Suhaila Salimpour on Bal Anat, Jamila, and their Legacy – 038

Belly Dance Podcast suhaila salimpour

Find out why Suhaila walked off the nightclub stage at 28, how we can show respect for the cultural origins of belly dance, and how her mother Jamila Salimpour danced her cooking.

*Just to note that this interview was recorded in December 2019, right before the coronavirus outbreak.

About Suhaila

I am so honored to feature this belly dance legend of our time, Suhaila Salimpour. Suhaila started dancing at the age of two. 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 dance forms, as well as some Eastern dance forms. In addition to belly dance. As she grew, Suhaila spent 10 years performing live music in fancy nightclubs 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.

Similar to someone who tells you that they have a black belt in karate, when dancers say that they’ve completed any level of Suhaila’s or Jamila’s belly dance format, you know that they worked their butts off. And they grew so much from the experience, and both Suhaila and Jamila have done an unbelievable amount of work to raise belly dance up as an art form to be respected as much as ballet and modern dance.

Suhaila, I interviewed one of your sweet students and our mutual friend Anna Horn the other day.

Suhaila:

Yeah, I love Anna.

Alicia Free:

Anna shares some great hair secrets in that interview, among many other treasurers. Subscribe to these amazing interviews and, they’ll keep popping right up in your podcast listening feed. While I have not yet started my journey into Suhaila’s format and certification program, Anna shared her experience and her admiration for the training that you’ve given her and so many others.

So this is a chance to hear Suhaila’s story. I’m throwing the questions that I ask in every interview out the airplane window, and we’re taking a trip to Suhaila land.

And Suhaila, just to start and honor, your family background, I read that your childhood was not easy, and that you and your mother were born to dance, but your Iranian side of your family often made that very difficult. And you’ve really turned that around for your daughter Isabella, the third in your family lineage of performers. So this podcast is all about what lights us up, and I can’t wait to hear what you have to share. So let’s begin.

The Foundation of Tribal Style

Suhaila:

I just want to say that even though you say that you haven’t started your journey with my format, you probably have and you just don’t know it. I’m not sure that there’s anyone in the United States that has not been touched by the Salimpour Format. And I say that with all my heart and soul, because between my mother and Ibrahim Farrah, they really birthed belly dance in America. And yes, my mother was credited with being the mother of Tribal Style Belly Dance, because it was her vocabulary that is the foundation of the movement.

My mother didn’t really identify with being a Tribal Style Belly Dancer at all, which I think is really interesting. But her movements and her vocabulary of course is what Tribal Style Belly Dance is based on.

And then of course the Suhaila Format is, and all the isolations, and all of that work, is what the foundation of Tribal Fusion is based on. But my mom and myself, we consider ourselves classical oriental dancers, and we worked in nightclubs for years and years.

Alicia Free:

So interesting. The way that the world sees us, and wants to see us can be so different to the way that we feel ourselves and know ourselves.

Belly Dance Style Fragmentation

Suhaila:

Well, yes. My mother was confused like, what happened to the belly dance world? Because when she started teaching in the 1940s, everything was based around of course the music, and the culture and that was the bond. And then later, on when we started having different terms like type of Tribal Fusion, Am Cab, Cab fusion, Dark Tribal, it’s like ordering coffee at Starbucks. It separated us as an art form. Does that make sense?

And so this was something that my mom and I both really felt sad about. What we focus on in Salimpour school is making sure that everybody is trained the same, and there’s a really strong foundation. When you are trained well you can work with any stylization. So the problem is the industry. Now people come in and start learning a stylization right away, and there’s not the foundational training.

The Stigma of Belly Dance in Middle Eastern Cultures

But yes, my childhood was not easy. And it wasn’t easy for my mother either because my father is Middle Eastern. In the Middle East it’s not really something you’re proud of if your wife or if your daughter wants to belly dance. It’s the opposite.

You can belly dance for each other in the living room.

That’s what my aunts would do. They’d wait for the men to leave the house, go to work, and then they would move the coffee table over. And they would just spend all afternoon belly dancing for each other, and crying and cooking.

And then when there was a sign that the men were coming home, they’d pull the coffee table back, wipe their tears, open up the curtains and act like nothing happened. But they were dancing for each other. But putting on a costume, and getting out on stage, oh no, no, no. That was for women of questionable morals.

Alicia Free:

Mm-hmm. Have you seen the documentary, At Night They Dance? I think it was made 2012. It was made fairly recently in Egypt.

Suhaila:

Yeah, I did, with her putting on her makeup, Right?

Alicia Free:

Oh yeah. In the little mirror. There was an interview you did where you were talking about getting ready in the basement with a mirror the size of a postcard. That’s similar to what you see in that movie. The women are getting ready with their daughters right next to them with this tiny mirror in their hand…

Suhaila:

I did see that documentary, and it’s funny because I didn’t really in my head register that as a film or a documentary. Because it’s so real.

