An Interview with
“The Lady With The Eyes”
Internet a few months back for information about one of my former
teachers, I came across several inquiries on a couple of web sites
asking if anyone knew the whereabouts of Nakish,
one of the most prominent American belly dancers of the late 20th
century. A few years ago, a friend of mine had given me
Nakish’s contact information, but in the daily
throes of living life in general, and in spite
of my good intentions, the contact information lingered in
my to-do file. Then, during the week after Christmas and
before New Year’s Day, 2007, my cell phone rang; on the other
end of the line was the very familiar voice of my former teacher,
I talked for a while on the phone while I sat in my car with the
clock ticking towards midnight, each asking how the other
was and how life was in general. All was fine. We wished each other a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,
and I suggested we get together for a long-overdue interview.
Later that week we agreed on a time and a date. I was glad
we had made contact after so many, many years.
greeted me at her San Francisco home in Visitation Valley with the
warm welcome that only her huge dimpled smile could bring, and
I found myself following her up the stairs of her three bedroom
home and into her well organized work room.
around I saw samples of lovely wedding veils pinned to head
forms, and noticed walls of containers full of beads, which
I later found out were real gems and pearls. Patterns
lay pinned to green iridescent fabric on a worktable, and I
later learned it was for a costume in the works for an
upcoming project. Years had passed since I last saw Nakish,
yet everything in that room, including Nakish, felt comfortably
familiar. We sat down amongst the evidences of
her abundant creativity, and exchanged up-to-date news.
I then began my interview.
born in San Francisco into a family of many siblings. When
she was about six years old, she began taking ballet. In
high school, she also studied Flamenco and Modern Dance.
She would go on to train as a Martha Graham dancer
under one of Martha Graham’s students during her high school years.
If she had accepted, she would have become the second black performer
and first black female performer to have ever trained in the Martha
Graham technique. But as a young woman, she was
not prepared to venture into the unknown territory of that East
Coast city during the turmoil of the 1960s, and so Nakish enrolled
in the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance and studied with Sheila
Zoragas. At the same time she also studied Modern
Dance at City College.
Nakish enrolled in the Louise Salinger Academy of Fashion,
then located at 101 Jessie Street, a facility now
owned by the Academy of Art. After she graduated
in 1966, she became the assistant to Patricia
of London Design in 1967. In addition to the study
of design, Nakish ventured into stone and gem cutting and added
jewelry design to her portfolio.
I asked Nakish
how she was first introduced to belly dance. “My boyfriend
used to work at the Renaissance
Pleasure Faire as a blacksmith, and he told me about
it. He tried to encourage me to participate in it as a belly
dancer. I didn’t feel it was right because belly dance is
not part of my ethnic culture.” However, a year later Nakish
ventured to the Renaissance Fair and went to watch the belly dancers
on stage, which at that time were Jamila’s
troupe, Bal-Anat. “Rhea
was performing with her sword. She saw me standing there
watching the dancers and came up to me and said, ‘You should be
in our group!’” In 1969, Nakish began taking belly dance
lessons from Jamila and soon after became Bal-Anat’s next sword
dancer, as Rhea left
the group to go dance in Greece. "Why belly dance?"
I asked. “Because it is a dance I could do and express by
myself,” was the answer.
Nakish wanted to be sure that the readers knew the pictures
with the sword and the one where she is standing under
an umbrella were not what she eventually became known
for, and that would be her cabaret style and performance.
were bringing about great changes in San Francisco, and Nakish
participated in those changes by becoming the first black belly
dancer. In fact, she was the first and only black performing
belly dancer in the Bal-Anat Middle Eastern Dance group, and
she participated in troupe performances at the Renaissance
Pleasure Faire for the next three years.
fact, Nakish is known to be the first black or African-American
belly dancer both nationally and internationally.
In 1973, Nakish
away from the Bal-Anat Middle Eastern Dance group and began teaching
at the Randala Inn, then on Taraval Street near 20th
Avenue. She appeared in numerous trade publications, including
being on the front cover of Habibi Magazine, Vol. 3,
No. 3. In 1976 she joined the staff of the Belly Dancer
Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 12, as its Beauty Editor [Ed- a
magazine published in the '70s unrelated to the current publication
of the same name] . Watching Nakish pulling magazine
after magazine out of her memoir box to show me articles and pictures
about her in these publications, which included Jet Magazine,
PSA Magazine and other well-known magazines of the
times, left me humbled. A few were even dated prior
to her study of belly dance; specifically, on February 6,
1966, Nakish appeared as a dominant personality in the first ever
Black History Month event.
