Suhaila Salimpour talks about the origin of her love for belly dancing, creating standards for the practice, and the 70th anniversary of the Salimpour School.
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Suhaila: 00:00 … All movement forms change people's pathways, like their neurological pathways of a thought process. I know that any movement form in community can help people through depression. I know any movement form in community can make people not feel so lonely. I think any movement form in community can really support our families and helping to raise children, globally.
Gavin: 00:33 What Origin, from muse to manifestation: exploring why and how people create things. In this episode, we will be talking to Suhaila Salimpour. You can find out more at salimpourschool.com. They are celebrating their 70th anniversary of teaching and spreading the word about belly dancing. And they also have online courses for those that want to learn at home. If you’d like to find out more about the podcast, you can visit whatorigin.com, or join the conversation at facebook.com/whatorigin. So without further ado, let’s jump into the interview.
Gavin: 01:12 So I'm with Suhaila Salimpour, who produces belly dancing and runs a legacy business around belly dancing instructing. So I wanted to know, how did you get started? What excited you? Or what you got into belly dancing?
Suhaila: 01:32 Well, I don't even know if I remember, because I'm second generation, and so I think I learned how to breathe and I learned how to function, and at the same time as learning how to belly dance. So it's always been a part of me and what runs side by side through my veins, other than my blood.
Gavin: 02:03 I notice some people ... like their parents want them to follow in their tradition. Do you feel like you're kind of lucky that the people around you were belly dancing because it ended up being what you love?
Suhaila: 02:15 Well, and that's a really, kind of, double edge sword kind of question, because I'm Middle Eastern, and so even though my mother had the business and taught belly dancing, on my father's side of the family, it was such a shame and my mother was a shame to the family. And so it was very clear to me as a child that I was not allowed to love it and I wasn't allowed to even think about it professionally, but it was the only time I was happy in my life, so it was very difficult to kind of make peace as a young child. So I think I felt lucky that I had the outlet, but unlucky that I was born into a family or culture that actually didn't even appreciate their own art form.
Gavin: 02:03 So how were you able to practice it, or your mother practice it? Was it only around women growing up? Kind of, maybe, with the structure of the family and the culture, it was something that women would do together on their own time?
Suhaila: 03:17 Well, my aunts and my family would, of course, dance for each other, and they would wait for the men to leave and go to work, and then they'd close the curtains in the living room and move the coffee table over and dance for each other. And then when my mom would teach class, she made it very clear that the classes were for women only, and so it was really done as like a feminine ritual. But then my mother did, in the '60s, she did allow men in her classes because she saw that men were also trying to celebrate their femininity and she was able to justify it, even through history, of men having roles in belly dance through history, and then she allowed men in. But they were mostly non Middle Eastern men and they just had a love for the music, but yeah. It was a safe place for all of us.
Gavin: 04:15 How has that sort of cultural stigma, maybe, you grew up [with] influenced your current studio, your current operations? Do you feel like it's more comfortable having women? Or do you feel like it's something that you want to share with everyone?
Suhaila: 04:31 Oh, it's something that I want to share with everyone. I feel that we are in a political place right now that it's really important to be gender fluid, and I think it's such a beautiful art form to even experiment with all those concepts as well. So I think it's really important to be all inclusive in an art form, in a dance form, that comes from certain cultural, I'd say, traditions where they might be more challenged with male/female roles.
Suhaila: 05:07 So, even in the Middle East, I don't think it is as celebrated. I don't think you're as able to celebrate the beauty of this dance form in certain areas like we can outside of the Middle East, because you have more permission.
Gavin: 05:24 So beyond the exercise, do you find that with people that start doing belly dancing, they see other benefits, maybe just being able to open up or share a space with other people and community? What kind of health benefits or meaning do you see drawn from this practice?
Suhaila: 05:44 Well, I like that you used the word “health benefits” because I think that the mental health benefits are probably more prevalent than any of the movement benefits. I mean, when people come together as a community and move together and sweat together and just even rock back and forth together and to music and they don't need to use words. They can use ... They can physicalize emotional expression and intent and content. I mean, this is more important than anything. I have many students that come into class and they think they want to take a belly dance class, but really what they want is to change their life.
Gavin: 06:24 So how does that feel being an instructor and knowing you're changing lives? Is that ... I guess that must motivate you every day. How long have you been doing this? And do you ever find that the passion wanes? Or is it just every time you see a new person enjoy it, it reinvigorates you?
Suhaila: 06:42 I think you asked three questions in one.
