Lizeth, Suhaila, Danitzia
Photos courtesy of Lizeth
Gilded Serpent presents...
My Experience in a
Suhaila Salimpour Weekend Workshop
Austin, Texas

February 17 & 18, 2007

by Erin

It’s a good kind of tired, one that makes you want to sleep, dream and then wake up and do it all over again.  That’s the way I felt after a weekend in Austin, Texas, with Suhaila Salimpour, one of northern California’s most renowned dancers.

First, some disclaimers. I am one of those “hobbyist” bellydancers. I suppose you could say “amateur,” referring to the true root of this word as one who loves the art, but may not be perfect or professional at it.  After about four years studying bellydance in California, I returned to my home state of Louisiana.  With no regular teacher within reasonable driving distance, I rely on the “big name” workshops in large cities nearby to keep me educated.  I can usually afford to attend one every year.  Also, I am one of those people who decided to teach even though I had (and have) limited experience.  Why?  I live in a small city in Louisiana, with few cultural opportunities.  I think of it as “mission work” for bellydance!

In my opinion, the greatest thing about Suhaila’s workshop in Austin was probably the clear explanations of which muscles were doing the work, and how.

I know there is debate about codifying the movements of bellydance.  How can the terminology be universal?  I agree that universality is perhaps impossible or even dangerous.  However, when you dig into your muscles, you can find a universal language.  Everyone has the same set of muscles.  Our sets may be in different shape and shapes, but their function is relatively similar!  My advice to my students will be to continue to dig their fingers into their abs, their back, and their thighs to find out what’s going on with their bodies.  This hands-on approach beats the hell out of just staring into the dance mirror. 

Another good point of the workshop was the openness of the instructor to varying levels of ability. Guess what, this is an important part of teaching, too!

My “day gig” is teaching high school students.  As a teacher myself, it has taken me a long time to realize that if I stop being a “hard-ass” for a little bit, I give the student some room to breathe and succeed.  For example, Suhaila would ask us to change a drill for the “purpose of success.”  What she had requested was too difficult for the majority, so she changed it.  Both Suhaila and her assistant circulated during warm-ups and drills in order to monitor posture and give feedback on form. Although the class size was about 30 people, I observed that most people received individual attention. They showed us how to check if our glute squeezes were truly isolated from our legs by digging into our outer thigh and showing us where we were tightening up. This was truly a “hands-on” workshop.  Compared to other workshops that I have attended in the past few years, I felt that this one was more personal, but by no means less demanding.  To be honest, I was surprised that Suhaila was so accessbile as a teacher, despite having a “celebrity” status in the bellydance community.  She spoke frankly about our progress or lack of it without being a fake cheerleader or a cruel dictator.

I did feel admonished when Suhaila criticized teachers with little experience, but her statements did not sound vindictive. Instead, I felt that she was truly concerned for students who might be injured or misinformed about bellydance. This criticism actually served to renew my dedication to my students.

I want to continue to provide this unique form of exercise, but perhaps in a more professional and organized way. I have always cautioned students to protect their bodies with good posture and form, but now I have a few more tools in my belt to actually make this happen.

Kendra (Suhaila's assistant teacher), Lizeth

Since this workshop aimed to introduce the material in both Level I and II of Suhaila’s certification program, I often felt rushed. During the group drills, which involved walking around the room with feet stepping at half the speed of our glute squeezes (and other combinations of tempos which create the layering effect), I frequently stepped to the middle of the room for additional instruction.  In my notes, I sketched out where feet and hips would coincide on a beat, and where they would be opposed.  I would have preferred more of a breakdown from the instructor, before we simply put two tempos together.  Another thing that surprised me about the workshop was the amount of casual conversation that Suhaila shared.  This gave you a certain feeling of intimacy with the instructor, but also felt a little too personal.  The saving grace: Suhaila’s self-awareness.  She knows that people want all the juicy details about her life, but she was very clear that the longer we pressed her for information, the longer we would have to work in the morning.  On Sunday, I don’t think we broke for lunch until 1:15.  Unfortunately, I ran out of steam around 12:45, and sat out the last few group drills altogether.

Overall, this workshop inspired me to be a better teacher, be a better learner, and be a more consistent dancer.  Yes, I am a little put off by the whole “Suhaila” merchandising thing (clothing line, DVD’s, the certification program), but someone  has to finance the next show and maintain the dance studio.

Suhaila asked us to do this homework assignment: draw two columns on a piece of paper.  In one column, write down everything that you spend on costuming.  In the other column, write down everything that you spend on training.  No, training does not include jazz pants and cute hip scarves and dance slippers.  In Suhaila’s opinion, training costs should be 5 times the amount of costuming costs.  Yes, the room was completely quiet after she said this.

I agree with Suhaila’s statement, because when we spend money on training, we are supporting dance teachers who are extremely hard-working.  Unfortunately, the person who makes money from your costume dollars is usually not the original craftsperson. Let’s do stay faithful to businesses which support dancers.  Don’t boycott beads and bedlah, but do support the dancers who are working hard to explain the technique behind all of the magic.  My husband is an amateur magician, and he would laugh his head off that I’m even using the word “magic”.  He knows that any magic trick is all technique, all hard work, and all practice. 

Yes, his audience may feel a rush when they see a trick, and the magician may even feel a rush at their reaction, but there is no “rushing” involved in preparing for a perfect illusion. The illusions that we create with our bellydancing bodies are no different.

They appear effortless, but, of course, they are not.  Commit to constant learning with some teacher.  It does not have to be Suhaila (and I bet she would even tell you that it does not have to be her), but commit to something more than just a costume.  Commit to yourself.

Workshop participants
back row-1-10?
middle row 1-7?
front row- Isabelle, Suhaila, 3-8
Stacey Lizette (workshop sponsor) and Kendra, front row, reclining.
As always, editor appreciates readers contributing any further names


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