Shaping a Legacy:
A New Generation in the Old Tradition
It was a vision quest that took me to the heart of San Francisco almost three decades ago to meet Jamila Salimpour. I had travelled up the coast from our home in Big Sur with my then “old man”, Peter Fels (a metal sculptor whose imaginative water pipes and hot tubs sold to the Who, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa and the Smothers Brothers). Diane Webber, my first teacher, had worked with Jamila at the Bagdad in San Francisco, and highly recommended her. My initial encounter with the dance had been at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Southern California six months earlier, where I had seen Diane dance, vibrantly costumed in silk, on stage with Middle Eastern musicians. I thought, “Wow, a real dance done by a real woman: whole, elegant, intelligent, sensual, and foreign looking.” (Incidentally, Feiruz Aram made her debut at the same Faire in an impromptu dance in a grassy meadow.)
Sociologically, the flower children were just beginning to blossom into the extended family of a colorful tribe — a peace-loving, hedonistic, politically active sub-culture. The plastic, insulated commercialism of the 50’s had lulled most of us baby boomers to sleep, until chemical consciousness expanders altered our realities. We were hungry for the authentic, substantive and soulful. The blues, folk songs and war protests of the mid sixties voiced our break with mainstream culture; “recreational drugs” helped deepen the schism.
Psychologically, this was a time when you could take a trip on the “Marrakech Express” without even leaving home. The guitarists Sandy Bull and John Fahey were cranking out their mind—bending melodies. Ravi Shankar, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Beatle Mania introduced us to ideology from the exotic East: karma, re-incarnation, meditation, chanting, incense, Indian prints and rudrash beads. The tribe was taking on glorious textures of ethnic diversity. (Even the jelebiya-hooded figure on Zig Zag cigarette papers looked ethnic.) American Indian God’s Eyes hung in the windows of rainbow-hued VW vans, and caravans of the philosophical avante garde with the likes of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters rolled across the landscape.
A continuing personal search for identity and authenticity took me to the steps of Jamila Salimpour’s studio on Van Ness in San Francisco one autumm night in 1967. As I entered the large wood-paneled hall, I was surprised at the intensity of involvement I found there. A circle of about seventy-five dancers moved three abreast in concentric rings counterclockwise around a solo dancer in the middle of the room. It was an energetic group whose faces beamed and bare torsos sweated through undulations and shimmys, zaghareeting as the names of steps were called out. The room would then switch gears, eagerly beginning a new sequence of combinations as the steamy windows trickled with moisture. Hypnotic, droning music inspired the vigorous dancers. Joining the circle, my eyes were drawn to the center of the vortex.
Even now, some twenty-seven years later, I am filled with emotion remembering the impact of this powerful first impression. Jamila, exotic looking with kohl-rimmed, almond-shaped eyes and facial tattoos, costumed in shimmering assuit and an elaborate head dress, was to me the image of a mythological earth goddess. Focused and attentive, she controlled the class with a serene confidence, belieing the complexity of her movements. I was utterly amazed at her skillful shimmy overlays on steps I had never seen before. As she demonstrated the belly roll, she invited us to place our hands on her mysteriously undulating stomach. The Mother Goddess image was indelibly etched in my mind when I heard after class that Jamila, at forty, had a two-month-old daughter, Suhaila, at home.
Jamila Salimpour was born in New York in 1926 of immigrant parents from Agrigento, Sicily. Her father, stationed in Egypt, Syria and Tunisia while in the Sicilian navy, brought back recordings of Middle Eastern music, and later entertained his family with animated renditions of Oriental dancers, which Jamila imitated. In her early years Jamila showed a penchant for the unusual and dramatic. She joined Ringling Brothers Circus at the age of sixteen, where she was an assistant to the juggler Massemiliano Truzzi, and trained as a bareback rider and aerialist with the Justino Loyal Troupe. She was in the circus from 1942 to 1944, under the Big Top with the great legends Emmet Kelly and La Lage. She appeared in daily shows as an acrobatic dancer in the ring with five elephants.
When she was eighteen Jamila married her high school sweetheart, a competitive body builder who had won the title “Mr. New York City.” Together they moved to Hollywood in 1944 to open a gym. However, this youthful partnership didn’t last long.
