Gilded Serpent presents...
The Bou-Saada Bus
by Yasmela

The deserted highway undulated in the blackness like a silk ribbon with a yellow stripe running down the middle.  The windows of the big 72-passenger renovated school bus opened wide to the balmy night air that eddied and flowed through the living room area near the driver’s seat.  The Manhatten Transfer crooned a jazz tune from the stereo.  Marj sat behind the wheel with her nightgown billowing around her lap as Tony, our roadie, stood beside her laughing softly and helping her steer.  Cece peered out from the front of her bunk where she lay with her arms folded under her head.  John and I immersed ourselves in a ferocious cribbage game, which I was loosing.  Marty was tallying up the day’s T-shirt sales and Muzzy was silently fingering scales on the oud.  Janet and Jennifer had already crashed for the night, and their bunk curtains swayed gently in the breeze.  As our cribbage game folded and John gleefully put the set back up on the shelves that held our games and books, tapes, and stereo, I looked around, marveling at where I was in this particular moment of time. I was rolling down a highway in the central valley of California in the middle of summer, on my way to another show at another club, just one of many in the middle of a month long road tour. 

Riding the coattails of the hippie era, in the midst of disco fever, I was part of a Middle Eastern dance and music band that cut a rock n’ roll swathe across the west for 10 glorious, tumultuous years.

We made it up as we went.  We tried harder, worked longer, took more chances and entertained more people than anyone or any group even thought of doing.  We played fusion before there was any, created our own dances based on photos in books, glimpses of dancers in old films, and from our imaginations.  We carved our own niche, created our own style, scandalized, delighted, educated, and entertained everyone around us, including ourselves.  We were Bou-Saada.

From 1974 until 1984, the Bou-Saada Dance Troupe was my life, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  Several times a year for ten years, we took to the road and played shows in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and British Columbia, Canada.  At our largest, there were eight of us, plus a roadie.  Additionally, at various times, children, a dog or two, sisters and brothers, groupies, friends, and lovers occasionally made their way onto the 72 passenger Kenworth Pacific converted school bus that became our home and haven, our trusted steed and cursed behemoth. 

We played music, sang, danced, sold T shirts, and spoke a language all our own. We navigated our way through the landscapes of people’s imaginations with the northern lights as a backdrop, the rolling plains of Montana as our stage, the towering Douglas firs of the British Columbia coast our set.  We ran the rapids of the Rogue River, did street theater from Portland to San Diego, played grimy taverns, outdoor arenas, Shrine banquets, rock n’ roll concerts, Army bases, colleges and universities. 

Every single one of us could play an instrument, sing, dance, run a sound board, set a stage with backdrop, lights, monitors and microphones, plug them in, and put them away.  We made our own costumes and our own drums and used duct tape in a thousand creative ways.  While we never made a living from it, it was our way of life.  Our experiences will bond us forever.

Our first encounter with group touring took place on the Wet Paint Bus, a decrepit old vehicle belonging to a band of the same name.  We not only used their bus but we hired their roadie for the duration of that tour.  One tour out was all it took for us to decide.

We had to have our own vehicle.  In 1975, we found a 1952 Kenworth-Pacific flat nose school bus with a Red Diamond engine in an old bus yard down near Seattle. Considering how much we used it and how convenient it became, we bought it for a song.  The very first thing we did, as required by law, was wipe out the “School Bus” designation on the side.  We roughed out the S and H in school and it became a “cool bus”.  We held a Bus Benefit to pay to fix it up and paint it, and chose the colors, a nice tan and chocolate with chocolate lettering and metallic highlighting.  A local artist volunteered to do the lettering and designed the logo on the front: an elaborate winged Isis, the Egyptian symbol of long life, which has a winged sun and serpents.  We contacted the owner of an empty warehouse down in the old industrial section of the south side of Bellingham, and for $10 per day, we had the use of the space for painting.  Since it was late winter, we needed to be indoors, out of the damp—in a space where we could hook up lights not only to see, but also to dry the paint.  The only thing left to do was to prime the bus for painting. 

