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Interview with Belly dancer Suhaila Salimpour

by Salome

Suhaila, an icon in American Belly dance, truly is a sought after performer and instructor. Daughter of legendary Jamila Salimpour, Suhaila's talent, vision and creativity have built an empire. In addition to touring the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. her Belly dance instructional, fitness fusion, and performance videos abound. She has produced CD's, written belly dance manuals and even has her own logo wear on the market! Suhaila also offers "the first certification program ever available in Middle Eastern Dance" which includes 5 levels of books and a soon to be released video and DVD series.

She maintains The Suhaila Salimpour School of Dance, directs the Suhaila Dance Company and recently revived her mother's famous tribal dance company Bal Anat. Suhaila was a natural choice for producer Miles Copeland to work with in a series of performances, videos, and films for the Belly Dance Superstars. She is progressive, controversial, celebrated and here to share herself with us.

Suhaila Salimpour


Salome: People are aware of Jamila's presence in your life but perhaps not so of your father. Can you share your experience growing up in a Persian household, how that affected you and your relationship with dance?

Suhaila: It was very difficult being raised with my Persian family. They had a totally different set of values and rules that were so confusing as a child. I remember my grandmother cursing at the television when she would see a girl in shorts or a swimsuit. She would spit and call her a "whore" and it was really an overall feeling of what she felt about the freedom women have in this country. I thought the girl on the television was pretty and someday I wanted to have a pair of shorts like that, but I knew that would mean my grandmother would think of me that way too. I was only allowed to wear cloths that were below my knees and long sleeves. My Persian family prayed 5 times a day and was teaching all of us kids to do the same. When I was sick my grandmother and aunts would mix up spices, cook them over the stove, call me into the kitchen and say some chants and then throw the spices over my left shoulder. On the first day of Kindergarten I was sent to school with henna on my hands and feet for protection from the evil eye. Now days my daughter loves henna tattoos, but back in the early 1970's it was just weird and everyone thought I was a freak.

Dancing was the only time I ever felt happy since my Persian family's house was very depressing. My father was dying and no one accepted my mother into the family since she was not Persian so I felt so alone. My uncles were very abusive to us kids and I would run away in my dreams and my secret hiding places just to fantasize about dancing. The family allowed my mother to take me to her classes since they thought it was harmless at the time, but then hated the thought that she or I would dance in public. They assumed it was just for Americans so they allowed it, but not with any support. Each day my mother would come home from teaching her classes and hand my grandfather all her money.

My mother and I would sneak down to the basement to put our make up and costumes on and leave out the basement door to go to different performances. It was a dark basement with only one hanging light bulb and a small mirror the size of a post card. We didn't talk but just tried to hurry up and get ready in case the family would change their mind and not allow us to go. When we left the house I felt like I could breath freely for the first time. Dancing made me feel alive, shameless and fearless. My life had meaning and joy only while dancing. My mother and I shared this secret bond that was felt while we looked into each other's eyes. I know my mother felt the same as I did in her heart, which is why she brought me with her instead of leaving me home with the family. When we were done with a performance we would have to come back into the basement, take off our entire make up, put on our regular clothing and then come up the stairs and act like nothing happened. Not ever speaking a word of our day that had anything to do with dance. I think they felt that if we didn't talk about it then it didn't happen. But it was the only thing that gave me any strength in my life.

When I got older and was graduating from high school I was on the cover of Habibi magazine for the first time (I have done 3 covers), my family called me and told me how disappointed they were in my career choices. They felt I was disgracing my family name and the memory of my father (my father passed away in 1976 from a brain tumor). They stopped speaking to me and to this day I have no relationship with them.

Salome: You are an icon in American Belly dance and as you said "no one is going to just let me express myself without having an opinion about it". How do you deal with criticism, do read comments about you and your projects, how does it affect you, do you let it dictate your presentations to any degree, do you think criticism has a place in our genre and if so how?

Suhaila:Nothing any critic could say would come close to the battle for my dance and life that I had to endure from my Persian family growing up. It just makes me sad that women don't support women more in this dance form. If you look at other artists and allow them the freedom to explore and express then you look at the moment so differently. I can look at a body of work from an artist and not understand some stuff, but I can say with all my heart that I will try and understand the effort, hard work, and vision.

I don't look at my life as one thing at a time; I look at my life as a series of explorations into my soul. How could anyone critique a person's soul? I could never do that. I know that people might not "understand" me, but that is because of who I am, what I have been through, and what I am trying to say. Maybe we all need to stop, listen, feel something, and then walk away and think to ourselves "how did that make me feel"? To talk about a costume, if we wear high heals or not, or if someone is too skinny or too fat makes me so sad. When you walk into a museum and want to experience art, you walk around, open your heart, and try and get into the mind of the painter and 'feel something'. We need to look at our dance form that way.

I never let anyone or anything dictate what I am working on. I just listen to my heart and do what feels honest to me at the time. I feel that I grow each day and I want my dance to project that. Even I can look back on some stuff I have done and say "oh my gosh... what was I thinking" and laugh, but then if you look at my whole body of work you can see a thread and then it all makes sense. I actually enjoy pushing people's buttons (it's a secret though). If someone has a hang up - I like to hold up a mirror to it. They might not get that it is a mirror looking back at them. But when someone is so judgmental it means they are closed, lonely and afraid. I just push them a little more (wink).

Salome: Being a second generation dancer, second generation of the Jamila legacy no less, what are your fears, hopes and dreams for your daughter Isabella with regards to Oriental dance?

