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The Belly Dancer Reader makes a perfect gift!


Tanya poses in a new costume at Carnival of Stars this last Fall. Marliza, behind her, drinks a smoothie. Tanya and Marliza were featured together in a Las Vegas show (or two?) Tanya promises to dance at next year's Carnival of Stars Festival.

Gilded Serpent presents...
A Career Path Less Traveled:
Dancing in Movies and TV in the'60s,
An Interview with Tanya Lemani
by John Clow

I recently had the great pleasure of doing a phone interview with Tanya Lemani. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Tanya’s career, she is a classically trained ballerina who unexpectedly found her niche in belly dance. You may remember her role as Kara in the Star Trek episode: "Wolf In The Fold". Or you may recall her appearance on "I Dream Of Jeannie", or even in the "Elvis: 1968 Comeback Tour". Her career in belly dance began in the early 1960s in Las Vegas, then she gravitated to Hollywood, getting her big break appearing in the 1964 Bob Hope film: "Global Affair". Her career as both dancer and actress has spanned over thirty years, and she has chronicled her life in Hollywood in her book: "Have Belly, Will Travel".

Question: The obvious place to start is with the story of how you began belly dancing.

Lemani: Well, I was doing a ballet show and someone saw me and offered me a job to go to Las Vegas. It was a summer vacation and I was sixteen years-old. They wanted me to be there the next day at the Flamingo Hotel to open a show. Without much time to even think about it, I showed up the next day, looking for a ballet troupe. And they all kind of looked at me, strange, saying: "We don’t have a ballet troupe." And I said: "No, no, no. You’re opening tomorrow night, and I’m one of the dancers." And they go: "No, no: belly dancing, belly dancing."

And I go: "Belly dancing? I can’t do that! My father’s going to kill me. He’s an old-fashioned Russian man." They said: "Don’t worry . . . we’ll put wigs on you, and make-up and nobody will recognize you. We’ll pay you $200.00 a week, plus a room."

I thought: "Wow! That’s terrific. I can buy a car and everything." So I decided to stay. I was in the background, basically. But after a few weeks in that show, I was offered a solo, with Pinkie Lee. And after that, I had all kinds of offers for films, television and one thing just led to another.

Question: How were you able to make the transition from ballet to belly dancing?
Lemani: (Laughs) There really wasn’t much of a transition. I was there . . . they didn’t even have time to teach me the routines: a couple of moves was all. All I did was watch the other girls and try to stay out of their way so I didn’t bump into anybody. I watched and studied how the dancers moved; that was how I learned because there weren’t belly dance teachers in those days. Having a dance background, I taught myself. In a way it was easy because from the minute I started walking, I was dancing. Everyone in my family was shocked at how good I was. I went by feelings; the moment I heard music, I start dancing. And that led me into performing. When I practiced, I went by the music, and came up with new steps. Soon the other dancers copied my movements. But no one could copy my passion . . . my temperament. Of course I was familiar with Persian music, having been born in Iran, because there’s a certain kind of feeling that goes with that type of music. That really helped my dancing.

Question: You’ve recently come out with a book: "Have Belly, Will Travel". What were its origins and how long did it take?
Lemani: The first person to suggest to me to write a book was by Gene Nelson (an actor and director with a long career in Hollywood). Years after we met again and we had a production company and we were talking about different projects. And he said: "You should write a book and call it: Have Belly, Will Travel". And I said: "No one wants to read something like that." But three years ago, I was talking to a screenwriter and he also pushed me to write the book. So I did it, and it took me a year to write it. Then it took a year and a half to get it published.

Question: How did the Hollywood aspect of your belly dance career get started? What was your big break?
Lemani: Actually, my mother told me to go to the studio and see a Russian director; she went to school with his nephew.

Of course I talked my way into the studio—I mean I didn’t have an appointment or anything. When I walked into his office, he thought I was some kind of gypsy or something, and he started laughing.

But when I started talking Russian to him, I was okay. When I said I wanted to be an actress, he tried to discourage me. But I stayed, as a script-girl for the movie he was making called: ‘Dime with a Halo', starring Barbara Luna. I told him that I should play the lead, and he started laughing at me again. I became her stand-in; that was how it began. Then I met Mr. Samuels, an agent, who was a sweet old man. And he introduced me to everyone in town.

Question: So was your first big part ‘The Man From Uncle’ episode? (Tanya played: Venetia in The King Of Knaves Affair, 1964.)
Lemani: No. It was a movie with Bob Hope called: ‘Global Affair’.

Question: Speaking of directors, did they interfere with your dancing or try to choreograph it? Or did they just point to a spot and let you dance?
Lemani: No, directors did not interfere with my dancing. But of course I would dance a lot, then they would edit it, cutting down the time I was on-screen.

