"I remember Nadia"
A personal statement
by Suhaila Salimpour
The year was 1976. I was 9 years old. Mom and I had been touring the U.S. doing a series of workshops which we did every summer while I was out of school. New York was our last stop before heading home. It was my first encounter with the Big Apple, so Mom decided we would stay a week and take in the city. Uncle Bob (Ibrahim Farrah), who sponsored the workshop, became our guide. He mentioned that he had a film of a dancer who was from Lebanon that he thought we should see. He would rent a facility and Mom and I would meet him there later for a private screening. The next day we jumped in a cab to the given address. Of course no taxi ride in New York is complete without an accident and our driver didn't disappoint us. He managed a fender bender only three blocks from the screening room. We bailed out of the taxi while the cabbie was screaming words unfit for a nine year-old. Undaunted, Mom grabbed my hand and we jogged the rest of the way. As we entered the tiny movie theater, my mother described our dramatic cab ride to Bobby, who was already there settings things up. I picked my own row in the twenty seat screening room, one ahead of Mom. The first dance screened was "Belledi." Very cute, but my attention span was reduced to that of a nine year-old. When the second dance began, a woman with straight hair and big brown eyes appeared on screen. I was entranced. Her power, movements, grace and strength were dazzling. I couldn't believe my eyes! I'm sure I held my breath for the entire dance. When she disappeared from the screen, I slowly turned around to see my mother. I wanted to be certain she had seen what I had seen. She seemed hypnotized. A tear ran down her cheek. "That's it! I'm going to quit dancing!" she said with pure respect for the dancer whom had captivated us both. "I want to grow up to be like that," I added with naive hope. I asked my mom what the dancer's name was, and she told me... NADIA GAMAL.
When we returned home, my mother put me in ballet and jazz class, full time. She knew what needed to be done. It was then that we began working on what is now the Suhaila Salimpour style. Five years later, we got a phone call from Bobby: "Nadia's coming to L.A. to give a workshop." Mom had my bags packed so fast that I didn't know what hit me. I couldn't believe I was going to see this woman in person. The morning of the workshop I awakened early, determined to be the first one there. As the room began to fill and the time grew near, I became nervous. I couldn't take my eyes off her as she walked in and went straight to the stage. I could see she meant business. Standing in the back of the room, I was able to get a full view. I observed how she related to people and the effect she had on them. She wore a black unitard and four-inch silver heels. She made it clear early on that there would be no talking, gum chewing, or running to the bathroom five times in the day. "You are here to learn something. So be serious." Wow! I then realized that those words were our first lesson. How else were we to grow as dancers if we didn't take ourselves seriously? She had no make-up on and would seldom smile. What a woman! As I looked around the room I saw many dancers begin to strip off their unnecessary costuming for class. They were getting the message. She then began to teach us a choreography. As she showed us each movement, she was not counting or doing four of these and four of those. The dance was the music. As each confused dancer asked her to count, breakdown or explain, her answer was always the same: "Listen to the music." By the end of the day she wanted someone to come up and demonstrate the dance. She was tired and still had the show to do. She stared at me, lifted her chin and then motioned with her head to come. Me? No, there must be someone behind me. Again she waved me to come. I slowly walked to the stage with my heart beating so hard I thought it would explode. She didn't look at me, but just started the music. I blanked out! Oh no -- not now! But as the music for the first step came, my body took over and did the dance which was fortunate as my mind couldn't remember a thing. When the music was finished she dismissed the class and left the stage.
I sat in the front row center. The band began to play, building up the anticipation of her entrance. She covered the stage like no one I had ever seen. As she kicked, shimmied and vibrated her way through the music, my gaze was fixed on her face. It, too, was dancing. She was not a show girl. She never really smiled, but as I watched, I felt I could see inside her. A glimpse at the heart, perhaps; the soul of a true artist. I never wanted it to end. When she left the stage I ran to her dressing room. I got there before she did and she looked at me and said I could come in. I sat on the floor in the corner trying to pretend she couldn't see me. I wanted to just watch her. She slowly began to take her make-up off and then asked me how old I was. "Fourteen," I said. "But I saw you first when I was 9 in the movie that my Uncle Bobby has of you." She seemed to know all about me and my mom. She said I had potential. "Do you know why I dance the way I do?" she asked me. "Because I have suffered. I have gone through divorce, death, a lot of heartache... that's the art. You can show anyone a step, but not a soul." I said I would go home and work on suffering right away. She told me never to forget why I dance. It would always give me strength. And she told me to "always remember the music." At once she was done dressing. She opened the door and began accepting her fans. I never saw Nadia Gamal again after that, but she lives on in every one of my performances. We will miss her. I love you, Nadia.
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