Leslie helps facilitate the Edmonton Salimpour Collective in Alberta, Canada.
I will never forget my first visit to the Salimpour home studio in May 2012. After taking my first workshop with Suhaila in Calgary the previous fall, my best friend and I decided we had to go and see where all the magic happens. We had been dancing since 2008, and had been exposed to both the Suhaila and Jamila formats off and on by our primary teacher at the time. Some things were accurate; but, many things were not. To say we’d bit off more than we could chew would have been an understatement. As the most inexperienced dancers in the room, we lacked the technical ability to keep up with the pace of the workshops. To our surprise, Suhaila also introduced numerous movements, steps, and concepts that were completely new to us. We both realized how many things we’d been told were inaccurate, out of date, or just plain wrong.
The good news is that instead of feeling defeated by this experienced, my friend and I have both continued forward in the program. Over the years I’ve attended A LOT of workshops in both formats, working my way up to Level 3. I now have a much greater understanding and appreciation of the formats. It is clear to me that they are often so misunderstood throughout the general bellydance community, and having been on both sides, I feel I can offer a bit of insight!
The Belly Dance Telephone Game
A dancer took a class from Jamila in the late 1960s, then taught the steps she learned to her students. Then her students taught the steps, changing them or misremembering them. In the 2000s, a student takes a few workshops with Suhaila and feels they can teach “the format.”
This leads to the foundation and integrity of the step and/or technique changing as it is passed from person to person. In both instances, the original student did not have a full or up to date understanding of the format(s). Taking regular classes and workshops directly from the source will do a lot to remedy this in your own dance. Consistent practice along with up-to-date knowledge makes a big difference. It certainly did for me.
“The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”
What an understatement! Before I found Suhaila, I was quite bored and no longer feeling challenged in class. I couldn’t understand how there was nothing new learn. My teacher made it sound like I had mastered finger cymbal playing and easily could certify through Level 2 (to be clear: this was far from the truth.) As a result, I couldn’t see a path for my own growth or education, and felt so limited in what I could do. Once I started in the program, I realized how little I knew and how much work was ahead. And every day that I continue forward, I see more of the vast content and information Suhaila and the other Salimpour instructors have to share.
Myths and Misunderstandings
Upon reflection of my early experiences with the Salimpour formats, I really see how big of a role these had to play. For one, there’s the idea that the Jamila Format is stagnant and strict. The truth is the format, while rooted in set steps, is very open to creativity, versatility, and stylization. Once you have a strong muscle memory and a relationship with the family of steps, a world of possibilities opens up (see: Jamhaila).
Another common misunderstanding I hear is that Suhaila Format is only about technique and glute squeezes. However, take a look at the curriculum once you move beyond Level 1: there is performance, emotional work, creativity, Arabic music study, history and cultural study, improvisation, choreography, and more.
And perhaps one of the most pervasive misunderstandings I hear is that Jamila Format is tribal bellydance. It is true that Bal Anat is credited with the birth of “tribal bellydance” but Jamila herself was a Cabaret style dancer for the majority of her dance career and so were many of her students.
These myths easily flourish because these remarkable women are so well-known, and their work is used by so many. Sometimes those with a genuine love of the dance just lack information. Sometimes it is used by those who want to benefit from the formats without being committed or by those that put the Salimpour work into a box to suit their narrative.
The Journey is the Destination
Through my studies in the Salimpour School, I’ve learned a great deal. The biggest lessons by far have been to trust my gut, ask questions, and expect more of myself, my instructors, and of this dance form. There is power in getting out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself because this is where real growth happens. I’ve learned not to let others dictate my choices, beliefs, or experiences.
I implore you do your own research and look into the quality of education being provided and level of dance coming out of the School. To me, it is a clear choice.
About the Author:
Leslie is from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and is a proud member of the Salimpour School. She is currently certified Suhaila Level 3 and Jamila Level 2, with the goal of one day attaining her teaching certification in both formats. Leslie is also the Group Leader/Choreography Captain of the Edmonton Salimpour Collective and a core member of Blush Bellydance Company. She works hard in her community to represent the Salimpour School and raise the level of bellydance through her own instruction, performances, and events. She also sponsors Level 5 Salimpour-certified instructors on a yearly basis to provide high level dance education and experiences to her dance community in Canada. Leslie’s favourite things are badass finger cymbal playing, fabulous hipwork, and blasting Abdel Halim Hafez’s greatest hits. You can learn more about Leslie at www.lesliebellydance.com. (Photo by Marie Whipple)