Alicia Free:

Yeah. That was a great way for me to visualize what people have talked about. About the stigmatizing. I couldn’t really wrap my head around it until I saw that movie and I went oh, that’s what it looks like. That’s what it smells like. It’s something so foreign to me, because the way I came into dance was at an Ivy League school with a beautiful light filled studio, with very soft kind people. It’s so different than the way most of the dance has reached people.

Why People Choose Belly Dance

Suhaila:

I think that that’s probably one of the more difficult things to bridge the gap. What belly dance means to so many people. It’s so different because what happens culturally is really different than what people take from it.

As the director of the Salimpour School I’m always trying to handle the different reasons why people come to belly dance and make sure that there’s a platform and a place for all of that.

Because culturally it’s not acceptable in any way to become a belly dancer.

And like you were just saying, you came into it as a celebration and exploration, but you have the safety of being here without feeling that your life is in danger.

Outside of the Middle East we have these wonderful communities. People come together and support each other, and we sit there and we clap and we yell for each other. “Oh, have you forgot your costume, you can borrow mine.”

When I was working in the Middle East I had to be really careful not to upset other dancers. I remember one time walking off stage into my dressing room and every single costume I had was sliced up. Somebody was upset with me because I was doing well. It’s this competition. It’s not just like stardom competition, it’s livelihood. I need to feed my kid competition.

But here, in this country and also in Europe and South America and Asia, these incredible communities have been built around this art form. And it’s really beautiful to watch. That’s what I try to focus on, definitely is the celebration of it. But I also want to make sure that people understand the history of it. I think it’s really important to understand the history and the culture because everything that you do is a variation of that. I feel we should feel so lucky.

When I was younger my mom was prepping me for the next phases of my dance life. It was a no brainer that I would be trying to dance in the Middle East. Now it’s different. The situation in the Middle East is just totally different. The industry has changed so much.

Alicia Free:

I’ve seen an interview that you did about that. A lot of it seems to be the loss of live music, and venues that have a band. What do you see as the biggest change?

Why Belly Dance is Declining in the Middle East

Suhaila:

Well, I think it’s political. And that’s why it’s so difficult to represent the belly dance community without popping everybody’s bubble. Dance is political, and this is the next wave of what’s happening.

But what’s happening in the Middle East is not just the bands, but the reason the bands are being lost. In 2011 there was a revolution. You have this post revolution backlash. You see a lot of foreign dancers dancing in the Middle East now, and their over exaggerated Western expression is a backlash to the fundamentalists.

It’s really intense, because you also have this whole generation of people that are influenced by reality shows and the Kardashians. So there’s that kind of image of beauty and success. And you know, in my day there was no plastic surgery. That’s kind of a new thing too.

The view and the role in the image of women, are more extreme now than ever. So you have women that are really more politically involved, or religiously involved, and then you have this whole other backlash where the dancers represent almost the anti version of that political expression. It’s really a different industry.

So the loss of the band is not just a loss of the band. It’s a loss of the arts.

Even the music represents the melancholy position that the Middle East has right now. Like now, the music is so geared towards just it all being shaabi music. Shaabi, shaabi, shaabi, that’s it. And shisha.

If you’re not playing shaabi music and you’re not smoking shisha it’s really hard to fill a nightclub.

And when a classical song comes on, like an Umm Kalthoum song, almost a heavy cloud comes over everybody’s heart because it’s almost too difficult to hear. It’s reminiscent of a time that doesn’t exist anymore. So it’s not a simple answer.

And we just opened Salimpour school in Egypt, but it’s underground. You can’t have belly dance schools. It’s illegal, and it’s word of mouth and it’s all very protected.

It’s not as romantic as people think. We’re trying to fight to keep the arts alive however we can.

Alicia Free:

What made you want to come back to the U.S. after working abroad?

Belly Dancing to Live Music Can Become an Addiction

Suhaila:

Well, when I was working in the Middle East, it was really difficult. There were no cell phones and no Skype, and there was no FaceTime. I was so lonely, and I was very isolated. You start to confuse reality. You’re working, and then you’re on stage, and then you have a band, and then you can have a bigger band, and you can have more costumes, and then you’re back on stage.

And when you have a love for Arabic music – and I mean a love, like an addiction-love for Arabic music – the moment on the stage is magical. When you and the live band are one.

And the hard part is when you walk off the stage. Then the loneliness and the isolation is so grand that you just can’t wait to get back on the stage. It’s the only place you’re able to communicate and feel alive.

So I was really worried when I was in the Middle East. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to have children. And I remember one night sitting at the edge of my bed and thinking that I could close my eyes and open them and 10 years would have gone by. And I’d have more costumes, and a bigger band, but I was worried that I would have gotten so caught up in that addiction to the music, that live music exchange, that I would miss the opportunity to create a family. And not just a literal family like having children. I used to write in my diary every night and my morning pages.

