AFTERNOON WITH SUHAILA" by Kajira Djoumahna
I will never forget the day the letter arrived! Suhaila Salimpour
had actually written to me! It was dated August 6, 1994. I know
because I still have that letter, and intend to keep it with my
other little treasures for a very long time.
You see, I had heard about Suhaila initially from my first primary
teacher, Terrianne. She had shown us videos and made it very clear
that in her opinion, this dancer was easily one of the world's best.
At that time, I had not been dancing for very long, and was completely
innocent. Sometimes that sort of naivete can work as a blessing,
as it gave me the courage to write to Suhaila. I'd found her address
(then in L.A.) in the back of a Middle Eastern Dance publication
I'd recently discovered called "Habibi." We spoke on the phone as
well, and Suhaila told me that she and her Mom, Jamila, were planning
to move to the S.F. Bay Area in a few months when she returned form
dancing in the Middle East. She said she would write me when they
were settled in. Suhaila had kept her word! And, most importantly
to me was the fact that she was willing to teach! I was so excited.
I took the letter with me to the class I was taking at that time,
with another of my teachers, Alnisa. After class I showed her the
letter. Even though several months had passed since Terrianne had
told me of Suhaila, I was still rather innnocent. I remember asking
Alnisa if she had heard of Suhaila Salimpour. Of course she had!
Then I asked her if she would be interested in taking lessons from
Suhaila, and if she thought there would be enough people to make
a small class. She assured me that should not be a problem!
Needless to say, that first small class held in Berkeley has grown!
I have a photo of that first class, and there were six students.
Now Suhaila teaches two classes a week, and an additional one as
a duo with her Mom. The classes are growing as Bay Area dancers
are hearing of them.
This interview was conducted after one of those classes, sitting
at an outside table of a European-style deli over lunch. Those last
two years have really flown by!
Tell us about being your Mom's (Jamila Salimpour) daughter and growing
up with the troupe, Bal Anat.
It's funny, because I don't think I ever realized I was different
from any other kid. I had grown up dancing since I can remember.
I thought everyone's lives were like that! It was very interesting
because it was always just me and my Mom. I don't remember my Dad
being around much, and when he was it was always very tense. He
hated the fact that my Mom had anything to do with dancing. But,
this was how my Mom was supporting the family, so he really couldn't
say anything. So it was like my Mom and I had this secret, the dance,
between us. That inspired me, especially when I was younger, to
stay with it and not stray to other pastimes. I was very focused
on my dancing as a child because it was what kept my Mom and I together.
She didn't believe in babysitters, so I had to go to all her classes
with her. I had to sit there and be good, and I was, because I knew
that this was her work. But when it came to my Dad and his side
of the family, we couldn't even speak of it in the house. When we'd
leave for class, or to perform at the Renaissance Faire, we had
to leave through the basement, and not talk about it when we came
back up through the basement at the end of the day. So, by the time
I realized it was something different and special, I had felt so
bonded with my Mom, and had felt so special myself because of all
we had gone through together. But, a lot of responsibilities came
with that. My Mom taught every Saturday, and we had to go to class.
I started earning money with dance when I was about 9. My Mom wanted
me to know the value of money, and saving it, and I was a very responsible
kid. By the time I was 14 I was touring on my own. Up until that
time, every summer my Mom and I would take the train across the
Bal Anat is considered in the contemporary dance community as the
first "tribal style" troupe in America. What do you feel constitutes
The whole split in America between tribal and cabaret styles is
really funny to me. My Mom never taught any differences. My Mom's
troupe was a little of this, and a little of that. Many of the costumes
and dances were inspired by pictures in the National Geographic,
but our finale was always a cabaret style dance. So, it wasn't tribal
style, it was more like an attempt to give the audience a 30-minute
education in the dances of the Middle East, cabaret style included!