I began taking lessons with The Lady With The Eyes. Her
small studio on Frankfurt Street in San Francisco would help open
doors for me to a life of excitement in the arena of belly dance.
As we sat and talked, the story of her life began to take on a
familiar air, as I recalled that much of what she was telling
me occurred during the time I was her student.
In 1980, club
owners in Japan began contacting Nakish with requests for her
students to dance there, but the contracts they offered were
not to her strict and high standards. She traveled to
Japan to find out first hand what the clubs where like in Japan
and after seeing for herself what she did not want her students
to experience, she requested that the contracts be changed to
than sending her students to a country that at that time had
a bad reputation for turning foreign dancers into prostitutes,
she leaned toward safety for her students and turned down
the invitation.The club owners there were unwilling to comply,
and she returned without accepting the contracts in lieu of
her students' safety.
1983, Nakish was invited by Dr. Bousaini Farid,
then President of the Women’s Club in Egypt, to go to Egypt
to dance for the Friendship Force International program,
a nonprofit international cultural exchange organization headquartered
in Atlanta that was founded with a single mission – to create
an environment in which personal friendships were established
across the barriers that separate people. Now active in
over 60 countries, this program was founded in 1977 by its first
president, Wayne Smith, and was announced on
March 1, 1977 by President Jimmy Carter at
a White House gathering of state governors. Nakish was
to be the featured dancer at the Nile Hilton, where she performed
for Egypt’s elite.
so dazzled her audience that she was invited to stay and to
perform for the New Year’s Eve Party at the Yacht Club for over
50,000 people. Her performance at the Yacht Club was cut
short when Nakish fell ill with pneumonia.
spent her New Year’s Eve and Day sick in her hotel room.
“I was so sick! And it was even worse when I learned that
there were going to be over 50,000 people there to watch me!”
On her way home from Egypt, she sought the medical help of English
doctors in her layover at Heathrow International, and arrived
back in San Francisco a much healthier but a much thinner Nakish.
magazines (both covers and inside features) was only
one venue where Nakish appeared. During the 1970s and 1980s
she also made several television appearances to demonstrate her
belly dance talents: specifically, she was on the Belva Davis
Show, as well as the Jim Dunbar Show. The
late Herb Caen featured her in one of his well-read
columns, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
She was also the first black woman to teach at the YWCA in 1977.
Her workshop, seminar-teaching, and performance schedule had her
traveling all over the United States and to Canada as well as
to Japan. Two of her first sponsors were Jodette
and Harry Saroyan. She was also asked to
be a board member for the newly established Ethnic Dance Festival
in 1978, but had to decline because of her already
I asked Nakish
about the North Beach/Broadway nightclub scene. “I really
wasn’t into the nightclub scene. I really didn’t like it.
I liked doing the big fairs like the ones at Brooks Hall, Cal
Expo, Cow Palace, and the Civic Center.” She talked about
how she had demanded respect from the club owners for her students
when they went to dance at the clubs. I’m sure it was because
of her that I was treated with the utmost respect during the time
when I worked at the
Bagdad. Nakish did perform monthly in the Middle Eastern
nightclubs, but she reserved the right to turn down even those
opportunities to suit her schedule, a right to which the
owners gladly agreed.
teaching dance altogether in 1993 after she injured herself working on
"The Phantom of the Opera", where she worked in the Wardrobe Department.
She does continue to teach workshops on beauty and makeup and
is sought out often to design costumes and millinery for large
productions, including the San Francisco Ballet’s "Dybbuk Ballet",
"Beauty and the Beast", shows at the San Francisco Opera and
other Bay Area theater companies. She was also invited to
showcase her millinery items at Neiman Marcus. Today, Nakish's
love remains with designing theater millinery, working with silver
and gold, and dancing.
In the 1970’s
Nakish was responsible for encouraging a young belly dancer named
Yasmeena to acquire The Belly Dancer,
a trade magazine of the time. She helped in the production of numerous
belly dance shows throughout San Francisco, with some of the top
name musicians of today, such as Mary
Ellen Donald and the late Mimi
Spencer. She was one of the first teachers
ever to teach at the Rakkasah festivals. I asked Nakish if she would ever consider doing a belly dance workshop
again. “I would, but I would have to see what is out there
right now. I’ve been so busy with my other work that
I really don’t know what is going on right now in the belly dance
scene. Also, I would do one, but only to very serious students.