I wanted to create a safe and positive environment for people to grow in this art form.

I wanted to direct the Salimpour school full time and really be able to nurture that. I knew it was my destiny and my future. Being on stage is really narcissistic. You have to find that balance of being healthy in the narcissism, but you’ve got to keep control of that beast. If I let the beast take over, how would I be able to leave the legacy? How would I be able to nurture my mother’s legacy in the Salimpour school? And so I had to make a conscious decision to walk off the stage and come back home and start the school and my family and the Suhaila Dance Company as well. But it was not easy.

Alicia Free:

And you’ve brought a lot of musicians into your school. Anna mentioned that you’ll hear that so-and-so an ouddist is in town and you’re like, “Oh, well then let’s get them in here.” So it sounds like even though you’ve left the stage in the Middle East, you have brought the music into your studio, into the space that you’ve cultivated for this community.

Arabic Musicians Every Belly Dancer Should Know

Suhaila:

Yes. I think bringing Arabic music into the educational process within the Salimpour School was the key component. We are very responsible culturally. What has happened to the dance form, like I was saying is it was so separate.

There are even factions of this art form that are so fused that they don’t even know what Arabic music is. It blows my mind.

Like if I mentioned Oum Kalthoum, or Warda, or Farid Al Atrash, or Mohammed Abdel Wahab, I’d see dancers that have been dancing for years and years, stare at me blankly, like they have no idea. I’m not sure that would happen in any other art form. I think is important to always have the music and the culture that you’re fusing from, and you’re evolving from, as a part of the learning process. Crucial.

https://www.arabamerica.com/the-greatest-arab-singers-in-the-golden-age/

Alicia Free:

I honestly didn’t know the names of any of these artists, these composers, musicians, until I joined a band. Honestly I had been dancing for 12 years, I heard the music, and I loved music, but I didn’t know much about it.

Suhaila:

Well, it’s not your fault because it’s the educational systems that our students are coming through that aren’t focusing on this. And part of it is because I think in belly dance we’re always kind of battling these two things: One is, it’s an art form, and it has a culture, and history behind it. And then on the other side of the dance is for everyone and it’s all inclusive, and let’s just have fun and a kind of borderlines on the Zumba-esk, the Zumba vibe.

And I teeter back and forth in that all the time, because I’m like, “No. You guys have to understand the culture, and you have to understand the history.” And then on the other side it’s like, “But be free and dance and enjoy yourself.” So I’ve had to make sure that the school has a nice healthy balance of all of it.

Cultural Appropriation and Belly Dance

In level one and in level two of the Suhaila Format, there’s no cultural context. it’s really just about understanding your body, and learning how to count music, and learning placement, and structure. Then it’s only in levels 3, 4 and 5 that we get into culture and history and musicality on a deeper level. I feel that it’s just really overwhelming.

Especially now we’re talking about a culture that is in a crisis. Politically, spiritually, and emotionally, and I think that as non-Middle Easterners, you have to be very, very sensitive. To be careful not to just cherry-pick and just use the culture for your own personal benefit as a non Middle Easterner.

And this is something I feel very strong about in my heart, because I remember years ago, my family, we are Middle Eastern and actually Kurds on the Turkish side. I grew up knowing my history and understanding my heritage really well. And when I’m in this country (the USA), I see groups using the word gypsy.

This is not Halloween and you don’t just get to play dress-up. These are people, this is a culture, this is history.

And now everybody’s like, “Oh-oh, cultural appropriation. We had better not use this word, we better not do this.” And I think yeah. Exactly. And this is what I was working on three decades ago. To create this foundation. Now I think a lot of non Middle Easterners are going, “Wait a minute, maybe we should know a little bit about the culture, and not just think the costume’s cool, and we can just put it on and dance to whatever we feel like.”

Alicia Free:

I interviewed a Hurdy Gurdy Player, and she’s sassy and fun, Roxanne Bruscha, and she was saying that she actually doesn’t believe in cultural appropriation. She believes in assholes, and I just love the way she says that. She says, “I believe in ignorance.” Sometimes the term cultural appropriation seems like such a vague big kind of thing. When am I in that realm? When am I being politically incorrect? And then you realize, “I’m being an asshole.”

Suhaila:

I think it’s brilliant, and I just try to be as gentle as possible. In the belly dance world there are styles that are based on cultural appropriation. So I have to just bite my tongue.

Reliable Belly Dance Resources for Everyone

I handle by producing educational material for everyone. Not just the Salimpour School. For anyone to be able to get the article book. For anyone to be able to get the Salimpour School compendium. These are all the educational materials for anybody to read, in any stylization, or working with any teacher. I just hope that the more educated people get, they will start to question what they’re doing. And I think that that’s really healthy. I have faith in people that the more they know and the more they want to know that they will make really great choices based on sensitivity and care and not ego.