It was never separated like it is now. I believe that as a dancer
you have the responsibility to learn every angle. Of course, you'll
choose your path and what you prefer; but I feel you can't say "I
just do one or the other" without trying the other side. I am pleased
to say that I can do it all, even though I've spent most of my adult
years doing cabaret style. That's because that's how I've made most
of my money working in clubs and going to the Middle East. And on
the other hand, I spent most of my younger years doing Bal Anat
style, and that was great, too!
What does "Bal Anat" mean, and how did Jamila choose the name?
There are actually two ways to think of the name. One way would
be to take the French meaning of the word, "Bal," which is "dance,"
and combine it with "Anat," which is the name of an ancient Goddess,
to get what I like to say as "The Dance in the Honour of the Goddess
Anat." The other way to look at this name is to think of "Bal" as
"Ba'al," who is a God from Carthage, who was also the consort to
the Great Mother Goddess. When thinking of the name in that manner,
you have combined the aspects of masculine and feminine creative
You've already told us a little about your Dad. How did he feel
about the popularity of your Mom and the troupe?
My Mom and Dad met in the nightclub where she was dancing. Dad was
the drummer. But the day after they were married, Dad told her that
if she were to step foot in the club again, he would break both
her legs. And he meant it!
Did she realize this whe she married him?
No. He was like a poet before they got married. After marriage he
became very macho. By the time I came along there were so many differences
between them. My Mom is a very young-spirited, positive person,
and my Dad was - I don't want to say the opposite of that, but he
was very - Persian. It's very hard to mix the two cultures because
they don't understand each other. It's ont that one's good or bad,
or better, but they are different. My Dad knew Mom was a popular
teacher, and that didn't bother him too much because he knew the
students were all Americans. But it made him look bad in the Persian
community that his wife had anything to do with dance. So the only
reason he allowed me to dance was because they saved money on babysitter
bills. Also, I was so young, it was considered harmless. He really
wanted me to be a doctor. He would buy me these doctor kits, but
they just wouldn't compare with the new skirt Mom was making for
died when I was 9, and that was the end of my childhood. It was
me and my Mom from then on. We knew we'd have to make it, and we
did! The Persian side of my family always hated it (dance). I think
that was what made them not have an involvement in my life and my
upbringing. I don't remember my uncles taking me out for McDonald's
or for an ice cream, or anything. They were never around. When I
graduated high school, none of my family was there. That year I
was on the cover of "Habibi," and they were completely horrified.
Someone they knew must have seen it and told them. They called me
and said that up until then it was o.k. that I was dancing, because
I was "just a kid." But now that I was becoming a woman, I should
watch myself and my behaviour in public. So from then on, I kept
spelling my last name even bigger! I didn't care (their mindset)
was not where I was coming from at all. I was raised very American
in my way of thinking, especially in terms of art in general. I
consider myself an artist, so I didn't appreciate their labeling
of me, or their conditional love for me, based on whether or not
I became a doctor or a lawyer or anything other than a dancer.
far as I was concerned, they were the ones missing out in sharing
my life. I knew what their lives were about; I danced for people
just like them. I knew exactly what their lives were about.
Tell us about overcoming the obstacle of scoliosis.
When I was born, I had a sway back and I was extremely pigeon-toed.
I couldn't even walk without tripping over my own feet! We went
to all kinds of doctors. I had a hip brace with metal bars that
ran down the sides of my legs and special shoes. I remember laying
in bed for hours wearing this contraption feeling completely miserable.
Nothing helped. Then when I was about 6 or 7, Mom threw me into
a ballet class. That was the only thing that ever helped. To this
day, if I let myself get out of shape, my right foot will still
Did your Mom encourage you initially to "follow in her footsteps?"
Not at all! She discouraged me. She didn't want any problems with
my Dad, and as far as she was concerned, one less headache was better!
What happened was, I was a sort of natural at it (dance). My Mom
never taught me a step, ever. I learned from watching her in classes.
One day whe I was about 2 1/2, I said I had a surprise for her.
