Gilded Serpent presents...
MECDA’s First 30 Years
The Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association's
Changing Role in our Community

by Marta Schill Kouzouyan
Portions previously published in Cymbal magazine 2002.

In the early 1970s Middle Eastern Cabaret dance had come into its own, exploding in popularity.  Nationwide, a spate of instructional books were written, records and audiotapes were recorded, magazines were founded, and classes & seminars cropped up.  Every dance studio and recreation center in major cities across the country featured classes.  Pop bands as ultra popular as the Beatles played “Raga-Rock,” and exotic makeup, clothing, and home décor reflected the influence of the East.  Additionally, the decade of the 70s found a vanguard of dancers performing in ethnic clubs with musicians who were quite eclectic in their repertoire, regardless of their nationality. 

 Jenaeni Rathor, who began her career in New York, recalls that the clubs were literally all run by Greeks at that time, yet had a spectrum of musicians and singers who played Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Greek and Israeli songs together.  To Jenaeni, this was the “New York Sound.” The West Coast, however, was very similar, according to Feiruz Aram and Tonya Chianis.  Dancers expected to perform to music from the entire Mediterranean area, and the dance influences were varied as well:  Helena Kalianotis, Marina, Bert Balladine Jamila Salimpour, Antoinette Khoury, Marliza Pons, Princess Naila, Zenobia, Marta Schill, Aisha Ali and Maya Medwar (to name a few) brought steps and styles from all these countries to our doorstep.

The earlier 1960s hallmarked a refreshing freedom in popular dance; the tradition of ‘couples dancing’ was broken, and huge venues touting light shows and “acid rock” became the rage.  Creative rock bands from the Beatles to the Kaleidoscope infused East Indian and Mid-Eastern sounds into current American music.  Clothing styles (for both sexes) exploded with new ideas, new looks, new freedom.  These factors, as well as a passion for international folk music and dance fed a new wave of interest in Belly dancing. However, by the mid-‘70s, this interest evolved into a glut of avid dancers eager to perform; the cabarets and restaurants, just as eagerly, acknowledged this phenomenon by paying less and less for their entertainment. 

In some areas, dancers were working entirely for tips, with the club owners paying nothing.  Artists endured poor working conditions as well: changing in restrooms, dressing rooms with no doors (just a curtain), no locks, no mirrors and minuscule respect.

WANTED:
Improved copies of these photos

Feiruz

Tonya

Dancers in Los Angeles had met as early as 1973 to try to form some sort of guild, hoping to stop the downward spiral of conditions by creating standards to which all dancers could adhere.  At that time, the support was simply not there…many dancers feared for their jobs if they demanded anything from their bosses.

By 1977, it was very clear that inaction on the part of the dance artists was leading to professional disaster.  Once again, dancers met and outlined their goals:  A minimum nightly rate, dressing rooms with mirrors and locks, and signed contracts with the larger clubs.  Twelve Los Angeles performers wrote up the tentative Mission Statement and membership standards for MECDA, the Middle Eastern Cabaret Dancers Association. 

LP covers from clubs mentioned by author

There are at least 2 other LPs with the same title. The club address given on cover is 7180 Sunset Blvd, Hollywood CA. more info from cover- cover drawing is my Leona Wood of Leila Badalilan.This Armenian club was established in 1964 by Leila's family.

The Fez Supper Club, 1508 N Vermont, Hollywood, CA.

Other dancers quickly aligned themselves with MECDA, and soon there was a whopping membership of  29, all dedicated to the daunting task of upgrading the image of the Belly dancer.  Owners of the Fez, Ali Baba’s, the Seventh Veil and Khayyam received contracts, which most of them met with anger and disdain.  After several attempts to negotiate, the dancers picketed and boycotted nightclubs. Not all L.A. dancers were involved in these actions--many were still fearful of repercussions.  Performers would slip in through back doors as their compatriots picketed in front.  Even in restaurants where MECDA did not prevail, owners and entertainers considered the issues of relationships between each other, and many bosses improved conditions and raised wages even though they refused to sign contracts.  Surprisingly, many large clubs did sign, and a real turning point in the situation of the cabaret dancer took place.

Baby MECDA experienced numerous growing pains: professional dancers were full members, while non-pros were ½ members!  New professionals had a lower minimum wage that they could accept for six months after they became pros; then, they were obligated to support the conditions espoused by their more experienced sisters.  There was much pressure on members to attend meetings, alternating between Hollywood and Orange County so that dancers would not have to travel so far.   There were 34 Near and Mid-Eastern restaurants and nightclubs in the greater Los Angeles area alone, and the business of Belly dancing flourished.

At this time, several global events, unrelated to the arts, forever changed the demographics of the Mid-Eastern dance scene.  Another civil war in Lebanon created havoc in the delicate balance of Middle Eastern politics, and many Arabs living in the U.S., felt the negative impact of this extended conflict.  The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in politics was in full upswing after the Shah of Iran was deposed.  Many Persians in America found themselves deprived of their business contacts and income. Between these and other economic events emanating far from our own country, many of the people who had previously frequented Los Angeles cabarets no longer could afford such luxury.  Clubs sold, closed, or even disappeared in mysterious fires.

