Suhaila: Popping & Locking & Birthing her Belly Dance Format – 044
Find out how Suhaila, Jamila and The Salimpour School have shaped the history of belly dance and fused elements of hip hop dance with traditional Middle Eastern Dance.
Great Suhaila Salimpour Quotes From This Podcast Interview:
“And that’s how we have all these hard contractions in belly dance now, pop and lock…People just think that always been a part of belly dance, like Cleopatra brought that in…It’s because of me and Walter Freeman.”
“I can create and teach the strongest possible dancer in each person”
“I made a choice to focus on my school and my students. There is only so much energy and time…I’m not on stage any more, but I am on stage. Thousands of people have a piece of me in them.”
“Get Belly Dance into Dance Departments in Academia.”
“We have to be able to have conversations with other dance forms in their language…We have to be able to talk about the body, about the history, about the anatomy and physiology, about the culture, about the music.”
“Bal Anat is this whisper inside all of us…of our ancestors.”
“With Bal Anat, we are not just entertaining. We are a part of you. We come through the audience, we grab your spirit, and you dance with us.”
The whole transcript of this podcast interview with Suhaila:
In episode 38, Suhaila dove into the politics of all dance, not just belly dance, and the changes in dance in the Middle East over the past few decades. Cultural appropriation, the trends that continue to fragment the belly dance community, the lack of foundational training ground that all belly dancers agree on, and much more. Well, Suhaila is back. And we have another great interview coming your way. Just in case this is your first time listening to A Little Lighter, I will introduce you to the belly dance legend that is Suhaila Salimpour.
The Salimpour School, format, and name have influenced so much of our belly dance in the U.S, as well as worldwide. The mother of tribal belly dance Jamila Salimpour was also the mother of our guest Suhaila. Born in the ’60s, Suhaila, grew up with her mother’s format, and the groundbreaking troupe Bal Anat. Suhaila has studied an array of Western and Eastern dance forms. She spent 10 years performing to live music in fancy night clubs in the Middle East, and Los Angeles. In the ’90s, she began the Suhaila Dance Company, started directing the troupe her mother started Bal Anat, and created the very widely respected Suhaila Salimpour Belly Dance Certification Program.
Both Suhaila and Jamila have done an unbelievable amount of work to raise belly dance up as an art form. This lineage of dancers and teachers, Suhaila and her mother Jamila, has given us so much, including pop and lock, and glute isolations that we all know and love in belly dance today. This is another chance for us to hear Suhaila’s story.
How Suhaila Developed the Salimpour Format
Well, my format found me. So, I am my mother’s daughter. I’m such a good soldier, and I took it for granted.
My mother was the first person to put names to steps in a comprehensible pathway of learning and developing in this dance form.
And so, growing up in all of that, I thought everybody trained this way in belly dance. But at the same time, simultaneously, I was also being trained in other dance forms. So, I was born with really bad scoliosis. I was severely pigeon toed, and would trip over my feet. And I had those Forrest Gump braces on my legs, where it was like this metal brace around my hips, and these rods down my legs, with these Frankenstein shoes. And that didn’t work.
And my scoliosis, and my pigeon-toedness were not getting any better. So, my mom had this really brilliant idea of throwing me into ballet, and Western dance forms because she saw that ballet dancers walked in a turnout. And she was like, “Well, maybe that will help.” Right?
So, my mom threw me into all different kinds of dance forms. But I was really lucky because I was exposed to really great, brilliant ballet teachers. And the dance teachers that I had were speaking muscularly. So, not just, “Okay, heels together, turn your feet out.” And not just like, “Bend your knees, and then straighten.”
They were talking about what muscles to use, how to wrap the body, how to hold your posture, the internal mechanics of all of this. So, as I was getting older, I was really confused why in belly dance we would say things like “hip drop”, or we would say like “twist like the inside of a washing machine”. Where maybe in its day that breakdown was major. Like I remember in the ’50s and ’60s where my mom would say “twist like the inside of a washing machine”. It was revolutionary to get any direction at all.
But as movement was maturing, and we were heading into the fitness era, this kind of explanation like “hip drop” was just not comparable to the way I was being trained in other dance forms. So, the other thing that happened during this time was that … Now, we take things so for granted, we have iTunes. We have Shazam. Literally, at a fingertip, we’re exposed to music from all over the world. And it’s incredible. But back in my day, this was not the case. So, sometimes things would take a decade before it would even go from the Middle East and get to the United States.
And also people were way more protective of their property. Now, there’s just no boundaries. You have a phone, you flip it out, and you press record, and you feel entitled to have access to anybody’s image, or behavior at any time. In the ’70s, this was not the case at all. So, one day, my mom had a student that called her. And she had just come back from being in Egypt where the student had seen like all the top dancers in Egypt. And she had illegally, not law-wise illegally, but illegally by the artist’s request, recorded her show, her music. So, she had a little teeny tape recorder, which was … Now, when I show my daughter what a small tape recorder it was, she laughs because it’s the size of her laptop.