I asked her to put on some music, and I came flying out of the bathroom
dancing. She thought it was so cute, she had me open for Bal Anat
shortly thereafter. I loved it. I felt it.
How did your Father's death affect your life?
I feel I missed a lot, not having a Father. I don't know what my
life would be like with him. Of course, any child not being raised
with both parents is at a loss. I feel my Mom really did her best
trying to be both parents for me. She was very protective of me;
very loving, very giving. She took me everywhere with her, she never
left me at home with a babysitter. She kept me right by her side
all the time. As a matter of fact, after Dad died, my Mother was
never with another man. I don't remember her ever going on a date,
or bringing a man to the house. All of her attention was focused
on me. I was a very needy child; I demanded a lot of attention,
and she gave it to me!
At what point in your life did you realize dance would be your career?
I don't know! I still haven't decided! (laughter) The funny thing
is, I never knew I had to make a decision. I've always been a dancer,
and I felt I would always be a dancer. I never knew there would
come a time when I had to make a big decision, so let me know when
I have to, 'cause then I'll have to think about it!
How did Nadia Gamal affect your career?
She was a big turning point for me. I was 9 when I first had seen
films of Bobby Farrah's in New York of Nadia dancing. I remember
thinking "she's really cool!" I had been taking jazz ad ballet classes,
and the way Nadia was moving seemed a combination of what I'd been
learning with the oriental steps on top of it. I felt like I had
a place, like I could do that. Before, you had to have the body
posture of ballet or that of bellydance. I didn't know how to combine
them until I saw Nadia. That was definitely the way the dance was
going, to a combination of styles. Nadia was doing these incredible
backbends and splits, and she was just so grand. My Mother was so
down-to-earth, she was like the mother to everyone in her troupe.
She was the Grand--Mother. She would literally give someone her
jewelry or her jacket if they said they liked something she had
on. But when I was 14, in walked Nadia Gamal. She had this arrogance
about her I found intriguing, because it was so different from what
I'd been used to. I followed her around like a puppydog all weekend
at this workshop. I stood in the back, and she would have me demonstrate
the movements, so I could tell she liked what I was doing.
her show, I ran backstage so fast I got there before she did! I
stood in front of the door, and she opened it and said "come in."
I sat down in the corner of her dressing room with my knees up to
my chest, holding onto my legs. I sat there quietly and watched
her move. The way she wiped the sweat from her face. The way she
removed her armbands. How completely exhausted she was from her
show. She had totally given anything she had inside her out on that
stage. She looked at me and said, "Do you know why I dance the way
I do?" I just stared up at her. She continued, "Because I have suffered.
I have suffered through life ad I have experienced life to the fullest."
I thought, "oh my God!" Here I was, 14 years old. What's my biggest
problem? My math exam on Monday? But she was so good to me. She
really saw my desire. She asked my Mom if I could go to Lebanon
to study with her. But that never happened. When I was recently
in Lebanon, I had people tell me that I reminded them of Nadia Gamal
and I think it was because I could identify with her style so much.
Whenever I would dance, I would try to create that same elegance
that she had.
You were recently married to Andre Khoury. How did you two meet?
I think we met before we were born! Andre's Mom is Antoinette Khoury,
formerly known as Antoinette Awayshak. She was a dancer who worked
with my Mom in the clubs. In fact, Antoinette waitressed for my
Mom at the Bagdad when she was pregnant with Andre and couldn't
dance. (Jamila owned the San Francisco nightclub called the Bagdad
on Broadway in the '60's.) She went back to L.A. to have the baby,
and Mom actually held him when he was just two days old! Even though
we lived in Berkeley and they lived in L.A., we'd play together
whenever we'd visit. I remember seeing him when I was 12 or 13,
but didn't see him again until I was 18. His Mom and he came to
see dance at Byblos, and we hung out for about a year. Then he had
to go to medical school, and I had to go dance in Lebanon. We kept
in touch and got back together when I came back.
How has your relationship evolved?
