at the Oz Nightclub at the top of the St. Francis Hotel
in San Francsico in the early 80's
Unionizing Belly Dance:MECDA's Beginnings,
Up Loose Ends
contributed by Mish Mish
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
I remember was Majid waving his pistol around shouting in Arabic
that we were all communists and whores!
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.
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.
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.
How MECDA Began by Feiruz
(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...
"It IS About the Food!"by
Margo Abdo O'Dell
The matriarchs were teaching me about a cultural art from my Lebanese
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
Belly Dancer of the Year
2006 Photos by Susie Poulelis
Danville, Ca, Sunday May 28, 2006 BD of the Year - Finals,
more photos coming!