performances. With plenty of time to experiment, she has a command over her body previously unseen. Her upper body is more free, and we see her characteristic head release at the end of undulations down-to-up and as a bridge between phrases. Intricate technique flows effortlessly from her body. She no longer has to think about each movement, as she did in Dances for the Sultan. Indeed, this performance is the bridge between the architectural simplicity of Dances for the Sultan and the sophisticated polyrhythmic musicality of Unveiled, and later in Suhaila Solo. Indeed, her musicality has matured, with the music appearing to react to her body rather than the other way around.

 

“You have to do the homage…”

In the Live Music workshop this past January, Suhaila emphasized that we must be familiar not only with her own body of work, but those of the great dancers from the Arab world. When the band plays certain songs or drum riffs that the great dancers in history have made famous, it’s imperative that we, the new generation, pay tribute to these women in our own shows. Certain performances are iconic, such as Nadia Gamal’s dramatic pelvic pyramid walk and Nagua Fouad’s heel bouncing drum solo. Suhaila told us, “You have to do the homage.”

Nagua Fouad, one of Suhaila’s biggest inspirations, was famous for her theatrical stage productions, complete with elaborate sets, back-up dancers, and costume changes. Suhaila’s entrance through a sarcophagus could be considered similar to Nagua’s famous litter-bown entrance to “Set El Hosen.” And during the repetitive “doums” of the first drum solo at around 12:30, we see her paying tribute to Nagua Fouad’s drum solo in a similar style. Standing in one place with loose rib cage locks and quick, direct arm movements on the drum accents (all over a vibration). In this drum solo, too, we can see a little hint of Mona El Said’s West African-style drum solo, performed in the “barely there” gold lame tube top.

We also see the Nadia Gamal’s influence in 1991 BC. One is that Suhaila choreographed the taqsim sections of the sets, which Nadia Gamal had famously done in her own performances. Typically a dancer would improvise, as the musician would also be improvising their solo. We also see her influence in Suhaila’s extensive use of floorwork. Nadia was famous for her use of floorwork, particularly when performing a theatricalized zar trance ritual. Indeed, in “Tamr Henna,” Suhaila also performs free-flowing head and upper body circles and sways akin to Nadia’s.

 

Planting Seeds for the Future

Those who are more familiar with Suhaila’s choreographies might notice a few familiar phrases and combinations. In these pieces, she plays with fragments and movements that appear in her later choreographies, even through the most recent dances in Enta Omri.

She walks forward with pelvic pyramids fulltime downbeat front, her arms reaching forward, palms up in a kind of “come here” gesture (33:40). We see this later in the second section of “Accessible.” She performs a jazz passe, with arms that windmill into a hand flip down, then touching and twisting her hip as she juts her elbow. This, of course, appears not only “Bongo Funk,” but also Enta Omri’s “Zay al-Hawa” and “Lissa Faker.” In the extensive floorwork of the second performance, Suhaila starts in a Turkish Drop position, seated with her feet tucked underneath her, and she performs the classic upper body circles (27:35) that appear later in “Yanna Yanna” and the sword dances of both Bal Anat and Scheherezade. Another “Yanna Yanna” fragment you might recognize is the 5-Count with interior hip circles and 3/4-3/4-Single-Single-3/4 glutes (7:15). And around 34:35, Suhaila does eight counts of a Leg-Out Whip Spin into eight counts of 3/4 Shimmy Spin, a sequence seen later in “Bongo Funk.”

For those who have not yet seen Enta Omri, Suhaila’s most recent full-length production, the next seeds might not be so obvious. Both “Zay al-Hawa” and “Bahlam Beek” on 1991 BC include phrases that would later show up in the dances of the same name in Enta Omri. The opening chaine turns of “Zay al-Hawa” and the low kick, pelvic lock, rib lock, undulation, figure-8 front-to-back of “Bahlam Beek” still survive in the current incarnations of those dances. When we look at Suhaila’s work as a continuous whole, we see the threads and links between choreographies.

The strobe lights, fog machine, and feather cape of 1991 BC might seem cheesy and dated today, but if you look past them, you can see the solidification of a format and technical approach that would change belly dance around the world.

“Pharoanic Suite” from Dances for the Sultan (1988).

Performed by Suhaila Salimpour
Choreography: Jamila Salimpour and Suhaila Salimpour
Director: Francis Delia
Producer: Nine Muses
Videographer: Paul Nevitt
Editor: Tom Acito
Sound: Brett Lukezic
Music for Karnak Arranged and Performed by Farid Al-Atrash & Mohamed Abdel Wahab.
Copyright 1988 by Suhaila International, LLC (Nine Muses). All rights reserved.

Erte, Experimentation, and Irony: Suhaila Salimpour’s “Pharaonic Suite”

When looking at the total of Suhaila’s recorded performances, you might notice that the “Pharaonic Suite” on the 1988 production Dances for the Sultan is different. The movements are highly stylized, bound, and deliberate. If you are familiar with more “traditional” interpretations of Arabic music, you might also notice that this particular work challenges those modes and turns them on their head. In the ouvre of Nadia Gamal, Suhaila has set choreography to every measure of these classic songs, even the taqasim.

