Compendium

Foreword to Salimpour Compendium

Beginning and Scope

This book—one of our many artistic collaborations—was Vonda’s idea to deliver information that has become second nature to her understanding of both the Sailmpour family as well as this dance form as a whole. Vonda’s first exposure to this dance was with the Jamila Salimpour Vocabulary. As many in her generation of dance student, researching, studying and watching (over, over and again) the great classic belly dancers was the norm of what you did and shared with your dance sisters. She began working directly with our School in the late 1990s. As her love for the art grew, so did her desire to learn about the dance, culture, and history of this beautiful dance form. She wanted to complete her knowledge of the Salimpour Format and “fill in the blanks” including Jamila’s Habibi articles and wonderful stories she heard first hand from Jamila.  

Vonda (and I) were surprised at how much knowledge was being lost in the new generation. In 2013, The Salimpour School published the Jamila’s Article Book:  Selections of Jamila Salimpour’s Articles Published in Habibi  Magazine 1974-1988. Our goal was to use the articles for the students in our School to begin their own research. We quickly found that our students had a difficult time sorting through countless sources and determining whether those were based on true scholarship, conjecture, and, in some cases, a confusing mixture of both.

We decided to create a compendium of topics raised in the Article Book. The goal was to provide a solid, referenced, and verified introduction to topics from which students could continue their own research. Although this book can be used alone, it is important to remember that the scope and selected topics have been limited to those raised in Jamila’s Article Book.

The Right Woman

We had our compendium idea, and now we needed to find the right person to sort through the massive number of sources, find the relevant information weigh the information, write concise treatments of topics and and and… Honestly, we wanted to find someone who was skilled in and passionate about both research and dance. Fortunately, one of my long-term students, Abigail Keyes, was available, interested, and motivated to take on the project. Abby has won academic awards for her writing, and she has significant work experience in “critical path” writing. And she did an incredible job of creating this resource.  

The Parts

The first section, the Salimpour Story Part 1 (1926-1985) was compiled and written by Vonda and from the writings by and interviews with Jamila over a decade.  Part 1 covers Jamila’s history and major contributions to this dance form through 1985, when she effectively retired upon my high school graduation.  This section also gives context to Jamila’s life and choices.

Parts 2-4 were written by Abigail who provides a current treatment of the topics presented in Jamila’s original Habibi articles.  From this solid base, students can continue their own research.

The Point

The Salimpour School is dedicated to promoting solid instruction in technique and scholarship. Every belly dancer—whether professional, beginning, or even just thinking about taking a class—should read this book and keep it as a primary source of information.

Suhaila Salimpour, August 2015

Preface to Salimpour Compendium

What you are reading right now is a companion to Jamila’s Article Book, a collection of the articles that Jamila Salimpour wrote for Habibi magazine in the 1970s and 80s, re-published in 2012. As we re-read and collected her articles for the new publication, we realized that the current scholarship on belly dance and its related subjects had increased exponentially since Jamila wrote for Habibi, as well as our understanding of what Jamila calls “Oriental dance.” Jamila herself was not trained as a scholar; she often took large passages of text and re-worded them for her articles, often without citations or bibliographies. She was more interested in sharing the information she had found with her readership, and at the time during which she wrote, that was acceptable. 

We also realized that the dancers reading Jamila’s Article Book might have a bevy of questions about the material that Jamila wrote. In an ideal world, everyone would have the time and resources to research the answers to whatever questions they might have, but we understand that there are not only limited hours in the day, but also an overwhelming amount of information available to us, some of it contradictory. Since the time that Jamila wrote for Habibi and today, scholars and researchers have published far more anthropological, critical, and ethnological research on belly dance than was ever available to dancers. In addition, much of the popular information about belly dance is unsubstantiated (what we like to call “Wishtory”). Other resources are so steeped in postmodern critical theory that it is often difficult for the casual, yet curious, reader to comprehend. 

Today we have the benefit of over three decades of serious research, as well as the full catalogs of both Habibi and Arabesque magazines. Preeminent scholars immersed themselves in the study of Oriental dance, many in the last fifteen years. The fields of women’s studies, post-colonial studies, and ethnic studies are now far more developed than were in Jamila’s time, and all have overlap with the study of belly dance. 

