Second-generation Persian-American belly dancer Suhaila Salimpour is best known not only for creating the first certification program in belly dance in the world, but also for the global influence of her own game-changing format on belly dance performance and instruction. Just like her mother’s method, the Suhaila Salimpour Format has inspired thousands of dancers around the world to train harder, think deeper, and treat belly dance as a form worthy of dedicated and serious study. Suhaila’s work has been recognized by leaders in other dance forms for its depth and innovation, preserving the essence of belly dance while bringing it into the 21st century with grace and integrity.
A Childhood in Dance
Suhaila grew up observing her mother’s classes, as well as studying a wide range of dance forms. Born severely pigeon-toed, she overcame her turned-in feet with years of childhood ballet. She also trained in jazz, tap, classical Indian, Polynesian, Flamenco, modern, and more. She had the honor of training with masters in these forms, such as Rosa Montoya, Chitresh Das, and Tony Award-winner Hinton Battle.
But belly dance was always her first love. She began performing at only 2 years old, with her mother’s dance company, Bal Anat. Throughout her childhood, she assisted her mother in her workshops at home and away, particularly when students asked for more explanation of a dance step. By the time she was 12, Suhaila knew every step in her mother’s format and was traveling to teach salimpour format workshops by herself.
When she was 14, Suhaila supported herself and her mother financially, teaching belly dance in cities across the United States and Canada on the weekends. At this time, too, she traveled to the Middle East, where she observed dance steps that became part of the Jamila Salimpour Format. The two also filmed instructional videos—a rarity at the time—including an archive of Jamila’s Format, and three belly dance choreographies taught in Suhaila’s own format.
New Music, New Possibilities
Then, in 1978, music for belly dance changed. And music is at the heart of belly dance… so the dance had to change. The music that had been played in Middle Eastern nightclubs in the United States until that point had been mostly simple folk songs that even casual musicians could play. And the bands were hardly ever more than ten musicians. Dancers could improvise to this music without much preparation, because it lacked sudden changes in rhythm and tempo. But the new recordings coming out of the Middle East were composed specifically for the superstar belly dancers in the region, like Nadia Gamal and Nagua Fouad. As Suhaila listened to these complex, sophisticated pieces—which featured large ensembles of sometimes over 50 musicians—she imagined countless choreographic possibilities. But she could not yet physically do what the “dancer in her head” could. She knew she had to change how she danced.
Around the same time, in the early 1980s, Suhaila saw a performance by an Oakland Boogaloo dance troupe: The Gentlemen of Production, which included Walter “Sundance” Freeman, who later went on to be a tap dancer in the worldwide hit show Riverdance. Captivated by their muscular precision, fluid waves, and sharp musicality, Suhaila insisted on working with Walter on integrating these qualities into her own belly dancing. The two became lifelong friends. The movement innovations that emerged from this collaboration became the hard contraction movements commonly referred to as “pops and locks,” such as rib cage locks and hip squares, which are now considered essential belly dance technique.
Innovating Belly Dance Choreography
Suhaila knew that she had to approach her movement differently from her mother’s generation. Inspired by her dance teachers in other forms, she explored belly dance muscularly. By knowing and understanding which muscles drive particular movements, she wildly expanded her choreographic choices and versatility.
She spent her mid-teen years exploring the possibilities of belly dance movement to new, challenging musical compositions, while also integrating her experience with street dance and jazz dance. This time yielded three iconic pieces, which she created with her mother: “Joumana,” “Maharjan,” and “Hayati.” The newly-formed Ethnic Dance Festival of San Francisco selected “Joumana” and “Hayati” for their program. Suhaila was the first belly dancer to perform at this prestigious event.
Performing Professionally in LA and the Middle East
After Suhaila graduated from high school in 1985, she moved to Los Angeles, where she performed in the area’s top Middle Eastern nightclubs in the evenings, and on television sets for Fame and Max Headroom during the day. There she also worked with music video choreographer Michael Rooney. She was also the first belly dancer to be featured on Arab-American television, even before Nagwa Fouad. There, she also began her training with master acting teacher Sanford Meisner, whose approach to “act first, think later” became Suhaila’s guiding philosophy for her own performances. At the time, she also produced two performance videos—Dances for the Sultan and 1991 BC—to document her artistic and choreographic progress and showcase her work for a wider audience. Dances for the Sultan quickly became a classic and continues to be today.