Question: Did you provide your own costumes? Or did wardrobe take care of that?
Lemani: No, most of the time it was my own costumes. The exception was Star Trek. They used my bra, but the rest of it was designed for me by the wardrobe people.

Question: I remember that costume as being very colorful. Was that the look they wanted?
Lemani: Yes. It was like an orange/red . . . made of a plastic material.

Question: Which performance, in either film or TV, was your favorite costume?
Lemani: The one I wore for Elvis (in his 1968: Comeback Tour) was nice, but, you see, what happens is that I brought several costumes, then they picked the one they wanted—and they always seemed to go for bright colors. That was a pretty costume, but I had other costumes that I really, really liked. Sometimes they chose my costumes to co-ordinate with the set.

Question: Were most of your scenes done in one take?
Lemani: Oh, no. Most of the time I was there for days. They would shoot from this point of view, that point of view, the actor’s point of view. Then came the shots from below, the shots from the side. . . . So that’s why I had to do my scene over and over and over.

Question: What about TV?
Lemani: Oh, yeah. Though I would dance a lot, they would cut it down to get the final product.

Question: Was one part or roll particularly hard for you?
Lemani: The only problem I ever had was when I was doing "The Hell With Heroes" with Rod Taylor. I got very, very upset because one of the actors was so obnoxious I was like a nervous wreck. It was just difficult to concentrate.

Question: Conversely now, what was your most fun part?
Lemani: Working with Elvis was a lot of fun. And "I Dream of Jeannie" was fun, too. But the thing that was funny was that we had to stop and go . . . stop and go. The problem was that the censorship on TV then was not to show your belly button. So they would glue this little spark or flower or ruby or whatever into my belly button and it kept falling off. (Laughs) So everybody was making fun of it, except me. I wasn’t very happy about it. I would just start dancing and they were filming, then we had to stop. "Cut! Cut! Cut!" I was sweating, my hair was getting stringy and my make-up was coming off. I was uncomfortable. All because these things kept popping out of my belly!

Question: Tell us about your "I Dream of Jeannie" part, in which you played Sadelia in the episode: ‘Americanization of Jeannie’.
Lemani: It was a dancing part, directed again by Gene Nelson, who came up with this incredible idea to start the scene with my Turkish Drop, being on the floor and having this kind of a gauze tent around me. Jeannie was very jealous of me, and she ‘blinked’ me away.

Question: Tell me about your "Get Smart" episode: 'Survival of the Fattest', in which you played Carla.
Lemani: In "Get Smart" I enjoyed working with Karen Steele and Don Adams. They took some of my lines out and Don saw that I was upset. Don insisted that they give some of them back to me. That was sweet.

Question: In the James Coburn Film: "Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round", you were visible quite a bit in that scene. Was that your longest dance scene?
Lemani: Oh, no. In Star Trek’s "Wolf In The Fold" I had a longer total focus on my dance.

Question: In the Rod Taylor movie "The Hell With Heroes", I remember that you had two scenes. One was dancing, and the other was frolicking on the beach with Taylor. Was that one of your favorite movie roles?
Lemani: The dance scene was nice, but it wasn’t that big of a part. In "It Takes A Thief", with Robert Wagner, I had a much bigger part.

Question: Getting back to Star Trek, did you enjoy the role of the belly dancer: Kara?
Lemani: It was fun, but it took three or four days experimenting with my make-up. Then they glued feathers on my face and I couldn’t see where I was going. I was sneezing, and they tickled. But the funniest thing was that after all of this, I didn’t wear any special make-up.

Question: When did you start doing Sci-Fi conventions?
Lemani: Actually, not that long ago. Someone suggested that I go to a signing, and I said: "Oh, no. Nobody will remember me: I haven’t done anything in a while." But after I went, I was so shocked because I went there and brought some of my pictures and all these people wanted me to autograph them. I said: "This feels good. This is fun . . . like this!"

Question: Did you ever teach belly dancing?
Lemani: Oh, yes. I even made a tape where I taught for one hour, called: "BellySize With Tanya". It came out in the late 80's. I break up all the belly dance moves down as exercise. Some of my students dance, then I perform. I also taught out of the studio in my house, in the early 80's.

Question: Any more plans to write about your career?
Lemani: Yes. A production company asked me to write a screenplay on my book: "Have Belly, Will Travel".

Question: Looking back at your belly dance career, what are your thoughts?
Lemani: When I first accepted myself as a belly dancer, I realized that it’s an art form and every time I got up on that stage I would take such command in my performance. You don’t see that as much in my movies, but live everyone respected who I was and what I was doing. I loved it, and I loved being a belly dancer. I still do!

 

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