Desperately Seeking Samiha

Lately I’ve been seeing quite a few dancers using Jamila Format language and names to describe movements that aren’t… well, they aren’t the original steps that the dancers claim them to be.

Dance is funny like this. Because it is a living art, movements performed by one dance can never be replicated exactly by another. Everyone’s body is different, and our individual bodies are changing every day. So even a movement I do yesterday will not be the same as how I do it today or tomorrow.

But we can, at least, use a codified language to set the “default” technical expression of a step. We can define the timing of footwork, the placement of feet, the kind of hipwork, and arm positions. At least this way, we can start from a universally agreed-upon movement. And if we want to create variations on it, we do so from an informed and mindful place.

dance samiha salimpour bellydance suhaila jamila

Samiha is everywhere… and nowhere

Samiha seems to be a hot movement these days. I’m seeing interpretations of it pop up quite a bit. Ironically, from dancers who are not in the Jamila Format certification program.

Samiha is a Jamila Format Level 2 step. Jamila herself named it after a dancer named—you guessed it—Samiha. And it is a very specific and difficult movement to get right. And when I say “right” what I mean is, executing it in the way that reflects the step’s original character and technique. This is also a step that Suhaila Salimpour introduced into her mother’s format (with, of course, her mother’s approval and enthusiasm).

And most of the time when I see dancers saying that they’re doing “Samiha,” they’re not really doing Samiha. They’re doing variations.

But they probably don’t know that they’re doing variations, and if they do, they’re not explaining to their students that the movement that they are doing is a variation. They’re saying, “This is Samiha,” when, in fact, it’s not.

So what is Samiha?

Broken down in Suhaila Format language (with my own annotations), the Jamila Format step Samiha is:

salimpour dance samiha jamila suhaila
Suhaila Salimpour demonstrating the Samiha on the Jamila Salimpour Format Archive Series instructional videos.

Feet: Stepping halftime downbeat on the right foot, right foot flat, left foot on the ball, traveling forward. When the left foot steps forward, it never comes in front of the arch of the right foot. The ball of the left foot is always a little bit behind.

Hips: Syncopated 3/4 glutes doubletime downbeat on the left. Meaning, the timing of the hips is L-R-L, R-L-R, on the beats &-a-1, &-a-2. There is also a soft half twist on the right, halftime, so the hips go, “twist right [1], neutral [2], twist right [3], neutral.”

Upper Body: This is perhaps the most difficult to describe and transmit. The upper body releases with an lengthening of the right side, half time—basically every time the right foot steps. This release is driven by a pushing off from the ball of the left foot as well as a contraction in the left side of the low and middle back.

This step can travel right, left, or backwards. It can also be reversed, that is, a mirror image of the elements described above.

And, because we’re talking about sources, here’s a teenage Suhaila breaking down Samiha on the Jamila Salimpour archive series video series. Pay attention to her feet and the pushing off of the back leg, which she explains quite thoroughly.

Use the existing name for the step that it already is

Now, here’s what bothers me about dancers using existing names to describe movements that aren’t what that named actually describes.

We wouldn’t play a musical composition in C Major and say that it’s in D Minor because that’s our version of C Major.

And we wouldn’t do a series of demi plies and claim that they’re our personal version of grand plies. No. A demi is a demi. A grand is a grand.

Nor would we claim that a movement that we’re doing is the Roger Rabbit, when it looks more like the Cabbage Patch.

We don’t do a forward fold and call it a Downward Facing Dog. And, as a friend of mine so eloquently said, we don’t do a Downward Facing Dog and call it “Resting Teepee.” (I shudder at the thought that someone is actually doing that.)

To do so flies in the face of the innovators, trailblazers, legacy leaders, and social history of our dance and movement forms.

So why are dancers doing this in belly dance? (I ask that question a lot.)

Figure out what you really know

Part of it, I feel, is that they just don’t know what the original step is. Or they think they know what the original step is and haven’t checked in to see if their knowledge is accurate.

Now, you don’t have to love the Jamila Salimpour Format. But then why would you use names that she coined to describe movements that she codified to describe movements that aren’t the actual step? Don’t call it “Basic Egyptian” when it’s really a soft Pivot Shift Step. Don’t call it “Choo Choo” when it’s really a variation on Running Choo Choo. Don’t call it “Arabic” when it’s really Arabic 4 half-the-timing. Don’t call it “Samiha” if it’s not Samiha.

If you’re not sure, return to the source. The New Danse Orientale step manual is a great place to start. It’s available to everyone, not just dancers in the Salimpour certification programs.

Dancing legacy is a responsibility

The best approach would be to learn the original and codified step as it is taught in the Jamila Salimpour Format. Then, if you’re using a movement inspired by a Jamila Salimpour Format step, then you can mindfully and with full awareness, say that it’s a variation. But know the original. Drill it. Get feedback from someone who is connected to the source to make sure you are staying true to the root. Have it in your body. And when you think you know it, you probably need to revisit it again, and drill it some more.

Me doing Samiha, traveling to the right, at Art of the Belly in 2018.

All these names exist because of Jamila Salimpour (and in the case of many Jamila Format level 2 movements, her daughter). They didn’t materialize out of thin air. When we use these terms, we are connected to her legacy, whether we know it or not.

It’s up to us to question our assumptions and revisit what we think we know. We need to dig into the origins of not only the steps themselves, but who developed them and named them. Then when we claim to be inspired by or honoring the dancers that have blazed the trails before us, we can do so with true respect and reverence.

Looking for some guidance as you polish your Samiha?
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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. I find this article magnificent! Thank you.
    Warms my heart, and brings me back to 1995 and the country line dance world…choreography was all over the country…same steps – different terms! It was challenging. And dancers taking steps and changing them which ultimately changed the look and feel of the original dance!
    As a choreographer – I fully know the pain of step alterations!

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