Also, just as the first part of Jamila’s Article Book contains autobiographical articles, we have included in the first section of this book additional information about Jamila Salimpour’s life, culled from months of extensive interviews with her and her daughter Suhaila. What did not make it into her own writing has been preserved here. We hope that these stories bring additional understanding to her journey in dance as well as the era in which she performed and taught her format. We also hope that it helps shed light on the life of this innovative and remarkable woman.

This book can be read on its own, without Jamila’s Article Book. However, we do refer back to it, and hope that you do, too. In addition, we hope that you use this book’s bibliography as a starting point for your own deeper research of Oriental dance and its related cultural and historical subjects. Many of these sources are available on the internet, particularly through Google Scholar (scholar.google.com) and the Internet Archive (archive.org), or through your library (take advantage of Inter-Library Loan, if your local library provides that service). 

We intend for this book to not only be a supplement on Jamila’s life, but also a primer on the many historical and cultural subjects that dovetail with belly dance as a practice. Everything here has had some impact on Jamila Salimpour’s format and her relationship with Oriental dance. Subjects here range from introducing Islam, the harem, the ‘awalim and ghawazi, the Ballets Russes, early modern dance, and Little Egypt. You might notice what’s missing: there are no how-to chapters on costuming or makeup, nor are there fanciful articles about the origin of belly dance being found in ancient goddess worship or childbirth. That said, we have made great efforts to make this an objective collection, presenting research from many scholars, historians, dancers, and other experts. 

If you are at all familiar with Middle Eastern culture and language, you might notice that our transliteration system is a little inconsistent. For foreign-language words that are more commonly used, such as proper names (Umm Kulthum), or in the news (hijab), we use the more familiar spellings. For words that are less commonly used, we adhere to a more scholarly system of transliterating Arabic script into Roman script, preserving diacritical marks and the distinction between long and short vowels. The Arabic language has letters that have no equivalents in English, and for those sounds that we have no letters for, we use the closest approximation. We italicize nearly all foreign-language words, except proper nouns that appear more commonly in popular English language sources (such as Qur’an). 

Abigail Keyes, August 2014

Contents

The Salimpour Story 1926 - 1985

  • Early Days in New York City and Circus.  Jamila was born in New York City and raised in a Sicilian neighborhood, her first introduction to belly dance being her father imitating the dancers he saw when stationed in North Africa during his naval years.
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  • Jamila Moves to California:  In Hollywood, she learns to craft metal jewelry, befriends an Armenian family which provides her entry into a welcoming Middle Eastern community.  She learns, studies, performs, and teaches belly dance.
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  • Jamila’s Hollywood Recollections: Jamila describes her experiences and observations related to Middle Eastern music and dance activities in Los Angeles during the mid-20th century. 
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  • Jamila Marries Again: Engaging in the San Francisco dance scene at 12 Adler Place and maintaining connections with friends like Bob Mackie, Jamila’s story reflects her resilience and transformation.
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  • Jamila Moves to San FranciscoShe opens a nightclub with her then fiance and continues dancing.  She marries and gives birth to Suhaila.
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  • Jamila Focuses Primarily on Teaching: Her husband forbids her from performing, so she focuses on teaching.  Even after their separation and divorce, she does not go back to performing, but focuses even more on teaching, including Suhaila in the same work.  She finally documents her Vocabulary and finger cymbal method into manuals.
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  • The Workshop Era:  Jamila began presenting workshops and festivals to promote the art form and provide educational support to belly dancers.  She has Suhaila teach the Vocabulary, including both her own and Suhaila’s contributions to the Vocabulary, on video; thus bringing her workshop era to an end as now dancers can access the instruction without traveling.

The Middle East and the Origins of Belly Dance

  • What is the Middle East?: Before examining Jamila’s subjects and stories, we must first understand what it means to be in the Middle East, encompassing its history, its people, and what makes it unique.
  • Ethnicities and Languages: The Middle East is home to mostly Arabs and many other ethnic groups. Several elements make this region a rich and diverse area with a plethora of languages and traditions.
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  • What is Islam?: Begin with the definition and history of Islam, how Muḥammad became its central figure, and Islam’s current position in the world.
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  • The Ottoman Empire: Learn how the Ottoman Empire managed to span and control three continents at its height in the 16th century.
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  • Modern-day Turkey: In this section, learn about the overthrow of the Ottomans after WWI and how Turkey’s first president, Atatürk implemented an ambitious program of modernization in the area.
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  • Egypt after World War I: After WWI, Egypt became a central piece for the greatest events in the 20th century, which led to the first president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and how the Egyptian Revolution took place.

