Gilded Serpent presents...
My Adventure Begins!
the Renaissance Faire was an experience that was to change my
life! After finishing my university studies I worked as a designer,
and lived in Marin County, California, where I had a beautiful
shop, “Aquarian Princess”. I designed and made couture clothing,
jewelry, and bridal gowns. Even shops on Rodeo Drive in Beverley
Hills were showing my clothing in their windows. My life was fantastic.
I was nearly engaged to a fabulous man who supported my artistic
career, and had a wonderful house in the country. I had a great
circle of friends and a terrific social life.
I helped a good friend of mine with her booth at the Renaissance
Faire. At 9:30 on a Saturday morning, I saw a performance of Bal
Anat. The first dancer I saw was Jamila
Salimpour, then Meta balancing a
tray, Aida performing a veil dance, Rebaba
dancing with a pot, and Rhea
dancing with a sword. Galya danced the finale
playing sagat, doing floorwork and a drum solo. The backup dancers
all played authentic instruments.The sound of the drums, santour,
mizmar, sagat, def, and accompanied by vocal zagareeting was the
most exotic sound I had ever heard. The costumes of asuite, coin
belts and bras, jewelry, veils and beautiful flowing fabrics enchanted
me. This was the first time in my life I had seen Arabic dancing
and heard Arabic music. It was like a religious experience.
walked up to Jamila after the show and said that it was the
most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She took my hand and said
“You look like an Egyptian; come dance with me.” I saw
my future. I was going to use all my designing skills to make
costumes and become a dancer. It was like running away to join
I sold my
shop and moved to the city to study with Jamila. I was in class
with Masha Archer, whom I knew from the Alameda
Flea Market, where I used to go every Sunday to buy the fabrics
for my clothing design. Dance class was very hard and competitive.
We had to play sagat (or zills as Jamila called them from the
Turkish language). Our style was the Classic Turkish Arabic style,
with veils, playing finger cymbals, doing acrobatic floorwork,
and drum solos. I attended three classes a week and practiced
at home every day. One day I told Jamila that I wanted to be a
professional dancer, she said, “Then you must have a name!” In
an instant she said, “You will be Asmahan.”
I asked Masha
to find me Arabic coins for a costume, Asuite fabric, and lots
of Turkamen jewelry. It was hard to get Middle Eastern coins at
that time, so I bought some English coins from her just to get
something. I painted them to make them look like they came from
some exotic Middle Eastern country! My dancing idol was Galya;
I used to go and see her at the Greek
Taverna in Oakland. She was always so gracious, helpful,
and supportive. She gave me her business card which had the most
wonderful photo--I still have it, and had a large color copy made
from it. Aida was always very helpful as well. I had a lot of
difficulty understanding the music and the complexity of cymbal
rhythms, hip patterns and footwork all working together in a kind
of opposition. Aida, formerly an opera singer, played the mizmar,
so she understood so much about music. She gave me some private
lessons. I made her a skirt and veil which she loved.
1973, I went to the Casbah
to see the show many times. When I auditioned, Fadil
said I could start in a few months whenever he had an opening.
At the Bagdad,
hired me on the spot and said I could start immediately, but I
declined. I was offered a job at the Greek Taverna for
four nights a week including one night each weekend. It was a
lovely family style restaurant and a great way to start getting
stage experience. The tips were fantastic, and I could shop every
week for new fabrics and jewelry.
had a style which she called Pre-Napoleonic;
this meant Arabic materials before the influence of western
I made a coin
belt and bra of Moroccan brass coins which I purchased from Masha.
I worked for the Lion and the Sun, which was a Persian
import shop. They had wonderful Persian fabrics and jewelry. I
obtained Persian coins there to make a silver belt and bra. I
designed belts for them to produce and made costumes for them
a few months Fadil gave me a few nights at the Casbah. It was
so competitive! There were about five dancers a week coming in
for work. The atmosphere was fantastic, the music was wonderful.
Fadil has the most beautiful voice. He did such good versions
of Abdul Halim Hafez, Om Kalsoum,
and Farid el Atrache. He was always singing the
latest songs from the Gulf with the ayoub rhythms that I loved.
I took drum lessons with the tabla player from the Bagdad,
George Dabai. This helped me to become a better
dancer as I learned the rhythmic patterns. He taught me to play
def as well, so I played on the stage with the musicians for the
first set. This was a dream come true. Jalal
were wonderful musicians; they were playing Persian, Turkish and
Arabic songs. The clubs entertained many Arabs, including Saudi
Arabian princes (who all seemed to be studying at Stanford). One
of the favorite customers was Prince Musab al Saud.
On my first night, he complimented me and said I looked like an
Egyptian. He wanted to buy me a drink. I had never had any alcohol
in my life. I asked Musab what he was drinking, he said a beer,
so I had the same.
first drink was a beer with the son of the King of Saudi Arabia!
At the Casbah
at that time, the dancers: were Aida, Raina,
Safia, Selwa, Rhea,
and Princess Samia Nasser. I was costumed in
the Pre-Napoleonic look, which with three shows a night, (I had
to have three different costumes) were too heavy to carry. Aida
told me where to get a carrying bag with wheels. These were rare
to find at this time.
the other dancers wore beaded costumes. I was shocked that the
only Arab dancer, Samia Nasser, wore the most
outrageous colors, was very pale, wore high heeled shoes, had
short orange-red hair, and a look that can only be described
as "Plastic Fantastic."
was very sweet and used to give me advice. I often asked her to
tell me about the dancers in the Middle East. She told me all
the professional dancers wore beaded costumes and were very glamorous.
