Bel Anat’s 50th Anniversary Tour Goes International

Suhaila Salimpour takes belly dancing around the world with an El Cerrito start.


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Bel Anat's 50th anniversary world tour begins with an El Cerrito performance.

Photo by Alexis Bertrand

Suhaila Salimpour can remember being 2 and sitting in a corner at home playing with her dolls while her mother was teaching. There were no babysitters in her home; she just traipsed along with her mother, renowned belly dancer Jamila Salimpour. It turns out that the little girl was much more interested in what she saw and heard in the studio than in her dolls. She began to imitate the adults. And, voila, a new belly dancer was born.

At least, almost. Her mother “threw her,” as she remembered, into ballet classes to help improve her bodyline and posture. It worked. Today Suhaila Salimpour runs Bal Anat (Dance of the Mother Goddess), the troupe her mother founded in 1968. Before taking off for an international 50th anniversary tour, the company will perform a one-evening concert of multiple Middle Eastern dances in honor of the company’s founder, Jamila Salimpour.

The early ballet lessons and later modern and jazz dance opened new perspectives on dance training for Suhaila Salimpour. She realized that other dance forms incrementally broke teaching down to “create the body lines, internal strength, and control” that the art required. Western genre dance, she said, had been able to articulate what was needed and develop that essential line that belly dancers didn’t have. As belly dancers, she said, “we were told to just follow me.” It was an insufficient approach to training, she realized.

“I knew that we could never be able to be a legitimate dance form because we didn’t train like other dance forms. We didn’t have the structural knowledge,” she said.

So Suhaila Salimpour developed a step-by-step curriculum to give belly dancers the training she believed they needed, explaining, “It takes years, even decades; it’s not enough to take one or two classes.” Today she has what she calls a “global school” and, starting with level three, students are invited to audition for the company.

Traveling and performing for many years in the Middle East, Suhaila Salimpour also developed a broad knowledge on just how multifaceted belly dance is. Her current program includes 60 dancers in a “dance tableaux” from the Middle East, North Africa, the Anatolian peninsula, and Persia.

Even though belly dance is a highly traditional artistic expression, Suhaila Salimpour lives very much in the 21st century. Since her dancers are an international lot, the web is home base. She’ll send each one a piece of choreography online; the dancer sends back her version, and in return receives feedback and corrections. They perform after a single day of live rehearsing.

It works apparently very well: “We may not speak the same language, but we speak the same dance language,” she said.

Belly dancing — Suhaila Salimpour uses the sometimes controversial term only as a matter of convenience; it’s known as Arabic dance, rags sharqi for Eastern dance in Arabic, and rags baladi for country or folk dance in Egyptian Arabic — apparently has a hard time in its countries of origin. “I am afraid it may even disappear,” she lamented. “People are having such hard time just surviving, finding food, water, and shelter.”

Also, young people are growing with social media, unaware of their past, she said. So how do they react seeing it performed?

“They are so happy and so proud when they see it. It’s theirs,” she responded.

 

The Salimpour School of Dance presents Bal Anat: 50th Anniversary Tour, Aug. 4, 8 p.m., $18-$30, El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Theater, 540 Ashbury St., El Cerrito, BalAnat50year.com, BrownPaperTickets.com/event 3386434.

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