Oriental dance re-entered Jamila’s life in 1947, this time from the big screen. Movies starring the famous Egyptian dancers Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca and Naima Akef were her first teachers. “I would stay to see all three films. They would usually run it three times a night with a second film, and I would stay the three times. Then I would come home and dance in front of the hallway mirror, and I would regale everyone in the house.” Jamila’s Armenian landlady from Alexandria, Egypt, Mrs. Takorian, recognized her innate ability and encouraged her to continue, making her a silk chiffon costume. Together they made trips to Fresno, where Jamila danced for birthday parties and special functions in the large expatriate Armenian community there. She worked with oudist Richard Hagopian, and she also studied the oud.
Jamila was employed as a jeweler from the ages of nineteen to twenty-six by the owner of Renoir, Peter Fels’ father (an incredible coincidence which I discovered in the process of writing this story). She later parlayed this experience when she created body jewelry and the solid metal coin and chain girdles, which have become de rigueur.
Jamila, who was known for her good cooking, later opened a coffee house, The Nine Muses, opposite Los Angeles City College, with her second husband, Satya, who she married when she was 27. He was an East Indian dancer, and a great chess player. Together they served Indian and Sicilian specialties to the student patrons who spent long hours there in popular chess competitions.
“This was a time when the dance was not in vogue, and there was no place to do it,” recalls Jamila. An early club in Hollywood, The Greek Village, provided her with her first regular employment as an Oriental dancer. Nightclubs began opening with Middle Eastern artists in the U.S. on “Green Card” visas. “As we started working with the Egyptian dancers who came to town — let’s say Siham, the one who opened the Fez (see article in this issue) — we all tried to dance like her as much as we could. Then there was Maya Medwar, of course, and then Zenouba…I learned by watching and trying to imitate…But when these people weren’t there, you would try to remain as close to their style as you could… you’d do variations on the theme.” Jamila began teaching formally in 1952, first privately and then in groups, meeting with her students in the upstairs lounge of the Fez.
In 1958, Jamila, recently divorced, moved to San Francisco and began dancing in North Beach at 12 Adler, a thriving Arabic nightclub managed by Najji Alash and Youssef Kou-youmjian, who later opened the Bagdad. She also organized performing engagements there for the Middle Eastern dancers Cozette, Helena Kalianotes, Maya Medwar, Antoinette Away-shak, Aisha Ali, Marliza Pons, and others. Jamila became co-owner of the Bagdad on Broadway for several years, first performing, and later hiring the dancers. It was here that Jamila met and married the Persian drummer, Ardeshir Salimpour, Suhaila’s father. During this time the Bagdad was very popular, and people would line up four abreast, half way around the block, to get in.
Ironically, on threat of violence, Jamila’s new husband forbade her to dance in public. But fortunately for the future of Oriental dance on the West Coast, economic pressures constellated Jamila’s talents into instruction. “When I first started teaching in San Francisco, one dancer was very upset with me, saying ‘What are you doing; are you going to teach? You’re going to flood the market!’” Undaunted, Jamila began to methodically break down steps and combinations and finger cymbal patterns, creating a terminology for what would serve as a basic foundation for her students.
“When I first started to teach there weren’t any records out that were three and five part (routines), or taxims, or anything put together that a person could practice to, so I taught to 78 rpm Hanan records…” On a later occasion, Jamila elucidated the development of the five and seven part routine: “There was no such thing! It used to be that there was an entrance tempo and then a taxim with maybe two or three instrument solos, and then the finale…In my day, in order to prolong the dancer’s time on stage, they would say ‘What kind of variety can you do, cymbal solo, drum solo?’…They went from ten to twenty to thirty minutes and hour-long shows. No one ever did veils down south. It was an Egyptian thing to come out and discard it, but innovations in veil work prolonged the dance time. The five part routine actually evolved during the time I was dancing.”