Artist Marilyn BennetThis was a 72-passenger school bus, well over seven feet high! It needed a good sanding down before it could take new paint.  Muzzy found several sets of yellow raingear for us, courtesy of the Shell Oil Refinery, and we spent a potluck day out in the northwest drizzle sanding the bus (a real “wet-sand”).  Once sanded, we pulled it into the warehouse and wiped it down. We rented a compressor and paint gun, masked off the windows and painted the bus: two generous coats. This was no body shop, and we needed heat, as well as shelter, to cure the paint. So, we set up the stage lights around the ceiling and ran them all night, hoping the old wooden warehouse wouldn’t catch on fire.  The Bus looked mighty fine with its beige body and chocolate trim!  When it was completely dry, the artist came in to do the handwork.  Perched on a tall ladder, she drew the design freehand and then carefully filled in the big wings around a reddish sun.  Two green snakes rose on either side, --their hooded bodies standing sentinel over our endeavor.  The decoration was beautifully rendered with lots of subtle coloring and shading.   Lettered in an Arabic-style script on either side, using midnight blue paint with silver highlights was: “Bou-Saada Dance Troupe, Bellingham, WA”.  The bus looked spectacular! 

The bus was a marvel of efficiency.

Our men carpeted the interior, floor to windows, for warmth.  They built a couch with a seat that opened up to a storage compartment that could hold all the sound and light system cords.  There was a table with double bench seats facing on either side, a double seat left in the front opposite the drivers seat. Overhead shelving held a stereo system, there was a small icebox on the floor, and two more sets of seats near the beginning of the bunks.  In the center portion of the bus, there was an escape door and an escape hatch in the roof.  We used this area to store our costumes, sound equipment and the pieces of our portable backdrop and set.  The large piece of wood for the glasses dance fit neatly along the side of this compartment and our elaborate ethnic costumes had room to hang unobstructed. 

After the experience on the road traveling with a 30-gallon gas tank, we realized we needed to do something drastic or spend most of our tours scooting from gas station to gas station.  We found a used 100-gallon gas tank and installed it as a back up.  Welding the new tank in place was a dicey deal, and I kept wondering about gas fumes and explosive ignition, but it worked.  From then on, we started out with the 100-gallon tank and used the 30-gallon only as a backup for emergency.  We could switch to the second tank by using a toggle switch installed inside the bus, and there were several moments of gliding and sputtering before we were sure the second tank engaged.  The first couple of times we used it were very tense, and we each held our breath, hoping we would not have to make a dash for the side of the highway.  (Of course, you never really made a dash in the bus. You sort of lumbered over to the side of the road and coasted to a halt.)  To add fuel to the larger tank, we had to unload a considerable amount from the center storage compartment.  Fortunately, we never once spilled gasoline on costumes or equipment, nor did we leave anything (except passengers) behind. 

 In the thin air crossing over the Continental Divide on our way to Montana, the bus lurched and heaved itself ever upward and over in spastic jerks.  The carburetor was incapable of mixing an effective fuel ratio at that altitude. 

At the snappy pace of five miles an hour, we all leapt out the door of the bus to the deserted highway and ran along side, jumping and shouting encouragement, then held on for dear life as the equipment bounced and rattled in a breakneck plunge, coasting down the Rockies on the other side.

click for enlargement
names-In red pants is Marj, blue shorts-Kelleen,Jennifer in the middle, Cecilia in bikini, Yasmela on right. Guy in hat is Marty, on the log is John Zeretzke (of the Salame Ensemble) Muzzy in the vest

The bus’s inaugural journey was a 3-week tour to Montana.  Life on the road was pretty nice.  When we grew tired of mixing with one another, we retired to our private bunks and pulled the curtains.  Each bunk reflected our individual styles and needs.  There was storage space under the bunks that the upper and lower occupants shared.  The couch could accommodate two persons for lying around, and if we felt exceptionally bored, we could run up and down the aisle or open the hatch in the storage compartment and stick our heads up to get a better view.  On one trip, we vied for spots to look up at the tall towers of the Golden Gate Bridge as we crossed over from Marin County.  What an amazing view!  The bus was a refuge and solace when shows were bad or scary.  It was a little bit of home on the road when times got strange.  It was classy, brassy, startling, and a pain in the ass, but one of the main reasons we could do what we did.  Without it, we would probably have been “just another Belly dance troupe”.

