“I am Jamila Salimpour’s daughter.”
Suhaila Salimpour is acutely aware of her place in bellydance history and of her responsibilities towards her mother’s legacy. Indeed, so important is her mother’s work that Suhaila compared her to America’s great modern dancer, Martha Graham. Given that both Jamila and Martha gave birth to uniquely American dance traditions, it’s a legitimate comparison. But for now, let me just tell you about the workshop I survived with Suhaila.
At this workshop, Suhaila was providing a brief, 3-hour tour of the Jamila Salimpour Format. Beginning in the 1940s, Jamila had noted commonalities between native dancers from North Africa and the Middle East. She began to compile and codify her material, creating nomenclature and verbal techniques for teaching Oriental dance. In 1978, The Danse Orientale instruction manual was published and continues to be in publication today. Suhaila gave us a taste of how that format works by introducing us to both its language and its techniques.
Suhaila began by speaking to us about her mother’s life and her contributions to American bellydance. There is still so little information about Jamila’s early life that I hope she’s working on a memoir. Who wouldn’t want to know about a woman who runs away to join the circus at sixteen!? And then goes on to inspire a whole new bellydance tradition! I had a million questions but it was time to dance.
Mercifully, Suhaila announced that she would not start with one of her infamous killer warm-ups—a few groaned in disappointment while I silently cheered. Still, it was a rigorous warm-up for these old joints. But we were up and dancing soon enough, standing in a counterclockwise circle attempting to understand the mechanics of a Basic Egyptian.
Pivot right hip counterclockwise and step; pivot left hip clockwise and step. Pivot step pivot step. Then traveling backward; then with a spin, with a pivot-shift-step and with a twist. Jamila has 14 variations on the Basic Egyptian described in her manual…we learned five or six of them, drilling each in turn and then listening for Suhaila’s verbal direction to switch between them. Here’s where Jamila’s structured language shows its import: whole patterns of stepping and body movement can be communicated in a few short words. And, as Suhaila pointed out, even if you can’t hear the words, you become accustomed to the cadence and intonation of the phrases and can respond to them.
The Arabic series came next with its distinctive shift of weight forward and back. We attempted to embody the difference between Egyptian pivot-shift-step and the three-quarter shimmy: one begins on the step and one on the hip movement. Typically, its easier to do than it is to explain.
Did I mention we were playing finger cymbals all the while? In the Salimpour format, you don’t wait to learn zils until after you have your technique. In fact, playing finger cymbals was integral to most earlier bellydance traditions and Salimpour maintained it. You start with zil training the same day you start dance training. I haven’t played my zils in years (tendonitis and arthritis prevent me), but gave it a try and was delighted by how easily the sounds of the rhythms animated my fingers. Delightful patterns of 3s and 1s and 7s…muscle memory is a magical thing.
Several hours and several hundreds of pelvic gyrations later and we collapsed in sweaty, blubbering piles. I was done in. This was not my first encounter with the Salimpour formats: My first bellydance teacher, Palika Bender, used it and later I encountered it in classes with other local students of Salimpour. But my understanding of the Jamila Salimpour Format as a unique approach to bellydance along with my sense of its place in American dance history was greatly enhanced by Suhaila’s workshop.