Phyllis Patterson (1932-2014)

We are saddened to learn that Phyllis Patterson passed away on May 18, 2014.  She was a
passionate and artistic woman who conceived and created the modern Renaissance fair; and without her vision, the world of belly dance might be quite different today.

PhyllisLaurelCanyonBouquetPhyllis Ann Simbert was born on January 25, 1932 in Tennessee.  She married Ron Patterson, and in the 1960s the couple lived in Laurel Canyon near Hollywood California.  Phyllis was a high school drama and English teacher, and Ron was a UCLA-educated art director.  The couple held various after school theater and art workshops in their back yard for students.  In May 1963, Phyllis and Ron produced the first Renaissance Pleasure Faire as a fundraiser for KPFK, a listener-sponsored radio station.  (Edited audio broadcast with still photographs from the original fair held on May 11 and 12, 1963)

The Faire was faithfully modeled on a 16th century country fair.  The annual Spring event grew steadily and, by 1967, a second Faire was held yearly in the fall in Northern California at China Camp in Marin County.[1]

It was at the first Northern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire that Jamila’s belly dance students were blocking the flow of traffic with their impromptu performances, and it was at this Faire the Phyllis spoke to Jamila about fixing the problem.  The solution to the problem was Jamila’s creation of Bal Anat.  The fair, as well as all its many components and acts including Bal Anat, were immediately copied throughout the United States.  (1974 Bal Anat performance at the Northern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire)

JudyPhyllisRon72webRoxanne Browder Dungereau[2] wrote about Phyllis:

The Renaissance Pleasure Faire is so much more than a theatrical event.  It is so much more than dressing up in historical costumes and acting.  It is, as Phyllis taught in her class, a life changing experience.  In her class she relayed her reasoning for the purpose of the faire.  She felt deeply the importance of reconnecting with a time when we were attached to the earth, and the wheel of the calendar year, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.  She stressed the need for celebration with euphoria, sorely lacking in our modern world and explained the importance of experiencing ecstasy, ‘to stand outside the ordinary self,’ through the creation of living art.

The Salimpour Family honors and thanks Phyllis, whose vision is still realized and safeguarded by her children.  Phyllis and Ron Patterson imagined and designed an incredible event that provided the unique opportunity for Jamila Salimpour to create Bal Anat.  And the creation of Bal Anat was an important moment in time that changed the trajectory of belly dance not only in the U.S., but throughout the world.



[1] Both the Southern and the Northern fairs have changed ownership over the years, but they have continued yearly alternating Spring and Fall.
[2] Author of The Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire Fiftieth Jubilee published in 2012.
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Special Online Class Offers for Program Members

IMG_1298-Edit-3-1 copyThis has been a creative year for me, and I can barely believe it’s halfway over.  I always find inspiration in the classroom both from doing the work of being a dancer and from watching students take that journey themselves.  For a dancer, there’s nothing quite like “being on the floor”.

To encourage training and inspiration, I would like to offer some incentive to students currently in my certification programs and online classes.  We have special rates and offers available for a short time through July 7, 2013.

For current online class subscribers:  If you are a current subscriber to online classes with either a one-time payment one year subscription or 12+ consecutive months of subscriptions, we’re offering great discounts on one-year and 6-month subscriptions.  Click here for more info.

For certification members:  If you hold current certification in either the Jamila or Suhaila formats, we are offering discounts–based on certification level–on one-year and 6-month subscriptions.  Click here for more info.

For workshop attendees:  If you are planning on attending a workshop at Suhaila’s studio in 2014, we have package deals which give you some of the best rates available on one-year and 6-month subscriptions.  Click here for more info.

New students:  For those of you interested in my program, we have a three-day trial during which you have access to all the classes that a regular subscriber does.  And we offer several great rates from one month to a full year.  Click here for more info.

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Suhaila Dance Company at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival

Lori Tawasaha, Suhaila Dance Company Member, Photograph by R. J. Muna

Lori Tawasaha, Suhaila Dance Company Member, Photograph by R. J. Muna

The Suhaila Dance Company performs this weekend (June 29-30) at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival (for tickets.)  Below is an excerpt written in the Festival program by Patti Trimble about our two pieces.

