Suhaila Solo: The Art of the Nightclub Show

In our previous explorations of Suhaila Salimpour’s performance video catalog—“Banat Iskandaria,” “Pharaonic Suite,” 1991 BC, and Unveiled—we have followed the development of her choreographic work to recorded music.

What we haven’t seen is her work as an improvisational performer, and yet this kind of performance—in a nightclub setting with a live band—is at the heart of belly dance as a performance genre. Nagua Fouad. Nadia Gamal. Mona El Said… they were all nightclub dancers.

And what many people might not understand is that Suhaila worked for years in the nightclubs, refining her choreographies, personal style, and musical interpretation.

Suhaila Salimpour belly dance solo show bellydance live Arabic music Berkeley performance

A Shifting Scene

After Suhaila returned from performing in the Middle East, she took on a new role as director of the Salimpour School of Dance and Suhaila Dance Company. She quickly made a name for herself as a leader and innovator in the field, as well as an artist not afraid to ruffle the feathers of traditionalists or preservationists. As far as she was concerned, her lifetime of immersion in belly dance, surrounded by Arabic music and culture, afforded her the liberty to experiment.

In the early 2000s, other dancers, too, wanted to experiment with belly dance. The dance form became a location for self-exploration and expression through costume, “world beat” and electronic music, and integration of subcultural aesthetics, such as Goth, Punk, Burner, and Modern Primitive, particularly from those communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Tribal fusion was poised to make its mark on the global belly dance scene, soon to be hoisted into the spotlight with Miles Copeland’s Bellydance Superstars.

But before that, another upheaval had affected the already dwindling Middle Eastern nightclub scene in the United States.

Islamic terrorists hijacked four American passenger jets on September 11, 2001. And for the last remaining venues and supper clubs featuring live music and belly dance in the United States—particularly in New York, where many of the clubs couldn’t survive the subsequent economic decline downtown near where the Twin Towers once stood—that was the last nail in the proverbial coffin. As the George W. Bush administration launched attacks in Afghanistan and then Iraq, Middle Eastern communities afraid of persecution, retaliation, and racism retreated into themselves. It was not a time for celebration in the local nightclub.

So, with the disappearance of venues where audiences could see dancers performing to full Arabic and Middle Eastern bands, and a burgeoning fascination with experimentation and performance of the “exotic,” the classic belly dance presentation had all but disappeared in the United States.

Showing the Source

As fusion belly dance established itself as a major player on the festival circuit and growing DVD market, Suhaila felt that dancers were not only unfamiliar with the recent roots of belly dance, but also the foundations of her own work. She had been watching her hard-contraction locks and isolations incorporated into new stylizations with little connection with the culture, music, and storytelling that she still feels are at the heart of belly dance.

She might have just released footage of herself performing throughout the Arab world. But when she left Lebanon for the last time, the airline lost her luggage. Gone were not only thousands of dollars worth of costumes, but also hours of video recordings of her performances in Beirut and beyond. Those live experiences were now just memories.

And of course, she continued to choreograph and create new work. As she produced and developed her full-length stage show Sheherazadewhich does feature fusion and experimental work—she felt that she had to record an intimate performance with a live band for a growing audience of belly dancers new to the art form. It would be in the tradition of the classic nightclub show, complete with a costume change and a show-stopping drum solo. And so, Suhaila Solo was born. 

While Suhaila Solo is, of course, not the only solo performance Suhaila has produced since her return from the Middle East, it is the only one she’s released to the public.

Behind the Music

The live show would be nothing without its extraordinary ensemble of musicians. While it might seem that Suhaila and the band rehearsed together for hours before the show, they only had one rehearsal and a sound check.

The songs in this particular performance have come to be associated with Suhaila and, by extension, her certification program. In the Middle East, she danced to them nightly, and she says that she felt these compositions “showed where I was coming from artistically,” telling a specific story and taking the audience on a journey.

Dancers familiar with Suhaila’s body of work will recognize the entrance “Set al-Hosen,” and middle songs “Nebtidi Mnein al-Hikaya” and “Yanna Yanna” from Suhaila’s choreographic repertoire. She even performs elements of her choreographies to these songs, but she warns students who might know these dances, “don’t just get stuck in the choreography,” meaning that even when we know a set dance, we must also feel that improvisational freedom, particularly with a live music ensemble.