So, she had this little teeny tape recorder. And she put it in her purse, and she left her purse open, and she pressed record. And she recorded Nagwa Fouad’s live show. So, when she came back to the states, she called my mom and was like, “You are not going to believe what I heard.” And so, my mom called all her top students from that day … So, this was like the mid to late ’70s. And we all sat around my kitchen table, and the tape recorder was placed in the middle of the kitchen table. And we all hovered over this tape recorder like magic was going to come out.
And it was one of those defining moments of my life. Like I can feel it today. I can smell the smells of my mother’s cooking in the kitchen like today. And she pressed play. And out came this music, this orchestra, we could tell it was at least 35, 40 pieces. It was just so grand. You could hear the size of the audience, and the vibration, and the excitement. It was unbelievable, to this day, I was really lucky, and I didn’t know it, of course, but I grew up in Bal Anat.
And I grew up going to nightclubs with my mom as a child all the time, but they were American, and they were Americanized. And so, there was a little bit still of that orientalism and fantasy. And so, hearing this music, I really put into context what’s happening in the Middle East, what’s happening here.
But what happened was that my mind, my fantasy self was dancing to this music. And fantasy me, the dancer in my head was fantastic. I was killing it. And then there was this moment where my heart sank. And I was like 12.
My heart sank because I realized I could not do what the dancer in my head was doing.
And this killed me because to this point I had been on stage for a decade, by the time I was 12. I was my mom’s top student. I was her muse. I could do anything. I was already innovating within the Jamila format and contributing to the Jamila format under the umbrella of the Jamila format. And I had had years of other dance training foundation, and other dance forms. I was feeling confident dance-wise. And I was like, “Wow, I am not the dancer in my head.”
This experience changed everything for me.
I realized that I needed to break apart, and redo absolutely everything in belly dance.
And try to figure out how to integrate it intellectually, like with basic anatomy and physiology as that foundation of every single belly dance move that I do.
So I could become the dancer in my head and do the things that I saw in my head.
And so, that’s when I pulled out anatomy books, and I was looking at the anatomy coloring book that everybody used. It is still fantastic.
And I dug my fingers into my body. And I would look at the anatomy book, and be like, “Okay, well, is that this muscle?” And then as I would move, I would feel where the contraction was, and I’d make notes. I was making notes like, is this movement with this muscle?
Is this movement in this muscle?
And then I took all my notes into my doctor. And I said, “All right, I’m going to do a movement, and I want you to feel my body, and tell me is this the muscle that is being used to execute this movement?” And 99% of the time I was accurate because what you’re feeling internally, then to try to verbalize that, and intellectualize that, it was pretty spot on.
And then because of my work in other dance forms, I was just applying that philosophy into belly dance, which nobody had done.
And I knew that it was the only way to really become the dancer in my head.
And have these movements that I saw, and the way I saw it become real for me. So, this was a journey for me, personally, as a dancer, I wanted to dance a certain way. I wasn’t thinking of a program. I wasn’t thinking of a school. I wasn’t thinking of a certification. I just wanted to do the moves I saw in my head. And I was heartbroken that I wasn’t able to.
And then Suhaila Fused Popping and Locking with Belly Dance
There was another element, it was like the perfect storm so to speak. This was the late ’70s. So, in California, there was the birth, right? Of like boogaloo, and hip hop, breakdancing. So, this was my generation of movement in America. So, we were watching. And in these days it was mostly men that were allowed to do this dance form. And a lot of what was happening here in Northern California was a lot of the tap dancers like hoofers. And I was a very active and good tap dancer. So, I was in this whole environment of tappers and hoofers, but a lot of those dancers were also like dancing on street corners at Fisherman’s Wharf.
And they were also starting to bring in this movement of boogaloo, and what we now call breakdancing. And so, I went to this tap dance show, and in the middle of this tap dance show, these five guys from Oakland came out, and they were called “The Gentlemen of Production”.
And I had never seen movement like this before. They were popping, and locking, and moving on the stage, like, oh my God.
So, I ran backstage. And I was like, “Oh, excuse me. Who’s the choreographer? Who is the director?” And they looked at me, and they were like, “Why?” And I was like, “I’d really like to study.”
And so, the choreographer of the group, his name was Walter Freeman, and we’re still friends to this day. He set a really high price thinking that I would be scared of it. And I said, “Okay, fine.”
So, to make a long story short, him and I started working together.
I was showing him all of these movements, and information that I had been working on in belly dance. And he was showing me all the pop and lock, and boogaloo movements.
We were cross-pollinating our information.
And he could only teach me in private because if his community knew that he was teaching me, he would have gotten a lot of slack.
And it’s really funny because he said to me that I was one of his first like white friends. And I was so blown away because I said that he was the first person that ever called me white. I was offended. I was like, “Okay. Look. Uh-uh (negative).”
So, I was the first person to write up his resume and get him out on auditions. And he ended up on Broadway doing Riverdance for 10 years, a decade. He was the tapper and pop locker. And anyway, so Walter Freeman really was a huge influence.