We were proud of our bus.  It was the ninth member of our troupe, a rolling advertisement, invoking curiosity as the Bou-Saada Bus boldly rolled into cities and towns.  Our homeport appeared on the sides and back, and we kept her washed and gleaming wherever we went.  The bus allowed us to play gigs in places that could not afford such a large group. It allowed us to put on a real show, one with sets, lights, and sound.  We were able to sustain a tour with minimal expense to our employers, and because of this, we reached places and people who would never have seen Middle Eastern dance and music. 

Although it was often a sore point and frustrating for all of us that we could not make a living doing something we loved so much, it never seemed like the most important part of what we did.  I think we all understood that concept from the outset.

click for enlargement
names- Jennifer, Ceclilia, Janet, Gwen, Yasmela,
Marty, Muzzy, and John

Troupe Bou-Saada disbanded after ten years on the road.  My daughters used the bus as a summer hideout for a few years and hosted wonderful sleepovers for their friends.  We finally advertised it for sale, and one day, a young man showed up at our door with his money in hand.  He planned to drive it to New Orleans for Mardi gras.  He envisioned himself making pizzas, and throwing the dough up through the hatch opening.  Unfortunately, driving the bus was a skill that he had not mastered. We had to rescue him twice before he left town, and as we gassed it up for the last time, I cried as I pulled down all the photos and posters that had been glued to the interior.  As far as I know, he made it as far as one of the islands in Puget Sound. 

For me, the bus represented the fulfillment of a dream, and I guess I was not the only one who gave credence to the mantra, “You’re either on the bus—or off of the bus!” carrying around the conviction that it implied as a secret dream for years.  It had always been my goal to travel the road in an old school bus.  The Bou-Saada bus fulfilled my fantasy and so much more, and we did it with so much comfort and so much class, offering entertainment along with our gypsy-styled arts.  I can hardly imagine more of an adventure than that!

I heard that someone had seen it in a used bus yard a few years ago.  Since I occasionally drive to the Tacoma area, passing the bus yard off I-5, I strain to see if I can find it in among the derelict buses and motor homes…

However, I would rather think of it gaily painted, pizza dough flying into the air, and happy customers, munching as they leave the Bou-Saada Pizza Bus.

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
10-17-02 Music and Style by Yasmela / Shelley Muzzy
ATS seems to be pushing Middle Eastern dance, at least in the U.S., back into that safe and sexless area, sans the real knowledge of true folk movement

8-2-01 Fire and Ice by Yasmela/ Shelley
What makes some of our dance good, what makes some of it bad is puzzling to me...

5-6-07 How to Charge What You Are Worth by MIchelle Joyce
The first step to becoming an effective negotiator is to emotionally detach yourself from the outcome. If you can’t walk away from the deal, you have already lost.

5-4-07 The Devil's Details, Show Ethics for Professionals, Part 1- Booking a Party by Yasmin
When a dancer looks good, she, or another, will get called back to perform again. When she looks bad, customers might be turned off to our lovely art form forever. Therefore, a bad dancer not only ruins things for herself, but for all of us

5-1-07 How We Got our Video Groove On by Zari
Ultimately however, it seemed that getting a video is like getting a gig: sometimes, you have to create your own opportunities.

4-18-07 Antique Textiles: Renewed Life for Dance by Najia Marlyz
In fact, we often danced for many little luncheon gigs in offices and other places as a surprise birthday gift—to the music of our own solo sagat. Now, that is a skill that I have never seen anyone repeat since the early seventies!

4-17-07 A Marriage Made in North Beach by Amina Goodyear
The 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”.

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