When we were younger we didn't have the communication skills we
do now. He is so encouraging of my love for the dance, and my dancing.
I've had people ask me if I'd be "allowed" to dance after we were
married, and I thought "that's such a funny question!" I don't think
I could marry anyone who didn't "allow" me to do anything that meant
so much to me. It's only a matter of time if rules are imposed that
either partner cannot abide by for a marriage to fail.
How did he propose?
It was New Year's Eve, and I guess he'd been planning it for a while.
We were dancing, and he was sweating so much but he wouldn't take
off his jacket. We were at his family's church hall. He seemed nervous,
but I was having fun and didn't think too much about it. Right before
the countdown the music stopped, and he wanted to find his Uncle.
He said for me not to go away because he had to ask me something.
He asked me if I loved him, and would I love him forever? Of course
I said, "yes, you silly!" So then her pulled out this little silver
pouch and said he had something to give me. I was oblivious, and
thought that was the present. I took it and told him "oh, honey,
thank you!" Just then the countdown began and he grabbed the purse-pouch
from me and opened it. As he took out the ring, he asked me to marry
him as everyone gathered about and cheered. Everyone knew, and I
started to cry. I must have said "yes", because I'm married now!
I cried the rest of the night. What's really meaningful to us about
the ring is that it's his Mother's diamond. It was reset for me.
As for our wedding bands, they're made from my Mother's wedding
band to my Father. We had them cut and formed into our wedding bands.
So my little family is on my finger! Isn't it great?
How long before you plan to have children?
I don't know. It could be tomorrow or in a couple of years. When
it's time it'll happen. It'll probably happen the same waywe got
engaged - SURPRISE! HAPPY NEW YEAR! (laughter)
Will they be dancers or musicians should they choose to do so?
If they want to. We want them to be happy. We want them to be able
to express themselves fully. I want them to be able to enjoy something
as much as I've enjoyed my dancing.
Do you plan to continue teaching and performing once you have children
and while you're waiting to have them?
Yes! As long as people will want to see me..... My Mom taught classes
until a week before she delivered. So I'd like to. I'd love to keep
performing after I have kids, too. I hope to stay in good shape
so I can do the kinds of shows I'm used to doing. As long as people
want to come to my shows, I'd love to do them.
Your Mom is also teaching a class with you as her assistant. How
does it feel to be teaching again, both solo and with your Mom?
I love teaching. I'm having a lot of fun. My classes are very challenging,
and that's because I like to offer material close to what I'd want
to be taught. I like to be pushed and challenged, so that's the
kind of class I teach. I love to explore different levels of abilities
with my body. As far as teaching with my Mother, it feels more natural
than walking! We've always taught together. Since I could walk I
was tanding next to my Mom teaching. So her voice, her cues, her
methods to me is like being in the womb again.
How does your class structure and Jamila's differ?
My Mom's structure is like laying down the foundation for a house.
My work is building the house on top of the foundation. You can't
do my work unless you have that foundation. Everything I'm about
came from her.
Tell us more about Andre. What does he do?
He's a doctor, just like his Dad! But his passion is martial arts.
He won third place in the state of California in Tae-kwon-do. I
think he was 19 then. I think that's one of the reasons he's so
understanding about my dance. He knows it makes me a happier person,
and that will make me a better wife, if I keep connected with my
passion. He takes a martial arts class every day, and that's when
he's happiest. He's also studying for the boards, and it's hard
for him. When we were living in L.A. he was working for his Uncle
in his clinic.
You and Jamila "dropped out of sight" for several years. Why was
We never really felt as though we had dropped out of sight. I graduated
from high school, we moved to L.A. and began a new phase. In my
life I look at each phase as progress. It might not feel like it
at the time, but it always is. I wanted to do and try new things,
and I did. My Mom was by my side the whole time.
What were you doing during that time?
