Jamila Salimpour: Remembering a Legend

In honor of the passing of Jamila Salimpour (1926 – 2017)


Jamila Salimpour performing in a costume designed by Bob Mackie.

Jamila Salimpour was a force of nature with an unextinguishable curiosity. Enraptured by “la danse orientale” at an early age, she sought to make sense of the diverse and exquisite steps performed by belly dancers from across the Middle East and North Africa. In doing so, she named each step she saw, preserving and codifying it so it could be transmitted to the next generation of dancers. She didn’t invent the steps, nor did she ever claim that she did. She observed, recorded, documented, and passed them on to anyone who wanted to learn them.

She was also quite an accomplished musician, patting out new cymbal patterns into her twilight years. She would never hesitate to regale you with the complex syncopations of “1-8,” which we perform as the ensemble finale of each Bal Anat show.

As I travel around the world to teach on behalf of the Salimpour School, including teaching Jamila’s revolutionary format, I see how her efforts have influenced dancers everywhere. For every step a dancer calls a step “Arabic,” any time we marvel at a “Turkish Drop,” or are entranced by a fluid and juicy “Maya,” Jamila’s indelible mark has been made.

In the past 10 years, she became recognized as the “Mother of Tribal Belly Dance,” but she was so much more. She saw the potential of belly dance to be a classical art form, one that required years of discipline and training to do well. She envisioned belly dance as a form worthy of virtuosic presentation and skill. We can honor her legacy by training hard, respecting the cultures from which this dance comes, and staying hungry for more.

Her hard work and passion lives on in each of us who studies at the Salimpour School and in everyone who has a passion for this dance form we call “belly dance.”

الله يرحمها يا جميلة

Jamila Salimpour: Mother of Tribal Style Belly Dance

Originally posted October 2, 2010.

In September, I had the honor of studying the Jamila Salimpour format at the 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 past: 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 some 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” or “Egyptian Basic” in ATS® can be traced back to Jamila Salimpour’s “Pivot-Shift-Step.” The “Pivot Bump” 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 the basic Arabic step. Jamila’s “Arabic 3” became “Arabic Hip Twist.” “Arabic 4” became “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, here are 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 starts in its most cohesive form with Jamila Salimpour and Bal Anat.


Hi! I'm Abby!

Welcome to my blog!

Here you’ll find my thoughts on everything from history and culture, to fusion and hybridity, to performance and training tips. I’m passionate about excellence, curiosity, and education in dance… in the studio and beyond.

In addition to holding Level 5 (Teaching Certification) in the Salimpour Formats, I also have an MA in Dance Studies at Mills College.

While belly dance and its related forms are my first love, I also teach American Modern Dance History at Mills College.

As director of the Salimpour School Berkeley, I hold weekly community belly dance classes in Berkeley, California.


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One Response

  1. Hi Abby!
    So pleased to come across your article. I was a rapt student of the late Christy Gault, who learned Tribal Dance from Jamila. I feel so very fortunate to have learned from her, even though I no longer dance. Thank you.

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