Jamila Salimpour, who began teaching in 1949, was the first to codify and create a step vocabulary for belly dance. To create the characteristic up and down movement of the hips, she would tell her students to “tense your hip” to lift or create an up movement. The discussion of anatomy and muscles was not used in the dance’s instruction at that time. Students would figure out on their own, usually by using their legs or obliques, how to mimic or create the movement.
She began assisting her mother in classes at the age of 9, working out ways to answer student questions about the movements. And as she had been taking classes since the age of 2 (ballet, jazz, Tahitian, Flamenco, etc.), Suhaila was developing a deep understanding of movement differences and similarities. Suhaila wanted a solution that allowed her legs to be free for kicks, splits, or whatever foot pattern she wanted to use and also that allowed the obliques to be free for upper body movements.
Suhaila figured out that by focusing on the gluteus muscles, she could create strong hipwork. She had been experimenting with the idea for some time, but it was when Prince’s Controversy album debuted in 1981, when Suhaila was 14, that she established a methodology for practice. Every afternoon after school while doing her homework and listening to the album, she would sit on her bed in a straddle sit position to practice her glute squeezes. The position helped her isolate the gluteus muscles from her legs to make sure that she was working the gluteus muscles independently for hipwork. She observed that the movement started in the gluteus maximus and, over time with practice, grew to include the gluteus medius and minimus. She continued developing the technique throughout high school to Prince’s other albums: 1999 which debuted in 1982 and Purple Rain which debuted in 1984.
In 1982 she discovered that she could contract her glutes into a vibration, which is a continuous, sustained glute contraction (of one glute or both) held to create a vibration or trembling quality like a shimmy. She honed her technique so that her vibrations had different and controllable levels of intensity and speed. Vibrations were a game changer, allowing Suhaila to add a shimmy, a distinctive element of belly dancing, with varying dynamics to better represent the music.
Suhaila had been developing and using her glutework in practice and performance since the early 1980s and she intermittently introduced some of the related concepts in her classes and workshops. Suhaila had been using her glute work in her performances from an early age; but it wasn’t until the 1990s, once she returned from performing professionally in the Middle East, that her method was introduced to the greater bellydance world. Suhaila’s novel technique was an immediate sensation. It was considered revolutionary by some, and controversial by others. But, because of her method’s effectiveness, using glute work for hipwork, became a recognized standard by 2005.
Glute work in the Media
The first official instructional video featuring Suhaila’s glute work was Stretch and Tone published in 1993. The video includes one of Suhaila’s glute development exercises featured in her class warmups. Sitting in straddle sit, dancers learn to contract and release each glute independently, both together, and at various tempos.
The next instructional videos featuring her glutework, both seated and standing, was the Fitness Fusion series published and produced by Gaiam in 2004.
Someone turned footage of Suhaila’s seated glute exercise from one of the Fitness Fusion workouts into an internet meme (these glutes are made for walking) which caught the attention of Ellen Degeneres who invited Suhaila to be on The Ellen Degeneres Show on April 25, 2007, Episode 146 of Season 4.
Then in 2008, Suhaila launched the first online classes in belly dance, filming the weekly classes at her studio to make them available for belly dancers worldwide. These were the first of their kind for any movement form. Though they have evolved throughout the years over several platforms, these classes with regular content are available by subscription.