I was working in clubs. I did the television show "Fame" shortly
after, right after high school. I took many dance classes from great
jazz teachers, including Michael Rooney and Hinton Battle (who won
the Tony Award for "Tap Dance Kid.") I was also involved in a theatre
group, "Playhouse West." I travelled. I also did some commercials,
rock videos and lots of auditions!
What other dance styles have you studied?
Jazz, tap, ballet, flamenco, Hawaiian, break dancing........
Would you say they influence your style?
I think everything influences my style, from a good movie or a great
art exhibition, to a beautiful stallion or a pretty sunset.
How would you describe "your style?"
I guess my style is basically what I hear in the music. Nadia Gamal
had once told me that you should be able to "sing the music with
your body," and I think that really stuck with me. I try to tell
my students "what if there were a deaf person in the audience, and
you had a responsibility to share the music with that one person?"
If you think in terms like that, then you're not just dancing separate
from the music. I don't really do a specific style. People have
said to me that it's nice I do Lebanese style since I've been back
from there. But I don't do "Lebanese style," in fact I did the same
style over there that I do here, MY own style, it's just that I
did it over there as well!
Recently you had a very successful performance up in Santa Rosa
(CA) at the Luther Burbank Center for the Performing Arts. How did
it feel to be 'back in the spotlight" and so well received?
This was a very important show for me because it was two weeks after
I'd gotten back from my honeymoon. I didn't realize how important
the show would be for me. I had just been married, and I was in
the "housewife mode." I was just loving being home and doing the
housewife thing. I was high off the whole marriage experience. What
this show did was two weeks after I was back I had to think of myself
as an individual again. I had to pull away from my husband, which
was hard for me to do. I had to get up on stage and project such
power and energy that I didn't really have. I was so happy, I wasn't
feeling all the other emotional levels that go into my type of performace.
Boy, was it a big slap in the face for me, a reminder to always
remember who I am, and to keep the dance inside me. The show was
great, it was fun, it was packed, but the most important thing for
me was the impact it had on my psyche.
What was it like working with Georges Lammam and his band?
I'd been looking forward to working with Georges, as we were supposed
to do a show about four or five years ago that didn't happen because
the club closed down the night before! We work well together - I
feel we both think of our art forms on a similar level, so it's
nice to perform together.
Can we look forward to more performances from you anytime soon?
I have some things planned. First I'll be in Seattle, then I'll
be doing a week long workshop in Maryland, then on to St. Louis
in September. And I'll be in L.A. in April, and some more master
classes and the Rendevous at the Kasbah Festival in Sebastopol for
Ellen Rosenberg. I'd like to do a small show here in the Berkeley
area in between all that, but it's not firm yet.
Have you ever had any doubts about your success, or about how the
public views your art?
That's an interesting question. Not when I've dealt with Americans.
I've never had that internal struggle, because of how we view art.
For most Americans, I believe we perceive art as an on- going process,
whether or not the show is "good" or "bad" is all part of that work
in progress. But I did have a lot of problems when I started working
in the clubs because of the way Arabic people tend to look at dancing
and dancers. I started to feel bad and dirty and guilty. You must
remember, I was only 18 or 19 then. Suddenly I felt as though the
audience was looking at me, judging me, like I was bad or dirty.
They either loved me or hated me, or had contempt for me, or their
women were jealous. And the scary thing was that it was all true!
There was all that drama going on, internally with them, because
of their culture, their religion and their trip. So when I learned
how to remove myself from the audience and just enjoy my show for
myself, that was the only way I could survive. I would have been
an emotional wreck every night. The first year was hard, I felt
that the audience had broken my spirit, and that made me mad. So
I started building my invisible wall - it was either that or get
a day job!
You were a soloist at the prestigious San Francisco Ethnic Dance
Festival during what years?
1983, '84 and '85.
What was that experience like?
It was lots of fun! I got to dance on a really big stage, with a
really good sound system, for a whole bunch of people!
Was that new for you at that time?