Alicia Free:

I couldn’t agree more. It sounds so funny to say, the more you know, but really once you have a face to attach to this word, or this concept, or this move, and a story to attach to it, then you see the person there.

Suhaila:

And it’s hard because in belly dancing, we don’t have a training ground that we all agree on. So if somebody says, “I’ve been belly dancing for 10 years.” And somebody says, “I’ve been belly dancing for 10 months.” It means nothing. The one studying for 10 months might know more than the ones studying for 10 years. So we can’t agree on a foundational training ground. If we did and we all agreed on a language, and we all agreed on the same training ground, well then that would really unite us, and I think it would really be great for the art form. That’s what I’m working on with the school.

Alicia Free:

Just looking at your family, Suhaila, the way that you have made it accessible for all of us to tap into the wisdom that you’ve tapped into is unbelievable. It’s so rare, in the belly dance world, to have somebody who puts out a compendium online that you can download instantly that is that comprehensive. I just love that you guys have put so much work into making it easy for us to be part of it.

Suhaila:

Thank you for that, because it takes a lot of time and energy. And directing a school is a certain type of responsibility that I don’t take lightly. I’m very committed to the School. The School, and the educational material, and then of course the structure of the School, and the infrastructure of the School, is something that’s going to last way longer than just me.

The Salimpour School Legacy

And that was why when I walked off the stage I knew that it was important.

Because, I could do another show, and then do another show, and then another round of applause, and another standing ovation, but at the end, who cares? If I can’t solidify this legacy in this School, I would really feel I’ve done nothing.

And so it has been an expense at times, from my own personal expression. I don’t perform as much as I used to, not even close. Because of the amount of energy it takes to run the School. And of course, I was also a single mother, and I was the caretaker for my mother…

My mother got ill and before passing. She wouldn’t let anybody touch her but me. So I bathed her and fed her and cleaned her for years. And I was doing that, raising a daughter, and then also running the School. To think of putting on eyelashes and lipstick and getting out on stage, no thank you. I would face plant by the end of the night. I was just dead. But I was so happy.

And throughout the years I’ve made sure to withdraw myself and my name. Now it’s Salimpour School. It’s very rare that we even use “Suhaila” or “Jamila” at Salimpour School, and it’s not just my family, it’s the part of your legacy too.

Alicia Free:

I love that. I feel like it’s rare in the artists’ communities to think about something in terms of a legacy. Having satellite schools and creating a language that helps people communicate. It’s not a language for self expression. You have created a language so that the community can get that much bigger, and dance that much more. And I just have so much respect for the way that you’ve thought about all this and the way you’ve approached it.

Suhaila:

Well, thank you.

And this year is the Salimpour School’s 70th anniversary, and last year was Bal Anat’s 50th anniversary. The school has been around a long time.

There’s not many schools in any dance form, that have been around for 70 years. I think the Bolshoi Ballet. I really think that the Salimpour School, just as far as dance history, forget belly dance history, is very unique. And I’ve used the Alvin Ailey School model to create the structure in the Salimpour School.

My mother passed away two years ago, and the School is strong. And someday I won’t be here, and the School will be strong.

I want the School, and the vision of the School that my mother had 70 years ago to continue, and it will. But there’s a thought process that goes into that, yes. And our format has been around a long time.

And some students that have been through the school, or have been influenced by the school will go and take a lot of the material, and then kind of change the names, and then create their own format. And that’s always been a little confusing for us, because it’s like, “Wait a minute, it’s always been there.” And that’s the other reason why we have online classes, and we have archives of our classes, because it’s important for people to be able to read, and view, and study, the history of the School and the Format. And they can see the value of everything that has been going on for the last 70 years.

The First Online Belly Dance Class

Alicia Free:

Now, 2009 I believe is when you started the online training part of your program, is that correct?

Suhaila:

I think we launched in 2009, but I was filming in 2008 for it.

Alicia Free:

Were there any other belly dance programs out there at that time, that were online?

Suhaila:

Oh no. As a matter of fact, I had the idea years before. I’ve made a bunch of videos in my day. You’d set up this video and, you filmed this one hour thing and then it goes out, and then it’s an hour, whatever. Or choreography.

But I was frustrated because I knew that for people to really grow, you have to be in a training ground.

And so I wished the cameras could just be like a fly on the wall. And when I said that, I was like, “Oh my God, that’s what I need.” It was all really new. And I called my web guy and I said, “Listen, I have this idea and I want to online classes.” And my web guy was like, “Yeah, it can’t be done. I’m sorry.”

I was like, “I need an hour, an hour and a half. I need 90 minutes at least, I need this.” And “Nope.” he said, “Unless you want to buy your own server, and that’s going to cost you a hundred grand.” And I was like, “Oh my God.” So I had to wait for technology to catch up with my idea. And I remember when he called me in 2008 he was like, “You know what? I think we can do it.”

