The Salimpour Legacy
With its worldwide reach, inclusive values, and long-established teaching methods, the Salimpour School is one of the most influential schools of belly dance in the world. From its humble beginnings in California to its growth into a global institution, the school and its students are known for their dedication to the art, strong technical training, and deep understanding of Middle Eastern music and culture.
We are proud to be at the cutting edge of belly dance education. Learn from us online with classes, choreography, or with Suhaila herself. See the Events list for more.
We also offer online Level 100 (Fundamentals) certification in both of our revolutionary formats. In the Fall of 2020, we opened the Suhaila Salimpour Institute of Online Education, offering certification in Level 200 (Foundations) through Level 500 (Teacher Training), exclusively online. Read more about the origins of the Salimpour School and its founder, Jamila Salimpour and its director, Jamila’s daughter Suhaila Salimpour, and our worldwide educational program.
Our Director: Suhaila Salimpour
Second-generation Middle Eastern (Kurdish, Sicilian, and Greek) American belly dancer Suhaila Salimpour is known not only for creating the first certification program in belly dance in the world, but also for the global influence of her own format on belly dance performance and instruction.
Just like her mother’s belly dance step vocabulary, the Suhaila Salimpour Format has inspired thousands of dancers around the world. Her students approach belly dancing as a performing art worthy of dedication and serious study. They train with intention to responsibly represent the dance, the music, and the culture from which it originates.
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 in the San Francisco Bay Area (US) observing her mother Jamila Salimpour’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.
Traditionally, belly dance had been passed down in families, but Jamila Salimpour was becoming a leader in the form, as the first person to put names to the steps and to document the movements. This was the first time non-Middle Easterners had a “map” for the belly dance form.
By the time she was 12, Suhaila knew every step in her mother’s vocabulary 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 vocabulary.
Jamila and Suhaila filmed instructional videos—a rarity at the time—including an archive of Jamila’s Format. This time also yielded three iconic pieces, which she created with her mother: “Joumana,” “Maharjan,” and “Hayati.” The newly-formed Ethnic Dance Festival of San Francisco selected all three for their program, respectively, from 1983-1985. Suhaila was the first belly dancer to perform at this prestigious event.
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 group was The Gentlemen of Production, which included Walter “Sundance” Freeman. Walter later went on to be a tap dancer in the worldwide hit show Riverdance.
Suhaila was captivated by their muscular precision, fluid waves, and sharp musicality. She insisted on working with Walter on integrating these qualities into her own belly dancing. The two became lifelong friends.
The hard contraction movements commonly referred to as “pops and locks,” could be combined to create rib cage locks and hip squares. The movement innovations that emerged from this collaboration are now considered essential belly dance technique.
Performing Professionally in LA and the Middle East
After Suhaila graduated from high school in 1985, she moved to Los Angeles. There 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. She also worked with music video choreographer Michael Rooney. She was also the first belly dancer to be featured on Arab-American television.
Additionally, she began her training with master acting teacher Sanford Meisner. His “act first, think later” approach 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. She performed with the egion’s most celebrated singers, like Amr Diab, Sabah, Ragheb Alama, Ahmed Adawiya, and Ahmed Doughan. Audiences celebrated her unique style, musicality, and deep understanding of Arabic music sentiment.
Producing Videos and Music
Upon one return from the Middle East 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.
Beginning in the 1990s, she began to produce her own recordings of classic Arabic compositions, drum solos, rhythmic teaching tools, audio training tools, and performance videos. Today you can find her extensive recordings on Spotify and Apple Music.
In 1990, Salimpour filmed Stretch & Tone, which highlighted her glute method. Treating belly dance like a dance class, Suhaila made a format with a warm up, glute work, and cool down. She was explaining how to do movements, not just having students follow along. Nobody had done this kind of work before. The understanding of musicality, and the class structure, are now ubiquitous with the belly dance form.
Creating a Dance Company
In 1996, Suhaila 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 1999, she also revived her mother’s world-famous Bal Anat, a company which inspired several offshoot stylizations.
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.
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 in several cities across North America and Europe.
Establishing the First Belly Dance Certification Program
When Suhaila was in the Middle East, she dreamt of what she would do when she came back to Berkeley. As a child, she grew up torn between her conservative Kurdish 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 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 certification program.
In Suhaila’s program 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. Launched in 1998, the certification program became a worldwide sensation, and continues to be in high demand.
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 dance forms—from modern to Flamenco and Indian dance genres—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 training to be instructors.
After her successful Fitness Fusion Belly Dance DVD series was published by Gaiam in 2005, Suhaila knew that she needed a means to film her studio classes, to cover a wider range of her instruction in the context of working with actual students.
Online Classes and Institute
In 2008 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 six continents.
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. She reorganized the entire certification program to fit into semester-length courses for online training.
The Institute launched in Fall 2020, 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, maintaining the integrity of her mother’s classes and celebrating her Middle Eastern heritage and culture. She also continues to direct her mother’s dance company, Bal Anat.
With licensed instructors teaching throughout the world, an online instructional website with hundreds of classes for beginners to advanced dancers, and Suhaila keeping up her own rigorous teaching schedule, the Salimpour School continues to grow.
Students can still train in-person through regularly scheduled classes and workshops in the San Francisco Bay Area including at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center and Mahea Uchiyama Center for International Dance. In addition, Suhaila travels the world to lead workshops, present, and direct theatrical productions.
