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The Mother of American Belly Dance: Jamila Salimpour

If you have ever taken a Belly Dance class in America, you can thank Jamila Salimpour for her influence. Not only did she codify and group many of the names into families, she is also the originator of American Tribal Belly Dance. Her format has been taught the world over and her impact has been felt for over 60 years.

The "daughter of Sicilian and Greek immigrants, Jamila grew up in Harlem, New York, and she didn’t speak English until she was 5 years old." In the early 1940's, she moved to Los Angeles. This is where, after being inspired by her father's stories of the Egyptian Ghawazee dancers and the Egyptian movies that played at the local theater, she started performing at "community events and Middle Eastern nightclubs." In 1949, Jamila started teaching Belly dance and established the Salimpour School of Dance in San Francisco, CA. Her teaching format and style spread across the US and throughout the world. The typical teaching style was "follow the leader," which didn't work well with Western students. Jamila created her own teaching system instead; one that no other Belly Dance teacher had done before. She catalogued and named hundreds of steps. "Each step name reveals a bit of its origin, such as the Algerian Shimmy (attributed to a dancer from Algeria) or Zanouba, a dancer who performed regularly at the Fez in Los Angeles." Jamila created the Bal-Anat dance troupe in 1968 when she was given the opportunity to perform at The Renaissance Pleasure Faire. She was up for the challenge and created a variety show based on what one might see at an Arabian festival or souk (marketplace). Jamila had experience from her time as a member of the Ringling Brothers Circus, starting in 1942. She also had a strong history of working with numerous dancers from around the globe, such as Tunisian pot dancers and male Tray dancers. Because of Bal-Anat, dancing with a sword, a mask, or a snake was seen for the very first time. Small ensembles of dancers wore costumes made of rich textiles and heavy jewelry. Jamila designed the costumes based on a recipe of anthropological research, imagination and fantasy. Each ensemble represented a different region or style of Belly Dance while a chorus of dancers behind them played musical instruments or Finger Cymbals. This show featured tribal dance styles from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean and then inspired an entire generation of American Belly Dance; American Tribal Style, and then the subsequent sub-genres that followed. Bal-Anat is the oldest and longest-running Belly Dance company in the world, and continues to run shows to this day. In addition to this, Jamila was a nightclub owner as well as an author. She owned the Bagdad Cabaret, which was a San Francisco feature for Middle Eastern music and dance. Among the books she published was the pivotal "La Danse Orientale, and a guide for playing dozens of finger cymbal patterns, complete with musical staff notation, many of which she created herself." She also helped to established and write articles for Habibi Magazine, "one of the first periodicals focusing primarily on the practice and performance of belly dance. The Salimpour School collected her writings for the magazine several years ago, re-releasing them as a collected volume in Jamila’s Article Book." "One of Jamila’s wishes for belly dance was that it be regarded as “a difficult, yet truly artistic dance form.”" I see her as a trailblazer for those of us studying the dance today. Her legacy continues and her influence can be found in every class, including mine. Even though I was not able to learned from her directly, I have studied with some of her students who went on to teach. I also had the opportunity to learn from her daughter, Suhaila Salimpour, who in her own right, influenced modern Belly Dancers the world over. In my classes, I use her terminology and names for moves. SOURCE: Salimpour School Online



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