And that’s how we have all these hard contractions in belly dance now. Because we have all these isolations, we have all these hard contractions, all these locks, and all the pop.
Well, now, people just think that always been a part of belly dance, like Cleopatra brought that in, you know? But it wasn’t. It was not.
If you look at old movies and videos of dancers, like all these isolations, that’s because of me and Walter Freeman. So, I’m trying to put together the context, and picture of what it was like in the late ’70s, and early ’80s. I mean, I don’t know, do you remember the first time you saw Flashdance?
Right? And you saw Jennifer Beals like walking in the streets of New York, and like, “Wow, she saw that dancer on the street doing that.” Yeah. Well, by the time it got to the movies that was for me old. And for the rest of America, that was like, “Whoa, the first time everybody … ” But no, this was a way of moving for the young generation of my age range. So, yeah. I hope this gives context, but it’s really hard because it was such a heartfelt, and organic process without any marketing in mind. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it was wonderful. It was so great. One thing that really struck me was that you started Western dance as a form of physical therapy. As a child your mother saw it as a way to help you long term.
And when you were picturing that dancer in your head, you weren’t picturing somebody else. You were picturing the best version of yourself dancing, which is so powerful to me. Like you had already had that in your head that,
“This is about becoming the best dancer I can be, not about becoming somebody else.”
Right. It never occurred to me to pass this on. I mean, that’s what I think is so powerful about the material in the Salimpour format. It’s the foundation it was built from.
I do not teach people to copy my look, and feel. I don’t teach people to just do my stylization.
The school and the certification programs are so strong because they make sure each student has found their best version of themselves. And that’s a big difference. It’s not copying me, not copying my look or feel, or my top students, the program.
The school is based on making sure each student becomes the best version of themselves.
That’s beautiful. And another thing that I want to talk about a little bit is that you saw greatness, and you went right for it. You saw Walter Freeman dance, and you went right backstage, and you said, “How do I learn from you?” And there was no fear in that, that you didn’t let anything get in your way. I think that’s so amazing.
And that is rapid growth, right? That is how you really develop yourself. And I have a lot to learn from that. I haven’t done that in my life. Where I just see somebody, and I’m like, “You. Whatever it takes, I want to study with you.” I just think it’s so cool that you’ve done that. And I’d see that in a lot of people that have really excelled in life, that’s a habit.
And the interesting thing is that I think it’s so ingrained. It’s seeded inside my gut. It didn’t even occur to me not to literally rip myself through the backstage to get to The Gentlemen of Production. And The Gentlemen of Production, they’re in the Hip Hop Hall of Fame.
I mean, this was a time where we were all exploding movement wise, which has changed dance, and not just belly dance.
I mean, when you look at ballet, and now you look at modern ballet, when you look at the way these contemporary dance companies are moving, like it was a moment where everything just cracked wide open. And it was also the beginning of the fitness era, that fitness craze, where now you have like organizations.
You have to get certified to teach a fitness class. You have to know your basic anatomy and physiology. And I don’t understand why we don’t expect that from our belly dance teachers.
I think that being a belly dance teacher even has a higher sense of responsibility because you are dealing with a culture.
And even if you want to take the easy way out, and call yourself a fusion dancer, you still have even more responsibility.
I think that when belly dance teachers or students call themselves “fusion dancers”, they think that it’s a get out of jail free card.
When really, I think, it’s even more responsibility because so much of belly dance has been fusionised within the last 100 years, really to understand all the elements that you’re fusing from.
I mean, I have had so much training in so many dance forms, and even then I consider myself a beginner or maybe a basic intermediate with some dance forms that I’ve spent 30 years training with.
So, I think it’s been a really interesting process because the foundation of why I started the Suhaila format, that came later. I started breaking things down, and wanting to learn things this way for myself, not for a program.
Yeah. My husband’s like that too. When he wants to know something, he devours everything he can find about it. I love that you went into your doctor and said, “Hey, am I right about this? Which muscle is moving here?” That’s really cool.
Well, yeah. And I didn’t want to make it up. I was really young at the time. I was in junior high. And I hadn’t really studied extensively myself. So, because I’m so visual, I wanted to make sure that when I was doing a movement I could also visualize it inside my body. So, I didn’t want to do any of that incorrectly.
I also didn’t want to be abstract about it. I don’t know if that makes sense, but for me, I really need clarity. So, for me, to just be like, “Oh, this area of the body.” That’s why I really need to know what muscles are being used. And my format is based on the main muscle being used.
So, if you go to the gym and you’re working on a machine, there’s a picture there of like what muscles you’re using on the machine. But maybe the main muscle will be in like red. And then you’ll see all the supporting muscles in gray.
But the main muscle will be in the red color. Even though there are a lot of supporting muscles around it that of course are being activated and used for a support system. But it’s not the main anchor of the movement.
The format is based on understanding the main anchors of each of the movements. So you can build and evolve.
So, that’s all the thought behind creating it. Do you want to talk more about how you actually moved forward with it? What were the first steps you took?