Gavin: 06:45 Okay. I-
Suhaila: 06:45 In one. So I'm going to go back to the beginning. I'm going to say, as a teacher, but I don't really look at myself as an instructor. I really mentor the school, and, I direct and mentor the school, and I direct and mentor higher level instructors in the school to be able to teach students, and then I also kind of shape the vision of the future, where I want this school to go to. So, of course, it's inspiring like every day because I love what I do so much with a passion and that is because I get to see through the eyes of my students the evolution of themselves spiritually, physically, emotionally and I love it.
Suhaila: 07:29 And so, for me, I don't even think about it. I mean, I've had people ask me, like, "Oh, if you weren't doing this, what else would you do?" And there's just nothing else in the world I would be doing. And I knew my destiny early on in my life, when I was a child, and so I just surrendered to that and allowed my life to take shape and form in the direction it is in.
Gavin: 07:52 So you do teach in the [San Francisco] Bay Area. Do you find that there's a global community or a wider community that connects with belly dancing? Part of the same question, are there competitions? How does the community gather as a whole?
Suhaila: 08:07 Okay, now you asked three questions again. But what I do locally now is different than what I did 20 years ago. So, when I was building the school to its current state, I was in the local studio every night, every day. But now, in my role as a mentor, I've created the first certification program in belly dance, and so the Salimpour School is a certifying body in belly dance, and so, now, the schools are all over the world, so it is a global community. And we have shows that are even based on global interaction and contribution, and especially, now, in an age where we have social media and it's so easy to be connected, it was important for me to bring the art form and the dance form and be able to link hands globally with all of the Salimpour students around the world.
Suhaila: 09:07 And as far as competition, I mean, I think it's really important for people to be inspired by the art from. And however they become introduced to this art from, I think it's wonderful. So, for example, when Shakira was belly dancing, people were so inspired by that idea and concept that belly dance classes grew because they saw her, they loved her, they wanted to be like her, and they wanted to be inspired by what she was inspired with. So that's good. I think we can all learn from each other.
Gavin: 09:46 Yeah, I want to be like her too.
Suhaila: 09:47 Right?
Gavin: 09:50 Do you find that the belly dancing style is different in different parts of the world? I mean, my ... Okay. Let me just preface this. My understanding is, I've been at restaurants, and I've seen Shakira and things like that, and I've seen a style where, maybe, they move the stomach or they shake the hips and things like that, but I don't know more advanced moves, and I don't know if it's different in different places. So maybe, for the listeners, could describe what the different kind of movements are and if it's different in different places in the world?
Suhaila: 10:25 Well, it's like any dance form. Even ballet, in a non-ethnic dance form, there's Russian style, there's French, and then different choreographers bring in different things, so it's not any different than any other dance form. So even in Indian dance, there's different parts of India that express different movements and have different focuses. And so it's just like any other dance form.
Suhaila: 10:55 I think that one of the issues that people have in feeling educated or not educated with belly dancing is that we have venues like the local restaurants where you have a belly dancer kind of dancing between the tables and she's more of an ambience. Right? So I think that's where people get confused, that the restaurant ambience dancer is kind of like in the same category as somebody's who's working on a theater stage where you have more space you can take, and you can have lighting design, and you can have costume changes.
Suhaila: 11:35 But there is a lot of different styles, I think, that are going to be based on region, like any other dance form, and country, rhythms, culture, and also just eras. So you can even have the same country, the same region, but a different era, and the movements are going to be different.
Gavin: 11:56 So imagine I come in, I don't know how to shake my hips. Something like this, right? How does a teacher, as you said, kind of loosen someone up and say like, "Hey, let go, shake your hips," and that process? Because a lot of us don't move that way. Right? I think it's something maybe we do in the mirror or for fun, but it's not something you've ever done in a group and really try to specialize. So what that initial process for people that want to get involved in belly dancing, to just loosen them up and start to get those movements?
Suhaila: 12:33 Well, I don't think that taking belly dance class would be different than any other dance class because I think that, when you come into a form that you're not used to doing or a movement style that you're not used to doing, the most important thing is to feel safe in your body and to feel that you understand your body and you can listen to your body, and actually, you're not loosening your hips at all. You're actually learning how to control the muscles that you use to execute movements and feel empowered by understanding your body.
Suhaila: 13:06 And maybe you wouldn't dance like this at a party. It's not your normal way of movement, but if you go to the Middle East, it is their normal way of movement. So, yeah.
Gavin: 13:16 What's the hardest move to learn in belly dancing? If someone's practicing for five years, I don't know, six years, what's that hardest part? Is just fine tuning and making it smoother? Or are there moves that are just really, just like ballet, that take four, five, ten years to develop?
Suhaila: 13:40 Well, it is an art form, which is different. So it's lifetime process. You're really learning the art of the movement, but also, because it's from a culture, and the history and the people and the culture and the music play a part in the art form; of course, it does, like any other art form and dance form. So I think it takes a lot longer than that to really get good at it.
