The Jamila Experience
In 1972 I stepped into a small studio on Presidio Street in San
Francisco, which was across the street from Lux Antiques, the store owned by my
friend Wanda and her husband Jim Helms. In fact, Wanda was the one who
convinced me to take lessons from a mysterious woman she had met at her store.
It seems this woman was selling several pieces of very fine ethnic jewelry
through Wanda’s store and had already talked her into dance lessons. I had just
had my second and last child and was emerging from that heady decade of change
and revolution, the ‘60’s, and belly dancing sounded exciting and exotic. I
loved to dance and stepping it up to a formal education sounded appealing. It
came down to a decision between belly dance and Tai Chi, and Wanda assured me
it had to be belly dance. She even gave me a length of
sheer flowered fabric to make a pair of pantaloons and a top,
so I whipped up a costume and decided
to give it a try.
small studio was crammed full of women. There must have been
30 of us in a claustrophobic rectangular room with mirrors across the wall at
one end. Some of the girls already had real costumes: pantaloons and
halter-tops, decorated bras, sheer circle skirts, silver bangles, dangling
earrings, draping veils. This immediately appealed to me. Fantasy and costume
were a big part of my years in the Haight Ashbury scene. A few of the ladies
were positioned in front of the mirrors, practicing stomach rolls and rib
movements with looks of intense concentration on their faces. Intimidated, I sidled
to the back of the studio, feeling awkward and silly in my gaudy floral garb.
I didn’t have a hip scarf or a veil and no jewelry or finger
cymbals. I made mental notes on what I would need for the next
class, should I decide to
All of these feelings fled as soon as Jamila walked
through the door. A big impressive woman clad entirely in black, her loose silk jersey
pantaloons clung to her legs and a long-sleeved black silk khameez tunic
fastened at her shoulder with small gold buttons hung to her knees. She hauled
in a huge reel-to-reel tape recorder and set it on the table. After fastening
an elaborate coin girdle around her hips, she squatted down on her haunches and
rummaged through a giant leather bag, emerging with a set of enormous finger
cymbals. Fastening them onto her thumbs and middle fingers, she rose, moved
the bag aside and clicked on the tape recorder. Walking to the center of the
floor, Jamila waited while we scrambled to arrange ourselves in a large oval
circle. She began with finger cymbal exercises, right-left-right,
right-left-right, right-left-right, right- left-right. Moving
around the circle, she paused in front of each of us as she played.
one had uttered a word since she entered the room. Every
eye was riveted on her. Those of us who
had no cymbals held our hands and arms up in position and played along, miming
the rhythm. After Jamila circled the room once and made
eye contact with every person, we all turned our left shoulders
to the center and began moving slowly
to the heavy beat of the tabla baladi and wailing mijwiz.
called out the steps, “Step and pivot and step and pivot” and cymbals, “Right left step
and right left hip”. I struggled with the strange patterns, my arms held up
and out, trying to round my elbows, adapting my body to the low-centered,
grounded posture that seemed to be required. Occasionally someone would glance
around the room and Jamila would snap, “Watch me, don’t look at anyone else!”
This slow, methodical parade went on and on. Every few moments Jamila called
out a change in steps. We went through an interminable series of changes that
required increasingly complex foot and body work. I could feel my arms growing
weary, as if they had lead weights attached to them. I tried to hold them “up
and out!” My legs began to wobble as my thighs absorbed
the full impact of the strange new posture. Every time a step
would change, I felt like I threw the
whole line off as I struggled to learn the new pattern.
about 30 or 40 minutes of non-stop movement, culminating in
a series of counted shimmies and increasingly complex finger
cymbal patterns, we ended with an open spin. A long ululating wail arose from the dancers. Everyone
covered their mouths during this group yell that I learned
was called zaghareet.
It was an eerie noise that sent chills up my spine, but
it felt very powerful echoing throughout the large group. Along
with the basic stance of Oriental
dance, in which the dancer must open herself out from the center,
the addition of the powerful cry of zaghareet signified another place where shy and
constricted women found their voices. I was drawn to the community, the
freedom, the movement that seemed to emanate from a familiar center, and to the
music, most definitely to the music.