In this set of Middle Eastern classic oriental dance (Egyptian and Lebanese belly dance), choreographer Suhaila Salimpour revisits two beloved classical Arabic songs with her signature modern approach.

The first song, Khayef Marrah, sings of longing.  The dance is the dream of a man who yearns to fall in love. Feminine forms move in and out of focus, because, When love calls, we must obey; but I haven’t heard it calling yet. . .Only if I find the one . . .

The second song, Ana Kol Maoul El Toba, tells of tortured love:  How many times did you leave me? Never again will I believe your words! . . . but just meet me once again! The choreography shows western line and flamenco stylization, and the floor work is western contemporary, with big bold movements of exhaustion and fury.

The 2012 choreography for this performance is in Suhaila Salimpor’s distinctive modern belly dance style. It’s based on the western-influenced belly dance born in Egyptian Casinos (1915-1930).  The dancers wear classical two-piece bedlah costumes. Suhaila pioneered her style in the 1970s, while studying belly dance, tap, jazz, and ballet. Inspired by modern approaches to dance, and by the athletic basis of break-dance, she looked at the physical aspects of middle eastern dance, analyzing the anatomical and muscular basis of every movement. Her pioneering style is known for its “layering” of traditionally separate aspects of the dance:  vibrations, figure eights, and isolation movements.

The performance honors two songs of Egyptian musician Abdel Halim Hafez (1928-77). Hafez is a founder of classical Arabic music, the passionate “voice of the people” whose songs are still played daily in the Arab world. Classic Arab music is known for its complex orchestration that merges traditional style and instrumentation with western phrasing and western instruments such as keyboard and clarinet. Suhaila says, “I want to honor this classical music right now because, since the Egyptian revolution, the recording industry has shut down, and no one knows what will happen. I am drawn to that era, an earlier time of great artistic collaboration.”

Our performance at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is a small sample of the much larger Enta Omri production that debuts August 3 and 4 (for more info).  We hope you can join us for both events.

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From Tap Dancing to Responsible Fusion

Suhaila, 1978. Photo by Romaine Photography, San Francisco.

Suhaila performing her “chair drum” tap dancing routine at Ashkenaz in Berkeley, CA when she was 10, the same year she began teaching tap.

Last year, I wrote about my pop and locking work with Walter Freeman who went on to perform on Broadway for 10 years as an American tap dancer in Riverdance.  Walter and I attended many of the same tap classes when I was in high school.

But my introduction to tap began much earlier.  My mother enrolled me in ballet, jazz and tap when I was a toddler, probably around 2 or 3 years of age.  I continued tap dancing with regular lessons and training well into my late 20s.  When I moved to Los Angeles after high school, I was fortunate to study tap with Hinton Battle, who won his second of three Tony Awards for his role in The Tap Dance Kid.

When I was about 22 or 23, Mahmoud Reda visited California on a workshop tour.  In addition to his folkloric work, Mahmoud starred, choreographed and performed in several popular Egyptian movies; he was very much an Egyptian Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire.  One of my favorite memories of Mahmoud’s visit was attending a tap class together at the Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio in North Hollywood.

Later, when I performed in the Middle East, the club owners were thrilled when they found out I could tap dance and insisted that I perform.  Tap dancing was incredibly popular, especially from the classic Egyptian and Hollywood movies that featured grand dance and musical numbers.  And I actually had my tap shoes and drum sticks (from my “chair drum” performance) with me, as I had packed them in my suitcase.

Rather than featuring tap dancing as a completely different act, I wanted to incorporate it into my regular dance set.   I developed a duet with the drummer.  I would tap, then add finger cymbals, then the drummer and I would question and answer back and forth, and then we would wind up to a big finale.  The audiences loved the act.

Students have asked me why they thought my tap dancing fusion was so well received by Middle Eastern audiences.  I had well over two decades of experience in both belly dance and tap by the time I performed the fusion of the two in the Middle East.  I was a teacher of both with extensive performance experience in both.  I knew the music and rhythms for both the Middle Eastern and jazz genres.  It was a “responsible fusion”.  That responsibility included knowing and respecting the technique, music, and culture of both dance forms.

