In the mid-1970s, Jamila sponsored a student night once a month at the Casbah, a belly dance nightclub in San Francisco. The Casbah was open seven nights a week with live musicians and dancers every night of the week. Once a month on a Monday night (the slowest night at the Casbah), Jamila organized what she called “Moon Celebrations” to provide her students an opportunity to dance to a live band. The nights were very successful for the students and provided them an invaluable opportunity to work with Arabic musicians in a “student night” capacity, so the dancers could develop their improvisational skills in a responsible venue.
Jamila began her belly dance studies by watching the famous dancers in Egyptian movies and emulating their movements. She continued by observing as many dancers as she could and seeking out all Middle Eastern music she could. . . even taking instruction in playing traditional Middle Eastern instruments. She insisted that her students learn about famous dancers, Middle Eastern music, etc. Later, from her work with Bal Anat, Jamila became known as “the mother of tribal belly dance”, but the folkloric, fantasy, and fusion dances of Bal Anat were just one element of Jamila’s program. The same dancers who participated in Bal Anat were the ones dancing to classic Middle Eastern music and played live Arabic music in the nightclubs.
The Moon Celebration shows would get started close to 11 pm and would continue until 2 am or later in the morning. As a child, Suhaila remembers going with her mother to these Monday nights shows to watch the students dance to live Arabic music. Rather than go home after the show, they would curl up on the rug-covered benches along the walls of the club and sleep. Jamila would wake Suhaila up around 7 am Tuesday morning to take her to school.
Now we fast forward to 2011. As part of her certification program, Suhaila’s Level 4 focuses on the professional performer of which improvisational skills to a live band are incredibly important. But how do dancers acquire this skill if live bands, specifically Arabic bands, are scarce? For members of the certification program who are working on their performance catalogs, finding opportunities to dance to live Arabic musicians proved incredibly difficult. To combat this problem, . . . similar to Jamila’s Moon Celebrations in the mid-1970s. . . Suhaila arranged to bring four Arabic musicians into her studio to provide a live band improvisation opportunity for her Level 4 workshop students. The night was a great success, and you can view highlights of the night on the Suhaila Belly Dance YouTube channel.
The original blog was published in the Salimpour School blog on 23 May 2011.