When you really train and develop your muscles, it takes time. You have to marinate.
And there has to be thousands and thousands of repetition before the body commits it to like muscle memory. Right?
So, it took years for my body to really shift and start to form. And when it started to really show in my dancing, I found it interesting because students would come up to me and say, “Hey, I want to learn that move that you did.” And I’d be like, “Wait, what?” “Yeah. That move that you did.” And I was like, “Oh no, they think it’s a move!”
It’s because belly dance is usually taught. Like, you learn this move, you learn that move. And I was like, “Uh-oh, okay, well, sit on the floor, and squeeze your glutes for like six months, and then call me, I’ll give you the next thing to do.”
And they were like, “No, but what’s the move?”
And I was like, “Yeah, but it’s not a move. It’s the evolution and development of what I’ve been doing for years.” And I thought, “Oh my God, I never thought that I was going to have to create a pathway to teach people.”
So, I found it fascinating because truly I had no students in mind. This was for me. And then when people started to ask me about showing them how I’m developing these moves (from the dancer that was in my head, that was fantastic. Right?), I realized that I had to re-break everything down. So, my learning process is a little different. I wanted to make sure that I could break everything down to pass it along to people that wanted to know what I was doing. And when you look at my videos, I’ve been documented my whole life. But really video cameras and the availability of video cameras came in the late ’70s. And on our YouTube channel, and on our Vimeo, and on my website, we have a static page with videos on there.
You can see the development of my format on my body from a child. And it’s interesting because the first recording is like the 10 dances. So, I’m like 12. And then after that you see, which is right when I was just starting to have that question. And then the next is 13, 14. And you can watch these videos of me dancing, and performing, and the choreography that I was doing. And you can watch the development of the format on my body.
It’s even interesting for me because I was my own Guinea pig. I look at Isabella now, my daughter, and my daughter grew up with my information. So, she was squeezing her glutes, and trying to develop her hip work at the age of two. And I had to wait for me. You know what I mean? Does that make sense?
So, Isabella, is the first generation of dancers in the school that started literally from birth with this technique and philosophy. And that’s why she’s so strong. She really doesn’t know any other way, where I had to create the format, and the platform that I wanted to stand on.
When did you know that that was your next step to create?
You’re such a great storyteller.
Was there a moment that you said, “I need to formalize this”?
Yeah, these defining moments they’re like scenes in the movie of your life. Right?
I remember I was talking with a student of my mother’s who I love very, very much.
He said to me, “Would you please not teach people about the glute thing?”
And I said, “What?”
And he goes, “Yeah, because then everybody’s going to know what we’re doing.”
He didn’t want everyone to know his secrets.
And I was like, “Oh, no. Okay.” And my head cocked to the side.
And I was so confused.
It was that moment that I realized that knowledge is power. And information is power. And I realized the limitations of dancers.
And I’ve sympathized with this fear in artists, that when you’re afraid to pass on information and knowledge, it means that you don’t have a lot of faith in yourself.
So, that was a really defining moment.
Because I thought, “I actually want to empower students.”
Because if I can do something, physically… I can get it on stage, and wow you, Alicia, and you’re like, “Wow!” That’s great.
But real power comes from when you can duplicate it.
And I can’t duplicate it on my body because I’m already doing it.
So, for me to be able to pass it on to students, and really raise the level of a whole generation of dancers…
Now, for me, that’s more of a testament to the format and the work than any move, or show, or standing ovation I have ever gotten.
Now, what you said just made me change how I feel about seeing a troupe perform. I’ve never thought about it as just a demonstration of the power of duplicability. Do I say that correctly?
That is a demonstration of the power of education.
Yeah. And that’s why we have Salimpour Collectives all over the world. And this is something that it was really interesting.
Salimpour Collective started by accident, really. I had some really wonderful students, and sponsors that were doing these shows when I would go to teach a workshop, and they would call them Salimpouriums, or Simply Salimpour, or Salimpour Presentations at the Hafla Show. The show that’s attached to the workshop. And they decided to do just a variety of choreographies that were mine.
And it was really cool because it’s like meeting an old friend again. And I would see that everybody in the show that was in the workshop, they were then presenting pieces of my body of work. And I was like, “Wow, this is amazing.”
Because the Salimpour format is so distinctive. It’s a very distinctive internal…This work, you’re learning to develop from the inside out. It is not an outside in development process. And I’m like, “This is such a great presentation.” And some of the pieces were just in leggings, and a T-shirt, and a little headscarf. And what you see is the work.
So, when I first started teaching my format, a lot of students would come to me and say they’re frustrated because when they go back home, their dance friends, their community say “All right, let’s see what you learn.”
And my students would be like, “Well, I learned a bunch of exercises that if I keep doing I’ll get better.” And that’s not very satisfying to a dance community that’s used to learning a choreography and putting it on stage right away. Right?
So, the choreographies that I’ve created for the dancers in my school are designed to be able to show the work that they’re doing.