Suhaila choreographed the suite, which she also calls “Karnak” (in reference to the ancient Egyptian-inspired costume that she wears in this performance), without input from her mother. In fact, it was the first time she created a piece without Jamila’s feedback, a sensation that she compares to riding a bike without training wheels. Unlike earlier works such as “Joumana,” “Hayati,” and “Maharajan,” where Suhaila would choreograph with her mother nodding in approval if she liked something or offering suggestions if she didn’t, Suhaila says that she felt that she had more room to play and experiment, without the responsibility of dancing in the “Jamila” style.

Indeed, the performances on Dances for the Sultan are decidedly experimental, when compared to the three earlier works in which Jamila gave her artistic input.

Primitivism, Erté, and Isolations

When we think of ancient Egyptian art, we might visualize those two-dimensional stelae, with goddesses and kings posed with their faces in profile, their torsos seen from the front, and feet turned in the direction of their facing. At the turn of the 20th century, this style of art spurred an entire aesthetic movement, often referred to as “Primitivism.” You can see how it influenced the subversive and ground-breaking choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky in his “Afternoon of a Faun.” (Watch how the nymphs enter the stage at around 2:50, and the faun’s own dancing throughout.) In fact, many of the Ballets Russes’ fin de siecle choreographies use primitivism. Movements are highly-structured, often direct, with bound arms at 90-degree angles, as if they had stepped off the walls of Tutankhamen’s tomb.

The two-dimensional approach to the human body is also seen in the work of Russian artist Erté, whose paintings depict women either posed directly from the front or directly from the side.

When I asked her, “Why Erté?” Suhaila responded that she always loved the design and lines in which Erté posed his women, but also because she felt that they look a bit sad. This influence is clear in the first 30 seconds of the performance, with the close-up on the young Suhaila’s face, before she spins into the Jamila Format Pyramid Step, her arms held firm out to the side, elbows at right angles, and palms facing upwards. At only a minute into the performance, she performs a series of rib cage and pelvic locks, arms traveling in a direct line from a high V, palms up, to a low V, palms down, hands parallel to the floor. She then follows the music in a series of pops from fingertips through the arms, through the torso, reversing in the hips and traveling up the body again.

Suhaila created the “The Pharaonic Suite,” after she begun her collaborative work with Oakland Boogaloo and tap dancer Walter “Sundance” Freeman. If you haven’t already, watch this video that the Salimpour School has created on Suhaila’s work with Walter. She was working on what she calls “crisp” isolations of the rib cage and pelvis, which had made an appearance in “Hayati” but had not yet been so prominently featured. In fact Syrian violinist and composer Fathi al-Jarrah, Suhaila’s long-time collaborator, remarked that he understood that Suhaila was blending hip-hop and belly dance in her early work. Her jazz training also becomes more integrated than in previous performances. Watch the section between 4:00 and 4:30 and you’ll see a textbook jazz pas du bourrée, into a turn and jazz layout. When we see these elements, it becomes easier to understand where now iconic works like “Bongo Funk” originated.

Indeed, it was these elements—Jamila Salimpour’s format, West Coast street dance, concert jazz dance, and a spirit of experimentation—that spurred Suhaila’s development of her now famous format. In “The Pharaonic Suite” we see her playing with these ideas, placing her movements on a solid “Home Position,” and building a foundation for a lifetime of work to come.

Subtle Irony

One of my earliest questions about this video was the title, Dances for the Sultan. It sounded so orientalist, so cheesy, so incongruent for a woman, dancer, and choreographer who has such great respect for and experience with Arabic culture and who has been such a strong advocate for women’s independence, strength, and fortitude. So, I asked. It turns out that the name is a bit of a joke. Tongue-in-cheek and ironic, it satirizes the role of the belly dancer in Arabic culture. It says to the iconic sultan, in his turban and salwar, sitting on his throne, smoking his shisha pipe, in control of everything he surveys, the paradigm of a Western idea of Oriental excess and indulgence: You want a dance? I’ll show you a dance.

Written by: Abigail Keyes (SSBD 5 and JSBD 5 certified instructor)

Performed by Suhaila Salimpour
Choreography: Jamila Salimpour and Suhaila Salimpour
Director: Francis Delia
Producer: Nine Muses
Videographer: Paul Nevitt
Editor: Tom Acito
Sound: Brett Lukezic
Music for Karnak Arranged and Performed by Farid Al-Atrash & Mohamed Abdel Wahab.
Copyright 1988 by Suhaila International, LLC (Nine Muses). All rights reserved.
What to Watch for in Suhaila Salimpour’s “Banat Iskandaria”

It’s easy to look back at a dance and only see it though a historical lens. We can identify certain movements as “dated” or a body line and position as from a certain time frame in belly dance history. The first dance off of Suhaila Salimpour’s 1988 video Dances for the Sultan, “Banat Iskandaria,” however, arguably still stands the test of time.

