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.