Joumana was choreographed by Suhaila and Jamila Salimpour in 1980. Learn more below about the history of this choreography, both what led to its creation and its impact on belly dance.
Suhaila's "Back Story" about Joumana
When I was thirteen, I wanted to take private dance lessons with Yuki, a well known jazz teacher in Castro Valley. I begged Yuki to let me take classes. Probably thinking I wasn’t all that motivated, she said she could make space for me at 7am on Saturday mornings. So every Saturday, my mother would drive me to my jazz lessons, having to leave the house at 6am to make it in time for my 7am classes.
Taking with Yuki was a light bulb moment for me. I was incredibly inspired by Yuki’s phrasing and movement quality, and I began seeing jazz a bit differently. By this time, I already had ten years of jazz in my body and even more of belly dance, and the two dance forms had started fusing and melding naturally. And I already noticed that this organic development was happening. After taking with Yuki, I started playing a game: “how do I bellyize this move?”
In 1980, when I was 14 years old, I choreographed to Joumana. Every day after school over the course of about a week, I choreographed the piece in our living room (on a white shag room-sized rug), watching my reflection in the window. This choreography really shows how belly dance and jazz were fusing in my dance.
Joumana, Hayati and Maharjan are three choreographic projects which represent my best collaborations with my mother, Jamila Salimpour. We were at our most connected creatively for these pieces. When my mother would mention a general concept or quality or mood, I was able to create it in dance; it was like a telepathic connection between us. And it was for these projects that she completely trusted my instincts. My training in ballet and jazz expanded my mother’s belly dance format exponentially, and she could see how the training was necessary to realize the ideas she had in her head that she, herself, was not capable of fulfulling. Jamila never wanted to limit her students or me, so she was supportive of me taking the dance further and encouraged me to do so.
In 1980 my mother and Amina organized a dance show at the Margaret Jenkins Dance Studio in San Francisco, and that was where I first performed my choreography to Joumana. Then, in 1983, I auditioned for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and was selected to perform as the first belly dancer included in this prestigious event.
Joumana: When the Music Changed
by Abigail Keyes, January 2016
In November 2016, the Ethnic Dance Festival (EDF) in San Francisco held their annual auditions for their prestigious annual showcase. Unlike any other dance festival, the EDF features dance forms and music from around the world on a concert stage for three consecutive weekends. That year, Suhaila Salimpour was asked to sit on the panel of audition judges. And while she was unable to accept the position this year (because she was in Brussels, Belgium, with the Suhaila Dance Company as they presented Enta Omri for the first time outside of the US) Suhaila and the Salimpour School are honored to continue to be a part of the EDF’s vision and promotion of indigenous dance forms from around the world.
The EDF’s invitation brings the Salimpour School full circle in belly dance history. In 1983, Suhaila Salimpour was the first belly dancer to perform at the Ethnic Dance Festival, in which she performed her choreography to “Joumana.” “Joumana” was a collaboration between Suhaila and her mother, as they embarked on interpreting the complex orchestrated music emerging out of the Arab world in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
When the Music Changed
Prior to lush compositions such as those featured on Nagua Fouad’s recording Princess of Cairo, and Nadia Gamal’s LP Music for an Oriental Dance, belly dancers in North America would improvise to folk songs played by multi-regional musicians in nightclubs, supper clubs, and restaurants. These ensembles hardly ever had more than 10 players who were often from around the Eastern Mediterranean. Musicians from Armenia, around the Arabic-speaking regions, Iran, and Turkey would have to play songs that they all knew, which often were folk songs with few rhythmic or tempo changes. Dancers in the clubs of San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Washington DC, improvised, rarely, if ever, setting choreography. (For more on the Middle Eastern nightclubs scene in North America, see: Rasmussen, Anne. “‘An Evening in the Orient’: The Middle Eastern Nightclub in America.” In Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism & Harem Fantasy, edited by Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young. 172-193. Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 2005.)
Most importantly, the pieces these musicians played were not composed for professional, solo belly dancers. The new music from the Middle East, however, had been commissioned, composed, and orchestrated for that very purpose. This was the age of the great staged Oriental dance shows of Nadia Gamal, Nagua Fouad, and Mona El Said. This was the age of the belly dance star in the Middle East.
Why is “Joumana” Special?
When compositions such as “Joumana” finally made their way to the West Coast of the United States, Suhaila imagined how she wanted to dance to these songs. And yet, despite having grown up Jamila’s daughter, immersed in dance of all forms since before she would walk, she found herself challenged. This choreography became one of three iconic collaborations between Suhaila and her mother as the created choreography that interpreted and physicalized this new era of belly dance music.
Pieces such as “Joumana” are complete performance compositions in and of themselves. They include moments of high energy, soft taqsim, and rousing climax. They take the listener on a journey of ups and downs, excitement and introspection. The dancer who choreographs to these pieces must be able to do the same with her movements.
What to Watch For
When you watch “Joumana,” notice where in the music the foot patterns are placed. Notice key gestures of the arms, and how they aid in conveying emotions. Watch for when Suhaila chooses to follow the percussion and when she chooses to follow the melody. For those of you more familiar with the Jamila Salimpour Format, look for moments of “Jamhaila,” where Jamila Format steps are manipulated, taken apart, and blended with other steps in the format. In “Joumana,” we can see not only the influence of jazz dance in the foot patterns (and two side splits that highlight percussive accents), but also we see a glimpse into the mind of a young dancer who truly wished to embody the rich music emerging out of the Middle East at this era.
But what “Joumana” also signifies is not only a change in musical interpretation in the historical context of the Salimpour Legacy. It also heralded an evolution for belly dance as a genre. What was once relegated to smoky nightclubs and supper clubs promising a night out in the “exotic orient” to middle-class Americans, began to evolve into a highly-intricate, theatrical, and choreographed form. Yes, dancers in the Arab world had been choreographing their dances for several decades before the late 1970s. Badia Masabni famously choreographed ensemble dances for her salas. But dancers in North America had just started to consider choreographing their performances. For belly dance, solo choreography would be the next step in its development as a concert dance form.