Suhaila: 14:16 There are many movements that are difficult, and maybe not even just one movement, but the combination of movements, and to be able to combine movements skillfully and represent music. So it's not even a movement that I would say is difficult, but it's how you represent the music at a high level; that is what's difficult. And that could take years and years, and I mean, in ballet, the first 10 years of your training, you're just really trying to create foundation.
Gavin: 14:47 Given that you kind of have that Middle Eastern background, it's sometimes seen as a little bit of a provocative dance, but as you said, there was shame and the men didn't like it, but the women would practice by themselves. How do you think, kind of, a dance style like this developed out of Middle Eastern culture? Rather than, maybe, like folk dancing is relatively, I would say, structured and serious. I think the juxtaposition between the shame that you mentioned and the seriousness, and then also, a dance that it so sort of free flowing and letting yourself go, in some ways, is interesting to me.
Suhaila: 15:32 I don't look at it like that at all.
Gavin: 15:35 Well, that's great. I'm happy to be ... I want to be wrong.
Suhaila: 15:39 Well, no, you're not wrong. You're just uneducated. That's different.
Gavin: 15:42 Please educate me. That's what ... I'm here to educate myself.
Suhaila: 15:44 Yeah. I mean, and I'm used to that. That's why I handle it all the time. That's why I've written. We have books in the Salimpour School that talk about the history, and we have books in the Salimpour School that help educate people on the music and the history of current belly dance as we know it today. But just remember, like all movement, like dance is based on ritual, and dance is based on creating community. That is the purpose of dance and movement, is to create community and ritual.
Suhaila: 16:44 So, if you think of it like that, then you really can't separate any of the dance forms together. So I'm looking at it kind of like, I zoom out, and look at it on a broader level. And when you talk about culture and the way the culture looks at its dance form, a lot of that is based on politics and religion and the influences in each generation that that plays.
Gavin: 16:38 Right. So I see, and I think this is a good thing, that people need to see belly dancing as the same they see ballet or as the same they see many other things. And I have to say, I didn't really know that there was such serious practice until I was introduced to you and I did some research.
Gavin: 16:58 So I think that's an important distinction that you're making, is that this is a dance form just like any other. It's not just that oh, Shakira kind of belly dancing thing you see a little ... There's a whole practice behind it. But I want to ask, it sounds like you've accomplished a lot with your Salimpour School and books. What are you looking forward, for the future, in your world of belly dancing, and how do you want to continue to grow?
Suhaila: 17:30 Well, this year, 2019, the Salimpour School is having its 70th anniversary. Seven zero. So this is big year for us. It's really a triumph in the art form, and in any art form. So if you take any dance school, dance family, dance legacy, to get to a 70th anniversary is really an accomplishment. I'm really proud of that.
Suhaila: 17:55 What I see for the future is just to keep creating the foundation for other dancers and artists to emerge from and find their voice through this art form. I think it's really important that we're able to educate those like yourself. You're being educated today, and I think it's important that we're able to have platforms like your podcast to be able to explain what our art form's about because, unfortunately, through time, we have been kind of reduced to like the little three second spot in a James Bond movie, or an over sexualized vision of a photograph of a belly dancer here or there, and those, of course, are filtered through a very specific type of eye.
Suhaila: 18:47 But this dance form is beautiful, and it's been around for many, many years. And it has a beautiful future as long as, I think, like a lot of things right now socially, we take care and we're careful and we're cautious and we think of the people and the culture and the land and the soil that this comes from.
Gavin: 19:10 In that sense, do you feel like practicing belly dancing and being more in tune with your body also does create a connection with the world, earth, like it changes your mentality? You did mention mental health, but in general, how do you see it helping or changing people's minds, in general? If you could say.
Suhaila: 19:34 Well, I think all movement, all movement forms, change people's pathways, like their neurological pathways of a thought process. I know that any movement form in community can help people through depression. I know any movement form in community can make people not feel so lonely. I think any movement form in community can really support our families and helping to raise children, globally.
Suhaila: 20:10 So I don't look at it as just belly dancing. I do feel that the people that come to me are drawn to what I can hold and house in terms of the community that I built. It's very, like I said, it's global. So no matter which one of the Salimpour School students, they can travel anywhere in the world, and they have friends and they have community and they have people they can practice with, and they can have friends they can probably stay at their house or go to dinner with. That's amazing.
Gavin: 20:44 Sometimes, different parts of the world develop similar dances. Have you found any dances that kind of popped up in other parts of the world that are similar to belly dancing, to the movements?
Suhaila: 20:57 Well, I think that there's a lot of similarities to many ancient movement forms, and when you think of a lot of movement in different African countries, I mean, Egypt's in Africa. So if you think of all the countries in the Middle East and North Africa that share certain types of rhythm and certain types of movement, I mean, you can see where all the fingers link, the hands join and link. And yes, definitely.