Jamila started compiling notes on finger cymbal patterns when she was pregnant with Suhaila. She had analyzed and developed several different ways to play the sagat, finally settling on a pattern she called “Longa.” It was a Turkish pattern with the first beat played on the right hand, the second on the left and third on the right, beginning the pattern again on the right hand. “The alternating pattern is Egyptian; the Ghawazi play that way as well as some Egyptian dancers, and Zenouba played that way. But, to me, the alternating pattern is limited. You can’t go anywhere with it, but Longa is the basis for any number of patterns.” Jamila created dozens of intricate patterns which provide a strong rhythmic, percussive counterpoint to the music and movement, later publishing them in her Finger Cymbal Manual.
For the next eighteen years, Jamila would continue to write and publish. She was contributing editor for HABIBI since its inception in 1974, and independently published her research on the history of the dance in From Cave to Cult to Cabaret, as well as a photographic collection from the Chicago World Fair and her Finger Cymbal and Dance Format Manuals.
“When I first started to teach, I wasn’t used to talking…I began to make sense of verbalization as I went along, getting more and more complicated.” Jamila’s terminology was based on the names of the dancers she had seen doing the steps, or movements characteristic of certain countries. For example, there was Tabura Najeem’s “Turkish Drop”; “Maya,” the backwalk fiqure eight; the grapevine step, “Zenouba”; and the walking 3/4 shimmy, “Samia.” It seemed logical to her to organize sets of movements into families, such as “Tunisian,” “Algerian,” Moroccan,” “Egyptian,” and “Arabic.” “In giving names to steps,” Jamila explained, “it meant you could say ‘Arabic Two’ and immediately everyone would know what stance to take, and the step.”
When I asked Jamila recently what she feels her biggest contribution to the dance has been, she answered “I would say the method and approach to teaching, because as a dancer, I was an observer, and accumulated all these different styles.” Her dedicated preservation of hip work, and verbal breakdown of muscular activity and body positioning, has given Jamila’s students intimate knowledge of Oriental dance, not by imitation, but through intellectual understanding and personal experience of the physical mechanics.
As Jamila’s student ranks were growing by the thousands, a high degree of technical proficiency was surfacing, not surprisingly, in the most devoted. Concurrently, there was another Californian phenomenon, The Renaissance Pleasure Faire, originally organized in the north and south of the state as a benefit for sister public radio stations. Here costumed entertainers and artisans revelled in “Merry Old England” style. Tens of thousands turned out for these annual pastoral events, and since many of the artists themselves were hippies, the pop culture was a strong undercurrent within the Renaissance theme. Some of Jamila’s students began dancing at the Faire, and the organizers asked her to create a half-hour show, three times a day. In 1968, Troupe Bal Anat was born.
I was present for many of Bal Anat’s performances at the RPF between ’69 and ’75, and remember the incredible magic the troupe created for the curious, incredulous audience. Their shows were the most popular event at the Faire, and as soon as the Faire-goers heard the screeching mizmars, zaghareets, darbuka, tabla beledi, deff and sagat, they would rush by the hundreds to take their places before the open air stage. Entering in a magnificent processional, the forty or so members filed in, forming a crescent while continuing the cacophony of sounds. The troupe stared back at the audience with heavily-lined eyes, dressed in myriad forms of Middle Eastern costuming: turbans and tattoos, assuit and galabiyas, striped damask pantaloons, antique silver jewelry, amber bracelets, and necklaces with the hand of Fatima. “We were trying to be very tribal and old-world looking…”, explains Jamila. “We were very colorful in our costumes, but the audience was also very colorful in theirs.”
Bal Anat’s extensive program unfolded with flavors of Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, India, Turkey and Egypt. Solo and group choreographies included tray, cane, sword, snake, pot, Dervish, acrobatic, khatak and Oriental, but the opening “Mask” dance was the most mysterious and moving. “I wanted it to be almost a religious ceremony; I wanted it to be a ritual. It was so powerful when we first did it because no one expected it. Of course the movements were very primitive and stylized.” During an earlier interview Jamila explained, “We were trying to relate everything to the Mother Goddess, along those lines. The snake dance we could associate with a Cretean priestess who would hold her snakes aloft during a ritual.”