broke ranks and moved off to get drinks of water, walk outside
for a smoke, or to chat with one another. As I walked through the room
I overheard snatches of conversations about costumes, the coming Renaissance
Faire, and the qualities of various dancers with exotic names. Jamila was
surrounded by a group of women who patiently waited to be acknowledged. She
made general announcements to the class about who was dancing
where, at the Casbah or the Bagdad,
advice about costumes, and rehearsal schedules. I just
sat in the corner, taking it all in, nursing my sore legs. I thought the class
was over and then Jamila moved to the center of the floor again and everyone
snapped into place. Crammed together like fat tunas standing on end, we stood
at attention waiting for Jamila to begin. This time the music was slower and
had a distinctly different cadence. Jamila placed her hands on the front of
her hip bones with her arms gracefully framing her torso and glided
effortlessly to the side. She stood in front of each and
every one of us again and went through the delicate head movements
called sindari; out, out,
side, side, circle, crescent, crescent. As she moved in front of me and began
the sequence again, I giggled and couldn’t move at all.
glared at me, clicked her tongue and immediately moved
to my left, cutting me off. I could feel my cheeks flame bright red. I was
humiliated. I felt horrible. I had missed my chance. I
wanted to just fade away into the studio walls.
the moment Jamila entered the studio, I knew that I was in
the presence of someone special. Great teachers are rare. If we are lucky, we
will recognize that special person who has the ability to impart special
knowledge and change the very course of our life. I have never seen anyone
move like her. Every movement from every part of her was calculated, fluid,
rich and full of depth, complete and utterly controlled. When she danced,
every part of her danced, right down to her fingertips. Her eyes, her face,
her head, arms, torso, hips and feet were all involved in moving to the music.
The power that emanated from her was incredible- such control, command and
presence. She took us through the slow, difficult movements
of taqsim with agonizing precision. I realized that although she broke the movements
into segments; head, shoulders and arms, ribs, hips, there was so much more
than these technical movements going on. It would take years for me to fully
integrate this into my body. I knew right then I would
spend my entire life trying to achieve that look.
For the next 45 minutes we did standing taqsim,
simple veil work, and finally, floor work. By the time we got down to the floor I was
ready to lay there in exhaustion. There was so much information in this class.
I was excited and at the same time utterly confused. Jamila didn’t verbalize
much; she showed us what to do. She didn’t do floor work, but had someone
demonstrate while she explained it, and she didn’t break things down. We did not
take notes; a syllabus was not handed out. We learned movement as it was
integrated into our body and knew steps when we moved from one to the other
without hesitation and without thought. She repeated the same movements over
and over until they became our own and even then there was still more to
perfect. There was a volume of unspoken expectations from the first lesson. We
were expected to interpret the music, to feel the music. I realized I would
have to do my own footwork in order to find recordings. Jamila
was not overly generous with materials, but there was a lot of
live music available to us at
that time at any of the clubs, and information was exchanged
did not coddle or cajole. She was authoritative,
opinionated and utterly compelling. Dancers who stayed with her and paid
attention earned her respect and became the best of the crop. She set the fire
and if you got close enough for her to really see you, she fanned the flames.
From the beginning I knew that being a “Jamila dancer”was
steps and movements Jamila taught became my internalized vocabulary
and then became my own dancing language. Jamila’s presence taught
me dignity and professionalism. From the few dictates she did hand down, I
learned the behavior that guided me throughout my career; to cover myself when
I was not on stage, never to allow anyone to touch me in an inappropriate way,
never to display myself or my dance in a way that solicited a negative
response, not to use my dance for my own self-aggrandizement. A dancer is a
performer, an actress. Make-up is our mask and our costume is part of the
disguise. Being on stage implies tremendous responsibility to your audience
and your band. Dance comes through us as part of an ancient and unnamable
process. I never felt loaded down with dogma, though. Like all good teachers,
Jamila taught her most important lessons by example. As I gained control of my
physical body in dance, my sense of personal control grew. My life seemed to
take shape and I found surprising reservoirs of power and strength. I found my
“voice” in dance. This is the gift Jamila gave
that first class, I was hooked. I went every Saturday and
for two hours immersed myself in this amazing dance. I thought about nothing
else when I danced. There was no room for anything else. It was addicting. I
was young and poor at that time, but I managed to scrape together the three
dollars it cost for a weekly lesson, even though that three dollars was dear.
I was a sponge, absorbing everything I could. Soon I was able to keep up and
to go from one step to another without looking like a complete idiot. I found
music for practice, but never found the magical music that Jamila used in
class. That was the music that played directly into my soul. I finally
obtained a scratchy copy from another Jamila dancer many years after I had
stopped looking. I embarked on an arduous schedule of study. I read
everything I could find on this dance form, listened to every kind of music
even remotely related to the Middle East, and quickly moved into the related
fields of folk music and folk dance, the roots. I scoured magazines and
libraries looking for information, photos and scratchy old phonograph records.