So, we decided in the school to start Salimpour Collectives that are global. Now there are Salimpour Collectives Global. And it’s for this reason, so people can see the development, and the work that the dancer is doing at their level.
And it’s not focused on costuming. It’s not focused on makeup. And it’s not focused on like a party vibe.
It’s like when you’re studying, and you’re learning piano, and there’s a concert at the end of your semester, let’s say. And you go, and you sit, and you play at your level. And you’ve learned how to walk on stage. You’ve learned how to bow. You’ve learned how to sit. You’ve learned how to place your hands. You’ve learned how to take a breath. And you’ve learned how to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, as best as you can for your level, right?
It’s not called a professional show. It’s called a recital right? And then with your family, and friends, and loved ones can appreciate your effort, and hard work for that level. And then the next student comes off.
And so, these collectives have been, I think, a really great representation of the work, and how it’s integrating on everyone’s body. Yeah. That’s it.
I’m one person, but I can teach and I can create the strongest possible dancer in each person.
I feel very confident about that. Can you tell?
Yeah, It’s wonderful. So, it’s your life’s work?
And I do want to say though, there’s been a little bit of mourning, a little bit of grieving.
Just a little bit of the fact that me as an individual artist, like I removed myself as the director of the school, and me, Suhaila Salimpour as like an individual artist.
There’s been a little bit of mourning on the fact that I made a choice to focus on the school and to focus on my students. And there’s only so much energy and time.
So, when I wake up in the morning, and I have to choose between my school and my students, and the development of that, and the foundation of whatever that needs…
I always choose that over my personal work as an artist. So, I’m not on stage much anymore.
And that’s okay because I AM on stage.
Thousands of people have a piece of me. A part of me and my mother. And the legacy of our family is on stage with them.
And so, I shine from the inside of that. And then when I do get to go out on stage, it’s a very special time because it is just me, independently. It’s a very vulnerable moment too, because it’s so alone.
Now, since I haven’t taken either of your formats yet, neither you nor your mom, how are they different? How do you think that they are different how they compliment each other?
How are the Jamila and Suhaila Formats Different?
The Salimpour School, we are moving away from calling it “Jamila and Suhaila format”, because it will fall under one umbrella of the Salimpour format.
We’re calling it the Salimpour format, and the Jamila vocabulary.
So, the Jamila vocabulary is what we call the Jamila format, but it is a vocabulary. And then the structure of the school, the program, the certifications, the levels, the choreographic technique, the fusion, the stylizations, and the development of the artist, the grid work, core dimension, that’s all under what I’ve done. Suhaila Salimpour work.
But all of that just goes under that Salimpour Certification umbrella. And then we integrate with Jamila Salimpour vocabulary. So, I think it makes a little bit more sense when we say, Salimpour format, we’re using Jamila vocabulary.
Great. That makes sense. So, it’s Jamila’s moves, and then the moves that you created as well, or defined, or named, and then both of those vocabularies function in this methodology.
Yes. And my mom’s brilliance was just so unbelievable for its day. And a lot of the moves in the Jamila format came also from Suhaila. And I talk about myself in third person, because as the director of the school, I can say, “Okay, I’m directing the school. But now to pass on this history, it’s like Jamila and Suhaila created these body of work, and these movement of steps. And they’re under the umbrella of the Jamila vocabulary.”
Right. Because you were influencing your mother even as a child. It didn’t even occur to me too that the way that you both were moving together is different than how you would have been moving apart.
Yes. And I never thought of separating myself. I never thought of like, Suhaila format. Everything that I was doing I kept dumping into the Jamila format.
And then there was this moment where my mom was like, “You know what? You really are taking over this whole school and art form.” And I was like, “No, it’s just all one thing.”
And my mom asked me to rewrite her book. And so, I was like, “Okay, I’m going to rewrite the book.” And as I was writing her book, I was like, “Oh no.”
Really what I was doing was creating my format. And so, I remember coming to my mom, and I said, “Mom, I don’t think I can do this. I think we need to keep your vocabulary intact for the sake of history. And then whatever I’ve done needs to stand at this whole other time and era within this school and family.”
And she totally agreed. And we were always really, really in sync. My mom was really supportive. She always thought that I was this alien. And the irony is I totally come from her.
Like I was exactly her – with dance training. I wouldn’t have been the dancer I am today if it wasn’t for her vision. My mom didn’t really know how to necessarily integrate. She had like this vision of the future, but she didn’t know how to make it happen.
But she always used to say, “The future of this dance form is in the Western body line.” And what my mom meant was that training, that solid training, that foundational work.
And my mom would say to me when she was teaching a class like, “Tense your hip, tense your hip.” And what she meant was squeeze your glute because there’s no hip muscle, and tense meant contract. So, I always could decode what my mom meant. I mean, I got the whole glute thing because we were raised with “tense your hip”.
All right. I saw the Ellen episode where you were on there. I just loved that with your glute isolations on Ellen DeGeneres’ show years ago.
Suhaila on Ellen
Oh my God, I love her so much.
