A Marriage Made in North Beach
1 here- One Ad Changed My Life
Chapter 2 here-
Rather Stay Home with my Kids"
.So, on the very next night, I showed up as a real
live Belly dancer at the Bagdad
Cabaret (on Broadway, in San Francisco). It felt exciting,
but very scary at the same time, to be dancing on the same stage
as professional dancers! With the exception of my new dance friend,
Aziza!, who hailed from Walnut Creek, the other two
dancers with whom I worked were from the Middle East. Aisha
Ghul was from Turkey, and Fatma Akef was
from Egypt; it almost felt as if I were in a foreign country.
before had I met anyone like Aisha. She had short, blondish-red
hair, was friendly, outspoken, and a class unto herself. When
she was in the dressing room, she would eat and spit out watermelon
and pumpkin seeds non-stop while she told me stories of the
times she worked in clubs on Eighth Avenue in New York.
She told me
that the New York customers would give her presents such as perfumes,
pieces of jewelry, and even a fur coat once. Aisha told me that
there was a fur coat factory above the club in which she worked,
and she advised me that if we dancers sat with the customers between
dance sets, we should make them give us presents,
or maybe. even. money!
does a similiar "sultan" routine
her cymbals with a different pattern from the rest of the dancers
that sounded like: tink-a-tink, tink, tink, tink-a-tink, tink,
tink, and her performances were wild with a Karsilama rhythm finale
which she danced with abundant kicking, twisting, belly-rolling,
and, of course, skirt and hair tossing. I was amazed that
Aisha danced, wearing high-heeled shoes and skimpier costumes
than the other dancers. She always finished her show with a "Sultan
Act" and I had never seen anything like that before. In Aisha's
"Sultan Act," she would invite a man up on the elevated stage
that had a little ledge on the perimeter for sitting drinks down
for a while-kind of like a piano bar. We dancers would
surround the stage and look up at her as she proceeded to roll
up the man's pant cuffs, pull his shirt up (to expose his belly)
and wrap her veil, turban-style, around his head. Having completed
her preparations, she would ask her victim questions that embarrassed
him, and then pretend to teach him how to dance. "Grind the coffee,"
she'd demand. "Pick the apples - Shake the tree!" Of course, it
was all quite comical and amusing, but more amusing to her audience
than to her would-be student.
Fatma was very different from Aisha. She did not speak
much English and was rather quiet, preferring to sit in the dressing
room and sew. She made all her costumes by hand-sewing because
she didn't have a sewing machine. This included the seams of all
her thobes (dresses) and the yards and yards and yards of trim
on the bottoms of the dance skirts. She told me that our skirts
needed to have a half circle in the front and a full circle in
the back and we needed to use two inch satin blanket binding on
the bottoms of the large circular skirts to make sure they were
long enough to "drag" the floor. She did not think it was proper
to let one's feet show. I watched her bead costumes,
make belts, and construct bras, and I promised myself that, someday,
I would make my own costumes
was the most entertaining (and oddest) show I had ever seen in
my entire life! It brought the fantasy of the Middle East right
to the stage of the Bagdad in San Francisco. Yousef
(Kouyoumjian) announced "Fatma Akef from Cairo, Egypt"
and the stage lights went off! The only illuminations in
the club were the little red tips of the customers' cigarettes
and the golden flames of candlelight glowing red through the glass
bowls on each of the cocktail tables. With the room lit thusly,
one's senses became very aware of the incense that permeated the
room and this added to the magical wonder of what was to happen
on the stage.
Ishmael, (also billed as Gillli Gilli)
played a drum roll; his drumming then accompanied the oud and
violin's haunting and mysterious medium tempo song with Gilli
Gilli's hypnotic repetitious chanting. Fatma walked
royally onto the stage, lighting her way with a golden candelabrum
balanced precariously on her head. (This candelabrum was not
the helmet type that we have now become accustomed to seeing;
this one had a small concave base, which sat neatly upon her head.)
stage was alight with the flames of the candelabrum's candles
and the eerie glow of her costume. Fatma's costumes were always
comprised of material that glowed in the dark as her show began
with no light-except for "black light".
many layers of costuming. Her outer layer was a rich, metallic-pink
fabric shot through with gold threads. It looked like a heavily
bejeweled sorcerer's robe, and it dragged the ground with a long
train. She danced in this robe with the candelabrum balanced
on her head. (In the dressing room, I tried to balance the candelabrum
on my head but found the base to be too little to use as a balance,
and additionally, the weight of the object seemed to compress
my neck by a couple of inches! This was not the lightweight brass
of the helmet-style candle holders now produced in Egypt; this
one was comprised of heavy pot-metal.) Sometime, during her entrance
dance (with the candelabrum still on her head) the robe came off,
and she continued the dance dressed in a "day glow" colored thobe.