One of the final blows to the cabaret atmosphere was the American hostage crisis in Iran.  Now the American (non-Arab) patrons of the restaurants were staying away in droves; the clubs’ numbers dwindled from 34 to about six, and the concern with working conditions affected far fewer dance artists. The ‘80s brought profound change to the Mid-Eastern dance scene from several sources:  politically, the Lebanese Civil War had no sooner taken its toll than the revolution in Iran became front page news, replaced by the specter of hostages taken from the American embassy in Iran. Xenophobia erupted, clubs closed (some burned) and the general popularity of Belly dance plummeted.

Of course, people with a true love for this extraordinary genre remained, and as luck would have it, a technology emerged that would prove to be a defining moment in dance:  the Video!  By the end of the 80’s, dancers had, through this medium, an incredible spectrum of knowledge in styles, costuming and music from which to mold their repertoire. (Video contributed greatly to the huge popularity of the “Egyptian Style,” the rage of the ‘90s, so different in concept that some dance competitions created a new category devoted to that style). 

Diversity, however, often leads to dissention, and controversy flew regarding the perception of the rather strict parameters of the Egyptian style. 

Many dancers felt the loss of aspects that Belly dance embraced in Turkey, Greece, and some Arabic countries:  Veil dancing, Floor dancing and Karshilamas (9/8) dancing were virtually nonexistent, or relegated to folkloric performances.  Many dancers mourned their loss.

Recent (2007) MECDA Controversy-

As a result, the 1980s found MECDA moving in another direction, hallmarked by a name alteration:  the Middle Eastern CABARET became the Middle Eastern CULTURE and Dance Association, reflecting profound changes within the membership’s makeup as well as the dynamics of what their membership wanted.  MECDA began its shift from a professional dancers’ guild toward becoming a communications organization.  Members wanted information.  They had developed an understanding of the huge spectrum of music and dance from the entire Mediterranean area, and wanted access to events, classes and products far beyond the cabaret scene alone.  MECDA’s membership, which literally doubled within a year, reflected this change.

MECDA’s numbers steadily increased as the Middle Eastern dance influence in America faltered--a victim of international politics.  There seemed to be a greater need for the membership to stay in contact with others who shared the love of the art.  Additionally, the rise in popularity of the Internet facilitated greatly communication and education, with its additional benefits of speed and economy.  During the ‘90s, MECDA formed its first chapter outside of California, hallmarking a surge in chapter affiliation everywhere.  People simply wanted to know: when, where, and how much?

Even though its focus has shifted, MECDA still strives to remain steadfast to the ideals of its founders: professionalism, high standards and respect for those representing the dance before the public, and good communication resources for classes, seminars and methods of elevating our level of knowledge at all times.  MECDA is now a non-profit organization with a secondary commitment to combating domestic violence. To that end, members collect clothing, cosmetics and funding for regional shelters while the organization holds our annual Shimmython at the Cairo Carnivale with all proceeds going to aid disadvantaged youth and women.

MECDA’s expansion has proven that the American dancers are definitely able to separate politics from art. During these times of extreme divisiveness in the policies of countries, we unite in our interest and love for Near East and Mid-East dance arts. Video contributed greatly to the huge popularity of the “Egyptian Style,” the rage of the ‘90s (so different in concept that some dance competitions created a new category devoted to that style). 

Diversity, however, often leads to dissention, and controversy flew regarding the perception of the rather strict parameters of the Egyptian style. 

Many dancers felt the loss of aspects that Belly dance embraced in Turkey, Greece, and some Arabic countries:  Veil dancing, Floor dancing and Karshilamas (9/8) dancing were virtually nonexistent, or relegated to folkloric performances. 

Many dancers mourned their loss. Then, the new Millennium dawned, and the dance pendulum swung.  All dance that was old-fashioned has become renewed, but with a heightened perspective and an elevated level of information.  Cymbals, veil, floor dancing and 9/8 are all skills that are sought-after, and the diverse spectrum of Middle Eastern dance arts has an assortment of looks (all respected!) from American Tribal to Rock videos. 

Our deepest thanks go out to all who have shared in this extraordinary journey…

Our dream of a national connection for all who love Middle Eastern music and dance came true!  The next thirty years can only be more exciting and rewarding. Members of MECDA eagerly await our next 30 years. 

United, we dance!

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Ready for more?
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...

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.

6-20-06 Unionizing Belly Dance:MECDA's Beginnings, Part 3:Tying Up Loose Ends, by Samra /Sherifa,
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.

6-7-07 More of Carl Sermon's Photos : Rakkasah West '07
Prep and layout by Michelle Joyce

6-6-07 Smokin' by Amina Goodyear (chapter 4)
Now that I was legitimately part of the Bagdad family and on the payroll, Yousef told me that
all the dancers had to split their tips 50/50 with the band. This meant that I was making less money than when I wasn’t getting paid at all.

6-4-07 Dance is in their blood by Kevin Potvin
Arabic dancing served as a way for women to share emotional experiences with each other. It is a part of everyday life for ordinary folks, and so worthy of attention by me, even, the pretend-to-be working class snob.






 
 

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