What a fun moment in my career, being on Ellen, and meeting Ellen. And she was so nice, and so warm, and so charismatic. And she has the most intense eyes, and so sparkly. And I was supposed to have a shorter segment, but we had so much fun that it ended up being the time that it was, it was a wonderful moment. It was fun.
Well, I just love that that’s part of, yes, your gift to the universe is those amazing glute isolations, and you like on the floor with your split. It’s just so much fun.
Once you get into the school and see all that there is to offer, the glute exercises, and the glute work, and isolations is probably the least of what I have to contribute, but it’s what gets the most attention.
I have to say, honestly, even if you don’t want to ever study in the Salimpour School, if you do those glute exercises, you’ll have the best tooshie ever.
I mean, when I look at your butt, when you’re doing it, forgive me, Suhaila, I’m like, “That is a damn good looking butt right there.” You know?
I have to say, I do have a great ass.
And you own it. That’s right. Fabulous.
So, speaking of the future, and what your mother was seeing as the future of the Western body line…
What do you see as the future of belly dance?
I grew up with my mom saying that the future of this art form is to raise the level of the dance, right? To raise the level, the expectations, the technique, what we expect, and want from our students. And there should be schools.
And I feel that, and I’ve always said this:
What really needs to happen for this dance form is to get belly dance into educational environments and academic environments, into dance departments.
And I’m really proud to say that this year I have been asked to join the dance department at Mills College as an adjunct professor.
And I will be teaching a Core Dimension movement class for the dancers. And the theater department will be required to take this class to graduate. And I will be teaching Middle Eastern belly dance.
I’m really honored to join the staff at Mills College University here in Oakland. I’m really honored.
I think that this is the first step. We need to get into these academic environments where we can get this work on a body of dancers. Maybe one day somebody can even get a degree or their focus is in this Middle Eastern belly dance. Maybe colleges and universities won’t just have modern dance or ballet be the norm.
Maybe other schools will open up, and have like world dance, and ethnic dance as focuses of dance degrees. So, this is what I’m hoping for, for the future of this dance form, but it only comes from hard work.
And we have to be able to have conversations with other dance forms in their language.
We can’t just say hip drop, we can’t do it. We have to have conversations.
We have to be able to talk about the body, about the history, about the anatomy and physiology, about the culture, about the music.
And I think that we’re entering a really interesting phase for this art form because we’re coming out of the sensationalism of it all.
And I’ve seen it go through many waves of being trendy, and hip, and cool, and then not, and then back. Then Shakira does a piece, and everybody’s back on again, which, hey, great.
But people come on and off this wave, but really the ones that stick around have no choice but to evolve, and develop, and learn, and grow. You can’t just put on a little belly dance Halloween costume, stick a bindi on your forehead, and think it’s cool. We’re not there anymore. Thank God.
Okay. So, I first took belly dance as a phys ed class, which is a one semester, and you’re done, right?
Or you could take the advanced belly dance class, and that’s two semesters. I never thought of it as a course of study at a university. That’s a really wonderful idea.
Right. And also I know that belly dance classes have been offered in the physical ed departments, but not so much the dance departments. And the dance departments are different.
So, you can get your little credit for phys ed, but to be inside the dance department, and to be able to really have a place there will be crucial for our evolution and development.
I have got to ask you too about online learning and the future of belly dance. Do you have any thoughts there?
Online Learning and the Future of Belly Dance
Well, I started online classes in 2008. And I knew it was the future. It was the future. It had to happen. And it was a really important product for the school to develop because when you have a school, and a program, and a process, and a pathway in dance, it’s like any other art forms. So, if you’re let’s say studying violin, the only way you’re going to get better, and stronger is if you practice. And that’s hours and hours of practice. And I would say to myself, “God, I wish my long distance students could just be a fly on the wall, and watch every class that I teach.” And that was the defining moment for me.
Because I went, “Ding, I need cameras in my studio, and to just film, and film, and film, and film.” And there wasn’t the technology to support that in the time. At the time, Amazon was only selling books, and music. And YouTube, you could only do I think less than six minutes posts. And I was like, “No, the class has to be intact. It needs to be 90 minutes at least.” And it just wasn’t available. And so, I was talking with the company, and the people that do my website and design, I was like, “This is what I need.”
And Chris who does my website was like, “Well, you’re probably going to have to buy your own server. And that’s like 80 grand.” And I was like, “Okay, well, that’s not going to happen.” So, it was back-burnered. And I said, “Let me know if you find anything that can do my vision.” And one day he called me, and he goes, “I think we might be able to do it. There’s this program now.” And it was really nothing like it had ever been done. And I was really flying blind. And I had to get these cameras, and we had to mount them, and we had to duct tape these cords on the walls. And we were just filming.
And then some classes were just like corroded, and didn’t work. And I wanted a bunch of cameras, so you could get different angles as the class was going on. And I felt that, I had done videos my whole life, and I had just done a series of videos that were in Target, and Walmart, and Walgreens, that were like belly dance fusion, Pilates, belly dance buns, belly dance yoga. And the amount of production, the hair, the makeup, they even hired a guy between takes come and wipe down my feet. I know. I really miss him, actually.
