Gilded Serpent presents...
and Simi Bobroski on the cover
of the original Belly Dancer magazine
original photo by Rita Dyan
How MECDA Began
Las Vegas, Nevada
(Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association) is a nationwide
organization which began in 1977 for the purpose of organizing
working dancers, sharing information between teachers, students
and professional dancers by publishing and distributing The
developing entertainment venues, producing shows and reaching
out to the public via press releases and the website. There are
now chapters across the country, from Southern California to New
The idea for
M.E.C.D.A. began with Jenaene
Mom) and my frustration with the limited venues in which to perform
our dance and get paid. We were both working full time in Hollywood
clubs and believed there had to be a way to get better working
conditions and venues.
The Boeing 747
Commercial Jetliner had just been introduced. It occurred to us
that the upstairs lounge of this two story behemoth could be the
perfect venue for two or three performers.
our company "AeroEthnic." We would present entertainment
appropriate to the plane's destination;
to Spain? The lounge was just big enough for a singer, guitarist
and Flamenco dancer. Egypt? Hey, you got Jenaene and Feiruz. Vienna?
You’d get lots of chocolate and a classical string trio playing
waltzes. Israel? Klezmer music and falafel sandwiches. You
get the idea and a major airline did too. TWA invited us to their
corporate offices in New York to discuss our idea. We weren’t
able to get the airfare to New York together and that plan didn’t
go through, but our desire to create a better dance environment
in 1977. In 1975, Shirin
Berton was taking private lessons from me at the
downtown YWCA in Long Beach (where I first met Angelika
Nemeth.) At that time, a teacher with a class
at Long Beach City College on the Pacific Coast Campus, Georgiana
Brown, asked if I'd like to take over her class.
Since I had a Bachlor of Arts degree from Cal State Long Beach,
I wrote a proposal to change the class that was being taught by
Georgiana to a for-credit college class. As Shirin studied with
me and we became friends, we began plans for a trip to Cairo.
When the AeroEthnic idea didn't go forward, I went to Egypt with
Shirin. During my absence, Angelika Nemeth agreed to
sub for me at Long Beach City College. Angelika and I were both
dancing at the Apadana, a beautiful Persian restaurant
in Newport Beach and the owner, Sirus, was a fair minded employer who
saved my job until I returned from Cairo. By now, Shirin was beginning
to dance professionally. We were both eager to see the "heavy
hitters" like Nagwa
Suhair Zaki in person. The many adventures and
photos, some hilarious, some harrowing--of our trip to Cairo will
be published later. (What you're reading is one chapter of a book
I was hired
to dance in a tent in the Giza desert and danced there until
my return to the states in 1977.
I returned to the U.S., I went back to Apadana for a while. I
was fired by Sirus' brother who had left him in charge that night
because I refused to give up my $100.00 tip to a mediocre American
tabla player who insisted I owed him. I got a job in a Hollywood
club (Al Khayam
on Vermont with Suhail Caspar on tabla and Marie Silva on the bill with me).
that conditions we worked under in Hollywood were even worse
than those of the Egyptian dancers I worked with such as Hanan
at Sahara City.
In Cairo, I
had musicians who willingly rehearsed with me and an actual dressing
room with a latch. I didn't have to share the dressing room, and
there were no waiters barged in saying they needed more liquor.
(We frequently got stuck changing in the liquor closet or the
kitchen.)There was sufficient light and even a bench and a mirror.
I didn't have to walk over the grease on the kitchen floor to
get to the stage, with peas squished between my toes. I talked
to my students at Long Beach City College, as well as the other
working dancers; Laurie Yorgou, Marta
Diane Weber, Dahad Elias, Antoinette Awayshak, Marie Silva and some others whose names
seemed that if we formed a cohesive group, we might be able to
bargain for better conditions, better pay, at least set minimal
working standards (a dressing room with a lock on the door, a
contract with set conditions of employment, etc.). Before
I knew it, somehow picket signs were made and there were 100 dancers
and students with signs walking a picket line in front of the
Khayam nightclub. The media was there. There was a magazine called
"The Belly Dancer" and there is a picture of me and
one of my students, Simi Bobroski on the cover. We're carrying
picket signs that say "Dignity for Dancers" and "Owners,
We Need Contracts."
organized meetings in each other's homes, spent hours writing
a code of conduct, sample contracts customized to the type of
job (private party, nightclub, etc.) and agonizing about how
to get other dancers to cooperate. We educated ourselves about
unions. We named our organization the Middle Eastern Cabaret Dancers Association.