 

  • The Harem:  Myth and Reality: In the past, there were different misconceptions and fantasies that surrounded the harem, which influenced the evolving interpretations of belly dance, often as a space of female empowerment.
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  • ‘Awalim and Ghawazi: Social and political changes in the Middle East led to the decline of ‘awalim, the “learned women”, while the tradition of the previously repudiated ghawazi continued in Egypt.
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  • The Ouled Nail: Known for offering dance and companionship to men and their unique costumes with coins, the Ouled Nail were skilled dancers who fascinated wherever they went.
  • Male Dancers in the Middle East: Despite the religious and cultural norms, there have been numerous male dancers that defied the traditional masculinity in the Middle East. Learn more about them in this section.
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  • Raqs at-Tahtib: Previously seen as a game, the Raqs at-Tahtib dance became a symbol of national pride in Egypt once women started adopting a playful and flirtatious version.
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  • Samia Gamal (1924-1994): Samia Gamal integrated ballet and Latin dance techniques into her performances, which led her to become a pioneer in transforming belly dance into a sophisticated and modern art form.
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  • Tahia Carioca (1919-1999): Known for her political activism and intellectual achievements, Tahia gained recognition for her performances under Badia Masabni’s guidance, spanning a career of 60 years.
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  • Naima Akef (1939-1966): Naima became a sensation with her innovative solo performances, which combined tap dance, Latin, and European elements. She helped reshape the traditional roles in Egyptian cinema.
  • Mahmoud Reda (1930-2020): Mahmoud Red created a new form of theater dance with the Reda Troupe in 1959, modernizing traditional Egyptian dances and breaking the stigma associated with dance in Egypt.
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  • Radia Fahmy: Farida inadvertently challenged the existing image of the female dancer in the Egyptian, and wider Arab, consciousness with her extroverted but modest image.
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  • Raqia Hassan: Madam Raqia has been credited with keeping Oriental dance alive in Egypt and around the world by creating the annual Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival in Egypt.
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  • Faten Salama: Faten Salama is best known for her work as a member of the Egyptian National Folkloric Troupe, even after she formed her own performance company alongside her husband.
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  • Muhammad Khalil (1946-2005): Khalil’s choreographies re-created the political, social, and economic atmosphere of Egyptian society at the end of the 20th century.
  • Sohair Zaki (1944- ): She was the first to perform on TV to Umm Kulthum’s music, becoming a renowned figure in Middle Eastern dance during the 1960s up until the 1980s.
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  • Nagwa Fouad (1943 – ): By the mid-1970s, Nagwa became a top belly dancer in the Arab world and beyond, thanks to her strength and energy for her roles.
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  • Nadia Gamal (1937-1990): She was a pioneer in the Lebanese style belly dance and was known for her innovative style, including extensive floorwork and incorporation of zār elements.
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  • Fifi Abdo (1953- ): Regardless of various controversies during her life, Fifi was known for her philanthropic profile, her improvisational style, and her bint al-balad character. 
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  • Mona El Said: Considered one of the great dancers of the 1970s and 1980s, she is also a pioneer of the touring Oriental dancer, having taught workshops and performed around the world.

 

  • Perceptions of Dancers in the Middle East: Women in Middle Eastern dances have fought for their reputation and perception for centuries, allowing them to dance unveiled in modern days. Discover the most relevant of them in this section.
  • Fitna: Rooted in the concept of fitna, public dancing has been seen as dishonorable, associating women’s sexuality with chaos and disruption.
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  • Dancing for Money: Despite the stigmas that belly dancers face for their “inappropriate” dances, the persistence of belly dance can be attributed to its demand for entertainment.
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  • Archetypes and Images: Several performers have been able to escape the stigma and build a strong image by playing personas and characters to win great acclaim and respect.
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  • Islamic Views on Dancing: Most scholars agree that Islam does not explicitly prohibit dancing, but the issue is not settled, as professional dancers have been the subject of increasing intimidation in the past four decades.