Also, she told me I was not making the most of my looks. I was
still attending class, which I continued to do the whole time
I danced professionally. I felt there was always something to
work on and more to learn. I watched all the dancers and learned
so much! Raina, Safia, and Selwa were really beautiful and wore
very sexy costumes. I could tell that my coins, metal bracelets,
antique fabrics, Turkamen headdresses were not as attractive to
the customers. We had to go to the tables for tips and of course
we were expected to make good money, and of course, it was the
tradition to give half the money to the band. George
the doorman was such a character; he wore a fez and did really
entertaining barking and dancing to bring customers in the club.
Haroun the bartender looked like a character
out of a film. In fact the atmosphere at the Casbah was
like being in a film (like "Casablanca"). I was in love
with my new life: dressing in Arabian inspired evening outfits,
painting dramatic black lined eyes, wearing lots of heavy jewelry,
packing costumes, seeing all these amazing characters, and being
surrounded by this fabulous music!
Om Kalsoum songs with the band. I especially remember Inta
Omry. I became very good friends with Selwa. She was so beautiful,
made amazing pearl costumes, had hair that almost touched the
floor and was a fabulous dancer. I talked Fadil into allowing
me to redecorate the dressing room. Selwa helped me. I got carpet
squares for free and did a new floor cover. We painted the door
and woodwork, and stuck silver and blue shiny paper on the walls
and ceiling, which made the room luminescent. Then, I talked him
into letting me redecorate the widow where all the publicity for
the club was viewed by the public. I draped purple velvet,
got all the dancers to give me their best publicity photos, which
I framed in gold leaf, and did a nice layout. This must have been
in 1974. When I came back from London to see everyone in 1984,
my photo was still in the widow and the same display with some
different photos in the other frames. My photo was displayed for
ten years on North Beach. I took it out of the window and still
have that faded print.
was always busy producing Bal Anat. She was Jamila’s most loyal
supporter. She was rehearsing the musicians, helping dancers
with costumes, working on props, helping dancers with their
performances. I had bought a sword from Lion and the Sun and
was practicing my balancing. I was hoping to be a sword dancer
was invited to be a featured artist at a Belly Dance convention
in Las Vegas. She was bringing some of her dancers and asked me
to do a fashion show with my costumes. I had to dress about seven
dancers; we each changed once so there were fourteen different
outfits. We were dancing instead of the catwalk stroll. The fashion
show was to live music, and it took quite a bit of organizing
to get all the dancers changed and dancing. It was very successful.
Abdel Al came to San Francisco with his orchestra. He
had come from London, where he had been performing after leaving
Beirut because of the Civil War. Fadil had arranged for this world
famous group of musicians to record an album with him. The music
they were playing was very different than the music with which
we usually danced. They did an album with George
Elias as well and the entrance music, Siqa,
was beautiful, but I did not know how to dance to it. Aboud said
that I should come to London to dance. He said that I could dance
at Omar Khayyam. I then knew that I was going to travel
and eventually go to the Middle East. Then I knew that I had to
make some beaded costumes and become more glamorous. I started
my collection for a new career.
I had been
dancing in San Francisco for three years. It was now 1976. I did
not want to dance anywhere else in the US, and all I could think
about was getting to the heart of the Middle Eastern culture.
I had been saving my money and now began the process of preparing
to dance in London. I made a jet-black and silver beaded belt
and bra, bought sequined fabric in black and in silver that I
sewed into circle skirts. Then, I made a peacock colored solid
rhinestone costume, a gold stone beaded costume. I also made several
skirts for each to make many combinations. When I had six costumes,
I thought I was prepared. I went to New York to dance at my sister’s
wedding. While I was there, I had a photo shoot with a famous
fashion photographer. Back in San Francisco, my final months were
spent selling my possessions and car, buying all my traveling
gear, getting my passport, organizing publicity and portfolios,
winding up all my business affairs. My last night at the Casbah
was very emotional. Fadil made a lovely speech when he announced
me for the last time. I used to make tapes of my shows, and I
have this one. My last weekend, North Beach Leather threw
a going-away party for me at Bimbo’s and 350 people came.
I brought the Casbah band with Fadil, and Aida sang. It was really
a great send off!
the morning of my departure, Aida came to say goodbye. She gave
me a hand of Fatima which was a present from Jamila, which
she said was to protect me. I left for London with my tabla under
my arm, my sword in a case over my shoulder, a carry on bag with
my three coin costumes, Asuite, and sagat. There were four suitcases
of clothes and costumes. My baggage was seriously overweight.
drove me to the airport and I left the United States with my
heart filled with anticipation, my spirit flying with the joy
that I was doing what I was meant to do. I was creating my life
as an adventure, I was making my own destiny; this was Kismet!
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Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
7-17-04 Dancing in North
Beach by Sausan
the occasions when the door was still locked, I was often invited
to drink coffee next door, where young girls made their money
3-24-04 "I'd Rather Stay
Home with my Kids" by Amina Goodyear (chapter
asked her how to take it off, and she told me to figure it out
when I was on stage. Then I heard - "Our "guest"
dancer, Amina, all the way from upstairs!"
on Broadway in the ‘70s by Kalifa
of my strangest experiences on Broadway involved getting a small
part in Carol Doda’s movie...
"Come with me
to the Casbah" by Nisima
me right into her husband's lap, yelling, "Kiss her Henry...
by Janine Ryle
years, he was involved in the San Francisco North Beach scene
during the eighties as a drummer while his brother, Jalaleddin Takesh was a kanoonist and restaurant
owner. We asked him to recall some of his experiences for our North Beach