With its worldwide reach, inclusive values, and long-established teaching methods, the Salimpour School is one of the most influential schools of belly dance in the world.
From its humble beginnings in California to its growth into a global institution, the school and its students are known for their dedication to the art, strong technical training, and deep understanding of Middle Eastern music and culture.
We are proud to be at the cutting edge of belly dance education. Learn from us online or in person at one of our satellite schools or at a multi-day intensive with Suhaila herself. We also offer online Level 1 certification in both of our revolutionary formats.
Read more about the origins of the Salimpour School and its founder, Jamila Salimpour and its director, Jamila’s daughter Suhaila Salimpour, and our worldwide educational program.
The Salimpour Legacy
Our Founder: Jamila Salimpour
Over 50 years ago, in 1949, dance pioneer and instructor Jamila Salimpour taught her first belly dance classes, establishing the Salimpour School of Dance in San Francisco, California. Her revolutionary approach to teaching belly dance left an undeniable mark on the art form, beginning in the San Francisco Bay Area, then across the United States, and today, throughout the world.
Creating a Revolutionary Teaching Method
The daughter of Sicilian and Greek immigrants, Jamila grew up in Harlem, New York, and she couldn’t speak English until she was 5 years old. After touring for several years with the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus, she moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s.
There, inspired by her father’s tales of Egyptian ghawazi dancers, dancers in the Egyptian films playing at the local La Tosca theater, and the growing Middle Eastern immigrant community in Southern California, she began performing in community events and Middle Eastern nightclubs.
Then, people started asking her to teach them how to dance. From there, Jamila realized she had to create a system for teaching belly dance that was more than just “follow me.”
Her instructional method did what no other belly dancer before her had done: created standard names and terminology for belly dance steps. Today, her teaching legacy reaches far and wide, as dancers continue to use step names like Basic Egyptian, Maya, and Choo Choo.
She catalogued hundreds of steps after careful and meticulous observation of professional and casual dancers in a variety of venues and contexts, particularly in the 1960s, when Middle Eastern nightclubs became popular in California’s big cities. Each step name reveals a bit of its origin, such as the Algerian Shimmy (attributed to a dancer from Algeria) or Zanouba, a dancer who performed regularly at the Fez in Los Angeles.
After moving to San Francisco, Jamila even bought and managed her own nightclub, the Bagdad Cabaret, which became a fixture in the cities Middle Eastern music and dance scene.
Forming the World’s Oldest Belly Dance Company: Bal Anat
But Jamila’s influence doesn’t stop there. By a happy accident of fate, in 1968 Jamila Salimpour established the longest-running belly dance company in the world: Bal Anat. First performing at the Northern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Marin County, Bal Anat showcased small ensembles of dancers costumed in rich textiles and heavy jewelry, each representing a region or style of belly dance, while a chorus of dancers played cymbals and other instruments in a chorus behind them.
For the costumes and dances in Bal Anat, Jamila drew inspiration from current anthropological research, as well as from her own imagination and a hefty dose of fantasy. She was one of the first to showcase performing with a sword, which is now one of the most popular props in belly dance. Her show also featured balancing on water goblets, dancing with live snakes, and performing with water pots.
Bal Anat continues to perform, making it the world’s oldest belly dance company.
Writing Belly Dance History
In addition, to her innovations in the studio and on the stage, Jamila was a prolific writer. She self-published several books, including her dance manual, La Danse Orientale, and a guide for playing dozens of finger cymbal patterns, complete with musical staff notation, many of which she created herself. The school has republished her dance manual as The New Danse Orientale, a complete collection of the dance steps that she and her daughter catalogued until 1978.
She also collected images of Middle Eastern dancers from the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition (commonly referred to as the Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893, from which she drew constant inspiration for her own dancing and costuming.
She helped establish and wrote consistently for Habibi magazine, one of the first periodicals focusing primarily on the practice and performance of belly dance. The Salimpour School collected her writings for the magazine several years ago, re-releasing them as a collected volume in Jamila’s Article Book.