I don’t like teaching group classes because I don’t see the dance
as just fun and games. The student must be serious about
What was Nakish's most
memorable dance gig? She said, “The one in Egypt.”
Why? I asked. “Because I was invited.
To me that was an honor like you would not believe it! I
was invited by Egypt’s elite to dance for
all of Egypt’s elite.”
What is the
one thing Nakish still wants to do with regards to belly
dance? “To make sure that young belly dancers know about
the co-founders of this dance and how hard we really worked
to make it a respectable dance form here in the United States.
I worked hardest for the dancers in San Francisco to wipe out
the discrimination factor and to make sure that all cultures
were included in the performance of this dance.”
Nakish has always kept her belly dance
life private because of the stigma attached to the dance form.
“I get tired of ignorant people and get angry at their perception
of this dance.”
where she saw belly dance going today, she responded, “I have
no idea because I have not been in the field. But I can
tell you that the good old days are gone.” "What
do you like or dislike about the belly dance trends today?"
I asked. “The
lack of study on the part of the dancer. Everyone is so
anxious to get out and dance. The respect has gone out
of it; there is lack of knowledge as to where it came from or
how to present it as honoring the women. There seems to
be too much bump and grind in it now. It takes years and
years of study in order to understand the music and to be proficient
enough to transfer that knowledge to the student.”
"What do you like most and what do you
like least about the dance today, compared to yesteryear?"
“The costuming has become softer and more beautiful, but there
is one thing I would like to pass on. One of the
most important things in this dance to understand is the word
choreography, and where it comes from. Choreography
is the accumulation of many individual steps that is applied
to music and which is taught to a dancer from her/his instructor
who has had years of experience.
From that, a student will be
able to master choreography to any music she/he wants.
Always remember, there always will be more steps and different
steps, but the understanding of the dance and music will be
much greater.” Nakish continued, “Don’t be in a hurry
to get out and be seen in the public. Take your time and
really learn the dance correctly.”
Nakish stated, “This dance is already a very sexy style dance.
You don’t have to add any more sexiness to it in order to dance
it well. Also, if one is looking for teachers, see if their
classes can be visited, even if a charge for sitting in on a class
is required. If that can’t be done, then go to the next
teacher. Then learn it to its fullest!”
Nakish's name, which
she said means “Beautiful One”, definitely identifies her warm
spirit and her genuine demeanor. Perhaps with a little
coaxing, we may encourage her to come out of retirement and
share with us the knowledge and stories of her unique dance
of Nakish" on Tribe.net should anyone want to contact
as Beauty Editor of Yasmeena's
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
6-18-06 The Magnificent
Fundraiser Part Three: Acts I and II by Najia Marlyz
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 ...
Revisited by Yasmela/ Shelley Muzzy
response to the improvisational passages in
Middle Eastern music illustrate the depth of our understanding
of the rich texture and nuance of the culture
am Neferteri by Ann Lucas
There appears to be some curiosity about the racial background
of a dancer. I don't fully understand why anyone in today's world
would care, but they do.
A Period of Innovations
In the late 1970s, there were two events produced for
the belly dance community that were different from things that
had happened before – events that began and paved the way
for so many that were to happen later.
Who Really Gave Us This Dance?
And, in their quest for self-expression, they,
too, would fall prey to the sweet expressive motions of a timeless
dance only to find a cure for their soul in the performance of
this expression in front of an appreciative audience.
My Dance Career’s Dark Side:
As seen through a fog of murky emotion by Najia Marlyz
recounting my dark stories help me to purge them? Should one forget
those special moments of insult and bad human behavior that all
Photos PAGE 2-Carnival
of Stars Photos by Michael Baxter
Sponsors Alexandria and Latifa November 11 & 12, 2006 Centennial
Hall, Hayward, California
Its Not Your Grandmamma's Zar By
Luckily at some point we hear the distinct rhythm for
a Zar and follow the drumming right to the front door of an apartment
Inconvenient Body Truth by
here I am now, having worked very hard to learn as much as possible
to master my body, invest in the costumes, and—Bam!—suddenly,
menopause has hit me!