One or two owners
cooperated. Lou Shelby
Dad) signed a contract AND joined MECDA. The best bosses I've had
were, in order of ethics and fair treatment were 1) Lou
Shelby, 2) George
Dabah at Ali
Baba and 3) Sirus at Apadana.
with Jane Mansfield at the Fez
weeks, we divided up and picketed several clubs at night as customers
walked past us. We picketed the Fez
where some guys leaned out of the upstairs window and asked us
to be sure to "Come back tomorrow night because it's good
for business", We picketed Khayam, the Seventh Veil, The Athenian,
The Greek Village
and Ali Baba where
one of owners - Ed Nash
– sent out his employee to monitor us and keep us out of the driveway.
Marta called him "Tiny". He was a really big guy. I
called him Greg. He was our buddy; we would banter with him when
we worked in the club and while we walked the picket line. I believe
he is now in prison for murder.
At this point,
I will just refer you to the recent movie "Wonderland"
and say no more until my book comes out.
In our quest
to be sponsored by an already existing union, Jenaene and I set
up a meeting at a Greek restaurant where Jenaene was a partner.
In walked this hulk of a man, looking like he came from gangster
central casting with his black fedora, black tie, black shirt,
and black suit. He was a union official, but the union will not
we complained that some dancers were crossing our picket line,
he said "You won't have a problem with scabs. We'll catch
'em in the alley and break their legs, and, oh yeah, don't worry
your little heads about club owners. I'll hire some guys to
come in and break up their places. They'll sign your contract
this point, I felt a sharp kick to my shin as Jenaene's eyes got
as big as saucers and we looked at each other in horror. These
were our sister dancers he was talking about! We saw that there
was a real chance we could be absorbed by a larger union because
we were a small group (not like the sizable membership of MECDA
now. Each of the dancers involved did lots of footwork and research.
Jenaene and I approached some large unions, including AGVA. We
found that we had to be under the umbrella of an already existing
union. We realized there was a good chance we would lose our autonomy
and end up not getting what we needed because Belly Dance is so
specialized. It became obvious we needed legal advice and, even
if we pooled our meager dancer's salaries, we couldn't afford
a labor lawyer.
and I became discouraged. Everywhere we turned we were frustrated
by either the costs involved, the concern that we'd be usurped
and absorbed or sometimes, by the practices of the labor union
reps we've met, some of whose methods ranged from shady
to criminal. We both went back to focusing our energy into
our dance jobs, working in clubs in unsavory, unstable, sometimes
dangerous, unhygienic conditions. Soon after this, I moved to
Seattle and lost touch with M.E.C.D.A. and the Southern California
scene. When I come back to L.A. for a visit, I was invited to
dance at an event that was the precursor to the Cairo Carnivale. I discovered that some
of the other dancers like Marta had stayed with M.E.C.D.A.
name had been changed to "Middle Eastern Culture and Dance
Association," and the focus was no longer on changing conditions
for working dancers.
At that point
in time, M.E.C.D.A. wouldn’t have had the budget required to become
a legal union. But they were producing shows, developing the membership,
publishing the early version of the “Happenings.” M.E.C.D.A.
had developed into the major trade organization for Southland
Belly dancers and an important center for dancer publicity and
to Ojai where her toddler, Ansuya, first appeared on stage in
one of her Mom's productions. I lived in Seattle for the next
eight years. By the time I moved back to Southern California in
1991, M.E.C.D.A. was going strong with 600 members, a nonprofit
status, a budget, elected officers, and a cadre of volunteers
they could count on for each event, regular dance parties, and
classes with instructors of local and international reputations,
the annual anniversary party and the grand Cairo Carnivale.
M.E.C.D.A. provides dance venues for both professional and nonprofessional
dancers. It also provides another valuable service; that of
bringing vendors of all the products belly dancers crave to
combined the Cymbal
with Chronicles Magazine. Marta's daughter, Jana,
began her own dance career, first with Laura
of the Desert and then, as an accomplished soloist.