The West Discovers the Middle East

  • Western Travelers in the Middle East: The perception of belly dance in the Western world reflects biases stereotypes but also provides valuable insights into the origins of belly dance and the attitudes toward it.
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  • One Thousand and One Arabian Nights: These tales have had a significant influence on how the Western world perceives the Middle East, shaping stereotypes and creating images of an exotic perception of the Orient in literature, arts, and media.
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  • Egyptomania: Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign in the 18th century is the basis for Egyptomania, a fascination with Ancient Egypt that influenced various aspects of Western culture, thanks to its aesthetics.
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  • The Ballets Russes: With its Oriental ballets like Schéhérazade and Cléopâtre, the Ballets Russes helped to shape the perceptions the Western had of the Middle East and its culture.
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  • Little Egypt, Hootchy-Cootchy, and Burlesque: The concept of “Little Egypt” represented various Oriental-influenced performers on American burlesque, and carnival stages, leading to the “hootchy-cootchy” trend. 

Burlesque: The origins of burlesque are not about stripping, as we have always believed, but rather as means of reversing roles and shattering polite expectations of women of that time.

  • Mata Hari (1876-1917): After reinventing herself in Paris, she gained fame as an exotic dancer named Mata Hari, known for her sensual performances, before being accused of espionage.
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  • Loie Fuller (1863-1928): Even though she lacked formal dance training, Loie Fuller became a respected figure in the Art Nouveau movement, With her “Serpentine Dance.”
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  • Isadora Duncan (1877-1927): Isadora founded her own schools and dance company after developing a revolutionary approach to dance, drawing inspiration from nature and rejecting traditional ballet.
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  • Maud Allen (1873-1956): Even after her brother’s crimes, she managed to captivate audiences, especially her interpretation of Salome, leaving behind a legacy of influential and controversial performances.
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  • Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968):  Ruth Sr. Denis became famous after incorporating Middle Eastern and South Asian elements in her performances, influencing future generations of dancers.
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  • La Meri (1899-1899): La Meri, student of Ruth St. Denis, gained fame as a versatile dancer known for bridging the gap between the interpretive former approach and the more authentic approach from future generations.

Belly Dance in the U.S.

  • Oriental Images in Hollywood: Jamila criticized Hollywood’s portrayal of belly dancers, stating that these films distorted and caricatured the dance, often heavily influenced by misconceptions.
  • Cleopatra:  The Last Pharaoh: On screen, she used her sexuality to seduce Caesar and Marc Antony; however, the historical Cleopatra was likely more savvy than sensual as the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt.
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  • Salome and “Salomania”: The portrayal of Salome left a lasting impact on the Western perception of female power, evolving from what was portrayed solely as an alluring and seductive dancer image.
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  • Theda Bara (1885-1955): Despite her success as a quintessential vamp captivating audiences, Theda Bara struggled against being typecast, faced criticisms for her roles, and eventually retired from films to embrace a quieter life.
  • The Veil as Dance Prop: The use of veils in belly dance performances seems to be a recent development, especially among American belly dancers who incorporated it into their routines.
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  • The Veil in Islam: In some Muslim communities, women wear various forms of coverings. However, it has both religious and sometimes political implications in different contexts.
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  • Opposing Viewpoints: Being perceived both as a symbol of oppression and identity, the practice of veiling has sparked controversy in the last century, with different viewpoints in the Middle East and Europe. 
  • Middle Eastern Nightclubs in the United States: Between 1950 and 1970, Middle Eastern nightclubs in the United States saw the fusion of music and dance styles from the Middle East, creating a unique American hybrid before their eventual decline.
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  • Ahmad Jarjour (ca. 1934-1989): Despite his struggles as a homosexual male dancer, Ahmad built a successful dance career, paving the way for younger artists like Suhaila Salimpour.
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  • 1960s Counterculture: The 1950s and 60s saw a significant cultural shift with the emergence of movements like feminism and civil rights, which led to the popularization of belly dance as a symbol of empowerment.
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  • Feminism, the “Goddess”, and Belly Dance: The connection between belly dance and goddess worship emerged during the 1960s and 1970s alongside the rise of women’s liberation movements.

Bibliography

The content from this post is excerpted from The Salimpour School of Belly Dance Compendium. Volume 1: Beyond Jamila’s Articles. published by Suhaila International in 2015. This Compendium is an introduction to several topics raised in Jamila’s Article Book. 

If you would like to make a citation for this article, we suggest the following format: Salimpour, S. and Keyes, A. (2023). Foreword, Preface, and Contents.  The Salimpour School of Belly Dance Compendium. Volume 1: Beyond Jamila’s Articles. published by Suhaila International in 2015. Salimpour School. Retrieved -insert retrieval date-, from https://salimpourschool.com/

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