Contemporary Relevance

“Banat Iskandaria” straddles a stylistic line. This particular performance highlights one of Suhaila’s first forays into integrating very clear isolations of the rib cage and pelvis into her choreographies. While so-called “locks” and “pops”* of the torso and hips had been performed by dancers in the Middle East (Mona El Said’s full upper body locks come to mind), belly dancers had not so very distinctly made these movements into almost a gestural quality, attempting to separate each part of the body from the other.

Here we also see the beginnings of the layering system that Suhaila developed. Only a few minutes in, she dances Arabic 4 footwork, half-the-timing, with figure 8s front-to-back. This particular combination of movements appears time and time again in her choreographies, often with slight variations in the hips or hand gestures.

Of course, there are some gestures that reveal its era or origin (such as when Suhaila brings her hands to her eyes, pointer finger and middle finger extended, and pulls her hands away from her head symmetrically, a la John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever). And those who know Suhaila’s body of work can see elements that mark this choreography as from a particular period, such as how the hands frame the hips, palms in, when she performs Singles on the Down.

Otherwise, the movements and stylization of this particular piece could appear on many a belly dance stage and still be fresh. In fact, we see many of these elements embraced by the North American belly dance community, both in those dancers who perform more “cabaret” styles and those who perform more “tribal” styles. Turkish belly dance star Didem appears to reference this particular choreography quite a bit in her own performances, as she often integrates quick and direct isolations of the torso into her drum solos.

Innovation within the Belly Dance Genre

We also see clear Jamila Format steps, as always in Suhaila’s work. These are the steps that keep “Banat Iskandaria” firmly within the belly dance genre. Hipwork is always prioritized over tricks, musicality favored over experimentation. In the first taqsim, look for the default Running Choo Choo with Forward-Middle-Middle-Back, while turning counter-clockwise. We also can see variations of the Bounce Step, a default Salaam Step, a lot of Circle Step and variations, Samiha, and Arabic 2 variations.

There is a deliberate quality to all of the movements. Everything has been planned. Notably, also, even the taqsim sequences are choreographed, just as Nadia Gamal set her taqasim when creating her dances.

We see the inspiration of the tribal fusion “micromovements” that are so associated with that stylization in the keyboard taqsim of the baladi progression.

The Euro-American Concert Dance Upper Body Line

In general her upper body is quite upright. What this upright body also shows is the integration of what Suhaila talks about as the “ballet line.” When we watch ballet, we see very similar qualities in the dancers’ upper body. The head is often poised over the ribs and hips, a necessary placement for dancers in pointe shoes or who are often on the balls of the feet. Any deviation from this upright position is deliberate, planned, and controlled. She pivots her head on the top of her neck to the 45° angles learned at the ballet barre. When Suhaila drops into a backbend, it is done in a bound quality, rather than free-flowing. She takes her time to find the edge of the movement, just as a ballerina might take her time to find the edge of her cambre back. Indeed, Suhaila moves her head more than a typical classical ballerina (of course one could watch more contemporary ballet choreographies and see much more movement of the head and rib cage outside the vertical axis of the body). And at the same time Suhaila was integrating her years of classical ballet training into her belly dance performances, belly dancers in the Middle East were also integrating Euro-American concert dance elements into their performances.

Of course, there are the characteristic head releases and head rolls, but they are more contained than Suhaila’s later work. Later choreographies, as seen on Unveiled, and the improvised performances in the Suhaila Solo videorecording show a more free upper body than the one on Dances for the Sultan. The tribal fusion stylization is also marked by a bound neck and head, stacked over the dancer’s center of gravity except for backbends and some floorwork. This comes as no surprise when we learn that Rachel Brice cites this performance as one of her earliest inspirations.

Every time I watch this performance I see more. I see the beginnings of a style that many dancers today don’t even know that they are imitating. When I watch the myriad dancers from North America, I see the legacy of “Banat Iskanderia” in the body line, isolations, and musicality. There are very few performances which hold such a strong place in North American belly dance history. We can pin influences to particular dancers or instructors, but so rarely can we do it for a specific recording. I suspect “Banat Iskandaria” will continue to be relevant to dancers for many years to come.

*Belly dancers often use the term “pops and locks” to refer to quick and direct isolations of the torso and pelvis. In street dance, however, Popping and Locking are two distinct forms. Popping, a funk form from the late 1960s and early 1970s, features quick contractions of muscles, mostly in the limbs, but also in the torso. Check out this video from 1986 of Popping pioneer Skeeter Rabbit. Locking, often credited to dancer Don Campbell and his company the Campbellockers in the early 1970s, features quick gestures of the arms and legs, such as pointing. Watch this video of the dance group, The Lockers, on Soul Train in 1970.

Written by: Abigail Keyes (SSBD 5 and JSBD 5 certified instructor)