While some of the material had been influenced by Jamila’s continuing research into the history of Middle Eastern dance, much of the repertoire was created with the free spirit of the times. I asked Jamila, “Wasn’t some of what you did authentic?” “Absolutely not! That was the point of it…It was all crazy fun. It wasn’t meant to be authentic…I didn’t want the show to be the same thing every year….I wanted to keep innovating and making it unexpectedly crazy.” One year she was inspired by an etching in her Orientalist collection of two Ghawazi dancers balancing swords (Gerome), and created the now widely used sword dance. “When I put the sword on Rhea’s head, it was so basic. The audience stopped breathing for six weekends.” I, too, was spellbound watching these exhilarating performances, and will never forget Galya’s extraordinary Oriental dance. But the little three-year-old dancer who walked to center stage and performed a complete routine including finger cymbals, veil and floor work, and drum solo was most memorable.
“I used to wait for my mom to nod. I would hold onto her assuit dress and stare up at her and wait to go out and dance. And when I was finished dancing, I was ready to go home. I was so bored for the rest of the show. I had memorized everybody else’s routine. I could have done the whole Bal Anat repertoire by myself,” Suhaila told me when she was eighteen. Surprisingly though, Suhaila never took lessons from her mother. Jamila, heeding her husband’s injunction against dancing publicly, never taught her daughter, telling her instead that she wasn’t supposed to dance. When she was taken along to her mother’s classes, she would watch and then go to the back and try to imitate what she had seen. Jamila was amazed when Suhaila danced for her, and decided to include her in the troupe.
Suhaila talked about preparing for the Faire: “We would go to the basement, put on our makeup and go do the show. Then we’d come back through the basement, take off all of our makeup, and go back upstairs pretending nothing had happened. My father knew where we were going, but he didn’t want us to talk about it.”
Suhaila’s was not a typical American upbringing. She did not have a bicycle or roller skates, but she did play with dolls. Her father wanted her to be a doctor. But for Suhaila, being on stage and dancing was a normal thing. “I never knew what stage fright was because I thought it was part of growing up.” Already well-versed in jazz, tap and ballet, Suhaila began to assist her mother by demonstrating steps in class when she was eight.
In 1976 two important events occurred in their lives. Sadly, Suhaila’s father passed away after a lengthy illness. And this year, nine year old Suhaila accompanied her mother on their first cross-country seminar circuit by train. They would teach and choreograph together for the next five years.
I recall talking with Suhaila as a young teenager during one of the workshops I had sponsored for the mother-daughter team. Those years were an ambiguous time for the budding young woman, whose life was so different from other friends her age. “That was the worst stage for me. I was thirteen and a lot was happening in my life…I had become experienced in giving workshops and performances, and I thought, ‘What more could I give?’ And I was confused because of school and boys…I wanted to do the teenage thing.” (It was around this time that Jamila, sensing Suhaila’s desire to be a normal teenager, sold her prized collection of Oriental antique furnishings and decorations, replacing them with a contemporary decor.) During this time Suhaila was becoming more social at school. “I had a lot of friends, but when I compared the stuff that they did—they’d go home and watch T.V., and I got to travel and dance, I thought ‘well, it’s not so bad after all.’”
“When I met Nadia Gamal (they had performed in the same N.Y. show when she was fourteen), I realized there was a lot more. She was like a queen!..When she walked into the room, I would stop breathing. And when she danced…!” Jamila had been Suhaila’s inspiration and encouragement, and now Nadia helped her realize that this was the art form she wanted to pursue. “I felt a kind of respect, and I knew there was so much more.” Nadia Gamal’s music “Joumana” provided the first opportunity for Jamila and Suhaila to collaborate on choreography in the modern Egyptian style, followed by “Hayati” and “Maharajan.”
“Suhaila has an innate musical ability; it may be genetic but not directly from me. When we did ‘Tam-mer Henna’ together there was a repeating phrase, and she immediately knew from one listening how many repetitions there were of this very long phrase,” said Jamila.
“It’s very organized,” explained Su-haila. “I choreograph the way a composer composes, and how he means for the music to sound by a certain phrase going back. I want my body to look the same way, and that’s choreography.”
“You can’t improvise to that kind of music,” I offered.
“Right. When you go onstage, you shouldn’t wait to be inspired to dance,” said Suhaila. “You have to be technically ready. You can’t even attempt to be inspired by ‘Maharajan’ — the musicals are so complex…I think choreography is the most important part of making this dance legit.”
