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Circus Performer, Belly Dancer, and the Mother of American Tribal Style Dance
BiographyJamila Salimpour's influence on belly dance in the United States is acknowledged by both her fans and her enemies. On one hand, she studied hard, trained many and codified what had previously been undescribed in the Occidental world. On the other hand, she introduced a wildly popular folkloric and circus aspect into her work which she never claimed was authentic but which many purists decry as misleading. However, if one takes the position that belly dance is about entertainment, and entertainers will always push the envelope, then Jamila's incorporation of exotic costuming, music and theatrics may well have saved belly dance from extinction, like the Ballet Russes saved ballet.
Jamila Jamila was a professional dancer with her own band when the first successful 'Oriental' night club opened in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, the Greek Village. This venue hired Jamila's musicians but not her, claiming that her bedlah was risque. So Jamila went there as a customer and made careful assessments of their clientele and entertainment. In an article published on Bhuz, Jamila described the effect a certain scandalously effective singer had on the Greek Village's cash flow. "Just as in the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 when the dancers from the midway offended the sensibility of what was considered the norm, the customers to the Greek Village came in droves to view the offender first-hand in order to more effectively pass judgement. The cash register rang from the profits of the protestors who stayed most of the night to watch Betty and make sure they saw what the gossip was all about. She never disappointed them."
Jamila had started teaching in the early 1950s. When her second marriage ended, she arranged to both dance AND teach classes at the Fez, a popular nightclub. Because of the problems Arabic restaurants were having with dancers from overseas who had come into the country illegally and who were supplementing their income on the side as prostitutes, the Fez agreed to let Jamila provide them with American dancers who would stick to dancing.
In 1960, Jamila moved to San Francisco, where she had more opportunities to perform. The audience was now heavily American men, not Arabic, and the American audience were there for the dancing, not the music or the singing (which they did not understand). They expected a dancer on stage at all times, which ended up turning the original 15-minute sets into exhausting 45-minute sets. The upside was that Jamila was exposed to many regional dance styles and soaked them up like a sponge. Zills became a special interest for her.
1965: Married again, and again to a Persian husband who would not allow her to dance publicly. Jamila, now pregnant, continued to teach full time. She had huge classes (as many as 300 in a gym at one time). Part of her brand consisted of arriving fully dressed and made up as for a performance. Her striking dark looks and dramatic costuming made her a commanding presence. She favored folkloric costuming over traditional cabaret for the theatrical effect: photographs from the 60s frequently show her in what became her signature assuit dresses with dramatic tatoos and headpieces.
As daughter Suhaila grew up, Jamila incorporated her into her dance life, teaching her to dance, perform and eventually to teach. Jamila began to codify the steps she had learned, which not only facilitated teaching but which proved useful when the belly dance scene started to incorporate choreographed dancing to music by large Egyptian orchestras and when videos became a popular way of teaching. The choreographies could be written down and understood by students; the videos had a way to name what was being taught. Jamila's terminology was eventually absorbed into the Western belly dance culture and is used as a de-facto standard by many teachers and performers today.
In the late 1960s, Jamila formed the tribal troupe Bal Anat, initially as a way to structure the ad hoc bellydancing which was taking place at the The Renaissance Pleasure Faire; the owners of the Faire were threatening to throw the belly dancers out. The troupe was dramatically successful, performing and touring with up to forty dancers and musicians at any one time. Jamila incorporated her unique understanding of ethnic costuming, Middle Eastern dance and music, circus dynamics and excitement-hungry American audiences to create a distinctly American dance art form, tribal belly dance, which she never represented as anything other than fantasy but which took hold in many imaginations as 'real' belly dance.
From her speech presented in 1997 at the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance: "I have heard a couple of new expressions since my return to Berkeley. They are East Coast Tribal, West Coast Tribal, and the Ethnic Police, an expression I find very amusing. I don't object to anything as long as it is entertaining."
Maura Enright, Proprietor
Author: Maura Enright
©2012 - 2015 by Maura Enright
Last updated 2015.11.20
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