But YouTube, still was only doing it at this point, I think 12 minutes or 15 minutes. And so when we launched the online classes, there was nothing like it. Nothing in any form or platform. And so it’s been really interesting for me to see how the online classes have expanded. Not just mine, but now you have the yoga, and the Pilates, it’s everywhere. But I’ve had a lot of people contacting me, not in belly dance, outside of belly dance, and asked me to coach them and guide them on how I’ve done it, because it’s the future.

And our online class program is just huge. If you took a different class every day, you would probably get through all of the classes we have in two years maybe.

And we don’t recommend that. We recommend you repeating classes and concepts, over and over.

Teaching Celebrities to Belly Dance

Alicia Free:

I saw that celebrities, like the famous comedian Margaret Cho, have booked private lessons with you, and they’ve learned from you. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Suhaila:

It is so much fun to work with artists that are working at a high level because they really are trying to incorporate the big vision of what it is that I have to offer. Like I remember one of the first private lessons I gave Margaret Cho, the whole lesson was on breath. And integrating breath and movement, and that was huge. So it’s not just belly dancing, it’s really deeper than all of that.

Alicia Free:

And I love that you also have opportunities on your website, so if somebody is working on a choreography and needs feedback, it looks like you can have a Skype feedback session with one of your instructors, or you. Oh my God, what a great resource that is for people.

Suhaila:

Yes, I really want to make sure that the school is available to everyone.

You don’t even have to be a member or certified in the Salimpour School. If you’d like feedback on a choreography or a show that you did, you can have a lesson just to have your performance watched and get feedback.

And of course within the School, that’s something that we do a lot, because the dancers in the Salimpour School, they really do appreciate the feedback from the higher level teachers. And I think it’s great because you can have a Skype private, and then you can also get a Skype feedback, or you can go through the certification program. We have level ones available online now, and there’s just a lot that can happen, and you don’t really even have to travel, and I think that’s really important for people. We are so busy these days. But it’s been really interesting for me to try to figure out ways to create community globally, in this day and age.

The Global Belly Dance Community

I’m really proud of our Salimpour Collectives and Bal Anat. You can just even be level 1 certified in one of the formats. Like if you were just Suhaila Level 1, and you wanted to join a Collective near you, we put you in touch with other dancers in the School that are also Level 1, or 2, or higher in the program. And then you work together on choreographies that I assign, a different set for a season. A season is typically a year. You work on certain choreographies and we have costume kits and recommendations that we help you with. And you have a choreography captain, and you have access to all of the feedback. You’re not alone. And we have some Salimpour Collectives around the world that are a member of 1, and that’s fine too. They’re waiting for other dancers to play with. And Bal Anat is the same way.

We call it the United Nations of Bal Anat.

Alicia Free:

Very cool.

Suhaila:

Because Bal An ant is global now. And so when you’re Level 2 certified in both the Suhaila and the Jamila Format, you are invited in to Bal Anat. The first piece that you learn is our finale piece that we do as a full cast. Bal Anat is literally global, and very high level dancers. Level 2 in both formats. It’s so inclusive, all ages, all shapes, all sizes, all genders. I’m just so proud of Bal Anat. I’ll assign people dances, and then they get their costume kits, and you have your choreography captains, and then we meet in the… We’re doing a Bal Anat show in Prague. And we will meet on Saturday, and the show is Sunday, and it will look like we’ve been rehearsing for weeks.

Alicia Free:

So cool. Because you got it set up.

Suhaila:

It’s really well structured, and I have a lot of help. I have a great team, and a great staff, and it’s very exciting. In Prague we have a cast of 90 people.

Alicia Free:

Wow. That’ll be quite a party on stage.

Suhaila:

Oh it is. It always is. You know what? We don’t even know if anybody’s in the audience, we’re having so much fun. We love it.

Alicia Free:

Suhaila, What do you wish someone told you when you first started dancing with Bal Anat, when you were a kid?

Suhaila:

I think that when I was a kid – I was on stage before my second birthday – it was my happy place. Our house was really intense when I was growing up. My mom and I would escape to the Renaissance Fair. Bal Anat was such a safe place, and it was where I felt like I could be free and open up my heart, and my soul. I’m not sure anybody could have told me anything different. I knew at a young age that there was a difference between what was happening at my home and what was happening with Bal Anat. I chose Bal Anat to be my spirit family. If somebody could have told me one thing, I think I would have appreciated it that age if somebody had said to me that, what is happening in my home will not define me, and I’m going to be okay.

Alicia Free:

Not to let our past define us. The parts that we don’t like. Right?