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 and inclusive community of dancers. The School dancers share the same goal of representation and celebration of this dance form, along with this music and culture, through responsible performance and instruction.
A lifelong student herself, Suhaila completed in 2023 her BA in Liberal Arts from the LEAP Program at Saint Mary’s College of California, where she is currently pursuing a MFA in the Dance Program. She teaches courses, master classes, and workshops at various universities including—past and present—Mills College, Saint Mary’s College, San Francisco State University, and Princeton University. Suhaila continues leading the way to elevate belly dance through performance, instruction, and scholarship.
The Third Generation: Isabella Salimpour
Isabella Salimpour is a 3rd generation multidisciplinary artist, dancer, singer, and actress.
Daughter of master Middle Eastern dance instructor and performer Suhaila Salimpour, and granddaughter of Jamila Salimpour, Isabella has been on stage since the age of two and assisting in her mother’s workshops since the age of eight. She learned Middle Eastern dance the traditional way: by watching and following at home.
In addition to Middle Eastern dance, Isabella has studied a diverse range of movement and performance forms, including ballet, jazz dance, tap, ballet, lyrical, musical theater, music composition, and vocal studies. She has been a featured performer in several of her mother’s evening-length dance productions, including as a soloist in Enta Omri and in Bal Anat. She also has a passion for teaching and has taught workshops to both children and adults at some of the world’s largest Middle Eastern dance festivals.
Isabella studied music and jazz vocals at the renowned New School in New York and holds a BPA from Saint Mary’s College of California. She currently works in Los Angeles as a vocal coach, musician, and producer.
Our Founder: Jamila Salimpour
Over 50 years ago, in 1949, dance pioneer and instructor Jamila Salimpour (1926-2017) taught her first belly dance classes, establishing the Salimpour School of Dance in San Francisco, California.
Her revolutionary approach to teaching belly dance left an undeniable mark on the art form, beginning in the San Francisco Bay Area, then across the United States, and today, throughout the world.
Creating a Revolutionary Teaching Method
The daughter of Sicilian and Greek immigrants, Jamila grew up in Harlem, New York. As a child, she didn’t speak English until she was 5 years old. After touring for several years with the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus, she moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s.
There, inspired by her father’s tales of Egyptian ghawazi dancers, dancers in the Egyptian films playing at the local La Tosca theater, and the growing Middle Eastern immigrant community in Southern California, she began performing in community events and Middle Eastern nightclubs.
Then, people started asking her to teach them how to dance. From there, Jamila realized she had to create a system for teaching belly dance that was more than just “follow me.”
Her instructional method did what no other belly dancer before her had done. She created standard names and terminology for belly dance steps. Today, her teaching legacy reaches far and wide. Global dancers continue to use step names like Basic Egyptian, Maya, and Choo Choo.
Jamila catalogued hundreds of steps after careful and meticulous observation of professional and casual dancers in a variety of venues and contexts, particularly in the 1960s, when Middle Eastern nightclubs became popular in California’s big cities.
Each step name reveals a bit of its origin. The Algerian Shimmy was attributed to a dancer from Algeria. Zanouba was named after a a dancer who performed regularly at the Fez in Los Angeles. After moving to San Francisco, Jamila even bought and managed her own nightclub. Her Bagdad Cabaret, which became a fixture in the city’s Middle Eastern music and dance scene.
Forming the World’s Oldest Belly Dance Company: Bal Anat
But Jamila’s influence doesn’t stop there. By a happy accident of fate, in 1968 Jamila Salimpour established the longest-running belly dance company in the world: Bal Anat.
Bal Anat first performed at the Northern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Marin County. They showcased small ensembles of dancers costumed in rich textiles and heavy jewelry. Each group represented a region or style of belly dance. Additionally, a chorus of dancers played cymbals and other instruments behind them.
For the costumes and dances in Bal Anat, Jamila drew inspiration from current anthropological research. She also consulted her fellow dancers from the related cultures.
Jamila was one of the first to showcase performing with a sword, which is now one of the most popular props in belly dance. Her show also featured balancing on water goblets, dancing with live snakes, and performing with water pots.
Bal Anat continues to perform, making it the world’s oldest belly dance company.
Writing Belly Dance History
In addition, to her innovations in the studio and on the stage, Jamila was a prolific writer. She self-published several books, including her dance manual, La Danse Orientale, and a guide for playing dozens of finger cymbal patterns, complete with musical staff notation, many of which she created herself. The school has republished her dance manual as The New Danse Orientale, a complete collection of the dance steps that she and her daughter catalogued until 1978. She also collected images of Middle Eastern dancers from the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition (commonly referred to as the Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893, from which she drew constant inspiration for her own dancing and costuming. She helped establish and wrote consistently for Habibi magazine, one of the first periodicals focusing primarily on the practice and performance of belly dance. The Salimpour School collected her writings for the magazine several years ago, re-releasing them as a collected volume in Jamila’s Article Book.
The Legacy Continues
One of Jamila’s wishes for belly dance was that it be regarded as “a difficult, yet truly artistic dance form.” Today, this wish and her legacy is carried on by her daughter, Suhaila Salimpour, licensed instructors of her format, current and former students of the Salimpour School, and, of course, the thousands of belly dancers who use her method, terminology, and earthy aesthetic in their classes and performances.