Glimidakis & Kirokies dance together in the late 1980s
at Taverna Athena which Vasilli co-owned with Spiros Avlonitas.
Gilded Serpent presents...
Zaharr's Memoir, Part 11:
The Minerva Cafe: My Beginning
Zaharr shares her struggles and her triumphs as a dancer from 1966 to
the present. “For many of us, it was a hard road that led
to North Beach and beyond.” she writes. Return to read her
story as it unfolds here in the Gilded Serpent.
Brown, along with the members of “The Golden Toad”
and a lot of the musicians from the huge Colby Street house, took
off every year for a music camp in the Sierras called “Sweet's
Mill”. I had never gone there, and didn't know much about
it, but the guys would disappear for several weeks every year
in late summer, returning to Berkeley refreshed and invigorated.
So it was
now just Chris and I working different “pitches”
all around San Francisco. (Pitch” is a street musicians
slang for the area in which they set up and perform.) We made
amazing tips in our hat sometimes, and at the end of the day,
when the freezing fog rolled in, we would go out to explore a
new restaurant and often a different ethnic cuisine.
Francisco was filled with restaurants that served food from
Ethiopia to Tibet and everywhere in between. Some places knew
us as regulars, and we would perform for our dinner. This was
terrific and we had a lot of fun trying out a wide variety of
new kinds of ethnic foods this way.
One day after
a “good hat”, ---slang for having made a good amount
of money---Chris told me about an Egyptian restaurant that he
knew on Eddy Street. It was in a funky neighborhood known as the
“Tenderloin”, but in those days it wasn't particularly
seedy or dangerous, just sort of run-down looking. We arrived
at the place where the Egyptian restaurant was supposed to be,
and discovered that it had become a parking lot! I was really
disappointed, and nearly faint with hunger by this time. We had
been searching the neighborhood on foot for quite a while trying
to locate the restaurant.
around one last time before we got ready to go to one of the other
places we knew, when he spied a sign that said “Café
Minerva”. “Ahh, a Greek place!” he said excitedly.
By this time I was so famished I could have eaten anything and
there it was, right across the street from us and next to Montano’s
Greek Bookstore. “Let's go there to eat.” said
Chris, and headed across the street. I was cranky and insulting
by this time and said “ But I wanted to try the Egyptian
food, and find out if they had Belly Dancers… What do Greeks
know about Belly Dancing anyway?” He just grabbed my hand
and we headed toward the door. Grumbling, I followed him inside
and I was startled to see a big stage with a large wooden dance
floor right in front of it.
Greek man came up to us and said “Welcome, welcome! Where
do you want to sit, over here between the bar and the stage? Perfect!”
And he led us to a cozy table. He was so charming and friendly
that I started to feel better immediately. “What's that
you've got sticking up out of your back-pack there?” he
said, seeing the tips of Chris's bagpipes. Chris explained that
we were street performers and had just finished for the day and
were very hungry. “Tell you what”, said the kind man,
“You get up there on the dance floor and show us your act.
If we like it, everything is on the house: dinner, wine, anything
could anyone NOT have loved our show! We were pretty good at
it by now. We had been performing for weeks by this time, all
day long and into the evening from the early morning. So, confidently
I picked up my pretty tambourine with the long, flowing ribbons,
and spun and stomped out accents to the rhythms with my boots.
and twirled as the heavy woolen skirt flared, rippling out around
my calves. The sleeves of my blouse billowed out as I tossed the
tambourine into the air and caught it again. I had learned a lot
of tricks with the tambourine. I played rhythms all around and
inside out of Chris's bagpipe tunes, hitting it with both hands
as I tossed it back and forth between them, tapping it on my knees,
ankles, or shoulders, and laughing from the pure silly joy of
it all. My hunger temporarily forgotten, we had the crowded restaurant
on their feet as Chris played his final flourish and I finished
with a fast tambourine routine.