The Legacy Continues
One of Jamila’s wishes for belly dance is that it be regarded as “a difficult, yet truly artistic dance form.”
Today, this wish and her legacy is carried on by her daughter, Suhaila Salimpour, licensed instructors of her format, current and former students of the Salimpour School, and, of course, the thousands of belly dancers who use her method, terminology, and earthy aesthetic in their classes and performances.
Our Director: Suhaila Salimpour
Second-generation Persian-American belly dancer Suhaila Salimpour is best known not only for creating the first certification program in belly dance in the world, but also for the global influence of her own game-changing format on belly dance performance and instruction.
Just like her mother’s method, the Suhaila Salimpour Format has inspired thousands of dancers around the world to train harder, think deeper, and treat belly dance as a form worthy of dedicated and serious study. Suhaila’s work has been recognized by leaders in other dance forms for its depth and innovation, preserving the essence of belly dance while bringing it into the 21st century with grace and integrity.
A Childhood in Dance
Suhaila grew up observing her mother’s classes, as well as studying a wide range of dance forms. Born severely pigeon-toed, she overcame her turned-in feet with years of childhood ballet. She also trained in jazz, tap, classical Indian, Polynesian, Flamenco, modern, and more. She had the honor of training with masters in these forms, such as Rosa Montoya, Chitresh Das, and Tony Award-winner Hinton Battle.
But belly dance was always her first love.
She began performing at only 2 years old, with her mother’s dance company, Bal Anat. Throughout her childhood, she assisted her mother in her workshops at home and away, particularly when students asked for more explanation of a dance step. By the time she was 12, Suhaila knew every step in her mother’s format and was traveling to teach salimpour format workshops by herself.
When she was 14, Suhaila supported herself and her mother financially, teaching belly dance in cities across the United States and Canada on the weekends. At this time, too, she traveled to the Middle East, where she observed dance steps that became part of the Jamila Salimpour Format. The two also filmed instructional videos—a rarity at the time—including an archive of Jamila’s Format, and three belly dance choreographies taught in Suhaila’s own format.
New Music, New Possibilities
Then, in 1978, music for belly dance changed. And music is at the heart of belly dance… so the dance had to change.
The music that had been played in Middle Eastern nightclubs in the United States until that point had been mostly simple folk songs that even casual musicians could play. And the bands were hardly ever more than ten musicians. Dancers could improvise to this music without much preparation, because it lacked sudden changes in rhythm and tempo.
But the new recordings coming out of the Middle East were composed specifically for the superstar belly dancers in the region, like Nadia Gamal and Nagua Fouad. As Suhaila listened to these complex, sophisticated pieces—which featured large ensembles of sometimes over 50 musicians—she imagined countless choreographic possibilities. But she could not yet physically do what the “dancer in her head” could.
She knew she had to change how she danced.
Around the same time, in the early 1980s, Suhaila saw a performance by an Oakland Boogaloo dance troupe: The Gentlemen of Production, which included Walter “Sundance” Freeman, who later went on to be a tap dancer in the worldwide hit show Riverdance. Captivated by their muscular precision, fluid waves, and sharp musicality, Suhaila insisted on working with Walter on integrating these qualities into her own belly dancing. The two became lifelong friends.
The movement innovations that emerged from this collaboration became the hard contraction movements commonly referred to as “pops and locks,” such as rib cage locks and hip squares, which are now considered essential belly dance technique.
Innovating Belly Dance Choreography
Suhaila knew that she had to approach her movement differently from her mother’s generation. Inspired by her dance teachers in other forms, she explored belly dance muscularly. By knowing and understanding which muscles drive particular movements, she wildly expanded her choreographic choices and versatility.
She spent her mid-teen years exploring the possibilities of belly dance movement to new, challenging musical compositions, while also integrating her experience with street dance and jazz dance.
This time yielded three iconic pieces, which she created with her mother: “Joumana,” “Maharjan,” and “Hayati.” The newly-formed Ethnic Dance Festival of San Francisco selected “Joumana” and “Hayati” for their program. Suhaila was the first belly dancer to perform at this prestigious event.