Suhaila: 21:33 And I even see it in current pop culture. I mean, I look at what's happening in our current Western movement form and I can see a lot of Middle Eastern and North African and belly dance moves, a lot.
Gavin: 21:50 Yeah. And I've also noticed in hip hop, like they've integrated Middle Eastern sort of melodies and sounds. For people that don't know a lot about belly dancing, they may not pursue it, are there performances all around that they could go to? Or maybe videos on your site that you might recommend so someone can open their eyes to the complexity or more of what your belly dancing represents rather than that sort of James Bond image and Shakira?
Suhaila: 22:26 Yeah, funny.
Gavin: 22:26 Where would you send people?
Suhaila: 22:28 Well, I have a website and I encourage people to go on the salimpourschool.com website and I have a static page with videos and footage of performances with my dance company, as well as my own solo work, and then also Vimeo and YouTube. So now, like I said, the world is so much smaller because we have access to things at our fingertips, which is good and not so good at times. But to answer your question, yes, I'm in any kind of location: Vimeo, YouTube, and salimpourschool.com. Yeah.
Gavin: 23:05 Well, I may come to one of your classes since I'm nearby and-
Suhaila: 23:11 Well, you don't even have to come to a class. You can do a class online. I have a huge online school, so you could use an online belly dance class with my school.
Gavin: 23:21 Oh, okay. I can online belly dance.
Suhaila: 23:24 You can do it in your living room.
Gavin: 23:27 Okay. Yeah. Alright. Well, that sounds good. I'll have to take you up on that.
Suhaila: 23:33 Thank you so much for being so open to questions and answers and about this art form that I love so much, so thank you.
Gavin: 23:45 Yeah, I'm very curious to learn ways how people use creativity to build communities, or just build a business, or build upon that, and it sounds like a lot of people have dealt with maybe trauma or mental health or different issues through belly dancing, and that's really powerful. It's that-
Suhaila: 24:04 Well, we need each other. We need each other, and through art, is the way we're going to save society. Yeah.
Gavin: 24:14 It takes a unique ... And I've interviewed quite a few people, more and more will be coming out, it takes kind of a unique type of individual to take something like belly dancing, and then scale it into a business, and then scale it into certifications, and all these things, and globally. Where did you get that business acumen or that vision? It takes a lot of administrative work and grit. Instead of maybe just belly dancing, right? How did you find those talents and build such a broad-
Suhaila: 24:52 Well, my mother started this school in 1949, and she was the one that really laid the foundation, but my contribution to the Salimpour School was huge, and it came in a very defining moment of my life where I was working in the Middle East for 10 years, for a decade. I was performing two shows a night, six, seven nights a week, all throughout the Middle East and North Africa and also in the United States as well, and I was so lonely.
Suhaila: 25:33 It was before cell phones or texting or Skype or anything, and what saved me was my writing. I would write in my diary, and then I would say that my dream would be someday to create a safe place for humans, for people, to be able to create and express themselves freely, because working in the Middle East was really difficult, and I had to be really strong on many levels. And it's what saved me was these pages of me talking about what I wanted to build, which was really what I was craving for myself.
Suhaila: 26:13 So when I made the conscious decision to walk off the nightclub stage and focus on the school, every cell of my body was focused on making sure that I created this community and safe place. And the focus wasn't on just me getting more gigs. So that's what it was.
Gavin: 26:37 That's a beautiful story.
Suhaila: 26:39 Well, I also, I gave birth to a baby girl in 1998, and I had to look at myself and really figure out how I wanted to guide and model this young child, this baby that I was responsible for. What are the lessons I'm going to teach her about life? How am I going to pass on these generations of my ancestors of wisdom to her? And it was, definitely, all the answers were in creating a community and an environment that we don't really have today in modern society to be able to support her. And that's what I did.
Gavin: 27:45 Yeah. It's fascinating. I have neighbors that never say hi or wave or just sort of ... I seek out communities and creative communities, but we need those.
Suhaila: 27:36 Yeah.
Gavin: 27:36 So I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
Suhaila: 27:39 Well, thank you so much, yeah.
Gavin: 27:42 Salimpour School, so S-A-L-I-M-P-O-U-RSchool.com and if you want to join me, I'm going to do the online class and learn some belly dancing, I think. Can't promise.
Suhaila: 27:55 That's great.
Gavin: 27:55 But I'm going to try. Cool.
Suhaila: 27:57 Give it a shot. Alright, thank you.
Gavin: 28:01 Thank you for listening to this episode of What Origin?. To find out more about the podcast, you can visit whatorigin.com, and you can join the conversation at facebook.com.whatorigin.