host was all smiles as we returned to the table, breathless and
happy. The food appeared almost immediately, followed directly
by the wine, and now I had my first taste of many things made
with phyllo: spanakotiropita ---which took me forever to learn
to pronounce! --- And later, with the thick Turkish coffee he
brought us after dinner, my first taste of baklava.
out that the warm Greek man with the charming smile and gracious
gestures was the owner of the restaurant. His name was Vasilios
Glimidakis, and he was fated to become the greatest influence
of my entire dance career, though I had no idea whatsoever about
any of that as I nibbled happily through dish after dish of unknown
in front of his most recent Minera Cafe incarnation. This
cafe closed this year in 2005
many musicians on stage, maybe seven, and I had never heard that
kind of music before. It was so moving and haunting, sounding
somewhat like the Arabic music I practiced with each day, but
different, faster. I was charmed by the way everyone in the entire
restaurant got up to dance. Old people, young children, and everyone
in between, held hands and circled endlessly around the dance
floor, looking happy and as if they were having the time of their
was later to learn no one parties quite like the Greeks do.
They dance when they are happy, they dance when they are sad,
and they dance for hours and hours.
that fascinated me from the very first was the fact that men danced
alone. They would stretch their arms out wide and circle and circle
like eagles, swooping down sometimes to pantomime throwing dice
or just slap the floor and then leap back up again. Other men
tossed money at the band and called out “Hopa!” when
someone did a really spectacular thing. Sometimes, it was a leap
into the air, then they slapped their knees, their shoe tops,
spinning and dropping to the floor, sometimes in a back-bend.
A man came over and placed a shot glass of clear liquor on the
forehead of the man on the floor. I watched, holding my breath,
as I saw the man come up from his back-bend, glass still in the
same place, never spilling a drop. When he got up to a kneeling
position, he drained the glass with one swallow and then sent
it skittering off to the side of the dance floor, still upright.
Lots of paper money was tossed over and around him by the other
guests. Someone took out a roll of bills, and just kept peeling
off dollar after dollar, some of it toward the band, some of it
over the head of the dancer.
much more to come that night that was all so new for me. I just
sat mesmerized, trying to take in even a small part of it.
Vasilli's son, probably giving away free drinks again!
to the table and took my hand to lead me out to the dance floor.
I had, of course, no idea what I was doing and am certain I looked
like a clumsy oaf, trying to follow the intricate steps that the
circle of dancers were executing. But I was having such a lot
of fun and laughing at myself! Everyone was very kind, and showed
me over and over how to step forward, backward, crossing my feet
either in front or behind. Soon I learned to concentrate on the
person in the front of the semi-circle who would hold up a large
dinner napkin, twirling it in the air, and occasionally calling
By the time
I returned to the table, Chris and Vasilios looked suspiciously
as if they were hatching a plot together. Innocently, I slipped
into my chair, reached for my glass of retsina wine, and sat fanning
my face with the menu as they both stared at me. Something enormous
was about to occur. I could feel it, and yet was completely unprepared
when Vasilios said: “Chris here tells me you are a belly
dancer!” I blushed and glared under my eyelashes at Chris.
“Traitor!” I thought, to tell my secret to a total
stranger. But Vasilios went on as if he did not see my embarrassment.
I mean, it
WAS true that I had been taking lessons and sort of “practicing”
on the street with Don, when he was around. But to call me a “dancer”
when I had been taking lessons for less than three months…
Wasn't it just a few short weeks ago that my teacher had given
me the gift of the wine, enabling me to finally loosen up and
actually co-ordinate my steps with my body movements and my finger
cymbals all at the same time? I was unprepared to be called a
“Belly Dancer” by anyone's standards.) “ Chris
also tells me you have your costume with you,” he said,
smiling broadly. “Why don't I show you some place where
you can change into it and then come out and dance with my musicians?”
thought about the big dinner I had just finished, looked at
the bottle of retsina which had magically become full again,
and realized that it was the only honorable way out of the situation.
had been so kind to us. He had wined and dined us and shown lots
of appreciation for our “Act”. There was only one
word possible for me to utter, and that had to be “Yes”.
moment was the beginning of the rest of my life.
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