Performing Professionally in LA and the Middle East
After Suhaila graduated from high school in 1985, she moved to Los Angeles, where she performed in the area’s top Middle Eastern nightclubs in the evenings, and on television sets for Fame and Max Headroom during the day. There, she also began her training with master acting teacher Sanford Meisner, whose approach to “act first, think later” became Suhaila’s guiding philosophy for her own performances.
At the time, she also produced two performance videos—Dances for the Sultan and 1991 BC—to document her artistic and choreographic progress and showcase her work for a wider audience. Dances for the Sultan quickly became a classic and continues to be today.
From there, Suhaila performed throughout the Arab world, in five-star hotels and prestigious live performance venues with the region’s most celebrated singers, like Amr Diab and Sabah. Audiences celebrated her unique style, musicality, and deep understanding of Arabic music sentiment.
When she returned to the United States, she produced and performed in a third performance video, Unveiled, which displays her choreographic and musical sophistication after years of performing 6-7 nights a week. It also features classic choreographies, such as “Raks Suhaila” and “Raks Jamila” in which Suhaila performs her signature layering technique and blending of hers and her mother’s formats.
Establishing the First Belly Dance Certification Program
When Suhaila was in the Middle East, she dreamt of what she’d do when she came back to Berkeley.
As a child, she grew up torn between her conservative Persian Shi’a family, and the hippy fantasy world of her mother’s classes. At home, women were expected to be quiet, cover their bodies, and be obedient. In fact, her Persian father forbade her mother to perform after they had married. But with Bal Anat, midriffs were bared and movement was celebrated. And as a professional dancer, Suhaila never truly felt safe as a woman in a male-dominated industry.
So, back in the US, she established her own dance program, where students could feel safe in their own bodies, learn about the history and culture of belly dance, and become technically and knowledgeable performers and instructors themselves. And the program would require certification, much like the tests required in martial arts dojos.
Why create a certification program for belly dance?
In general, belly dance has no universal teaching or performance standards. Dancers with little training can easily perform in restaurants and festivals, perpetuating a public perception that professional belly dance is easy. Yet to be a professional performer in other disciplines—from modern dance to classical music—requires years of dedication, practice, and development.
With levels of achievement, students have benchmarks and goals to mark their progress. By passing a test at a certain level, they demonstrate that they understand the essential technique and theory required to move on to the next one. Students begin with basic posture and dance elements, then progress to building their strength and stamina, learning and creating choreography, developing theatrical and acting skills, studying Arabic music and history, and eventually train to be instructors themselves.
The program became a worldwide sensation, and continues to be in high demand.
After the ongoing success of her own format, Suhaila created a parallel program for her mother’s format in 2007 which is just as, if not more, popular.
Directing Today’s Global School
Today, Suhaila directs the global Salimpour School of Dance, keeping the original values of her mother’s classes. She also continues to direct her mother’s dance company, Bal Anat and the Suhaila Dance Company, which she formed in 1996.
With licensed instructors running their own satellite schools (including one in Cairo), an online instructional website with thousands of classes for beginners to advanced dancers, and keeping up her own rigorous touring schedule, the Salimpour School is only growing.
The Salimpour School program gives dancers the tools for excellence in their individual artistry and personal growth, and an opportunity to be part of a worldwide supportive community of dancers who share the same values and goals of being the best dancers they can be.
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.
Isabella Salimpour is a 3rd generation dancer, actress, and singer. As the daughter of master belly dance instructor and performer Suhaila Salimpour, and granddaughter of Jamila Salimpour, Isabella has been on stage since the age of 2 and assisting in her mother’s workshops since the age of 8. She learned belly dance from her grandmother in the traditional way of watching and following in the living room of their family home, and Isabella is one of the first dancers to be raised on her mother’s codified and classicized method of belly dance. She has performed with the Suhaila Dance Company since she was 7, and in 2014 performed in her mother’s most recent theatrical production, Enta Omri, where she danced the featured solo. She has taught both adult and youth classes, and in 2015 she was the youngest dancer to teach at Tribal Fest (on her 17th birthday). She is also a core member of Bal Anat, which she hopes to direct one day as her mother and grandmother have before her.
