The Salimpour School: It’s Not What You Think

The Salimpour School has been around a long time. Since 1949, in fact. And in that time we’ve created a lot of history, trained a lot of dancers, and… and inspired a lot of rumors, half-truths, and genuine misconceptions.

Indeed there are a lot of, um, interesting perspectives out there about the Salimpour School: who we are, what we do, and what we teach. I’ve been studying here for over 10 years, and I wouldn’t spend thousands of hours and dollars on a program I didn’t believe in, with a mentor who didn’t believe in me, and who didn’t have a lifetime of experience and knowledge.

And thanks to a cognitive phenomenon called “anchoring,” it’s difficult to change your first impression of anything: a person, a place, an institution. Our brains actually hang on to the first thing we hear, regardless of whether or not we hear more reliable or truthful information to the contrary later.

So, if you’re not a part of the school, or maybe you’re just starting your certification journey, here are the top 5 things about the school I (and we) would love for you to know. Anchoring bias or not.

What You Don't Know About the Salimpour School

1) We’re actually quite nice.

Any institution that encourages hard work, virtuosity, and excellence is at risk of being labelled “snobby,” “elitist,” and “arrogant.” Just look at how many people regard Ivy League universities or professors in their so-called “ivory towers.” And thanks to something called “negativity bias,” you’re far more likely to remember and believe the bad things you hear about an organization, institution, or person, than the good things. Thanks, brain.

And yet, for the last three years when we’ve held our summer intensives, the love in the room is palpable. The dancers, regardless of certification level, have been supportive, generous, and humble. I have not heard one insult, nasty comment, or put-down. When dancers come back to the “Mothership” to train, they aren’t just working on their dance, they’re helping to build a worldwide community.

Personally, as an instructor, I always make a concerted effort—even with all of my awkwardness, social missteps, and general tendency to be an “absent-minded professor”—to make everyone feel welcome, regardless of skill or experience. I know that my fellow staff instructor, Parya, does the same. And Suhaila created her school to be a safe place for dancers to learn, grow, and train.

The dance studio should always be a place where students can experiment, make mistakes, and be vulnerable. In fact, vulnerability is a key element of what we learn in Suhaila Format Level 3. If we can’t be open and trust our bodies, how can we let the music drive us or inspire us?

2) We’re not a tribal style school.

Over and over again on Facebook groups and beyond I hear people who have never stepped foot in our studio talk about how the Salimpour School is all about tribal. Spoiler Alert: It’s not.

Yes, it is true that tribal style belly dance as we know it today would not have existed without Jamila Salimpour’s Bal Anat. But Jamila did not seek to create a new genre or style of belly dance. The dancers who performed at the Renaissance Faire in the late 1960s and early 1970s were the same dancers who performed in the Middle Eastern nightclubs in San Francisco. The costuming, venue, and presentation in Bal Anat was different, but it wasn’t a different “style.” And while she appreciates innovation, Jamila herself has said that she believes that if a dancer isn’t performing to Middle Eastern music then it isn’t belly dance.

Currently, there are many dancers in the tribal fusion genre who are using the Salimpour name in their class and workshop descriptions, acknowledging the impact that both Jamila and Suhaila’s methods have had on their dancing. Perhaps this is where the misconception started that the Salimpour School itself is tribal. Non-tribal dancers see the name and just assume that we, the school itself, are promoting “tribal style.” But what people don’t know is that many of those dancers haven’t studied with us directly in quite some time.

I’d like to set the record straight: We train dancers to be able to perform in as many styles as they prefer, with an emphasis on interpretation of and dancing to Arabic music.

3) We honor legacy, but we also change with the times.

When your school is one of the oldest belly dance schools in the US (in the world?), rolling with the punches and adapting to change is in your blood. Our curriculum is constantly changing to address current theoretical discourse and kinesiological concerns.

As the core instructor at the “Mothership” in California, I work very closely with Suhaila on integrating new approaches to teaching, current conversations in academia, and recent sports medicine research into our warm-up and class material. Nothing is static. As Suhaila herself has said, if you don’t move forward, you’re going to be left behind.

But, of course, we honor the contributions that Jamila made to belly dance in the United States. By naming steps and categorizing them, we can contextualize them, get a sense of where they are from, and embody them with a deeper understanding that goes beyond rote imitation.

Our curriculum is constantly developing according to student needs, current research, and program goals.

4) Our students are not clones.

Another concern I hear from dancers who are curious about the Salimpour but are, for lack of a better word, afraid of even coming to a class series (wah? why?), is that when dancers go through the program, they lose their individuality.

When I look back at my own performances before entering the higher levels of the Salimpour program, I see a lot of imitation. I imitated Artemis, Aziza, Dina, Mona El Said, Dalia Carella, Rachel Brice, and many other dancers who have inspired me. But now, when I watch myself dance, I see me.

Of course, my technique is very clearly Salimpour, but my movement is far more personally distinct than it was 10 years ago. Indeed, I have created my own style, crafted and sculpted through years of training not only at the Salimpour School, but with countless other instructors.

And then there are our Level 5 dancers who are authorized to teach Salimpour Format. Not one of us dances like the other. My style is very different from that of Sabriye Tekbilek, Rachel George, Angelique Hanesworth, Stacey Lizette, or Gina Bruno. When dancers go through our program, they are learning to find their own voice within the music to which they are dancing. None of us is here to dance like Suhaila. Only Suhaila can dance like Suhaila.

And only you can dance like you!

Which brings me to my final point.

5) Arabic music and culture are at the heart of our work.

And inherent in that, understanding the sentiment of classic Arabic songs, the complexity of the poetry, and the history of belly dance and related forms is essential for any dancer higher than Level 1 in our programs. Even in Jamila Format Level 1 we contextualize the steps with their origins and character. The Basic Egyptian family comes from the Golden Era dancers of the Egyptian silver screen; the Arabic family embodies the more reserved movements you’d see at a family party.

We explore this work the most in our two core workshops: The Choreography Development 5-day, and our Live Music and Improvisation 4-day. In these workshops, the music drives our interpretation, expression, and movement choices. And we’re only using Arabic music in these workshops (surprise!), so we must stay true to the original sentiment and context from which these songs were written. We also work on how to work with and interact with Arab musicians, including vocabulary, understanding maqam, and etiquette.

Many belly dancers don’t know that Suhaila worked a professional dancer in nightclubs not only in the United States, but also in the Arab world for 10 years. In that time, she performed with some of the top Arab singers in the Middle East, including Ahmad Adawiya, Amr Diab, and many others. Before that, she had traveled throughout the Arab world, researching the dance and integrating the steps she observed into her mother’s format until 1978. And it’s not like this is secret information. It’s been out there for at least 15 years.

Many dancers are seeking out training with dancers who have immersive “over there” experience, and yet our program is perceived to be too “Western” or “fusion.” But dancing to and interpreting Arabic music (and other music from the Middle East, of course) is at the heart of the Salimpour program.

Come see for yourself.

If you’re curious, come take a class or a workshop with us. We welcome all dancers, no matter what your shape, age, gender, or background. You’ll get stronger, meet some incredible people, and join a global community of deep-thinking and curious practitioners.

The Salimpour School offers workshops all around the globe.

Don’t see one near you? I offer authorized Salimpour Format workshops. Send me an email! akeyesdance@gmail.com

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