Well, yes. I'd gone from the Renaissance Faire to workshops, which
were my only other outlet at that time. This was such a big audience
- maybe 1,000 people, and I had my own dressing room, which I thought
was really cool. There was a stage man who would knock on my door
and say "five minutes, Miss Salimpour," and I just thought it was
Do you have any advice for others aspiring to audition for that
You just have to do what you love to do. Don't think of what the
guidelines are, or what they may be "looking for." What I did was
go in and do what I felt I did best. That's what got me in. My heart
and soul were really into the show. I don't think you need to worry
about what they might be looking for, as I don't know if they even
know what that is! The guidelines have really opened up. A lot of
groups have gotten in who aren't "ethnic" at all. They do interpretive
You were recently dancing in Lebanon. When exactly were you there?
In the beginning of 1994.
With the political climate as it was, how did you manage to get
into the country?
I guess if somebody wants you bad enough, they'll make sure you
can get there! I was invited, and had accepted. I had been invited
to go to the Middle East numerous times in the past, but this was
the first time I'd really felt good about it.
Can you describe some of your experiences while there?
It's hard to put into words what I'd gone through while there, because
it was quite incredible. The shows were great, they were two hours
long, and I was the star of this club. I had people opening for
me, I wasn't the opening act for some singer, like many dancers
are nowadays over there. I had a 15-piece band that actually followed
me. It was the height of my professional career so far. I had my
own costumer, my own choreographer - even though I I still did most
of the choreographies myself, he was a guideline for me as to what
the Lebanese audience may expect, you know, "do's and don'ts," that
sort of thing. Although after about a week, I did what I wanted
to do anyway. Except for the struggle I had wearing heels - I absolutely
hated them to dance in, as I didn't know how. As far as off the
stage, it's really hard to explain to somebody what it's like to
be in a country that has just finished 17 years of war. It's hard
to explain how they look, feel and act, and how that made me feel.
Because I'm an American, I've never been through a war in my generation.
The closest thing I have to identify with would be the L.A. riots.
And mostly I saw that on the news, it just meant I couldn't go to
Frederick's of Hollywood for a while! So it was very interesting
- I was there during the bombing of Jounieh in early '94. It was
How were you received by the 'natives' and the other dancers while
They loved me. Everybody was really good to me. I was lucky because
Lebanon was being rebuilt, and a lot of people I used to dance for
at Byblos in L.A. went back there to live. So my first night half
my audience were people I knew from the club! It was wonderful,
some of them had already sent out the word that I was a good dancer
before I'd even danced a step.
I've been hearing some stuff about you and the Caracalla Dance Company.
For our readers, who and what is/are Caracalla?
Caracalla is a dance company based in Lebanon. Caracalla is also
the last name of the man who created the Company. If you look at
it in terms of history, and the fact that this dance company prevailed
even during the war, it's really incredible. They brought dance
and theatre to the people. Either you do folk dance, as in the villages,
or you go see a cabaret show. his style is almost like "Martha Graham
goes to Egypt!" You either love it or hate it. In terms of his contribution,
I feel he's given a lot to the dance. As for my involvement with
the troupe, all I did was sit in on their rehearsals a couple of
times. My choreographer, Sami Khoury, who is an incredible dancer,
teacher, man and friend, used to be the lead dancer in Caracalla.
Now he's branched off and created his own company and dance studio
in Lebanon. Caracalla is very famous in Lebanon, and while I was
there I kept telling people I was a classically trained dancer.
So almost on a lark, the man that owned the club said, "Well, they
rehearse on this day, so why don't you go and take a class?" It
was like throwing me into the lion's den, and I think the man who
brought me there wanted feedback on me, because he'd never actually
seen me dance. The man that owned the club and brought me there
was going on word of mouth. The man that owns Arab-American T.V.
in L.A., Waheed Boctor, was one of the biggest mouths that got me
there! So, I went to take a class from the Caraclla Dance Co..,
and it was like an advanced modern dance class. It was very intense.