I began a lifelong quest to learn as much as I could about this dance, the
culture that birthed it, and the music that drove it. I
went to the Casbah and
the Bagdad to
see my fellow students dance on Student nights. I never laughed
again when Jamila came by to demonstrate head movements and I watched her
intently for the entire class. In fact, that single-minded attention served me
well in every class and seminar I took throughout my career. Watch
the instructor and try to get in the front of the room.
Jamila would bring in an advanced student to demonstrate movements. I
was mesmerized by the quiet exotic grace of the majestic Galya. She was the first dancer I saw who wore a cabaret costume with
a tribal twist, a style characteristic of the early 1970’s, and one that
Jamila’s dancers helped popularize. Her headpiece
had small coins dangling at the sides and a series of chains
attached to coins that formed a small hat-like
ornament reminiscent of old photos of Theda Bara from
the 1920’s. She was
covered in antique jewelry from an arms length of silver bangles to a full
collar piece set with lapis. Draping her upper torso was a piece of off-white
assuit that followed the contours of her body and swung seductively when she
moved. Assuit was the signature of Jamila and her dancers. The hexagonal net
scarves with silver alloy wire woven into geometrical patterns gave the fabric
a heavy lame-like drape and an enchanting gleam. It was eagerly sought and
coveted by Jamila’s students.
a tall, busty black woman who was Jamila’s sword dancer
at the Renaissance Faire the year I started class. She
had skin like rich chocolate, and wore her hair slicked back
and swept up into a tall ponytail or
cone on top of her head a la “I Dream of Jeanie.” Her eyes were
shadowed in bright turquoise and outlined in black with white and red dots
beneath the black liner. Incredibly exotic, she was an exuberant dancer. Her
strong graceful hands with blood red, inch-long nails moved delicately at the
end of her bangled arms. She looked like a Nubian princess, and seemed to move
everywhere at once. After a whirl of frenetic activity, she would suddenly
stop and fix the audience with a piercing stare and an open, engaging smile.
Her head slid to the side and she arched one eyebrow in punctuation, repeating
the same action to the other side. It was like being hypnotized by a snake.
Once she fixed you with her eyes, you were paralyzed. Her buoyant and joyful
style was different from the rest of Jamila’s dancers. Nakish filled the stage
with energy. This was the first time I had seen a dancer with a style other
than Jamila’s that appealed to me.
Jamila’s protégé and was already dancing professionally
when I started class. I regarded her with a mixture of awe, envy and respect.
She frequently demonstrated technique for Jamila, especially floorwork. Aida
was tall and dark, with masses of wavy auburn hair held back
in a variety of headpieces and clips. Her stomach movements were
truly amazing and she spent a
lot of time before the mirror practicing; her face fixed in her
trademark, pouty, sultry stare.
stomach undulated in cascading waves, rippling like wind
on water and then vibrated in rapid flutters that made
all the coins and
bells on her massive stomach drape jingle. It was something
to see! Her
Turkish drop was breathtaking. Starting with a rapid spin,
she stopped suddenly and dropped to the floor with her
back arched and her arms over her head. Done
in one fluid movement, it is one of the most dramatic moves
in belly dancing.
the demise in popularity of floorwork, it is seldom performed
at that time it was an awe-inspiring move that few dancers could do well. We
all practiced it with no whining or complaining about knees, backs or feet. I never
mastered this movement, although I did very passable floor work and had my own
take on getting to the floor with drama. I have heard it said that of all of
Jamila’s dancers, Aida was the most like her. She wore her hair the same way,
was the same body type and had a similar presence on stage. While some
considered her “heavy,” I found her exciting to watch as she was totally
absorbed in the music and so incredibly strong. Her taqsim and
floor work were some of the most exciting and engaging I have
ever seen. Her
signature moves, such as a standing backbend sliding into an arched layout and
a kneeling backbend over the edge of the stage, were done with athleticism and
grace. Her finger cymbal playing was stellar, despite whispered controversy
about upstaging the band. I never felt that she overshadowed
her musicians, but rather, enhanced the music as an extension
of the band. Aida was an
Jamila dancers had a certain “look”, they by no means all
looked the same, nor did they dance the same. There were blondes, redheads and
brunettes. Some were small and delicate. Some were big and tall like Aida.
Some dancers had none of the ethnic look I was drawn to and were strictly
“chiffon and bead” belly dancers. The fact that taller, bigger women could
move with such stealthy grace astounded me. The silent,
statuesque dancers who most resembled Jamila were always the
most compelling to me.
taught us how to dance with the assumption that our goal
was to perform. We learned the protocol
for club work at the same time that we learned the mechanics.
