(MA) Jamila Salimpour Tribute Show

by Evren

Editors note: Jamila Salimpour was a major influence on belly dance in the United States. Through her troupe, Bal Anat, she popularized folkloric styling, ethnic costuming, and use of props in belly dance performance. She is considered to be the founder of tribal belly dance style; Masha Archer, a member of the original Bal Anat, was Carolena Nericchio's teacher. Jamila's daughter, Suhaila, continues to teach and perform. For more information, see Suhaila's web site.

Learning more about the history of Middle Eastern dance and how it has grown and been interpreted in the United States is an interest of mine, both as a dancer and as someone interested in cultural history.  As such, I was excited to spend a Sunday evening this August taking in the Jamila Salimpour Tribute Show at the Rumba Y Timbal Dance Company studio in Central Square, Cambridge MA, hosted by Iria and Johara.

Each dancer introduced herself with a recorded piece, some choosing to speak about their dance lineage and connection to Jamila, with others taking inspiration from her perspective and influence on the dance. This was a very interesting way to help strengthen the connection each performer had with the piece and the overall theme of the show. The performances varied among long-time hobbyists, troupes, and professional dancers. All were quite good; the dancers displaying both technical prowess and emotional range. Some performed pieces that referenced well-known dances from Jamila's troupe Bal Anat, or used props often employed in Bal Anat performances. A couple of the performances stood out for me specifically for their connection to the show's theme.

  • Baseema performed an inspiring and adept sword piece in honor of her teacher, Melina, whose mother, Rhea, is reputed to be one of the first dancers in the U.S. to have danced with a sword on her head, reportedly placed there by Jamila herself.
  • Blue Moon Caravan paid tribute to Jamila's legacy in the heritage of American Tribal Style bellydance and its many branches/variations, through some of her student Masha Archer and then down through Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman, with a fun and engaging performance and as a troupe with a wonderfully diverse makeup.
  • While Iria's connection to the show's theme was somewhat more personal, I found her obvious technical prowess combined with a sheer emotional connection to the music that she had chosen to be a fitting tribute indeed.

Photos by Bruce Mount, courtesy of Iria Estevez

The space and the production itself had a very casual, friendly feeling; more like a hafla and less like a show. The stage was at floor level with seating around it, along with a delightful refreshments table off to the side. Performers in coverups milled about and chatted with friends and family prior to the start of the show, which began about a quarter hour late.

The atmosphere was fun and welcoming, even if it was not what I anticipated from a tribute performance. I appreciated the desire to maintain the spirit of the dance, though it may have been more effective to make this clearer and manage expectations of a more formal staged tribute show versus a more casual gathering with performances. Perhaps the the show could have been adapted slightly to stage it like a 70s era California Renaissance Faire performance? This would have allowed for a casual atmosphere, while nurturing a more cohesive set of performances.

Given how vital live music is to our dance and the legacy of Jamila's finger-cymbal playing, having time for percussionists and other musicians to jam openly and inviting the audience to participate was an excellent idea. That this would be happening was not well advertised, however, and I would have preferred if this had been made clearer ahead of time, so that I could bring my finger cymbals and allot time to stay after the performances. I was sad that I had to leave, but for those taking public transportation or who had to wake early the next morning, an unplanned stay can be difficult to do without forewarning.

Having percussionists add to the sound of the recorded music performances was enjoyable, if not always effective, due to some issues with the sound system, but it was unclear to me if this was planned, if the performers knew about it prior to the event, and if they were all offered the option to perform to live music. Though Natassia performed beautifully and powerfully to a live oud taksim and drum solo, it seemed as though this was organized between her and the musician beforehand. Since there were numerous other musicians contributing throughout the show, it would have been nice to see some other dancers perform to live music, as well. 

A short documentary about Jamila's legacy was presented at the start of the show and, while it may have worked in a more formal setting, it may have been more effective to start the tribute hafla with a short workshop, or perhaps a lecture detailing even more about Jamila's life and work, the video presentation, and a short introduction into some unique elements of Jamila's dance style. The information itself was interesting and the footage of Bal Anat was fun to watch, but it was mostly content that I've have already come across in my dance research. Getting a chance to engage with the material in a dance context would have been an enriching experience, especially for those of us in the community with a different dance background.

Overall, it was a good production with beautiful performances and a lovely celebration of Jamila's life and influence on the dance. 

Evren began her study of Middle Eastern dance in 2011 and delights in attending events throughout New England.