Warda al-Jazairia (1939-2012), the Algerian Rose

Warda al-Jazairia, August 2008

Our dance world has suffered a major loss with the recent passing of Warda Al-Jazaairia (1939-2012) this past May.  She was an amazingly gifted singer.  She worked with several of the great Arab composers, and many of her songs are considered modern classics.  I often danced to live versions of her songs throughout my years of dancing in the nightclubs (in the U.S. and the Middle East), and I have choreographed to her recorded work.

Warda’s life story and music catalog are readily available via the internet, and I strongly encourage you to research or revisit her contributions.  This incredibly talented woman contributed so much to Arabic music.  We are truly fortunate to live in an era where her contributions have been recorded and are now available for generations of dancers to hear, appreciate and learn.


Suhaila & Isabella performing a duet to “Nar El Ghera”, one of Warda’s modern classics

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Mikhail Baryshnikov & Suhaila Salimpour, May 2012

This May, I had the amazing opportunity to meet one of my greatest dance inspirations:  Mikhail Baryshnikov.  He is truly amazing; he vibrates with energy, and when he focuses on something. . .you can feel the intensity.

In 1974 while on tour with the Bolshoi Ballet, Baryshnikov defected from what was then the Soviet Union to Canada.  This received worldwide coverage and was huge news in the dance world.  I was about 9 at the time, and this life decision made by Baryshnikov somehow clicked a switch inside of me.

By watching Baryshnikov’s career and the choices he made in his dance form, he gave me permission to think outside the box of MY art form.  If you look up Baryshnikov’s career to date, you see that he has continually evolved throughout his career to grow as a dancer, to work with creative people, and to learn new things.  I felt like I was being given the freedom and permission to do what it was I needed to do dance-wise.

I probably wouldn’t have created my format without the influence of his career decisions.  I never gauged my success by the applause of my community. . but instead I performed each and every time as if Baryshnikov might be in the audience; it didn’t matter if it was a huge theater full or people or one table of people in a nightclub.  He inspired me to be the best dancer I could be. . .and to have the freedom to explore and evolve.


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Announcing the “Enta Omri” Double Album

Suhaila Salimpour & Ziad Islambouli present
Enta (You Are) Volume 1     &    Omri (My Life) Volume 2
An intimate love letter telling the story of a lifelong love:  you are my life!

This double album includes my favorite classic compositions  based on my years of working in night clubs both in the U.S. and in the Middle East.  Ziad Islambouli composed these pieces specifically for me, imagining me dancing in his mind.  From our years of working together and performing these classic pieces, we share an intimate connection for this music that shines through in Ziad’s arrangements.  Ziad created modernized versions, but ones that maintain the same intent and sentiment as the originals.  Both Ziad and I have always felt that it is important to keep this era of music alive and valid, no matter what else might be currently popular.  A belly dancer should know her classics; and I believe it requires a significant amount of skill, experience and artistry to perform to these pieces responsibly.

Ziad and I have discussed producing these albums for years.  And suddenly, in the fall of 2011 it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime moment — everything in the universe seemed to align.  The right people were available at the right time with the right focus, so Ziad went to Lebanon to arrange and record the music.  Some of the musicians where people which whom I worked in the past and some were new.  But they all connected and bonded on such a deep level to bring our collective vision a reality.  Ziad would call from the recording studio in Lebanon so that I could hear something on which they were working.

Ziad was determined to maintain a strong bond to the originals, so the musicians went above and beyond in some cases.  For example, Ziad wanted a very specific sound and tone for the oud, so a sixty year oud was carried down from the mountains to use for the album.  For Laylet Hob, the very same model of guitar used by Omar Khorshid in the original was used for the album.  These small but significant elements really add to the overall depth of the music.

These albums are incredibly close to my heart, and I admit that it is hard to release them.  I feel like I am sharing an incredibly personal moment with the world.  So remember that as you listen or dance to them, you carry a piece of my heart.


To purchase double album CDs

To purchase album downloads

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The Oakland Boogaloo & Walter “Sundance” Freeman

Walter “Sundance” Freeman

When I was in high school (it was probably 1982 or 83), I learned about a performance in Oakland featuring local tap dancers.  I was eager to attend, and I thought I might even see some of my fellow tap students from class.  It was a bit of an evening out, so I dressed up in my leopard print skirt with high heels (picture Madonna in the early 1980s).   About half way through the show, another group was announced.  They were The Gentlemen of Production, and they did something completely different. . . what is now referred to as the Oakland Boogaloo (view video clip).  I was so excited to see them dance, and I recognized quite a bit from my research on isolations as I was developing my format.  But, I wanted to learn more!

Walter “Sundance” Freeman

As soon as the show was over, I ran back stage and made a beeline for the group.  I rushed over to them but then composed myself to politely say, “I loved watching you guys perform.  Who is your director?” Well, they all turned around and stared down at me. . .  for several seconds. . . several very long seconds.  Imagine walking into someone’s private clubhouse uninvited, and the resident someones are not happy about the intrusion.  I felt a bit like Little Red Riding Hood facing a whole bunch of big bad wolves.  Right as I started to think, “Maybe I should run for it”, one young man stepped around from behind the others and said “Who the *bleep* wants to know?”  Walter “Sundance” Freeman was the young man who stepped forward, and he took pity on me and listened to what I had to ask.  He agreed to work with me, so I took lessons with him during my junior and senior years of high school. . . studying many of the funk styles:  popping, locking, boogaloo, etc. (view Walter boogaloo video clip).

