Jamila Salimpour Tribute
Biography of Jamila Salimpour
(1926 - )
Jamila Salimpour…a powerful and fascinating woman influenced hundreds of dancers and musicians in the past 50 years. Known for demystifying Middle Eastern movements and finger cymbal patterns, Jamila Salimpour created the foundation for a notation language that is most prominent in the Suhaila Salimpour Format used in the U.S. today.
Born NYC, She was born into a Sicilian family and didn’t speak English until she entered English-speaking schools.
Jamila Salimpour began her performing career at the age of 16 in the Ringling Brothers Circus as an acrobatic dancer. She had 5 elephants in her act. Her father had been in a Navy Station in Egypt in l910. As a little girl, Jamila had her first lessons in Middle Eastern Dance with him.
In her teenage years she continued her studies by watching Egyptian star, Tahia Carioca movies. By 1946 she was dancing at family and cultural events. Jamila was an avid researcher and continued to study Middle Eastern music and dance, and by the early 1950s was appearing in ethnic clubs in Los Angeles. She danced at the famous San Francisco Bagdad Cabaret, a club she also owned. She was the first woman to own a Middle Eastern club in California. Her first classes began in 1949 and Jamila began to develop her unique method of verbal breakdown and terminology for her movements
She married a Persian man who was also drummer. Once they were married, her Persian husband swore that he would break both her legs if she ever danced in public again! Jamila soon found out that even playing finger cymbals in the house was not allowed. This led to their marriage break up but they had a daughter named Suhaila in 1966, today a top dance star of her own. While pregnant with Suhaila, Jamila started classes in her living room. Shortly thereafter she was teaching at the “Old Poultry Company” in San Francisco, California.
Jamila’s original phrases and names for dance movements such as “Turkish Drop”, “Maya” and “Basic Egyptian” were the beginning of a long process to add structure and definition to the art.
During this fertile time of dance creativity, Jamila was performing on the same street as Lenny Bruce. She made body jewelry for Jimmy Hendrix. She even rehearsed in the same space as Janis Joplin. These times were full of energetic talents.
When she discovered the outdoor Renaissance Faires, she decided to form her own version of Middle Eastern entertainment that was very separate from the current nightclub cabaret dance scene. Jamila drew from her past experience with the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus and created a fascinating dance village of live music, belly dancers, snakes, swords, & tattoos. She named her dance company, Bal Anat (Dance of the Mother Goddess) and “tribal” or “ethnic” style as it was called at the time, was born. Jamila herself has admitted that her troupe theatre was part fantasy, quasi-historical and her own invention. But this look and format was perfect for fairs, museums, and places where families gathered.
Historians would agree that the Tribal Fusion style was birthed by Jamila Salimpour in San Francisco, California, in the 1960's. Bal Anat was the original version of tribal.
This first performing and touring troupe based out of Bay Area California was over 40+member strong!!! An imposing figure completely dressed in black and silver, black eye make up and black hair…well,…students like myself would shake in her presence. I moved from New Mexico to San Francisco and found myself in her class. I was new to the Bay area and my home made lime green and gold sequin two yard skimpy skirt was totally out of sync with the dark, ethnic fashion of the dance scene in the Bay Area. I never wore that skirt again! A withering look from the powerful & mysterious Jamila could bring down the strongest dancer. Known as “Mother J” or “The Fortress,” once she entered the classroom, students would not utter a word and Jamila would fasten huge finger cymbals to her fingers and begin her drills. You knew you were in the presence of someone special and rare. There was almost an cult-like aura in taking classes with Jamila. To be chosen from these intensive classes to the Bal Anat Troupe made you the Elite of the Elite in the Bay Area dance circles.
Jamila has trained innumerable teachers and performers from all over the world, and produced week-long seminars and festivals, often co-teaching with her daughter Suhaila Salimpour. Suhaila, first danced at the age of 2 with the Bal Anat Troupe.
The Bal Anat Troupe was also the springboard for many well known dance stars such as Aziz, John Compton, Habiba, DeAnn, Baraka, Anne Lippe, Mish Mish, Rebaba, Aida Al Adaw, Masha Archer (a teacher who later inspired Carolena Nericcio to create Fat Chance Belly Dance) and many more.
The Bal Anat Troupe and certainly Jamila herself, popularized and made antique jewelry and assuit much sought after costume accessories. Assuit became the signature of Jamila and her dancers. These rare and pricey net scarves with silver squares woven into geometric patterns gave the fabric a gleam and a beautiful drape.
Over 24 complex finger cymbal patterns were published in her own Finger Cymbal Manual with an accompanying instructions audio tape. Both continue to be invaluable resources to dancers today and are available in the updated dvd versions. She also published a history of Middle Eastern dance, “From Cave to Cult to Cabaret”, a photographic collection of Middle Eastern Dancers at the Chicago World's Faire, and her also her Dance Format Manual. From 1974 to 1990, Ms. Salimpour was the Contributing Editor for HABIBI, a major Middle Eastern Dance periodical.
Jamila Salimpour believes that today’s dancers should "Do it all, learn it all". "Take Ballet, take jazz," she would say, to her students with a sparkle in her eye. "Who do you think drove Suhaila to jazz and ballet all those years?”
An international performer, teacher and savvy business woman in the field of Raks Sharki, Suhaila continues this dance legacy and we will continue to see the Salimpour women on stage with the continued & young talents of Suhaila’s daughter, Isabella Salimpour.
Says Suhaila: “My mother makes people happy, and feel like dancing. I was happy and felt like a full circle was complete. It went from me teaching one day a week in my mother’s studio 28 years ago when I was 14 years old, to now, my mother teaching in my studio one day a week. Now that is Tribal!”
Now in her 80s, Jamila Salimpour continues to teach out of Suhaila’s studio in Berkeley, California as well as teaches at the festival Rakkasah West in California. She forever changed the face of Oriental Dance in America.