I must say that I expected the level to be less because what was
available to them was limited, due to the war. I was sweating but
keeping up. Thank God I knew how to do a pirouette, or I'd have
been in big trouble! After class Mr. Caracalla himself came up to
me and said, "When you want to become a real dancer, let me know,
and I'll let you join the Company." Because he considered what I
was doing in the nightclub as not being a real artist, because you
had to suffer. But what he paid a girl in his troupe for a month,
I made in a night at the club. So, no way!
How did you end up leaving Lebanon?
They ended up using the club I was working in to film some T.V.
shows the club owner was producing for the Gulf. And so the club
was closed for that time, and I got to come back home and see my
Mom. Then Andre and I fell in love, and I didn't go back. That's
making a long story very short. But they are still asking me to
go back, and it's hard, because I feel many dancers struggle with
being a professional dancer and going to the Middle East, because
that's the height of your career artistically. And then you have
being in love, and having a normal relationship with your family.
Andre is very open to the possibility of me going to the Middle
East for 6 or 8 week contracts.
When were you in Egypt, and did you study or perform while there?
When I was 14, and again when I was 15. No, I did not study formally
or perform there; but I saw a lot of shows and tried to learn from
watching the dancers.
Do you have any advice for dancers aspiring to go to the Middle
Be very careful! I was lucky because I had a family who sponsoured
me and were very good to me. But the key word was family. I think
that any American that goes over there needs to remember that you're
living in their country, with their rules and their mentality. And
that can be hard.
How do you feel about our dance form in America today?
I actually think Americans have a lot to offer the bellydance world!
I'm hoping that in the future other countries, and especially the
Middle East, can turn to us and see how much we have to offer them.
But right now, we're looking at them and going, "OOOH, Egyptian
style, or Lebanese, or Turkish," like we have to learn from them,
when I feel Americans are at a level where we can turn right around
and give them something in return.
How does our style here differ from the rest of the world, in your
We're much more structured, and we take our arts very seriously.
We have schools here, and books and videos, we have training - there's
so much available here. But over there, if you haven't learned to
dance form your mother by the time you were five, you probably won't
Do you see any difference in the quality of bellydance in America
versus when you began?
It's interesting, because whenever I see a dancer who used to be
in my Mom's classes come back and study, there's something about
her so raw and basic, so beautiful about their dancing, and their
feeling. The music has changed and things have become very complicated.
Even though I've been labeled as being very Western in my style,
I love the quality and the core of the earlier years. I miss those
times. Even when I was with Bal Anat as a kid, those were the best
of times for me. It was the late '60's, early '70's, and historically
it was a great time for the expressive arts. I think the reasons
people got involved in bellydance then were so beautiful and so
primal. Whereas now, I look at the dance and even though it's come
a long way technically, and I admit I am responsible for this, too,
as I like to teach from a technical position, I still feel we tend
to emphasize too much on technique and not enough on the love and
the passion. You can teach a dancer a step, and it'll come out differently
on each dancer. It will be beautiful as long as they feel it.
Do you have advice to offer students?
The only thing I can say is take class with everybody, experience
everything, find your niche, don't label yourself by saying "I only
do this or that," but explore all avenues of yourself fully. Eventually
you will fall into what's most comfortable for you, but definitely
explore yourself to the fullest.
Is it correct that you recommend students to other dance forms?
Definitely. I may recommend something different for each person,
for some ballet, others modern - even tap! It's about pushing your
body into other levels and not getting too comfortable with familiar
moves that you do every day.
How do you feel about Middle Eastern dancers varying from "tradition?"
I think it's great. Interpretive styles can be wonderful and beautiful.
But it should definitely be called "interpretive." I don't like
it when people label me as being one thing or the other, because
when they do, I'll come out with something not on their label. But
basically, I think interpretive is healthy.
You taught an accredited course in Middle Eastern Dance at San Francisco
State University. When was that?
It was under my Mom's name. I was 16, and we had a lot of fun working
with college students who were interested in our dance because they
were so eager.