Walter and I became friends and have kept in contact throughout the years.  He is a wonderful person and incredibly talented.  You may be most familiar with his tap dancing career.  He was a featured tap dancer in River Dance on Broadway (view video clip here).


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Popping, Locking & Belly Dance

The Gentlemen of Production, Oakland, CA

In the early 1970s, new “funk style” dances were being developed by urban dancers in California.  Locking (created by Don Campbell in the late 1960s) and popping (created by Sam Solomon) were two of the first and most popular.  Others included hitting, electric boogaloo, roboting, strutting, etc.  On the East Coast, break dancing was developing.  Ultimately, the media (probably starting in the early 1980s) starting putting the West and East Coast styles together under the “hip-hop dance” or “break dancing” umbrellas.  But each each Coast had its own common elements, and then each dance had its own distinct moves and stylizations.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, I loved to go to the Fisherman’s Wharf and watch and attempt to emulate the amazing street dancers. And it was from watching them that I began to isolate and use hard muscle contractions to create accents and layering options that I felt suited belly dance perfectly.  These were movements that weren’t happening in belly dance;  an individual dancer might have her signature isolation or two, but that was typically all.  I began using rib and pelvic locks; circles could be isolated into squares;  arms could be isolated into staccato arm waves; etc.  Immediately, I could see the potential, and I tried to go see the urban dancers as often as I could.  Later on, inspired by a performance by The Gentlemen of Production, I studied with Walter Freeman — more on that in a future blog post.

Early on, I began breaking down my mother’s format for myself in the terms of the classical dance world.  And as I started developing my own format in 1979, I already had a strong structure developed in my mind on which to build.  I was able to make decisions  about whether to use soft or hard muscle contractions.  I was able to accent moments in the music and layer more artistically; I might accent the percussion with hard contractions using my hips while accenting a violin with soft contractions in my arms and upperbody.  (My Dances for the Sultan video (1988) really shows how these isolations came into play as I had been incorporating them in my performing for over a decade by that point. )


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Today’s Word: Groove the Move

I remember my mother teaching class in the 1970s, using a method she developed years prior.  Her students moved in a counterclockwise circle around the room, and she encouraged them to improvise with the movements and finger cymbal patterns.  The very nature of keeping students working in a circle and not always facing the mirror or a singular wall further encouraged this improvisational element.  Jamila wanted her students to learn the movements correctly, and then start to own or “rock” the move by adding something extra of their own.

In our recent Jamila format workshops, we worked with the structure.  First you learn the required technique of the move, and you work to ingrain the technique and movements in your muscle memory.  But, you also learn to improvise or groove the move.  But it’s very important that in grooving, you maintain your basic technique.  When you adapt or change a movement, always remember the base; when you evolve or morph or change, remember the root.  Grooving and “feelin’ it” are not excuses to dismiss technique.  If you lose the technique when you start to improvise, that means your technique isn’t sufficiently developed yet.

Groove it but don’t lose it.  Take moves that you drill and make them your own with stylization and feeling.  But, maintain good technique:  when you groove the move, don’t lose the move.


Groove the Move is part of our Today’s Word: Sometimes We Have Something to Say series in which we discuss in brief the common themes and questions facing dancers.

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Today’s Word: Unexpected Bonuses

I grew up surrounded by belly dance.  As soon as my parents were married, my father forbade my mother (Jamila Salimpour) from performing as a belly dancer; but by the time I was old enough to remember, he allowed her to teach.  When my mother and I left the house, we escaped to the real world, which for us happened to be the belly dance world full of dancers, costumes, music, instruments, etc.

I am fortunate to have some documentation from those days; and from that time, I am most asked about one particular photo shown here.   I remember the day fairly well.

When I was about two, my mother had scheduled a professional photo session in San Francisco for her student Erna.  My mother often coached and costumed her students during their photo sessions.  She brought along her assuit, bedouin jewelry, etc, and this time she brought me along, as well.  The deal was, if I was “good”, I could have my photo taken.  When the photographer finished, they all started to wrap up; I begged my mother for my photo to be taken, reminding my mother of her promise since I had been very “good”.   She draped a few necklaces on me, and I started posing.  The photographer secretly informed my mother that he had no more film left in the camera so he would pretend to snap a few shots of me.

Later, when the photographer developed the film of Erna’s photo shoot, he realized there had been film left in the camera, and this was the shot he got.  It’s the photo that wasn’t meant to happen; it was the unexpected bonus.  He phoned my mother and said, “I have a surprise for you”.

In every classroom or workshop I teach, I find those surprises and unexpected bonuses.  It’s the woman who learns she is welcome in class despite her age and/or size.  It’s the woman who only has time for one class a week but gives it her full attention when she is there.  It’s the woman who finally allows herself the freedom to enjoy the music and to explore that through her body movements.   They may not be professionals, but they still undergo the same training.  And their small but vital victories (improving posture, balancing, learning to point their feet, etc.) can still change their lives for the better.