Jenaene's daughter, Ansuya’s dance career has soared, with videos,
international appearances and tours with The
Belly Dance Super Stars.
Marta and all
the other officers and volunteers (and this is putting it mildly)
have worked hard to make M.E.C.D.A. the organization it is today,
with chapters continuing to start up across the country.
Berton continued on to have a professional dance career at some
of the hottest spots in Los Angeles such as Coco's
at Hollywood and Vine where she became the favored house dancer.
We are still close friends and I live not far from her. Shirin
is a journalist, editor and photographer for the Bullhead
City Business Journal in Bullhead City, Arizona. She
is a partner in the business with husband, Thom and teaches a weekly belly dance
I'm proud and
happy to see how one dancer's pioneering idea can blossom into
such a unique and significant organization. However, I'm also
saddened that with M.E.C.D.A.'s clout, large membership, and budget,
conditions haven’t changed much for working dancers.
conditions and pay, we're still on our own when we go to work.
I recently watched
Miles Copeland's documentary, "American
Bellydancer". In one section, the camera followed
Jillina as she traveled from gig
to gig on one night in L.A. At one job, she appeared in costume,
standing in a doorway. The "host" was filmed as he tried
to get her to reduce her fee just before her music started and
she should have begun heading for the stage. She'd also brought
a group of dancers. That scene made me cringe! It was all too
familiar. On costumer Davina’s
website, she gives makeup tips in which she advises dancers to
take a flashlight with them so they can be sure their makeup looks
stage ready even if they’re changing in a dark closet!
working dancers undercut each other like crazy. I lament our
lack of standards! Students with just a few lessons set themselves
up as teachers. M.E.C.D.A. has a code of conduct without sanctions.
Although some members have asked questions about how funds are
handled, the annual report that non-profits are legally required
to publish hasn't been made available to the general membership.
I believe that
when one has a complaint, one should also offer a solution. Dancers
across the country work in clubs, restaurants and private parties.
Now that M.E.C.D.A has chapters in numerous cities throughout
the country, it has the potential to enforce standards for dancer
employment. Another measure for M.E.C.D.A. to consider could be
ideas from professional dancers who are M.E.C.D.A. members. Regardless
of the form of dance, making a living isn’t easy, but maybe we
could pay closer attention to how other genres of dancers cope.
At this point,
I’ll leave it to the readers to take up the challenge.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
How MECDA Began Part II,
To Whom It May Concern by Mish Mish El-Atrash
was very curious to hear what Fairuz had to say about how M.E.C.D.A.
began, as I was one of the original dancers to organize it.
Belly Dance:MECDA's Beginnings, Part 3:Tying Up Loose Ends,
by Samra /Sherifa,
The problem was that after the first strike, where the
issues were so clear cut – no one had been paid since the
owner gambled away our money, tip-sharing had just been instituted
-- people were unwilling to continue with strikes for getting
contracts all over town.
Carnival 2005 Page 1 June
11-12, 2005, Glendale,
help us identify faces. Thanks!
Power Failure Halts
Troupes & Finals Categories, The Belly Dancer of the Universe
Competition, Part 1, Sunday Evening, held February 19-20,
2005, in Long Beach, California report by Amy Bonham, photos by
GS staff. Willow
Street outside the Grand Willow Street Center was a raging river
on Saturday morning and the rain continued through the weekend
with intermittent dry spells.
Zaharr's Memoir, Part
11- The Minerva
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.
Rhythm and Reason
Series, Article 5, Cymbals & the Music by Mary Ellen Donald
that’s not the rhythm. As I say at the beginning of each
workshop, “Rhythm is the patterned arrangement of sound
Raqia's Response by Dee
visited her in the Masr el Dawly Hospital, near where Raqia lives
in el Dokki, the next week. Raqia was unable to travel to Sweden
Interview with Maya Gaorry of Italy, Talks about Size, Fat, and
American dancers, by Lucy Lipschitz
there was no rule on how big dancers should be, and now it’s
changing. Changing everywhere.
My Experience With Amani’s
Oriental Festival by Beverley Joffe
Lebanon, June 14-19, 2005.
Amani placed strong emphasis on the folklore and identity of Oriental
Dance when compiling the program and offered touring to assist
in blending technique with emotion.