But I was like, “Wow, the amount of money that goes into production, you know what? This is going to be raw.” Like no makeup, no hair, no lighting. It’s like reality show belly dance class.
And we filmed, and filmed, and filmed, and filmed, and filmed. And I had somebody on the other side of the wall in class, because I didn’t want the students to feel uncomfortable, editing live as it was happening. And then we’d have to take that class, and then edit it a little bit more, and then put an intro, and then compress it, and hope that it would fit and work.
And sometimes they worked, and sometimes they didn’t. And I just spent a good year filming, and filming, and filming to be able to release a series of classes that I felt were comprehensive. And Isabella was really young at the time. So, I had to hire a babysitter, and then I had to hire the filmer, and the editor. And then we had to edit after, and compress it, and then send it to my web team to put it up.
Oh my God, I lost so much money. And when I was telling my bookkeeper, like, “I have this idea that I want to do online classes.” They were like, “No way, this is just way too much money. You are going through a divorce. You’re a single mom. What are you out of your mind?”
And I was like, “I’m feeling it in my gut.” Like I was losing sleep. I would wake up in the middle of the night in a sweat because I just knew that this was the only way for the school to develop.
It was not even so much like, “Oh, this is the future of learning.” It was like, “How can I get a student that’s long distance, and not able to come take my classes every week from level one to level two, level two to level three?”
They couldn’t do it unless they were taking weekly classes this way. So, I just knew that it was the future for the school, and the development of the students, not so much a product. You know what I mean?
And so, I just put everything on a credit card. I just rolled the dice. Put everything on a credit card, just hope, cross my fingers. And it took years really because I kept filming. Took years to even break even. And I’m just so thankful now that, especially, with the current crisis where we’re all indoors, and having to be really safe, and protect ourselves, and our loved ones, that people have this type of research, because it really did set the ground for what is becoming the norm now, learning things online.
And I had talked to yoga teachers, and Pilates teachers, and barre method teachers, and Tae Bo teachers about how I was doing my online classes. Because before they produced anything, I was the first on the scene.
And so, they would contact me and my collaborator. He would do a lot of phone meetings with these people, and explain how I was doing things because they want to do it themselves. And now, there’s so many programs, and so many ways to do a film class, a live class. I mean, it’s just amazing.
But back in the day, there was me with the duct tape cords around the studio, and a credit card that was on fire.
It’s so great to hear when someone is that devoted to making a project happen, and you do see the payoff down the road for so many of us, for everyone who’s ever studied with you online. There’s the payoff.
And like I said, it wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m going to do this thing. And it’s going to make me money.” It was, “I want my students that are long distance to be able to improve, and evolve, and move on to the next level.”
Like you can’t just come to one workshop, even if it’s a week long, and learn, and get to the next level. You can’t. It takes hours and hours of personal time of practice.
If you’re really learning an art form, if you’re really developing, it can only be done with hours of practice.
And now that things are online, my school’s online, it’s not just you take a class and learn a cool shimmy, or take another class and learn snake arms, or take another class and learn an undulation.
No, this is a program. You could learn to dance, and evolve, and get so strong, personally, in this program. I’m really proud of the online classes. And I’m proud of all the students and the teachers that have come through the school, both online and in-person.
Well, I always hear it in their voices too, in all your students’ voices of how the pride that they have of being part of your school.
We have a lot of pride in each other. Like I said earlier, I see myself mirrored back in all my students. And when I look at my students, and I see how incredible they are as people, and the type that the school attracts. Honestly. And then their work, and how they evolve, and mature, and grow, oh my God. It gives me goosebumps just talking about it. And I feel a little weepy because I’m so proud. And I feel like that is the testament of the school.
I mean, we had our 70th anniversary. There are not many dance schools in any dance style that can say that after 70 years, they’re holding strong, if not stronger than ever.
And that is because the work speaks for itself on the body of the students. It’s not about me.
Well, it’s the work, and the vehicles, the amount of access that you’ve given. Because so many people are just brilliant dancers, and they’ve never had the vision for how to make it duplicatable.
Well, that’s why. Because most great dancers aren’t great teachers. And most great teachers aren’t great dancers.
That’s why I took a back seat to performing. Because I wanted to put all my time and energy into what the school needed.
Like all the educational material, all the books, all the online resources, all the drill breaks I recorded, all the finger cymbals. So, we have 78 finger cymbal patterns that I have recorded both right and left hand dominant halftime, and full-time. These things take hours. All the drill breaks of me audio commanding, and drilling people so they can learn the format just through audio, not just visually.
I mean, the amount of hours that I’ve chosen to be an educator. That was a choice.
Because when you get out on stage, like that’s a whole other ego.
So, the school is really solid. And I feel really confident that the future products that I’m working on right now will even make the program, and the school even stronger.
Not over yet. We’re just getting going.