Jamila and Su-haila became enamored with the modern Egyptian style. With their typical voracious appetite for the dance, they analyzed, choreographed and disseminated the new style through instructional videos and seminars, breaking down the mechanical and emotional aspects of movement by the Egyptian stars Sohair Zeki and Mona Sa’id. Jamila also made available videos of the stars of Egypt, both past and present. Together they produced festivals, monthly moon celebrations, and weeklong seminars, and sponsored Oriental dance artists (beginning in 1975) Mahmoud Reda, Lala Hakim, Zenouba, Hassan Wakrim, Helena Vhalos, Ahmed Jajour, Fatin Salema and Shouki Naim, Ibrahim Farrah, Morocco, Vashti, Dahlena, Anthony Shea, musician Jihad Racy, and to name a few. In 1982 and 1983, Suhaila made several trips to Egypt. Watching the famous dancers of Cairo perform profoundly effected her emerging style and approach to choreography.
Looking forward to her impending graduation from high school in 1985, Suhaila had told me, “I love to entertain; I love show business, and wherever that will take me, that’s where I want to be!” At eighteen, Suhaila moved to greener show biz pastures, relocating in Hollywood with her mother. Opportunity knocked (and knocked). There she furthered her career as an Oriental dancer and broke into the commercial industry. She performed at Cabaret Tehran (1990-91) and Byblos (1985-1993), and was the only American dancer to be interviewed on Arab-American TV in Los Angeles. She shared billing at special concerts with Amr Diab, Melhem Barakat, Najwa Karam, Tony Hannah, Mohammed Jamal, Samira Tewfik, Sabah, Mona Marashli, and danced on stage with Galib Antar, Ahmed Adawiya and Ragib Alami (also appearing in two of his videos).
She became a member of the Screen Actors Guild, landing dance parts in TV’s Max Headroom, Fame and Harem. She also performed in rock videos for La Vert, Colonel Abrams and Stan Ridgeway. She appeared in Cost Less Imports and Safeguard Soap TV commercials. Suhaila took acting classes, appeared in theatre productions and continued her classical dance training. Concurrently she formed a video production company, “Little Star Productions,” and released five instruction and performance videos, including “Dances For the Sultan.” Last year she produced two audio cassettes with the band she worked with at Byblos. (All of her tapes are available through Dahlal Inter-nationale.)
Recently, Su-haila returned from a four-month engagement in the Middle East, where she worked with Lebanese choreographer Sami Khouri, former lead dancer and choreographer for the Caracalla Dance Company. The two-hour show included a singer with three back-up singers, three male and three female Debka dancers, and twelve musicians. Suhaila performed an Oriental opening, followed by an old-style piece, a beledi and drum solo, with three costume changes. “When I went there, people thought I would need a choreographer to show me how to dance, but I was so technically advanced…I could tell he was kind of impressed. But what he did have to work with me on was the show biz — smile, cheesecake, ‘How you doin? I love you audience’ type of approach, which is not what I am used to.”
Suhaila played finger cymbals throughout her opening number, and enjoyed a question and answer segment with the drummer, turning and leaping, and hitting the floor with her cymbals. The dramatic highlight of her show was the “Turkish Drop,” performed in heels(!), followed by a blackout. It was a difficult adjustment for Suhaila to make, going from barefeet to heels, but the management preferred the long-legged look with a minimal skirt. “It was very hard for me to wear high heels, because I felt disconnected and lost my center, and had to learn to dance all over again.” She laughingly adds that after the show she would go soak her feet in the bidet!
I can appreciate the adjustments a western dancer has to make within the unfamiliar Middle Eastern world of entertainment. Undeniably, the experience provides an unparalleled richness of music and dance. Suhaila confided that “The shows are addictive, and you say, ‘Oh, I can handle it,’ but you don’t want to end up in a loony bin.”
Characteristically paradoxical, the Oriental dance remains a viable form in the predominantly Moslem Middle East. “Isn’t it bizarre that the dance would exist in an Islamic culture,” I commented.
“It’s so extreme!” replied Suhaila. “It’s almost the only way for women with any kind of hope to keep it alive in any way. When I dance I look at the faces of some of these women, and I know that they hate me desperately because they’re so unhappy themselves. They’re living through me for that moment on stage, and that is what makes it all worthwhile. When you dance in the Middle East, you realize how truly powerful you are, not just as a woman, but as a dancer.”