However, dance and musicality were always paramount.
far as the mechanics of the dance, Jamila was very specific. I
learned to do my shimmies flat-footed, making no noise, then transferring up on
the balls of my feet. I kept my knees bent and moved evenly, no bouncing or
bobbing. When it came time for me to use a sword, I had no trouble at all
balancing it, as the basic posture I learned in my first classes prepared me
for the centered stillness required to balance without using a headpiece.
Jamila admonished the class over and over again to keep our legs together and
not spread apart. The basic techniques I learned from her are easy to spot on
dancers to this day. Even my own students are recognized as “Jamila dancers,”
or at least dancers who studied her technique. It has so much to do with
centering. While I never got the impression that we were in class merely to
socialize and have fun, there was an almost cult-like aura about taking lessons
with Jamila. I was never one of the inner circle, never
close to Jamila, but she knew everyone who studied with her,
and once you had, you seemed to be hers
after leaving Jamila's classes and starting her own troupe
vision of her troupe was definitely her own invention.
It was fantasy, hokum, gypsy arts and circus, damn good theater and it made
Oriental dancing more saleable to a broader audience whose idea of belly
dancing was stereotypical: just a tiny bit more exotic than stripping and
somehow involving the removal of clothes. The tribal format, Oriental dance
infused with ethnic movement, was perfect for outdoors, for faires and museums,
places where families gathered. It was great entertainment. Jamila dancers did
essentially the same dance in a club that they did at the Faire, with folkloric
pieces added to give the show variety and interest. As time went on, I
supplemented my studies with some Eastern European folk dancing, a little
dabkeh, a little North African and Central Asian, and started learning more
about the various cultures of the many different countries that have all
contributed movements to Oriental dance. I began to separate styles of dance
and learned to recognize the music from different countries, Egyptian,
Lebanese, Turkish and Greek, Persian, Moroccan and Tunisian. They
are all a little different, all a little similar.
created an entirely new kind of show using ethnic styling
and exotic costuming. She birthed the vision of today’s
American Tribal Style, insisting always on a solid foundation
of dance. She took Oriental dance out of
the clubs and into the broader arenas of American life. Jamila
inspired an entire generation of dancers who went on to research
and explore the dances of
the Near and Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.
She was instrumental
in helping Oriental dance obtain an appeal and popularity outside of its own
community and she touched the lives of hundreds of American women who might
never have put on a costume and gotten up on stage. For me, as a young single
mother coming out of the hippie era, belly dancing was a very daring, very
revolutionary thing to do. Even if you weren’t in Jamila’s inner circle,
belonging to that broader dance community that encompassed other early teachers
and their students in those early years was heady stuff. It
was very empowering.
you agree with the validity of her style or her dance politics
is not important. Jamila was enormously influential in the evolution
and popularity of Middle Eastern dance today. She had a profound and lasting
effect on hundreds of dancers and musicians, and that cannot be diminished or
denied. I am grateful to the dozens of other dance pioneers in this country
who brought Oriental dance into popularity and with whom I was privileged to
study. Jamila was my first teacher, and deserves a place with those
fascinating and powerful women and men who contributed so greatly to our
understanding of the dances of the East. I will always
be grateful to her for the way Oriental dance changed my life.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for
other possible viewpoints!
Emperor’s New Clothes by Yasmela/ Shelley Muzzy
Until we see ourselves in the context of a larger society, no one outside of
our community will accord us the respect we desire.
the Road (The Bousada Troupe Tours) by Yasmela
carved our own niche, created our own style, scandalized, delighted,
educated and entertained everyone around us, including ourselves.
We were “Bou-Saada”.
with the Dance: a Performance Critique of Aziza by
There are several dancers on the scene that I admire and enjoy watching again
and again, but I just saw one that made me stop in my tracks, sit right down
on the floor, and pay attention.
Lessons with Jamila Salimpour (part 2) by Satrinya/Masalima
... would dance instead, without pay.
7-1-00 Jamila and Yousef by
Even though we
were recognizably taught by Jamila, we were not the cookie-cutter
girls she turned out later.
Beach Memories: John Compton- Finnochios,
Bal Anat, to Hahbi'ru
BellyPalooza: the Daughters of Rhea Belly Dance Festival by
Elaine, Most photos by Allen J Becker
4, 2007, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland. The weekend
of dance workshops and performances took place once again in Baltimore
on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, one of the most elegant venues
imaginable for such an event.
the Language of Belly Dance by Shems
dancer’s path should be the same, moving from technique to
refinement to pure inspiration.
Two of Antique Textiles: Costuming Before the Reign of
Egyptian Costumers by Najia Marlyz
view today’s dance values as interlopers—meant to mitigate
Belly dance’s checkered past by exchanging its innate free
emotional expression for speed and difficulty of execution and an
over-the-top outpouring of energy that is neither sensual or exotic.