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The Sanford Meisner Method and Belly Dance

After graduating high school, I moved from Northern California to Los Angeles.  In addition to being a regular “house” dancer at Byblos Night Club (6 nights a week), I also did some acting, modeling and music video choreographing.  I enjoyed pursuing these other activities as they were new and challenging, and I learned a lot about myself and the industry.  But dance was always my first love, and I knew my future would be in dance.

I sought out teachers and experiences that would develop me as a person and an artist.  I attended several acting classes, and I ended up at the Playhouse West run by Robert Carnegie.  I took weekly classes with Bob Carnegie and Sanford Meisner.  (To give you a time reference, Jeff Goldblum was one of the TAs under whom I studied, and Ashley Judd was a student.)  Meisner’s method really resonated with me as I could see its application to my dancing.

Classic belly dance we perform today (dated from Casino Opera days) is typically performed “in the moment” with a live audience and band.  There is an improvisation component as well as an ongoing, spontaneous interaction with the musicians and audience.  I wanted to make that experience even more honest and personal.  I showed up weekly for years to my Meisner method classes, and I did the work that was presented to me.  I watched and learned from the process of my fellow students.  Over time — by showing up, being present and doing the work — my dance was steadily evolving from what I was learning.

Although I was a regular and good student, I certainly wasn’t the super star of the group.  Every year, Bob Carnegie had a holiday party at his home, and only five students from the entire school were invited to attend.  I was shocked when I was invited as one of those students.  (Coincidentally, that party was held on my 21st birthday.) I believe my teachers were intrigued by my reasons for learning Meisner’s method and the application to my dance.

In Level 3 of my certification program, I introduce emotional intent; but when I first began teaching this work, I realized that many of my students were resisting any emotional work, and they didn’t know how to express their “real” and “honest” emotions in performance.  I went back and studied the Meisner work from an academic standpoint and analyzed the evolution of that work that had integrated organically into my personal dancing.  (The work integrated into my dancing over time without me trying or giving it conscious thought; I used the tools instinctively and organically without thinking about them. ) Using my extensive Meisner experience and decades of dance, I adjusted and developed exercises for my students.  I tailored the work specifically for dancers to give my students a more direct and efficient means of learning the work.  And these exercises are more applicable to our art form.

In Level 4 of my certification program, we begin to apply the work we introduce in Level 3.  The goal is a performer who is open and honest with their countenance and emotions, having a true connection to the audience and music – to have “moment to moment” honesty and expression with each note of the music.  You learn to be you on stage in an open and personally authentic way.  For some, the work can seem scary at first; you can feel vulnerable being so open on stage.  Some students find the work easy; but most students fall somewhere in between.

But this work is not about divulging deep dark secrets or exorcising demons.  It’s not therapy, and it’s not about self indulgence. Like any skill — you show up, you embrace the work, and you do the work; over time you develop the skill.  We handle the work professionally; you are given an exercise, you do the exercise, and once the exercise is over, it’s over — we move on to the next thing.  In my program, we work on this together; you aren’t alone.  We create a safe and positive environment with support and encouragement.  And what you learn adds so much value and meaning to your dance.

In the video below, I discuss a few of the influences in my dance, including the Sanford Meisner method.  This is an excerpt from a longer interview conducted by Christy of Eighth Wonder Studios, Calgary, in August 2012.  Click here to view the entire interview.

For those of you who want to study the background of the Sanford Meisner method, research the work of Constantin Stanislavski and Lee Strasborg.  You can also find a documentary about Sanford Meisner called “Sanford Meisner:  Theater’s Best Kept Secret” in seven parts on YouTube.  Here is a link to the first segment.

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Suhaila’s Joumana Choreography: The Back Story

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.  The three related performances can be seen at the links below.

  • 1980 Debut of Suhaila’s Choreography to Joumana (view here)
  • 1983 Suhaila’s Joumana Audition, SF Ethnic Dance Festival (view here)
  • 1983 Suhaila’s Joumana Performance, SF Ethnic Dance Festival (view here)
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Suhaila’s Certification and Teaching Programs

Christy and Suhaila, Calgary, Oct 2012

In August 2012, Christy of Eighth Wonder Studios in Calgary interviewed me about my certification program, mentorship, stylization and more.  Many of her questions are ones that I’m asked regularly.  For those of you not familiar with my teaching and programs, I think this will give you a good overview; and for those of you already “ in the know”, you might learn something new.