Apart from belly dance, Isabella has a diverse background in dance and theater. She has studied a variety of dance forms with esteemed instructors, training in ballet (at both the San Francisco Ballet School and The Berkeley Ballet Theater), modern, lyrical, jazz, tap, and hip hop. She has studied theater at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT), the Berkeley Repertory Theater, and the Contra Costa Civic Theater, and has been performing in community theater productions since the age of 9. In high school, she played several lead roles in her school’s plays and musical productions. She also studied voice at the California Jazz Conservatory (formerly the Berkeley Jazzschool) under Trelawny Rose, known for her work on the hit TV show The Voice.
In addition to being an accomplished performer and instructor, Isabella recently graduated high school as an honor student, earning both academic and community service awards. Currently, she is an undergraduate student at Rider University (NJ), where she is earning her MFA in Musical Theater.
Jamila Salimpour (1926-2017)
Jamila Salimpour was one of the most influential and innovative teachers of belly dance in the 20th century. She believed that belly dance, or La Danse Orientale as she called it, could and should be a truly artistic dance form with high standards, levels of achievement, and rigorous training. Her methodology, cataloging, and systematic approach to teaching belly dance has left an indelible mark on the form and continues to be learned and studied by thousands of dancers around the world.
She is best known for creating the Jamila Salimpour format, a comprehensive collection of steps and movements used by professional and casual dancers throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Born Giusippina Carmela Burzi to a Sicilian and Greek immigrant family, she grew up in New York City. Her first exposure to Middle Eastern dance came from her father, who saw the (in)famous Ghawazi dancers while stationed in Egypt with the Sicilian Navy.
When Jamila was 16, she toured with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, where she performed acrobatic acts with the elephants.
After she left the circus, she moved to Los Angeles, where she would frequent the local movie house to watch Egyptian import films featuring the stars of Oriental dance at the time, such as Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca, and Naima Akef. In an effort to understand what she was seeing, Jamila imitated their movements and began to name each step she saw. Because Los Angeles had become a center for immigrants from around the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, Jamila found herself attending parties, celebrations, and festivals. From these gatherings, she also identified and catalogued steps and movements characteristic of these communities.
She then moved to San Francisco, where she owned and operated the famous Bagdad Cabaret, being the first woman to own a Middle Eastern nightclub in the United States. In the mid-late 1960s, she found herself in the heart of Hippie Counterculture, befriending Country Joe McDonald, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. She taught wildly popular belly dance classes, as San Francisco “flower children” sought new and subversive ways to express themselves through movement.
In 1968, her students disappeared from Saturday classes. Jamila discovered that they had been attending a new theme event, The Renaissance Pleasure Faire, and apparently become quite a nuisance. The entertainment director asked Jamila to rein in her students, and Jamila proposed a full-length stage presentation of fantasy and folkloric belly dance, which became Bal Anat. Bal Anat, or “Dance of the Mother Goddess,” is now the longest-running belly dance show in the world.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Jamila was an editor of and writer for Habibi magazine, a periodical dedicated to belly dance news and history. She also produced some of the first belly dance festivals in the United States as well as developed the structure of the now-ubiquitous weeklong workshop intensive.
In 2013 she was awarded the Isadora Duncan Award for Sustained Achievement, and in 2018, World Arts West will be posthumously honoring her with the Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Field of Ethnic Dance and Music.
Jamila was also, of course, also the mother of groundbreaking dancer and choreographer Suhaila Salimpour. Jamila and Suhaila worked together throughout Jamila’s entire life to develop and evolve belly dance as a professional dance form.
Jamila spent her twilight years continuing to teach her format at her daughter’s dance school in Berkeley, California, and creating new finger cymbal patterns. She passed away peacefully in the Salimpour family home in 2017, and her memory lives on in her daughter Suhaila, her granddaughter Isabella, and in each and every dancer in the Salimpour School and member of Bal Anat.