At some point,
somehow, she exchanged the candelabrum on her head for a balas
(water jug) on her head. Then Gilli Gilli handed her three water
glasses and she "clink-clink-clinked" them to show that they, indeed,
were made of glass. Next, she placed them on the stage and stood
on them-two glasses under one foot and one glass under the ball
of her other foot. With the water jug still on her head, she "skated"
around the floor with the glasses and then began to dance to a drum
solo. While dancing to the drum solo with the water jug still on
her head, she removed her thobe, revealing a very colorful
her drum solo in this bedlah and Laura, a green parrot, appeared
on her shoulder! I remember that she and Laura had a funny conversation.
After the drum solo was complete, Fatma danced some more and ended
her routine posed in the splits with the water jug still on her
she was on her knees doing yet another drum solo, and Gilli Gilli
started asking her questions in broken English, which she answered
It did not
matter if we understood her or not, or if it made any sense; in
those days, it was just funny.
was my first lesson in Egyptian dance. .Dance did not have to
be serious; it could be silly! It could be humorous. However,
it also needed to be good dancing and entertaining at the same
time. Fatma told me that Naima, (her sister)
and she used to dance together in a circus-her family's circus. The
two of them used to dance together on top of a table that their
grandmother balanced in her mouth! Naima went on
to become a movie star and she, Fatma, married a drummer named
Ishmael and became his seventeenth wife. (Well,
that's what she told me.) Later, they left the circus and performed
throughout Europe and South America before ending up in San Francisco's
Naima were not the only ones in that family who danced, however.
Ishmael/Gilli Gilli danced also-when he was not drumming, performing
magic tricks (or sticking scissors up his nose). We used to beg
him to dance, and of course, he would comply. He danced in a two-piece
bedlah, played the best cymbals I had ever heard (Remember: he
was a percussionist and musician), and he performed his own brand
of "veil work". However, he did not wrap his veil around himself;
he revealed it as stuffing in his bra from which he would pull
it out-magician style!
I felt very grateful and honored to share the same stage with
dancers like the glamorous Aziza!, the very Turkish Aisha and
the fabulous Fatma and Ishmael duo. I actually had a job dancing
with these great dancers!
was having fun, I had musicians who were kind, supportive, and
protective to everyone, and I was making so much money in tips,
I could buy all the groceries we needed, and could help pay
our bills also. I felt so lucky!
I would ask Yousef when he wanted me to come in again, and he
would always answer, "Tomorrow!" Really-I was lucky. The other
dancers did not get to work every night, but I did. They all worked
a maximum of five nights; some worked only to fill in the nights
that were left over, but I felt privileged to work every night.
In fact, I worked almost two months straight, without a day off,
until one of the other dancers made me realize that I was working
so much because I was "undercutting" their wages.
I was unaware that all the dancers were supposed to receive regular
pay! I had been making so much money in tips the idea of actual
wages had not entered my mind. (Remember, my teacher was on the
road and was unaware, completely, that I had found a job dancing.)
resulting from my epiphany, I was embarrassed and felt angry.
I confronted Yousef and told him that I had to quit because
he was using me without pay instead of paying me, as well as
an additional dancer, to work.
I left work
that night feeling very bad about what I had done to the other
dancers unknowingly, and I felt extremely sad that I was not going
to be able to dance anymore. However, the next morning, Yousef
called me and told me to return to work-not "tomorrow"
but "tonight" and that he would start paying me.
That is how my career
in dance began on Broadway and it continued, through twenty years,
six nights a week, three shows a night! It was a marriage made
in North Beach, in sickness and in health - we danced!
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for other possible viewpoints!
on the Edge by Amina
learned from the first evening chasing Fatma around the stage
that in order to have a serious dance company in the Egyptian
style, I had to seriously play with the appearance of disorder.
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