What is the Suhaila Salimpour format all about?

This morning I was thinking that I should share more articles and posts by my fellow dancers on this blog, and it turns out that Suhaila Salimpour posted an article on one of her students’ experiences with the format… so I’m going to spread the love and share that article here.

Several of my students and friends have asked me why I’m so dedicated to the format and why I think they should try it too.  In the words of Renee Drellishak, here is one perspective on the Suhaila Salimpour format and why we the students are so dedicated to it.

Link to the original article…. or just keep reading…

My first encounter with Suhaila was via her Stretch & Tone video, which I purchased way back when the interview bits were still spliced between the workout sections. I appreciated the conditioning focus, but had no idea how it related to her technique, or even that she had a technique. Years later she came to Seattle to do a series of 1-day workshops. I had reached a point in my dancing where I didn’t really understand how to improve, in that mysterious “intermediate” level in my class where I could see distinctions between myself and beginning dancers but couldn’t have necessarily explained what they were. Suhaila’s workshop was a revelation. It was road map with clear and precise directions, which I was elated to have.

I attended my first weeklong workshop in September 2001, shortly after 9/11. A number of the workshop participants had canceled, afraid or unable to fly, so there were about a dozen attendees, 5 TAs and Suhaila. With that much personal attention there was no slacking, no hanging out. I worked harder than I ever had in my life, sweated so much my dance clothes were soaked through, raged and cried at my body’s inability to do the things that my brain was telling it to do. My calves were so sore by day 3 that I couldn’t walk upright and while getting up from the toilet I lost my balance, fell against the towel bar, and gave myself a black eye. It was the best dance week of my life.

I certified Level I in June 2002, Level II the following October. I figured if I averaged a Level a year I’d be done with the format in 5 years. Hah! I had not realized that the difficulty of the levels increased exponentially, nor did I fully understand how deep this rabbit hole went.

In 2003 I attended the first Level III weeklong and got a peek down that rabbit hole. Holy shit! All of the drilling in Levels I and II did not prepare me for the emotional work in Level III. On the first day I could tell the girls from the studio were nervous about something and came to find it was about the emotional work. “Yeah, whatever, ” I thought. I was more concerned with the drills and choreography. I had my emotional baggage all packed up, nice and neat. Little did I know that Suhaila knew just how to pop the clasp so that it would explode all over the room. Mind you, this wasn’t gratuitous emotional torture. She didn’t try to make us fall apart, rather her goal was to help us delve into our psyches and present authentic emotion instead of “acting sad” or “acting happy.” [Note to the uninitiated, there are no “happy” songs.] On the second day I sat in my rental car, sobbing and blindsided by my own emotions, for 20 minutes before I could get on the freeway and drive back to my cousin’s house where I was staying. I had called before I left the studio and she met me at the door with a glass of scotch and a bubble bath running in the bathroom, and she did this every day for the rest of the week. I went back to Seattle spent and amazed. It was 3 years before another Level III workshop was scheduled. I was scared because I knew what was coming, but I threw myself into the work, had a great time, and when Suhaila announced she would start holding the workshops every six months I was thrilled.

In August of 2008, after 8 years of studying the format, I tested for Level III. Along with the other testers, I had to submit a number of projects before the workshop—papers, a choreography, a documentary about my dance world. The physical portion of the test began the moment we set foot in the studio on Monday morning, 5 of us being graded while the other workshop participants worked alongside us, witnessing our process and supporting our efforts. We had to dance the two test choreographies in front of the whole group, not just do them, but truly dance them. No one held back an ounce of energy or emotion. Suhaila made it very clear that we had to bring it, and it was a tour de force. On Friday at the culmination of the workshop, Suhaila had us all stand up, and, in tears herself, told us how proud she was and that we had all passed. It was a long road, and afterward I was stunned that I had been able to accomplish so much—more than I had ever expected.

As I write this I have just returned from the inaugural Level IV workshop. I was gratified that on the second day when we had to bring our emotional perspective with maybe a minute of preparation, I was able to do so. That when asked to absorb a choreography a day (and not just any choreographies, some of Suhaila’s most advanced choreographies. With finger cymbals!) I was able to at least muddle through. This is not to say the workshop wasn’t hard. On Tuesday I had a moment, that moment that we all have, again and again, where I wondered what the hell I was thinking and whether I even belonged there. Some of the other women in the workshop, women I have known for years, who have seen me lay my soul bare and who have laid theirs bare in return, talked me down, reassured me, in that way we do for each other. We commiserated throughout the week, reminding ourselves that we were not actually expected to master Yanna Yanna in one afternoon, that this was merely the overview so that we could take these choreographies home and work on the over the next year or two (or five, or ten.) The experience really highlighted for me that I am a totally different dancer than I was 8 years ago. I am a different person.

The naïve reader might read this and think, “My god, all that sounds awful! Why would you do that to yourself? This Suhaila person sounds like the Marquis de Sade!” First, nothing could be further than the truth about Suhaila. Yes, she demands that we work hard, in most cases harder than we’ve ever been asked to work. But she asks this because she knows we can. She sees the potential in every dancer and will do whatever she can to help that dancer realize it. I have seen her give, time and time again, exactly what each dancer needs, from compassion and support to tough love. I have seen her spend 10 minutes trying to get a dancer to articulate what a particular song means to them. I have seen her watch a dancer walk in late to a Level III workshop and demand that that dancer go and write a letter explaining why she would be allowed to stay in the workshop. I have seen her down on her belly on the floor, nose to nose with a dancer too terrified to move and unable to speak, and watched as she has looked in their eyes and whispered words of strength and compassion. At the end of every day of a Level III workshop, she leaves carrying the emotional burden of every dancer in the workshop. She carries our secrets and our fears for us, to free us to dance.

Anyone who thinks this format is about being able to squeeze your glutes has missed the point.

This format is about becoming the most fully developed artist you can be. Yes, it demands precise technique, but that technique is a means not an end. That technique enables you to express your artistic vision without technical limitation. But it is the artistry, the statement of the artist, the ability of each dancer to put herself on stage and say, “Here. This is who I am and what I feel,” that this format is truly about. And that is why I do it.

Renee Drellishak


Comments: 3

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“I have seen her down on her belly on the floor, nose to nose with a dancer too terrified to move and unable to speak, and watched as she has looked in their eyes and whispered words of strength and compassion.”

hit me in the gut. hard. i’ve been the student on the floor before, many, many times in my past life as a competitive Scottish Highland Dancer, and throughout all my dance camps and multitudes of instructors, i have only ever met 1 instructor that was able to get on her belly with me. these instructors are treasures, as they are few and far between.

i know now that i will have to carve out some time in the future to attend a workshop.




I attended Suahilas 2 day workshop (pre certification workshops) back in September 2005, just 1 year after beginning my bellydance adventure. She was absolutely amazing. I was completely blown away, was in over my head, and LOVED every minute of it! Her personality absorbed me. The 2d day I had major girl cramps. Suhaila was sitting on a stool watching the girls perfrm the newly learned choreography and I sat near her. She motioned me to come sit by her and offered me an Altoid. :) I was smitten! ha! :) She really is a phenomenal person.




sweet. i recently got level 2. i can’t wait to got on the ball with level 3. it sounds fantastic.



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