Suhaila:

Yeah. I was always scared to go home. So when I was off the stage and going home, the way I would deal with things is really go inside. I’m an introvert, so I’d really go inside and kind of protect myself. But if somebody would have said to me,

Don’t worry. How you feel on stage, you will be able to feel that way in life.

Alicia Free:

The way you feel on stage, you can feel in life.

That’s amazing.

Suhaila:

Yeah. Because it was the only time I was happy. When I was dancing was the only time I was happy as a child. I don’t think people understand what my mom and I went through. It is not what defines us, but it is a part of our history, and our past. Facebook right now does these really cool things where you can sign up for a donation, like a fundraiser thing. It’s kind of new I think. And so for my birthday, I decided to sign up for the Oakland Elizabeth House, which is a shelter for women and men with their children when they have to escape from domestic violence and restart their lives.

And this is something that’s really close to my heart, because my mom and I had nowhere to go in the ’60s. My mom would just grab me with the clothes on our back and we’d run to the police station. And in the ’60s there was nowhere to go. Police officers would just say, “Well, what did you do to upset your husband?” And, “Well, just don’t do that, and he won’t get mad.” Or, “Don’t make him mad.” And we just stand there. And I was so young. So my mom and I would ride the train up and down all night, because we didn’t have anywhere to go that my dad wouldn’t have found us. And then my mom would hope that he would have calmed down when we went home. But there was nothing for us at that time. And so now to have these homes like the Oakland Elizabeth House. It’s so close to my heart. We raised $2,000 from my birthday, which was my goal. I was so happy because I really feel that it’s important that every human feels safe.

Alicia Free:

Especially at home, oh my God.

Creating a Safe Space to Dance

Suhaila:

Yeah. I felt safe when I was on the stage and that was what was important to me. To be able to create a life where I felt safe off the stage as well. And you can hear the theme of my life. When I was in the Middle East my diaries were filled with me wanting to create safe places for people to be able to explore themselves creatively. That’s the theme.

Alicia Free:

Beautiful. So excellent that you can see your theme. Most of us are so steeped in it, we can’t see it.

Suhaila:

Yeah. I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to understand and see my theme. I think it’s because I’m an introvert. I can look inside and listen inside. I was 28 years old when I walked off the night club stage. And that was very difficult, because I was 28 years old!

But I had already at 28 been working six nights a week, two shows a night for 10 years. So I was really very satisfied with my career, but I wanted it to be more. I wanted the school. I wanted the community.

I wanted to be able to create the legacy and the foundation of Salimpour School for generations of dancers. And not just dancers. Margaret Cho just wanted to breathe with her movement. That is so important.

MAKE YOU SHINE COSTUME TIP: Use an Amazing Bathing Suit as the Base

Alicia Free:

Love it. Suhaila, I can’t go any further without asking you about that costume, with all the lace up. What were you wearing in, the fitness fusion video in 2004? Oh my God, where did that come from?

Suhaila:

That’s hilarious. That costume really made an impact. You know, it was a bathing suit.

Alicia Free:

What?

Suhaila:

Yeah, it was a bathing suit. And I loved the sides so much. And what I loved about it is that it was so light.

My movement is so intricate that you really can’t wear too much or the movement gets lost.

And I’m very syncopated and I layer. So it was such a great costume for all that I wanted to do. It was so light, and I just kind of step into it and put it on. And it was funny because it made such an impact, but it’s very simple. It’s a bathing suit that we covered.

Alicia Free:

Wow. There’s a costume tip.

Find a bathing suit you love and turn it into a costume.

Suhaila:

Yeah exactly. That’s all I did.

Alicia Free:

Right. And thinking about how much more forgiving that fabric is to subtle movements than a hard sequined top with the stiffness and the belt. I didn’t think about that.

Suhaila:

Yeah I like the softness and the fluidity. Then the woman who created the costume out of the bathing suit, her name is Alnisa, she is brilliant. She knows my body so well, and she just knew where to take out the tie strap in the back. I could do never have a costume that tied in the back. Oh my God. I would have been flying all over the place. So she put a hook, and BAM! So I could dance in it. I am a very aggressive performer. So the costume had to really hold on, and it did. It was great.

Alicia Free:

And be light.

Suhaila:

I know, I’m glad you like that costume. It’s one of my favorites. I’ve saved it for my daughter.

Alicia Free:

That’s wonderful. It’s almost got the – forgive me for using the term slave Leia – but it’s like in the Star Wars movie where princess Leia has that costume. I did that once for Halloween cause I’m obsessed with that costume. It’s just similar a little bit. It’s so much fun to hear where that costume came from. Thank you.

Suhaila:

Yeah, everyone identifies with that costume in a different way. And that was not the first video and time I wore it. The Suhaila solo video was when I debuted that costume.

And I wouldn’t let anybody see my costumes, and when I walked out on stage the whole audience gasped. Literally when I walked out on stage with that costume, the whole audience just went (gasping). And I knew it wasn’t from my entrance.

