The Suhaila Salimpour School of Belly Dance can be traced back to 1949. Pioneer Dancer and Instructor Jamila Salimpour began teaching her unique method which included detailed breakdowns and standard terminology for her movements. Every dancer knowingly or not has been exposed to the indelible mark Jamila Salimpour made in the world of Middle Eastern dance. Jamila’s original phrases and names for dance movements such as Turkish Drop, Maya, and Basic Egyptian were the beginning of a long process to add structure and definition to the art.
Jamila’s daughter, the incomparable Suhaila Salimpour, began her dance training at the young age of 2. In addition to training with her mother, Suhaila studied ballet, jazz, and tap from an early age, and soon added modern and hip-hop to her repertoire. She began teaching at the age of 14 and has worked as a professional performer and master instructor ever since. Through years of performing and training, Suhaila realized the necessity to create an organized system for teaching and training. Rather than trying to integrate Middle Eastern Dance with Ballet or Jazz, she wanted to create the respect, knowledge, mentorship and training methodology she experienced in her studies to preserve the quality and longevity of the dance form.
Suhaila’s unique vision began to take shape when she embarked on rewriting her mothers book “Jamila Salimpour’s Dance Manual”, the first ever text which systematically categorizes Middle Eastern Dance movement. The result is an evolution which maintains the purity of her mother’s original work and adds the systematic and progressive teaching methods found in the classical dance forms. Now, the Suhaila Salimpour Format and School of Belly Dance enjoy worldwide success. Dancers who train with The Salimpours quickly realize Suhaila’s method of teaching allows them to excel in their art beyond any other training they have received.
The Salimpour Effect on Belly Dance
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.
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.
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.