The Salimpour School at 70: Belly Dance for the 21st Century

By Abigail Keyes

February 20, 2019, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Surrounded by myths, misconceptions, and sometimes maligned, belly dance as we think of it today—with two-piece costumes baring the midriff, presented in restaurants and renaissance faires—is actually quite young. While solo dancers from the Middle East appeared in the United States as early as the late 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1950s and ’60s—when a growing American middle class sought exotic nights out on the town at Middle Eastern-themed nightclubs or Tiki-themed parties—that belly dance became a popular phenomenon with classes, performances, and schools around the United States and eventually, the world.

Its spread throughout North America over the past century can be traced to a handful of innovators, one of which being the Bay Area’s own Salimpour family, beginning with the late Jamila Salimpour and continued by her daughter, Suhaila Salimpour, who now runs the Salimpour School of Dance in Berkeley.

This year, the Salimpour School of Dance celebrates 70 years. With its codified language for movements as well as a standardized—yet flexible—syllabus as part of its tiered certification program, the Salimpour method imbues in its students a dedication and education akin to a college-level degree. Dancers who study at the Salimpour School learn more than just movement; they study cultural context, history, music theory, method acting, and dance composition.

In the Beginning

Jamila Salimpour was born Giuseppina Carmela Burzi to a Greek and Sicilian family in New York in 1926. She grew up in Harlem, not speaking English until she was five. At 16 she joined the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and after over a year of touring, moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1940s. While her father had shown her some of the movements he had seen performed by professional dancers in North Africa while stationed there with the Sicilian Navy, Giuseppina learned what she called “La Danse Orientale” from Egyptian films, which featured musical scenes with the latest Cairene dancing and singing stars, as well as local community parties and celebrations.

When she moved to San Francisco in the 1950s, she bought and managed a Middle Eastern nightclub in North Beach, The Bagdad Cabaret. After she married Ardeshir Salimpour, a Persian drummer, he threatened to break both her legs if she ever stepped foot in a nightclub again. But she continued to teach, the Persian Salimpour family turning a blind eye, because belly dance was a booming business amongst young counterculture kids in the Bay Area, and Giuseppina—now known as “Jamila,” Arabic for “beautiful”—had become one of the most sought-after teachers on the West Coast.

In 1968, an opportunity to produce a family-friendly show for the new Northern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire emerged, and Jamila gathered all the available knowledge she could of Middle Eastern regional dances to form Bal Anat. She based her company on research but also fantasy, using her experience in the circus and the nightclubs. On the weekends of the Faire, she and her daughter Suhaila, only two years old at the time, snuck out of the house to perform at the Faire.

Standards and Steps

Belly dance in the United States is an amalgamation of regional styles, primarily derived from the movements and music centered in Cairo, Egypt; but famous dancers from North Africa, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and the Arabian Gulf states have also shaped and informed its development. And since at least the 1960s belly dancers—both in the Middle East and the diaspora—have argued the perils and pitfalls of developing a standardized terminology for the steps and movements. Some say that it would inhibit personal creativity and expression, while others advocate that common language would facilitate communication between instructors, students, and choreographers.

Jamila Salimpour was not concerned about what others might think of how she organized steps, giving each a name, and separating related movements into “families.” She wanted to make sense of it for herself, passing this knowledge on to her students. For example, movements used by the 1940s Cairo cinema stars that use a forward-and-back twist of hips are part of the “Egyptian Family,” while the more shuffling steps common at family parties are known as the “Arabic Family.” Some of the steps themselves reflect their origins, such as the “Algerian Shimmy,” or the dancers who performed them, such as “Maya,” “Samiha,” and “Ahmed Shimmy.”

Never before had belly dance had such a system for naming steps, and Jamila’s language for belly dance movements spread across the world as her students moved away from the Bay Area, to the East Coast, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East. Even dancers who have never studied at the Salimpour School are likely using names for steps that Jamila coined in the 1960s and ’70s.