Suhaila: I can only hope that my daughter grows up to feel free, uninhibited, alive, empowered, and full of hope and creativity. I want her to respect her heritage, understand her lineage, and embrace her individuality. She is so special and full of life. I look at her in amazement and know that she is not going to go through the pain I went through being a cultural schizophrenic. She has no guilt or shame around her dance like I did growing up. The best part is that she started doing her gluteus exercises from age 2. I can't wait to see her hip work when she is older. So she has the best of my mother and the best of my world all wrapped up in one free spirit.

She dances because she loves it with no desire to escape her reality (like I did when I was young). She has a wonderful and healthy relationship with her father and feels good about herself. That is what I wish for. I don't care if she grows up and takes over the family business. That will be up to her.

Salome: One of the questions I always pose in an interview is about his or her feelings on a standardized vocabulary and certification system. However in this case you have developed a certification process. Can you tell us about the format you have developed, what is its purpose, and do you see it having universal application or is it specific to your style?

Suhaila: Ah yes... one of my favorite subjects. I can only say that both my mother and I feel that it is the future of this dance form to have a format and language. My mother was the first one to have a format. She put names to steps that she learned from her experiences working with dancers from all over the world. She would find similarities in countries from which dancers were from, create a family of steps and then grow from that. My mother's classes today are still challenging and everyone leaves dripping sweat (and she is 78 years old too).

For me it was a natural evolution. I grew up my mother's daughter plus having my mother throw me into jazz, tap, ballet, flamenco, Indian, and hip hop. So with all the other formal dance training I was getter it was natural that I would want the same progression for my art form as well.

By the time I was 12 years old I had learned everything. I wanted more and felt that there had to be more. I didn't want to just keep doing different choreographies over and over again. I felt stuck. When I was in high school (the 80's) the music began to change and we had compositions coming in from Egypt that were complicated. You couldn't just do 4 of these and 4 of those anymore. My brain began to really open up and I had visions of what I wanted my body to do. But I physically couldn't do what I could see in my head. I decided to develop my body muscularity (like every other dance form had taught me to do) in order to do what was in my head. That is how I created the muscle work and famous glute work that is now so popular.

Everyday after I came home from high school I put on Prince's Purple Rain album and just sat on the floor and squeezed my glutes. I practiced with my back up against the wall (to keep my spine straight) and within one year my body had totally changed and so did my dance. My mother was so happy with my progression because she felt it was time for the dance to move on as well. I would watch a video of a dancer from Egypt one time and I could do her whole dance from beginning to end and imitate her. So I was bored and needed more from the dance and knew I had to create it.

I mainly created it for myself so I could do what was in my head, but then people were chasing me to teach them the "steps" they had seen me do. I would just look at them and say "well, squeeze your glutes for 6 months and then call me so I can tell you what to do next". No one understood that I couldn't just show them the step because it wasn't just another step I was doing... It was the technique that they were wanting.

After I returned from my last tour performing in the Middle East I wanted to realize my dream of a school - a safe and creative environment for women to express themselves through the dance. I decided to develop, structure, write, and begin my school and certification program.

The certification program is very important in keeping the standards of my format up. I grew up watching my mother teach someone for 6 months and then watch them leave and start teaching saying they teach Jamila Salimpour technique. My mother would be so angry and want to do something about it. Even today people use her name and she doesn't even remember them in class. Plus, my mother was growing and expanding herself, but if a student stopped coming to class and felt she learned it all then how can that student say they are teaching my mothers format?

It was really my husband that structured the certification program. I wrote out the levels and process and he organized it like the belt and ranking system that is used in Martial Arts. Since he is a second-degree black belt he totally understood what I was trying to do with my art. As he was getting to understand my perspective on the dance form and the future of the dance he looked at me one day and said "oh I get you... you are like the Bruce Lee of belly Dance". We laughed so hard, but then I thought about it and felt finally understood. I come from tradition, learned my history and lineage, combined and included more elements from other forms for the progress and forward movement of the art, and then created a format. Now to insure that people do not just take from me for 6 months and say they teach Suhaila Salimpour style, I created the certification program so they can see the levels, go through the process, and then stay connected and continue to grow, as I will. It isn't the only way... but it is my way.

I don't say I certify in "belly dance". I say it is the Suhaila Salimpour Format. I feel that the dance is changing and that technique and a common language are crucial for the future of this dance. My format teaches someone such strong foundation that they can then create and incorporate in whatever "style" they want. You learn many styles in my school after you have strong technique, but not before. That is just my opinion.

If you were to learn guitar would you grab it and just start strumming? No. You would learn the history, how to hold it, notes, cords, and then a series of cords. After hours of that practice and committing it to muscle memory you might then try to learn a song (very basic), and then after you have learned the song so well you can do the movements without thinking about it you might try and put an emotional prospective to the song. I would hope you wouldn't just pick up a guitar and start strumming and singing... ouch.

Salome: You have manifested many things that are likely on most dancers' wish list. What direction do you see yourself taking in the future, what vision(s) have you yet to realize?

Suhaila: I want so much for this art form that it burns a fire in my heart each day. It saved my life as a child, gave me hope and continues to fill me with the passion that I can only dream to pass on to others. I want to continue to create supportive environments for dancers to explore in. I want to use the dance to help women in their personal life by allowing them to feel connected to their body and soul. I want to use creative ways to donate to women shelters that need funding. I want to set up a scholarship program for teens so they might be able to see the beauty in life and themselves. I want to continue to build a community that has been lost in our society today. I want this dance form to be lifted each day and have the same respect and loyalty that other dance forms have. I want to create a strong future for my students so they can have a long life in this art form. I want to nurture my school to produce dancers that can go beyond me and carry on the torch so I can stay home and receive post cards of them and feel proud. I want my daughter to be proud of me and know that I tried to do the best I could. And most of all I want to grow old with my best friend and man I love... my husband Andre.