Samra's perfomance at the Oz Nightclub at the top of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francsico in the early 80's
Gilded Serpent presents...
Unionizing Belly Dance:MECDA's Beginnings,
Part 3:Tying Up Loose Ends

by
Samra /Sherifa
photos contributed by Mish Mish
posted 6-20-06

The treatment of and level of pay for dancers has been a topic in Middle Eastern dance circles for years. At the Gilded Serpent, we have recently received a rash of articles centered on both the treatment and ideas of how to deal with the problems we face, and on how people have dealt with their situation in the past and the success they have had. The formation of the Middle East Cabaret Dancers Association (later called the Middle East Culture and Dance Association) was a group effort. Fairuz began documenting how MEDCA formed, then Mish Mish added some overlooked material, and here we read a third version, Samra/Sherifa’s memoir of how things happened. Samra/Sherifa never officially retired; she quit working in clubs on a regular basis in 1985 and then did some occasional gigs into the early 90's and taught some classes in the Boston area in 2002. Her letters have been edited to fit together here and help fill out the history.

No, Fairuz was not involved in the very initial round of founding the MECDA, but she was one of about 30 or so dancers who came to some of our early meetings. She and other dancers supported our first strike and picket of the Omar Khayam Restaurant in Hollywood.

I started MECDA with Marie Silva and Charlotte Bocage. Some other people were a bit in and out for the first two years -- lots of people came to our meetings, but didn't take on responsibilities. We met in Marie's teaching studio in Hollywood, and we did try to involve a lot of dancers in the meetings.

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.

So when we moved on to the Ali Baba restaurant, it was a lot harder to find support and picketers. Honestly, I can't remember Fairuz with us at that point or against us - though I remember others who broke the strike there.

We tried to get AFL-CIO (a U.S. workers union) backing. Marie and I filed labor law suits against Khayam; we had Gloria Alred, the feminist lawyer, take on a case in which one of our members was raped in the dressing room of a club in Long Beach. (Unfortunately, this woman’s husband left her in response to the filing of the case, and after she agreed to this law-suit she then killed herself. That was a real wake up call to me.)

As a result of MECDA organizing, I had a harder and harder time getting dancing jobs, but at the time I was finishing up my college degree and had other concerns to take up my time. Before I left to do my master’s degree in Egypt, MECDA held its first belly dance festival and Feiruz certainly helped organize that. Then MECDA changed its name - from Middle East Cabaret Dancers Association to Middle East Culture and Dance Association.

To me this was a signal that solidarity was on the way out and commercialism was about to take over. Or that I was too radical for them; I don't know.

I was disappointed, but also burnt out, and then I left the country anyway. At the time everyone was undercutting each other - but after MECDA decided to stop operating as a union or employment standards group, it gave up its ability to create any change in the nightclubs.

I do have a little gold finger cymbal necklace that MECDA gave me as their founding mother, but typically, I can't remember if Marie got one too, or if it was just me.

Reading over Fairuz’s article, I am reminded of many details that have been left out. I want to address some of them here to clarify events for everyone.


Naji, Samra, & Majid (Habiba's Husband)
Mish notes- "...to set the record straight, Faisal was never the manager at Khyams. Just Majid's friend and mediator in negotiations
Fairuz wasn't working at Khayam Restaurant at the time MECDA formed, as far as I remember. I had not worked with her since she had a stint at the Fez Restaurant in Hollywood where I was working, about 4 years previously. The conditions at the restaurant were crappy - there was no lock on the dressing room door - but the reason lots of girls responded to our organization was that Majid, the owner, didn't even pay us! The picket signs didn't "just happen"! We organized the event, I called the media, and we had a news conference. We had a permit to picket so that we wouldn't be thrown off the property. Mish-Mish (also unmentioned in Fairuz’s article) was part of the organizing group; it was awkward for her because her husband, Faisal became Majid's manager and had to negotiate the contract with us.

We actually paid two substitute dancers at Khayam (I think one was Tamra) $30 to go home one night and not dance. I did not hear anyone from the restaurant say "come back tomorrow, it's good for business" - but maybe they did.

What I remember was Majid waving his pistol around shouting in Arabic that we were all communists and whores!

"Janaene organized a meeting in a Greek club with a union mobster-type"?
No, I called the AFL-CIO, and they sent in a representative from AGVA. He spoke at Marie's studio, I think. He was sleazy, but did not say anyone's legs would be broken; he said we couldn't be a branch of AGVA since we were working at small restaurants -- we needed to have a certain number of members to have AFL-CIO members, like the Teamsters do. One possible job action they would have then been able to offer in support was to hold up deliveries. We couldn't afford their dues, so we decided we could start our own union but not be part of AFL-CIO.

Ali Baba Restaurant did NOT support us. George Daba wasn't even there at that time.


Performance at the California Club. Samra is the one in the middle front with her cane standing up straight. Other dancers Mish Mish, Paula, Anisa, Katrina, Yasmine, Goleh, Leila, Rhasida, Johanna.

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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.

10-17-05 How MECDA Began by Feiruz Aram
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...

6-19-06 "It IS About the Food!"by Margo Abdo O'Dell
The matriarchs were teaching me about a cultural art from my Lebanese heritage.

6-18-06 The Magnificent Fundraiser Part Three: Acts I and II by Najia Marlyz
...today’s dancers and producers sometimes write that they believe that large stage shows with good sound and lighting, a Master of Ceremonies, and live music are only now starting production ...

6-12-06 Belly Dancer of the Year 2006 Photos by Susie Poulelis
Danville, Ca, Sunday May 28, 2006 BD of the Year - Finals, more photos coming!

 



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