Why did you discontinue?
It was a long drive for Mom. I wish we could've continued but it
was just too much.
Do you have any advice to offer teachers?
The job of the teacher is the most important. It's almost like being
a mother in that you have to equip the student with skills that
would enable them to go out into the world alone. It's very hard
for me as a teacher because I get so personally attached to my students.
I want to see them develop and grow, and beyond that level I want
to see them perform and teach. For me to be a good teacher, I have
to keep growing myself. If I'm not growing, I'm not going to be
able to give them the nutrients they need to keep growing themselves.
I think sometimes teachers are afraid to go out and take lessons
because they don't want to be seen in the community as a student.
But it's really important for a good teacher to go back to the beginning
and start from there.
You were a featured soloist at Club Byblos in Beverly Hills, California,
during what years?
From age 18 to 27, off and on. I also danced at the Cabaret Tehran.
Do you have any advice for professional dancers?
Don't stop taking classes! It really bugs me when a dancer spends
more money on her costumes in a year than she does on her lessons.
How did you keep from getting "stale" after so many years of working
in clubs? And, do you have any advice for other in this matter?
I have to keep being inspired. For me, that may not always be done
by dance. Sometimes I must look at the world around me for my inspiration.
This could be going to a good movie. Or listening to some classical
music that can take me to another level. Sometimes I have to listen
to Jimi Hendrix or Ravi Shankar, or go to an art exhibit. Dance
is just an emotion for me at that point. When you're working every
night dancing, you are getting practice on the physical, technical
level. It's the emotional and spiritual growth and development you
need then. That, I feel, is just as important. Muscle development
is relatively easy to obtain; it's the spiritual growth that's difficult.
What does the "Z" in your middle name stand for?
Zangeneh. I think it is actually the name of the tribe we came from
How about "Suhaila" - what does it mean?
The most consistent meaning I've heard is that it's the name of
a little star.
How do you stay in shape?
First, I must say that the whole theory about getting married and
putting on 10 pounds is true! I'm getting older and my metabolism
is slowing down. So I have to work out, my bellydancing alone doesn't
do it for me anymore! I teach aerobics now in addition to bellydance
to help me keep fit. In L.A., we had a stationary bike in our apartment
which I rode every day. I really have to work at it, it doesn't
come easy for me. I also still take jazz classes. I believe that
if you do a certain kind of physical activity long enough, your
body almost gets used to it, and you have to work harder to stay
Is there something you'd like to add to this interview?
Back in the late '60's, early '70's, there were many people who
came to class thinking that they could take this dance and use it
for their benefit. Not necessarily spiritual benefit, but for profit.
Some would take classes for 6 weeks and go out and teach. Or get
jobs in a club. But I feel when you approach this dance, or any
ethnic dance in a country that it's not from, you have to think
of it as a spiritual journey. You can't think of it as a vehicle
for making money. There was, at one time, a lot of different ways
to use this art form for profit that there aren't today. There were
many clubs and potential students. Back when Elizabeth Taylor wore
her Cleopatra eye makeup, everybody wanted to learn how to bellydance.
The Beatles came back from India using sitars. Everybody was into
this global conciousness, expanding boundaries thing. But now, people
know the difference between Indian and African dance, for example.
Before, anything ethnic was cool. So I guess what I'm trying to
say is to approach the dance with an open heart, as a spiritual
journey, and not necessarily for the bright lights.
to say, Suhaila and Jamila have both had quite an influence on my
dancing over the last couple of years. They are truly incredible
women, and I am so glad I wrote that letter long ago! If Suhaila
comes to your area, or if you can get to her for classes or workshops,
do so! In my opinion, Suhaila's approach to teaching, performing
and even how she thinks of Oriental Dance is the way of the future
of this art form in America. This is truly the "cutting edge" of
style and of pushing oneself on towards new and previously un-thought-of
ways to "sing the music with your body"...... challenge yourself
- you will be glad you did!