Jamila Salimpour: The mother of American belly dance.

jamila Salimpour In September, I had the honor of studying the Jamila Salimpour format at the Suhaila Salimpour School of Belly Dance. Five days of dancing until my body ached, playing finger cymbals until my fingertips turned blue, learning the history of belly dance until I couldn’t fit in any more information… Words can’t adequately describe how amazing and inspiring this experience was for me. Every morning, our trusty teaching assistants Anna and Dilek would lead us through a vigorous warm-up, then they and Suhaila would lead us through each step and variation in the Jamila Salimpour format, each cymbal pattern, and even the origins of each step if known. Every afternoon, after lunch, Jamila Salimpour herself, vital and lively even at 84, would come in for “story time”. She’d regale us with stories of her childhood: how she left home at 16 to join the Ringling Brothers circus, her three marriages and divorces, her experiences in the nightclubs, and how she created her format in the first place. Then she’d have us get up and she would call out moves and cymbal patterns and we’d dance more.

I thought that a workshop like this one would be fully attended. But it wasn’t. Only 10 people registered. Some of the lack of attendance can be attributed to the time of year; the workshop happened in the middle of September. School had just started and many people have busy schedules. But… I still wonder: why were there not more people at this workshop? Why would one pass up an opportunity to study the roots of American belly dance with the mother of it all, Jamila Salimpour, the woman who created the idea of “tribal style” belly dance, who coined the terms “Turkish drop”, “Maya”, and “Basic Egyptian”? It also makes me wonder: how many people know how important Jamila’s format is to belly dance, particularly to any dancer who identifies her or himself as “tribal” style?

As we learned each step, I related it to its child step in American Tribal Style (ATS). (Masha Archer, a student of Jamila’s, taught Carolena Nericcio, who created what we now know as the improvisational American Tribal Style belly dance.) The “Basic Egyptian” in ATS is actually Jamila Salimpour’s “Pivot-Shift-Step”. The “Pivot Bump” in ATS is directly related to Jamila’s “Counter-clockwise Pivot”. The Arabic family of steps in the Jamila Salimpour format have a direct relation to ATS’s Arabic variations. Jamila’s “Arabic 1” and “Arabic 2” eventually developed into ATS’ basic Arabic step. Jamila’s “Arabic 3” became ATS’ “Arabic Hip Twist”. “Arabic 4” became ATS’ “Turkish Shimmy”. The connections are so obvious once you immerse yourself in Jamila’s format.

Studying the Jamila Salimpour format at Suhaila’s studio with Jamila Salimpour herself is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you have the means, no matter what style of belly dance you perform or study, you absolutely must go. Charge it on your credit card if you must. Jamila Salimpour is 84, and as much as we would love for her to stay, eventually she will pass on to the next world. She is a force of nature, a pioneer, a powerful and magical woman who has experience and knowledge about belly dance that most of us only dream of having.

To whet your appetite, I give you two articles by Jamila Salimpour on her experiences as a belly dancer, the creation of her format, and the origins of the original “tribal” style belly dance company, Bal Anat.

Speech presented by Jamila Salimpour at the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance, May 16-18, 1997.

From Many Tribes: The Origins of Bal Anat by Jamila Salimpour

Do yourself a huge favor. Read these articles. Learn about Jamila Salimpour and how she changed the face of contemporary belly dance. Know your roots. And know that tribal doesn’t start with American Tribal Style and FatChanceBellyDance; it starts in its most cohesive form with Jamila Salimpour and Bal Anat.


Comments: 5

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Thanks for writing about this. Any time I’ve been asked by a new student, “Where does tribal bellydance come from?” I always point to Jamila Salimpour and Bal Anat. Her codification of bellydance steps into families of movements was a boon to all dancers, tribal and cabaret alike.




Beautiful post!
ATS really changed my way to dance and to interpret the dance…




Hey, remember last TribalCon when I told you that you’d been upgraded to “personal hero status?” I thought so.



Yvonne Belly Dancer

This was very nicely presented! I was looking for the “share on Face Book” button, LOL.

I’m currently studying SSF format level 3 and have recently started JSF online.

Thanks again for sharing :)




Wonderful article! Jamila’s format is undeniably the root language of ATS, gorgeous and amazing in its originality and organization. I would love to add that different dialects can be as cohesive and powerful as the original. For example, Masha’s addition of posture and costume changed the look, feel and entire intent of the form, emphasizing a tribe mentality and total, unflagging support for each other. Carolena’s organization of the movements (slightly changed through oral tradition) gave us the amazing invention of group improv in belly dance. It began with Jamila, and many other brilliant and creative women have added to the original idea, enriching and enlivening the form. Thanks again for your beautifully written post! -Rachel Brice



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