ad 4 Fahtiem


Feiruz and Simi Bobroski on the cover
of the original Belly Dancer magazine
original photo by Rita Dyan
Gilded Serpent presents...
How MECDA Began
by Feiruz Aram,
July 26, 2005
Las Vegas, Nevada

M.E.C.D.A., (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 Cymbal and The Happenings, 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 York City.

The idea for M.E.C.D.A. began with Jenaene Rathor’s (Ansuya's 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.

We named our company "AeroEthnic." We would present entertainment appropriate to the plane's destination;

 going 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 continued.

M.E.C.D.A. began 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 Fuad and 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'm writing!)

I was hired to dance in a tent in the Giza desert and danced there until my return to the states in 1977.

When 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).

I realized 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 Schill, Shirin Berton, Marina, Diane Weber, Dahad Elias, Antoinette Awayshak, Marie Silva and some others whose names escape me.

It 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."

We 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.

Lou Shelby with Jane Mansfield at the Fez

One or two owners cooperated. Lou Shelby (Roxanne Shelby's 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.

For several 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 be named.

When 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 then."

At 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.

Jenaene 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.

The 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 communications.

Jenaene moved 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.

Today, 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 most events.

M.E.C.D.A. recently combined the Cymbal with Chronicles Magazine. Marta's daughter, Jana, began her own dance career, first with Laura Crawford's Flowers 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.

Shirin 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 class.

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.

Concerning 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!

We 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.

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
3-3-06 How MECDA Began Part II, To Whom It May Concern by Mish Mish El-Atrash
I 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.

6-20-06 Unionizing 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.

7-18-05 Cairo Carnival 2005 Page 1 June 11-12, 2005, Glendale, California photos by Lynette
Please help us identify faces. Thanks!

4-29-05 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.

10-9-05 Zaharr's Memoir, Part 11- The Minerva
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.

10-7-05 Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 5, Cymbals & the Music by Mary Ellen Donald
But that’s not the rhythm. As I say at the beginning of each workshop, “Rhythm is the patterned arrangement of sound and silent.”

10-4-05 Raqia's Response by Dee Dee Asad
I 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 while sick!

10-1-05 Interview with Maya Gaorry of Italy, Talks about Size, Fat, and American dancers, by Lucy Lipschitz
Before there was no rule on how big dancers should be, and now it’s changing. Changing everywhere.

9-30-05 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.




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