Alicia Free:

That’s funny.

FEEL-GOOD-LOOK-GOOD HABIT: Drink Water, Eat Avocados and Enjoy Each Year of Life

Alicia Free:

You’ve got this like gorgeous glow to your skin, to you and your daughter. Actually I was looking at pictures of you both today. I read someone comment about it on Facebook, and you said, “I just drink water, and healthy living.” Do you want to say anything more about that?

Suhaila:

I feel like I’m really lucky because my mom had great skin. Oh my God, she had the best skin. I feel like I’ve inherited her skin. So a lot of it is genetics. And we have a lot of olive oil and our cooking. We’re Mediterranean, and so it’s the olive oil, it’s the avocados, it’s the fat, that is just so good for your skin. And I drink a lot of water.

But the other thing too, I think that what people see on the outside is what’s projecting on the inside. And my mom was very, very happy. She loved the dance and she loved her community.

And my mom never made me feel that aging was stressful or bad. She always was proud of her age. And my mom used no facial products. She just used a bar of soap.

Even the term anti-aging to me is just so negative because I’m aging, and I’m actually happy about it.

I think that means that I’m making it. I’m surviving. It’s a test of endurance.

I think if we set people up with anti-aging, then when we age we feel bad. I don’t know. That’s why I’ve started to let my grays come in. I want to make sure that my daughter – who’s 21 and really caught up in this whole era of social media – know it’s okay to age.

We are Missing Positions for Mature Belly Dancers

Alicia Free:

Well another part of belly dance to me is, it that it’s totally acceptable for grandmother’s to dance. There’s a grandmother’s dance at the wedding. One of my friend’s bands (Journey West) plays The Dance Of The Grandmothers Raqsat Setti, and you just don’t see that in ballet. You just don’t see that in modern dance.

Suhaila:

Well, you brought up a really interesting point because, here we go again with the two separate sides of belly dance. Yes, there’s the dance of the grandmother, and every age gets up and dances socially. At a wedding, that’s social dancing. So we don’t have people put on their point shoes at a wedding and start dancing. So ballet is a classical art form that is on the theater stage, and it is a professional art form.

So in belly dancing, I think our problem is that we don’t separate being a professional from being a hobbyist.

And so I think it’s so important that everybody has a recital, and that people can get up and learn how to belly dance in social environments. So if you’re at an Arabic wedding, you can get up and dance with grandma. But in belly dance, we actually don’t have roles on a theater stage in a professional environment for enough more mature dancers. Do you understand what I mean?

Alicia Free:

Yeah absolutely. There’s a folkloric context where I feel like you might see mature dancers, or you might see people that are 12 years old.

Suhaila:

I don’t think we’d have enough imagery for more mature belly dancers.

I don’t think we have enough costuming for more mature belly dancer. I don’t think we have enough positions. I think more mature belly dancers are trying to stay and look younger instead of embrace their maturity and have a role.

When you go see Flamenco, oh my God. The matriarch in the back in the center between the ingénues on her right, then the musicians on her left. I’m staring at this woman all night waiting for her to get up.

Alicia Free:

Yes. At the end of the show when they get up I get the chills. I love that part of the show.

Suhaila:

Yeah. And the matriarch would just stand up slowly, and I’ll just burst into tears. I just lose it. We don’t have that in belly dance. We don’t have enough of that. We don’t have the roles for maturing dancers professionally. Now in a wedding of course! It’s social dancing. They don’t look at it as belly dancing. It’s their dance. So it’s like you’ve gone to your friend’s wedding and everybody is disco dancing. That’s what it’s like for them. So it’s actually not a professional venue. So we need more of that.

That’s why I’m so proud of Bal Anat. Because in Bal Anat I don’t just talk about it. I present it on the stage.

Alicia Free:

Mm-hmm. There’s a space for the matriarch. There’s a space for somebody who’s calling the mature dancers.

Suhaila:

Well, yeah. Not just a space, but a position. When you look at Bal Anat, the dancers are working at such a high level. And they’re all hobbyists, but they’re working at such a high level. Because they all come from the same schooling, and background, and training.

And you really feel there’s relief in everybody’s soul in the audience when they see truly a position for all ages, and sizes, and genders, and shapes, and everything.

Alicia Free:

Beautiful.

Suhaila:

I don’t just talk about it, I produce it. That’s my personality.

Alicia Free:

Yeah. I can see that. Another one of your patterns. You’re like, “I’m not just going to dream about this.”

Suhaila:

Yeah. You know what? I’m not just going to say we need this. I’m going to do it.

Alicia Free:

Mm-hmm. In addition to Flamenco, that part of a Flamenco performance, are there any other dance genres you’ve seen where there is a position or role for more mature dancers?