This is particularly true for two of the songs from this show. Band leader and master violinist Fathi Al-Jarrah played with the phrase order of “Nebtidi Mnein al-Hikaya,” and the appearance of “Sawwah” after the ‘ud solo was entirely unplanned. In the moment, the band just felt that “Sawwah” should be the next piece in the show. And so it was. Of course, when working with a band, an experienced dancer can follow these spontaneous changes, following the these changes that happen in the moment.

The placement of the taqasim have special meaning for Suhaila. The violin solo, she says, represents her heart and soul. The ‘ud is her ancestors. And the keyboard—an instrument that she isn’t particularly fond of in Arabic music—is the present and the future.

In a typical belly dance show, the baladi progression on the keyboard cleanses the palette for the drum solo. Its slow build and accents hint at the faster accents and excitement to come. And as Suhaila performed throughout the Middle East, she became known for her drum solos, and this performance showcases her virtuosic and hard-hitting approach.

She also became known for her inclusion of a zar in her drum solos, based in the ritualistic trance gatherings held in rural communities of Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and Eastern Africa. Suhaila says that even in a performance, when the zar “is done correctly, it will put the dancer in a trance state,” and it’s not just for show.

Throughout it all, Suhaila’s mother, Jamila, watched from the wings. When Suhaila left the stage, Jamila was crying. She begged her daughter to stop teaching, close the studio, and just perform. She felt that dancers needed to see the dance as it was meant to be showcased: in person, with excellent musicians, and completely in the moment. And Suhaila’s daughter, who was barely six at the time, told her mother, “That’s it! I only want to dance to live music!” The apples don’t fall far from the tree.

When you do sit down and watch the solo show, make sure that you settle in for the whole hour and a half, and prepare to be taken on a wild ride.

What to Watch For, Level by Level

Suhaila often tells her students to watch her solo show, but without some direction, it can be difficult to know what to look for. And as we progress, refine our technique, eye, and emotional acuity, we will see different aspects of the same performance. To give you some guidance, here are some things to watch for, depending on where you are in the program.

Level 1

  • Technical aspects of the physical movements
  • Timing and layering
  • Find and listen to the original versions of the songs in the show

Level 2

  • Physical musicality and expression of the instruments
  • Technical elements
  • Deeper exploration of the music: meaning, lyrics, and composers/singers

Level 3

  • Emotional connection to the music
  • Intricacy of layering
  • Overall arc of the show, but also arc within each song
  • Use of the “Grid” on the stage and audience

Level 4

  • Entrances, veil discard, wind-ups, endings, and exits
  • Expression of “in” and “out” as a spectrum
  • Placement and instrumentation of the taqasim
  • Costuming, make-up, and presentational elements

Level 5

  • Being able to explain all of the above to students and pass on the knowledge

Never Compromising

In the higher levels, Suhaila often tells students to watch the solo show multiple times, as a model and guide for their own performances with live music, as well as choreographic compositions. Suhaila says she created her certification program to teach students all of these elements of dancing to Arabic music—from the opening promenade, musicality, emotional connection, and connection with the band. And this is also why when testing for Level 4 in either format, dancers perform a shorter version of the full nightclub shows that dancers used to do every night.

Although Suhaila Solo is the only publicly available recording of one of Suhaila’s solo shows with a live band, she has many others in the vault that will never be released. In fact, there are few performances that she will release to the public these days, because of our recent obsession with recording everything with our mobile phones instead of enjoying the excitement and emotion of live art. If people want to see her solo shows, Enta Omri, or Bal Anat, they have to come see them in person. Otherwise, she says, “they’re not getting the full experience.”

She also says, that at the end of the day, she never wants to compromise what she loves so much: the live music experience.

But until the next solo show, we’ll have to be content with Suhaila Solo.

Postscript: Rashid’s Intermission

In the Arab world, as the featured belly dance changed her costume in the intermission, a singer or a folkloric troupe (usually men) would perform to entertain the audience and keep the energy going.

But in Suhaila Solo, we are treated to a performance by Tom Ryan, known as Rashid.

A student of Jamila’s, he danced until his last days, having contracted HIV like many queer male dancers in San Francisco. Suhaila asked him to perform in the middle of her solo shows, so that more people could see his musicality and his soft and elegant style. He was also one of the original tray dancers with Bal Anat, and he performs his tray dance on this recording, too.

We’ll explore the role of the male dancer in Bal Anat, as well as dive deeper into the life of Tom “Rashid” Ryan, in an upcoming blog post.