At the end of the interview, I turn the interview right back around on Christy.  And, I think her perspective might be interesting for other students.  This interview is part of an ongoing series by Christy, the first of which was filmed in January 2011.

The Complete 2012 Interview (just over 30 minutes):  Click here

The Certification Program:  Excerpt from 2012 Interview:  Click here

Mentorship:  Excerpt from 2012 Interview:  Click here

A Student’s Perspective:  Excerpt from 2012 Interview:  Click here

Jamila Salimpour’s Finger Cymbal Method:  Click here

Stylization & Technique:  Click here

Early Influences:  Click here

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Remembering John Compton

John Compton with Bal Anat, Early 1970s

I was greatly saddened to hear the news that John Compton passed away this week.  He had a long and prosperous belly dance career, and I want to share my story of how I first knew him.

John had seen Bal Anat  perform at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire and wanted so badly to study with my mother.  She taught in San Francisco, and John sought out her studio.  My mother’s classes were for women only, so she did not allow him in class.

I was quite young at the time, but I still remember John — with his long hair nearly reaching his waist — sitting outside the door of my mother’s class, listening to the music and whatever instruction he could hear.  I was struck by John’s persistence and commitment.  I was there the day my mother finally swung the door open and told him “Okay fine!  Get in!”,  thus allowing John to attend her class.

John was Jamila’s first male student, and the floodgates were then opened for more wonderful male dancers to study with my mother.  With Bal Anat, John first dressed as a Moroccan female impersonator and dancing girl; you can view his related performance in the Bal Anat documentary below (around 8:50).  Later, he performed as one of the tray dancers; if you look at the picture below with me and John, you’ll notice his belt buckle. Jamila gave him that belt buckle when John first starting performing, and as far as I know, it’s the only one he ever wore throughout his career.

I will always remember John from his beginning belly dance days, and I will remember him as that young man so fascinated with belly dance and so eager to learn everything he could.

Suhaila and John Compton, Bal Anat

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Kajira and Chuck are the co-producers of the extremely successful Tribal Fest that is held annually every May in Sebastopol, CA.  Tribal and tribal fusion comprise a very popular and growing segment within belly dance.  I am frequently asked about the Tribal Fest event.  So late this summer, I interviewed Kajira and Chuck to answer the most common questions and for more “behind the scenes” details about this event.

Kajira and Chuck are enthusiastic and approachable, and you can see how their personal vibe sets the overall vibe for Tribal Fest.  The interview gives you a good look at this motivated couple.  I think you’ll find the segments both informative and interesting, so I hope you spend some time watching and learning more.

How It All Began:  Kajira and Chuck discuss the beginnings of Tribal Fest, the vibe of the event, and its location in Sebastopol, California.

Not but Truth:  Kajira discusses her studies with the Salimpour formats as well as the rules of Tribal Fest: a sanctuary focused on love, acceptance, joy and creativity.

Instruction:  The couple discusses the variety of instruction available at the event.

Focus & Theme:  Kajira and Chuck discuss the “tribal, folkloric & alternative” focus of the event as well as the performance application process.

Long Range Vision:  The couple discusses their long range vision for Tribal Fest.

You can learn more about Kajira Djoumahna and Tribal Fest at her website  You can also find Kajira Djoumahna, Chuck Lehnhard and Tribal Fest on Facebook.

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Batwanes Beek & Break Dancing

Many of you have already seen this video of dancers performing to a recorded version of “Batwanes Beek” sung by Warda al-Jazairia.  The young men are break dancing (a dance form which originated in the United States) on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris to this modern Arabic classic.

This performance worked because the presentation was honest.  It’s wonderful to see that the younger generation can appreciate the classics and that they can embody the sentiment with their own “truth”.  Although it can take effort, you can still be current but appropriately connect to and represent the classics with a fresh, but respectful, approach.


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