Jamila and Suhaila have relocated back to Berkeley this past year, where Suhaila is fitness director for the new aerobics studio, Quest For Fitness. The three of us met several months ago in preparation for this article. We talked about technique and posture, emotion and power, the past and the future. Here are some gems from that interview session:
About the Basics:
Jamila: My foundation made it easy for people to watch and be able to analyze a movement…A dancer should be able to do that. It should not be a mystery.
Suhaila: There have been a lot of comments from dancers saying they’ve mastered the basics from Jamila Salimpour. People don’t realize that it’s not a basic format, it’s extremely complex, and can go on to such levels that, even now, I am trying to do it. They’ve mastered maybe a third of what she’s made available to the dancer.
Jamila: The most frustrating thing to me is where the dance is going. I’d like to think that people are definitely thinking in terms of technique, where it becomes so exciting and so impossible that the world will say this is really an art form — not just posing and postures.
Suhaila: That’s really important, because people are talking about choreography and technique vs. feeling and improvisation, but in every other dance form, technique is a matter of fact. It’s never an either/or situation…I think a lot of Middle Eastern dancers are so interested in being such emotional performers that they forget that they have to spend their time training…A Middle Eastern dancer has been compared to a jazz musician, and it’s a good comparison. There has to be a sense of spontanaeity, and emotion, but the musician is usually so technically superb that they can take off in any direction they want.
Suhaila: Oriental dancers aren’t completing themselves as dancers. They’re spending money on costuming, but they don’t spend enough money on class. I recommend ballet for posture and center and awarenes of muscles we don’t use in Oriental dance. Every other dance form has a better arabesque than we do…lifted up and elegant.
Jamila: Technically speaking, I think professional classically trained dancers can pretty much master any dance form in the world, but feeling is another thing. If they took an interest in studying it, they could absolutely knock everyone dead in this country. But, they don’t consider it an art form; they don’t consider it a challenge.
Jamila: What I’d really like to know is that the Egyptians truly appreciate the contributions that American dancers have made to the dance, with no ego or politics involved. I’d like to hear an Egyptian say that America has really made a difference.
Power in the Dance:
Jamila: I feel that this dance can be almost like a form of yoga or meditation, because when you get into the spirit of the music and the dance, it can really lower the stress level. It’s a wonderful expression. It can be very spiritual.
Suhaila: All the movements make sense to a woman’s body. You don’t have to struggle or fight with them. It is very homecoming.
Jamila: I don’t want to get mystical or talk about the Mother Goddess as the all powerful, because I think there is a balance between male energy and female energy. There always has to be that balance, or it doesn’t work. When one dominates and the other is submissive, it’s no good. I do believe that there is a ritual background to the dance, and a powerful mythology.
Suhaila: Men and women can become very threatened when they see a belly dancer because it embodies the positive qualities of both sexes: ‘My God, she’s on stage and she’s handling and controlling this whole room and yet she’s moving and sensuous, womanly and powerful.’ It can be confusing and threatening, or it can be rejuvenating if they are happy with what they see. When you are a dancer, you are so free!
About the Future:
Jamila: I am thinking in terms of the preservation of an art form. Unless it’s catalogued and organized, and we have named our dance terminology, it’s not going anywhere. There has to be a foundation to the dance, or the dance has no future.
Shareen El Safy is an award-winning instructor and choreographer who has performed and taught Egyptian dance in sixty major cities on five continents, including many states throughout America. She has made numerous trips to Egypt, researching dance, studying with renowned artists there, and leading her Dance Study Tours. As one of few westerners, Shareen performed raks sharqi in Cairo nightclubs during the 1988 to 1992 summer seasons. She has released a number of instructional DVD’s focusing on Oriental dance technique. Shareen presented at the 1999 World Congress of Sports and Dance, and taught and performed at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival (2001), and the Nile Group Festivals (2009 and 2010) in Cairo. Shareen co-produced the First and Second International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance in 1997 and 2001. She was Publisher and Editor of Habibi from 1992-2002 and Editor-in-Chief in 1993. www.shareenelsafy.com.