The work in the classroom creates and prepares for moments of growth and development.  And these moments might  just seem like little snapshots in time. . but they are the surprises and unexpected bonuses.  They are the pictures we might not notice, but I think they might just be some of the most important ones.


Unexpected Bonuses is part of our Today’s Word: Sometimes We Have Something to Say series in which we discuss in brief the common themes and questions facing dancers.

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Today’s Word: Muscle Memory

When in Japan recently, I learned an interesting custom.  In some shops, the merchants have small trays upon which you place your money when exchanging cash and coins with the merchant.  I got varying explanations for this custom from my Japanese colleagues, but it definitely seems a very efficient and respectful custom.  I learned about it first from my fellow traveller who, immediately after telling me the custom, handed her cash directly to a merchant rather than putting it on the provided tray.  She didn’t even realize what she was doing.  Mentally, she acknowledged the custom, but when put into an actual real-life situation, she automatically reverted to habit — a habit so strong she went into it without thinking.

As dancers, we want to develop solid muscle memory and safe habits.  This is why the first two levels of my format are devoted to solid technique development (precision, efficiency, flexibility, fluidity, stamina, movement quality, etc.)  We train our bodies (our instruments) with specific technique, and we develop muscle memory for the varied movements.  When performing, we access that well earned and continuously maintained technique as an organic, automatic habit.  Then we can put our focus on emotional and performance elements.  And at that point, we have a well trained instrument to better express those emotional and performance elements.


Muscle Memory is part of our Today’s Word: Sometimes We Have Something to Say series in which we discuss in brief the common themes and questions facing dancers.

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Today’s Words: Kabuki, Technique & Options

Matsumoto Kishiro IX

In my recent workshop trip to Japan, my sponsor treated us to a wonderful opportunity to attend kabuki theater.  We saw a production on its opening night, and we were intrigued by all of it:  acting style, facial expressions, staging, costuming, symbolism, etc.

Kabuki began in the early 1600s, and originally was performed exclusively by women.  The format of Kabuki changed quickly by the mid-1600s to be performed only by men, who played both male and female roles.  Other changes occurred over the years to result in the traditional format known today.  (The history of kabuki is quite interesting, so I encourage you to research it.)

We had the pleasure of watching Matsumoto Koshiro IX, a very famous Kabuki actor; evidently the tradition is often handed down through the generations through families.  But what I found interesting is that many well known Kabuki actors are quite versatile, also performing in film, television and Western stage plays.   Despite performing in such a unique, specific and traditional acting style, they apply their acting technique and training to other formats.  When mentioning that we saw Matsumoto, many people commented that we were so fortunate to see such a famous actor, and then they followed up with the fact that he was known for his Kabuki AND television roles.

So it is with dance:  if you have a solid foundation, you can can learn any style.  By learning the basics of dance technique and developing your body’s musculature, you become a strong dancer who can make stylistic choices without being limited or labeled as one particular style. You have options and choices.


Kabuki, Technique & Options is part of our Today’s Word(s): Sometimes We Have Something to Say series in which we discuss in brief the common themes and questions facing dancers.

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Persian Dance Instruction Available via Online Classes

We now offer Persian Dance instruction by Shahrzad Khorsandi through our online classes.  Instruction in this exquisite dance format is rare, and we thrilled to present Shahrzad’s work and training.  Drawing upon her formal dance training and her intrinsic knowledge of Persian aesthetics, Shahrzad is among the first Persian dance practitioners to create a formalized dance vocabulary and structure for Persian dance, helping to archive an art form that has been outlawed in Iran for the past three decades. This dance style is a fluid yet rhythmic dance form, which emphasizes the use of hands and wrists. The movement and positioning of the body reflect the rich and refined aesthetics of Persia.

This first six class series, Persian Dance with Shahrzad 01, is an introduction to Classical Persian Dance with elements from contemporary Persian ballet.  Each class offers a different movement combination with a distinct dynamic quality.  The series is designed to help the dancer taste and explore the range of Persian dance.  The series is available in six week increments.  Learn more about the series here.  (Soon, we will be offering Persian Dance with Shahrzad 02, which will focus on Fundamental Techniques.)

Shahrzad Khorsandi is the Artistic and Executive Director of Shahrzad Dance Company. Born and raised in Iran, Shahrzad has been involved with Persian dance since childhood. She studied Dance and Performance Art at the California Institute of the Arts, and she holds a BA in Dance, as well as an MA in Creative Arts from San Francisco State University. Her dance training includes Modern, Jazz, Ballet, West African, Afro- Haitian, Flamenco, and Persian.  Shahrzad is a wonderful instructor, and we encourage you to visit her informative website.

The video clip below features Shahrzad in performance titled “Ghalibaf” (rug weaver): a woman weaves a rug, as she has every day or her life since childhood. The geometric shapes and patterns of the rug, along with the repetitive motion of the weaving, lead her into a trance; and she begins to dance with those shapes and patterns to her inner music. Music: Habil Aliyev.

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