Of course, you’re a creator, you’re an innovator. It doesn’t stop.
I think I’m very passionate about this. We’re doing this podcast. And so, it’s just voice. But if you could see me, I’m very Sicilian. My arms are extended out to the computer like you’re right there, and my hands are out. Yeah, I’m very expressive, that this podcast can’t see, but I hope you can hear in my voice.
Oh, I can totally hear your energy. And here I am sitting here trying not to move so my chair doesn’t creak. I should get a different chair.
Yes, I have a good chair. I’m like moving, and rocking, and shaking and it’s not creaking.
That’s a good point for me. That’s a good take home for me. Suhaila, this has been incredible.
Do you have anything else that you want to have as part of this chapter of your podcast interview?
This chapter. I just want to say that I’m really excited to see all the different options that are out there now online, and everything that is happening with all the artists that are going to Zoom.
Artists are going to other options that are out there for learning online because it unites us globally. And it makes our borders and our differences melt away. And only art can do this.
And this is why it’s so important because like when my mom’s student went to Egypt, and had to sneak in a tape recorder, it felt so distant. It felt so far.
I remember this feeling of like, oh my God, Egypt felt so far, and that music, and being able to touch it felt so far. But now, it’s like everything is opened up, and there are not these borders, and these walls that we feel like we have to climb. We can join together, artistically, and really share. And this makes me really happy.
Wonderful. So, one of my friends that I used to live with is a musician in Nashville now, and they had to cancel their tour, obviously. So, they decided to play in a studio the other day, and put it online. And what he said when he was playing was, “I am so excited. I’m getting to see more of my musician friends that I really respect play than I ever have before now because of it all being online.”
We’re being forced to think about how to create community, and art, and share, and support each other while we’re physically isolating ourselves.
And it’s incredible because I think that when we are past this time, and we will, we will pass it, and we’ll be on the other side, we are all going to be able to do more of this for each other. And it won’t be because we’re all stuck inside. It’ll be because, yes, you can go to a live concert,
For me live art is the highest, right? Energetic vibration. That’s what you want. You want to be in that live art situation.
But you also can gain a bunch of other types of inspiration internally by having these opportunities of having your work go global without having to experience it live.
It doesn’t replace the live art experience, but it is another element to be able to inspire.
I’m hoping it actually enhances our appreciation of live art because we can’t have it right now.
No, totally. I don’t put out any of our shows, like Bal Anat, or Enta Omri, I will not put out online because I really feel that people need to experience it. Like you need to experience Bal Anat. You need to be in that auditorium because when we come out.
There is nothing like it that can explain how you feel when we come out. And we’ll never put that all online. But there are other things that we can share. We can come together with what does enhance that experience once we can come together again. This is all just making us stronger. I’m really blown away by humanity yet again.
You gave me chills just when you said the experience of being in the audience when Bal Anat comes out. I’m just, ah.
Right. It’s really interesting.
Bal Anat is like this whisper inside all of us, of our ancestors.
Bal Anat, of course, is like the longest running belly dance show in the world, but it’s also so unusual for us to have any dance company be over 50 years old.
And so, when Bal Anat comes out, you can feel everybody in the audience. There’s this energy inside all of us.
We’re not just entertaining, we’re not just coming out and dancing for you. We are a part of you. We come through the audience, and we grab your spirit, and we bring it on stage with us. And we dance together. There’s nothing like it.
Wow. So, good.
Well, and it’s why Bal Anat has to always be a live. I was the finale dancer for years. First, I was the baby, and then I did every single dance in Bal Anat. And then I was the finale dancer for years.
When my mother passed away, I knew more than ever that I would have to step down from performing with Bal Anat. I took on my mother’s role of the anchor of the group.
And my daughter, Isabella, is now the finale of Bal Anat. And when you see that family, and history. And offering, and I stepped down from performing the Bal Anat with love, and grace, and ease.
And I wanted to slip into my mother’s role, and position, to make everybody feel secure, and solid, and supported, and to pass on the beautiful open extended arm, like pass on that next generation onto Isabella.
Isabella’s not just the third generation Salimpour, she represents everybody in the next generation of artists that are coming up, and coming through movement.
And we have the right crescent, the full moon, the left crescent. Everybody’s represented on stage.
And I think that that is what’s really powerful about Bal Anat, not just that it’s really a groovy show, some great dances. But it really fills people’s soul because the messaging, and the community, and all the metaphors are so rich that it goes beyond any of the dancing you see.
Amazing. Suhaila, I have no words to communicate how beautiful it is to share this space with you in podcast land, to listen to your thoughts, and the history that you just shared with us. Thank you so much. Thank you for everything that you’re working on, and that you have worked on. Thank you for your openness, and your love that we can all feel even through whatever sound waves are making it possible for us to be with you.
Thank you for listening.
Yeah. Thank you so much. Much love to your family, Isabella, and to your dogs, and the whole crew over there.
Same to you, and be well, and be safe. Yeah.
Thank you. Likewise.