Saturday, December 9, 2017

Jamila Salimpour (1926 – 2017) ~ A remembrance

This is hard, really hard.  I found out this morning that yesterday one of my most significant teachers joined those in Heaven Above and I want to pay a fitting tribute yet how does one briefly sum up the supremely vast impact of a woman who was legendary in her artistic and historic achievements influencing countless numbers of women ~ and when I say countless I mean to say *at least* thousands and thousands of us ~ who found in her passion for La Danse Orientale (From Cave to Cult to Cabaret) a place of refuge in the dance's deepest roots dating back to ancient matriarchal cultures. These movements steeped in antiquity welcomed us to the dance *and* reawakened the celebration of timeless traditions in which women revered the Great Mother Goddess and celebrated their femininity and sensuality, while invoking blessings of fertility.

Great Mother         
Daughter of the Moon
Mother of the Earth
We were borne in your vessel
And emerged from your Sacred portal
In your image.
Merciful Mother of consciousness
Protectress of women in childbirth
Patroness of women in labor
Goddess of birth
                           - Jamila Salimpour 

A squatting woman giving birth, assisted by two goddesses (Hathor and Taweret),
from the Temple of Hathor at Dendera

It was in 1974, as an impressionable twenty year old, who grew up in a strict Irish-Catholic household, that I began to hear (the mind-blowing to me) information about a dance form connected to traditions and rituals rooted in ancient matriarchal Goddess-worshipping cultures. Powerful and mysterious, Jamila Salimpour was one of THE most influential women lighting - no - blazing a trail of opportunity for women like me to present this dance/art form as a connection to women's history and an elegant, traditional dance form that felt oh so natural yet also mystical and magical. Furthermore, Jamila was on a mission "to elevate 'belly dance' to a classic (and theatre-worthy) art form ...worthy of virtuosic presentation and skill."(1) ... and I wholeheartedly joined the movement (both figuratively and literally)!

Jamila's Bal Anat troupe performances (originally created in 1968 for the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Northern California) inspired me to bring something similar to my community and so in the beginning of my career I was deeeeee-lighted to perform at the opening ceremonies of the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder (see photos below), Colorado, as a member of a troupe formed by one of the Jamila's original Bal Anat troupe members (Susheelah) and then on to gathering together a group of my own in Fort Collins, Colorado, and then on to Pennsylvania where I presented ensemble performances in both community festival (Mayfair and Musikfest among others) and collegiate (Lehigh University, Lafayette College and Kutztown University) theater settings.  Yes, indeed, Jamila's influence on me has been monumental and for this I will forEVER be indebted.

I will always remember Jamila as portrayed in this inspiring and powerful image of her in black assuitt with tattoos on her face.  She was an amazing women who crafted a vocabulary for the dance and not only taught it well but taught us how to teach it well too. She had amazing vision for the dance and costuming and rhythms and music.  She was a fierce finger cymbal player and a wonderful storyteller ~ I so looked forward to every edition of Habibi** to arrive in the mail that I might read her latest tale.

Jamila Salimpour's  inspiration & influence on me was mighty and I send shimmering systrum blessings filled with my deepest condolences to her daughter Suhaila, her grandaughter Isabella, her entire family and all the dancers whose lives she touched in monumental ways.

To this day I still use her vocabulary of dance and I ALLways give her credit. Yes, indeed Jamila was a majorly influential woman whom I feel blessed to have had the good fortune to be taken under her wing once upon a time when in my early studies of the dance I traveled to San Francisco to study with my teacher's teacher (Ms. Jamila) after studying with one of Jamila's original Bal Anat troupe members (Susheelah) in Boulder, Colorado.  (NOTE:  Click on the link for the vintage footage of Jamila's Bal Anat troupe; at approx. 26:35 that's Susheelah jumping into the center)

After a year of studying with Susheelah in Boulder, CO, I made my way to the Bay area ~ I simply HAD to study with my teacher's teacher and Jamila warmly took me under her wing. So influential ~ life-changing indeed! At that time I also was privileged to see Aida Al Adawi (2) at the the legendary Casbah and was thoroughly convinced this was THE direction of my life! I bought my first Arabic drum which to this day I still have.... teka dum pah (see photo below where I am playing that drum)!

Yours truly playing doumbek along side Susheelah and Ramona playing flute with us 
at the opening ceremonies of Boulder's Pearl Street Mall c. 1977
Susheelah performing tray dance at the opening ceremonies
of Boulder's Pearl Street Mall c. 1977

As Aisha Ali said in her remembrance of Jamila:  She appeared on the scene at exactly the right moment in time and with her combination of beauty, charisma and captivating humor, she sparked a fire which was to inflame others for decades.

Jamila, to you I bow in deep reverence and ever-lasting gratitude.
RIP High Priestess of Danse Orientale

Much Love,



1976 Article written by Jamila  (re: centennial of introduction of belly dance to the United States), Habibi, Vol. 2, #7

** Shaping a Legacy by Shareen El-Safy, 1994 The Best of Habibi (magazine).  Founded by Bob and Lynn Zalot in 1974, Habibi was the first publication of its kind in the Middle Eastern Dance field (and I was one of its early, most dedicated subscribers!). Between 1992 and 2002, Shareen El Safy published reformatted version as A Journal for Lovers of Middle Eastern Dance & Arts  published by  in Santa Barbara, California. The over 260 feature articles and accompanying photos from each of the 27 issues are recreated here in digital format in The Best of Habibi.

1997 Speech by Jamila (downloadable .pdf)

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