The Second Generation

Suhaila Salimpour as a child
Suhaila Salimpour / photo courtesy of Salimpour School

Suhaila Salimpour grew up at her mother’s side, imitating her belly dance movements, watching her mother’s students perform, and performing in Bal Anat. But she was born pigeon-toed, and instead of keeping her in Forrest Gump-style leg braces, her mother put her in ballet classes to strengthen her outer legs. It worked, and as a girl Suhaila studied a variety of dance classes: ballet, jazz, tap, modern, Polynesian, Kathak, Flamenco, and more. And she noticed that her instructors often used anatomical and muscular means of describing movements. By the time she was eight, Suhaila started doing the same for belly dance movements for her mother’s students.

In the late 1970s, music from the Middle East changed from small five-to-seven musician ensembles, to 30-40 person orchestras, with dynamic rhythmic changes and breaks. And belly dance is inextricably linked to the music to which the dancer performed, so Suhaila, now in high school, wanted to change her approach to dancing with it. She integrated jazz footwork into her belly dance choreographies, and she wanted to vibrate her hips while descending into a front split for a new composition. She realized that to do so, she’d have to strengthen her gluteus muscles. So she sat on the floor in straddle sit, isolating her glutes in time to Prince’s album Purple Rain. This would not only change her own dancing, but was the start of a technique revolution in belly dance.

In 1981, using this new hybrid approach, Suhaila and her mother co-choreographed Joumana. which was selected for the 1983 San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. Suhaila was the first belly dancer to appear at the event, and was selected for the two following years as well. When other belly dancers saw Suhaila’s new work, they wanted to know how they could do it too.

Training a Global Movement

Jamila wanted to “raise the level of the dance.” She wanted to impart an ethos of serious study, hoping to prove that the form was worthy of dedication and discipline. In the 1960s and 70s, a dancer needed only be young and attractive to be hired to work at a nightclub, with technique and experience being less important. It was Jamila’s dream to certify her dancers to teach her format. And while she never did, the idea stuck in Suhaila’s mind, even as she built her own career as a nightclub dancer, touring throughout the Arab world in her teens and 20s.

She returned to the US in the mid-1990s, and building on her mother’s wish for a standardized training, as well as the growing interest in her technique, created the Suhaila Format certification program in the late 1990s. She refined her mother’s nomenclature, developing a standardized language for hip and torso articulations. The program includes 5 levels, from introduction to a teaching certification that requires at least 1000 hours of study. She also created a progressive, tiered education program, where students are tested in order to move up into the next level, much like contemporary martial arts programs.

Ever since she was a teenager, Suhaila toured the world teaching master classes and workshops. And in the early 2000s, she realized she needed to offer training tools to her growing long-distance student body. Today, in this age of YouTube and PowHow, we can almost take online classes for granted, but in 2008, the technology was still quite young. So Suhaila set up eight cameras in her studio, filming classes live as she and her staff instructors taught, offering a subscription-based online class website, which now has a library of thousands of classes in a variety of techniques. The standard Salimpour language facilitates the transmission of technique and choreography, and Salimpour School students study with Level 5 instructors through video chat platforms like Skype. With five levels from beginner to official teaching certification, the school has thousands of students around the world, including five authorized Level 5 instructors.

woman on a stage in belly dance garb
Salimpour School / photo by Guillaume Dedeurwaerder

With Salimpour hubs around the United States in Santa Cruz, Austin, San Diego, Fort Lauderdale, and upstate New York, as well as internationally in London, Brussels, Santiago, Taipei, and Stockholm, the Salimpour method has gained popularity and notoriety amongst belly dancers for being one of the most, if not the most, comprehensive training programs in the form.

Last year, the Salimpour School moved from its longtime studio space on San Pablo Avenue in Albany and joined forces with the Mahea Uchiyama Center for International Dance. This spring, Suhaila and Mahea will move into a space together at 1800 Dwight, in Berkeley. Suhaila continues to teach intensives around the world, and the school’s roster of certified teachers grows each year.

Suhaila has made it her life’s work not just to create work for the stage but to empower the next generation of leaders in belly dance. Her method and training develops dancers dedicated to learning not just a movement form, but a genre of dance rooted in Arabic culture and music.

This article appeared in the March 2019 issue of In Dance.

Abigail Keyes is a dance writer, educator, and performer based in Berkeley, California. She holds Level 5 certification in both Salimpour formats, as well as an MA in Dance Studies from Mills College.