Suhaila Salimpour performing “Joumana” at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in 1983.
After studying intensively with Yuki, a jazz dance teacher in not-so-nearby Castro Valley, Suhaila experimented with opening up new choreographic possibilities within the belly dance genre. “Joumana” (as well as its sister dances) plays with melody and rhythm, and signals a clear integration of Jamila’s belly dance steps, Suhaila’s exploration of the muscular execution of belly dance movements, and the non-belly dance training Suhaila had been studying.
In these pieces, too, we can clearly see the beginnings of Suhaila’s choreographic and expressive voice: playing with hand and arm gestures to highlight hip work, the characteristic head and chin releases, as well as acrobatic displays such as the splits. And of course, these works were greatly influenced by superstar dancers in the Arab world, particularly Nagua Fouad and Nadia Gamal.
World Dance for a Wider Audience
For decades, the San Francisco Bay Area has been home to innumerable dance companies, many (maybe even a majority) of them in the field that we sometimes call “ethnic” dance. The term “ethnic” is becoming increasingly problematic, and dance studies scholars will be quick to tell you that even ballet can be considered an ethnic dance form.
But in the 1970s, there were few events that brought the many diverse and disparate dance companies throughout the San Francisco region together. Rarely did a Mexican folklorico company rub shoulders with a Flamenco ensemble, or dance alongside Appalachian cloggers.
The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival sought to change how audiences experienced and witnessed dance that wasn’t just Euro-American concert dance (ballet, modern, or contemporary). So, 40 years ago, with a grant made possible by the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund, the Festival became the first multicultural, ethnic dance festival in the country.
Since then, the dances presented have ranged from the most preservationist and “traditional,” to contemporary and experimental. Legendary and groundbreaking choreographers and performers have graced the Festival stage: Pandit Chitresh Das (Kathak), Patrick Makuakane (Hula), Rosa Montoya (Flamenco), Gamelan Sekar Jaya (Indonesian), and Ballet Afsaneh (Persian Classical and Contemporary), just to name a few.
So, when Suhaila auditioned for the Festival in 1983 with “Joumana” in 1983, it was, to say, kind of a big deal. An even bigger deal is that the panel and artistic directors selected the piece, making it not only one of the first-ever solo performances to be in the Festival, but also, and perhaps more importantly for us, it was the first-ever belly dance performance. Since then, both Bal Anat and the Suhaila Dance Company have also performed at the annual Festival, presenting works such as Jamila Salimpour’s “Raqs al-Zagat,” and two pieces from Enta Omri.
From Performer to Panelist
Since 1978, the Festival’s performances have reached hundreds of thousands of audience members, providing outstanding opportunities to artists who seek to present the dance expressions of their cultural and ethnic heritages. To make their selections, the Festival invites experts in their respective dance genres to evaluate and help select prospective performers.
Last year, the director of the Ethnic Dance Festival invited Suhaila to be a panelist for the 2017 auditions. But because we were performing Enta Omri and bringing Bal Anat to Europe over the same weekends as the audition, Suhaila was unable to accept the invitation. So the director asked if she could be a panelist for the 2018 auditions.