Suhaila:

Oh, I think Indian dance, African dance, Tahitian. Almost every other ethnic dance form, other than belly dance. I don’t take ballet and modern, and all of that into consideration, because those are more Western dance forms.

But when you look at other ethnic dance forms, every dance form has a position for a more mature dancer but belly dance. And here’s the problem, we have to create it.

Because I’m a 53 year old woman.

I don’t want to shove my tits into the same bra and costume, I wore when I was 23. Oh my God. I need new imagery. I need mature imagery.

Alicia Free:

Beautiful.

LIGHTEN MY BODY FOOD: Lentils

Alicia Free:

We talked a little bit about avocados and olive oil and cooking. In all my shows I feature whole food plant based ingredients. Something that’s comes from plants, not from animals. Is there anything you want to throw in there that you love to cook with?

Suhaila:

Oh my God. Well, my mom had a restaurant. I don’t know if you knew that.

Alicia Free:

I did not know that.

Jamila Salimpour in the Kitchen

Suhaila:

Yeah, she had a restaurant in the 50s in Los Angeles called “The Nine Muses”, which I just think is such a cool name. And my mom was an incredible cook. The smells in the kitchen.

The way she would putter around in the kitchen.

My mom never wrote a recipe down. She wouldn’t allow anybody to write a recipe down.

If I would say, “Oh, I want to learn how to cook this,” she’d be like, “Well, you have to watch me.”

Because she felt that cooking and movement were one.

So I would have to sit in the kitchen, and I was her assistant, and chopping everything.

But I had to watch her cook, and how she danced her cooking. And that is how the recipes got into MY body.

So my mom was such a great cook, but if I was going to focus on one of her dishes that were more plant-based… I can tell you my mother made the most incredible lentils and rice. And she’d do kidney bean and spinach with brown rice and garlic. And the garlic, and the garlic. Oh, it was soul food. People food.

Alicia Free:

Lovely. Lentils are pretty magical, aren’t they? That’s one of the things I love ordering at Lebanese restaurants, and Moroccan, and Ethiopian. I want their lentils. I want to taste what they put in them.

Creamy Tamarind Lentils with Brown Rice

Suhaila:

Right. And you know, the thing that my mom (and family), they came here with nothing. And I really believe that kind of cooking is probably the healthiest. My mom would say that they only had meat or fish once a week. Everything was lentils and the rices, and the salads. And that’s what you grew up on. And so she made sure that I got all of that cooking inside me. You just can’t beat it.

Alicia Free:

The Sicilians and the Greeks. I know the Greeks, they forage for their greens. That’s part of Blue Zones. So that’s something.

Suhaila:

And we were both. We’re Greek and Sicilian on my mom’s side. My great grandmother’s last name was Greco. Isabella, I asked her since she was eight years old, “What do you want to do when you graduate high school?” And since she was eight, she was like, “I want to go to Greece.” I was like, “Oh my God. Okay.” So we went to Greece for her high school graduation. And we ate our way all around Greece. And it was like nonna’s cooking. It was like my mother’s cooking.

Alicia Free:

That’s what we call my mom. She’s a Sicilian American. We call her nonna with my son. Very sweet. Suhaila, is there anything else you’d like to add? This has been so fabulous.

Suhaila as a Speaker

Suhaila:

I would like to talk about something that I’ve been working on. I feel that our industry is in a really interesting place because of politics and everything that’s happening. I want to make sure that I’m able to reach people who are not just interested in belly dance and the Middle East.

What we have to offer within the format is so much greater than that.

Core Dimension™

I’ve started teaching a dancer philosophy that I call Core Dimension. So Core Dimension you’ll be hearing more about, because it is what I’m going to be bringing into my community, as well as outside of my community. Because it’s not based on culture.

It’s based on movement, and breath, and overall health wellness and that need for that spiritual balance.

But Core Dimension is something that I’m really excited about, and you’ll be hearing more about it very soon.

Alicia Free:

Oh, so wonderful. Suhaila, Thank you so, so much for everything that you’ve done for us. Even things that we don’t even know about yet. Things that have helped other people and reached us in magical ways. And the things that we will see and hear from you and your family in the future. I can’t wait to someday see a Bal Anat performance.

Suhaila:

Yes, I want to bring the Bal Anat to New York. Angelique Hanesworth just opened an art center in New Paltz and a Salimpour School in New York. Angie is level 5 certified in both formats. And I’m telling Angie, “Angie, let’s bring Bal Anat to New York.” And she’s totally into it, and we’re excited. So it’s going to happen.

Alicia Free:

Fabulous.

Suhaila:

Yeah, I’m working on it. It’s really exciting. Yeah.

Alicia Free:

Again, I’m so glad that Anna Horn, our mutual friend introduced us.

Suhaila:

Me too. It was great talking with you. I just love your energy and I love your mission, and I wish you all the best.

Alicia Free:

Thank you so much Suhaila.