From there, Suhaila performed throughout the Arab world, in five-star hotels and prestigious live performance venues with the region’s most celebrated singers, like Amr Diab and Sabah. Audiences celebrated her unique style, musicality, and deep understanding of Arabic music sentiment.
When she returned to the United States, she produced and performed in a third performance video, Unveiled, which displays her choreographic and musical sophistication after years of performing 6-7 nights a week. It also features classic choreographies, such as “Raks Suhaila” and “Raks Jamila” in which Suhaila performs her signature layering technique and blending of hers and her mother’s formats.
In 1996, she created the Suhaila Dance Company, which to this day performs her choreographic repertoire, which includes hundreds of dances, from the classic to the avant garde. In 2000, she also revived her mother’s world-famous Bal Anat, a “company that inspired the creation of tribal style belly dance. Beginning the 1990s, she began and continues to produce her own recordings of classic Arabic compositions, drum solos, rhythmic teaching tools, audio training tools, and performance videos.
Establishing the First Belly Dance Certification Program
When Suhaila was in the Middle East, she dreamt of what she’d do when she came back to Berkeley. As a child, she grew up torn between her conservative Persian Shi’a family, and the hippy fantasy world of her mother’s classes. At home, women were expected to be quiet, cover their bodies, and be obedient. In fact, her Persian father forbade her mother to perform after they had married. But with Bal Anat, midriffs were bared and movement was celebrated. And as a professional dancer, Suhaila never truly felt safe as a woman in a male-dominated industry. So, back in the US, she established her own dance program, where students could feel safe in their own bodies, learn about the history and culture of belly dance, and become technically and knowledgeable performers and instructors themselves. And the program would require certification, much like the tests required in martial arts dojos.
Why create a certification program for belly dance? In general, belly dance has no universal teaching or performance standards. Dancers with little training can easily perform in restaurants and festivals, perpetuating a public perception that professional belly dance is easy. Yet to be a professional performer in other disciplines—from modern dance to classical music—requires years of dedication, practice, and development. With levels of achievement, students have benchmarks and goals to mark their progress. By passing a test at a certain level, they demonstrate that they understand the essential technique and theory required to move on to the next one. Students begin with basic posture and dance elements, then progress to building their strength and stamina, learning and creating choreography, developing theatrical and acting skills, studying Arabic music and history, and eventually train to be instructors themselves.
The program became a worldwide sensation, and continues to be in high demand. After the ongoing success of her own format, Suhaila created a parallel program for her mother’s format in 2007. .
Always striving to bring belly dance to a wider audience and to theatrical stages, she choreographed and produced the full-length stage show Sheherezade in 2004, featuring the Suhaila Dance Company. For this work, she was nominated for an Isadora Duncan award for solo performance in 2005, the first belly dancer to have received this accolade. Blending her experience as an aerobics instructor in her youth, she created the Fitness Fusion belly dance DVD instructional series for Goldhill Entertainment. Also at this time, she was featured prominently in the documentary American Bellydancer by Miles Copeland, producer of the rock band The Police.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 2009 Suhaila launched the first belly dance online class website. Filmed in her home studio in California, the Salimpour School Online Class website has subscribers from North America to Africa. In 2013, she choreographed Enta Omri, an original concert-length theatrical production set to classic Arabic love songs and performed by the Suhaila Dance Company several cities across North America and Europe.
Then in early 2020, as a response to the Covid pandemic, Suhaila pushed forth her plans to launch the Suhaila Salimpour Institute of Online Education, which was originally slated for 2025. The entire certification program was revamped and organized to fit within multi-week courses for online training. In Fall 2020 was the Institute’s first semester offering over ten different multi-week courses and providing more personalized feedback for student development. The Institute is the first of its kind in dance education.
Directing Today’s Global School
Today, Suhaila directs the global Salimpour School of Dance, keeping the original values of her mother’s classes. She also continues to direct her mother’s dance company, Bal Anat and the Suhaila Dance Company, which she formed in 1996. With licensed instructors teaching in their local areas (including Cairo), an online instructional website with thousands of classes for beginners to advanced dancers, and keeping up her own rigorous touring schedule, the Salimpour School is only growing.
The Salimpour School program gives dancers the tools for excellence in their individual artistry and personal growth, and an opportunity to be part of a worldwide supportive community of dancers who share the same values and goals of being the best dancers they can be.