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Author in her first costume!

Gilded Serpent presents...
Professional Presence
Stories and Advice from 30 Years Under the Hip Belt and Counting...
by Aszmara

In these days, where we mainly have restaurants that once or twice a week move a few tables to the side to make room for entertainment, I was lucky enough to enjoy the last vestiges of true night clubs in New York City during the late ‘70's and early 80's.  Most places had performances 5 nights a week so you really had a chance to hone your skills as an entertainer and feel how musicians approached their craft.  This article series has advise for having professional presence as well as stories from the front line of entertainment.

Arrive On Time

Leave plenty of travel time and plan on traffic tie ups on the weekends.  There is always the matter of parking as well!

I have literally spent over an hour circling the blocks in Manhattan looking for parking.  For clubs in the city, I figured into my travel time one hour just to look for a space.  Have your directions to the job ready and have the telephone number of your contact just in case of horrible traffic.

“I’m Late!  Where’s My Bag?”
I was working at a small club in the heart of the village and the other dancer of the evening was late because of the parking issue.  She ran into the club and immediately went to the tiny ladies room to change.  In short order, she signaled the band with her cymbals that she was ready.  They played her entrance music and, with her “I’m late” anxiety focused into a strong stage entrance,

...she didn’t notice that the hook of her dress bag had attached itself to the bottom of her skirt. 

Off she went around the dance floor, the musicians’ eyes never leaving the path of the dress bag as it followed her around.  It took a trip or two around the floor before she notice the offending object.  Once she was close enough to me, I unhooked the bag from her skirt.  We all had a laugh about it after the show and it makes a great anecdote but the real lesson here was that the dancer’s strength of stage entry was so focused that even the weight of a garment bag could not deter her from making a strong and beautiful presence on stage.

Put on your “Smile” As You Arrive

The audiences’ first glimpse of you is as you arrive and how they see you affects their opinion of your show.  First impressions count! 

So it doesn’t matter that you just spent 3 hours in the car with the heater stuck on high in 90 degree weather, or that you just lost your keys, or that you think you might be growing a zit the size of Montana on your nose...  Put on your smile and let them know that you are there to entertain the masses!

“Graceful Entrances & Exits”
El Avram’s Nite Club
in Greenwich Village was a staple on the New York nightclub scene with international performers, live band, and a bellydancer 5 nights a week, two shows a night with three on Sunday.  It was a bustling club; the owner was an Israeli man named Avram Grobard who can be heard singing and playing accordion on the albums from the famous Cafe Feenjon.  He prided himself on being able to play songs from everywhere and, as he recognized a customer coming into the club, from the stage he would sing something from their country.  He told the same jokes every night, but because he genuinely enjoyed entertaining, they consistently generated laughs.  He was a fair man, and although the pay was pittance, he never failed to give you your envelope on Sunday night.  He also gave many dancers and singers their first break, myself included, and with the performance schedule, you really had the opportunity to work on your show and audience skills.

The club’s street entrance had a small dark bar with a huge ancient bull’s head, a coat check, the club owner’s office and two stairways leading to the basement nightclub; a circular staircase for the public and the cave like cement back stairs that led to the kitchen.  Every night, the dancer would go down the circular stairway to let the Boss know you had arrived and then go back up the circular stairs to change in his office.  In costume, you would gingerly traverse the narrow, arched tunnel cement back stairs to the kitchen, deftly avoiding bowls of salad and peach melba with your veil to await your introduction. 

“Let’s bring on the dancer.  She’s freezin’ in the kitchen”

was the ritual intro Avram used.  After the show, it was back through the kitchen dancing around the waiter’s picking up food and gathering your skirt and veil to travel up the cement stairway.

One night, after the ritual run down the circular stairway, run up the circular stairway, down the cement stairway through the kitchen to make my entrance, back up the cement stairs after the show to change, I started down the circular stairs in my street garb, missed a step and bumped on my cute little behind all the way down into the club.  The couple collecting their coats at the top of the stairs looked over the railing and said, “And she was so graceful on stage.”

Author performing at El Avram circa 1979

Know your Audience, Musicians, and Choosing Music

Working with live musicians is always an exciting challenge.  It has all the ingredients of tightrope walking without the net. 

There were so many nights when I didn’t know what dance situation I was stepping into, but years of experience taught me the way to talk to musicians about putting together a show that we would all have fun performing.

Whenever possible, do your homework!  Check the venue before your booked date. Is the audience made up mostly of Arabic, Turkish, Indian, or American clients?  Who are the band members?  Have you seen them perform with other dancers?  What did they play for the dancer you saw?

When working with older musicians, I go for older, classical music by Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Abdel Halim Hafez, Farid El Attrache.  Know the Arabic classics!  For Turkish shows - know the rhythms. They also use Maqsoum, Beledi, Saidi (Ya Ein Moulyatein is called Shashkin, and Azziza is called by another name and is slightly different) but most Turkish musicians also know the old Arabic classics.  Learn at least one Kashlima so you can really dance to the Turkish sound. 

See them perform in the venue before you do. Introduce yourself, state that you are dancing there in a few weeks and ask their permission to record them playing.  Thank them at the end of the evening and tell them that you are looking forward to working with them.  Ask about a particular piece that you may have liked. Who is the composer?  Then FIND a recording of it!  Listen to their music until it comes out of your pores!

Above all, ask the musicians what they like to play for themselves and for dance shows.  When the musicians are comfortable and enjoy playing,  your show will reflect that assurance as you are supported by the music.  In talking to the musicians go through your show music check list - write it out yourself as they do.  As you see in the following story, the list is important!

Show Music Check List For the Set list:

  • which rhythms
  • which songs
  • which instrument takes a taxim in each song
  • where in the song the taxim is played
  • how long each selection should be
  • how the songs end
  • the transition from one piece to the next

“Don’t Worry Honey. We Play for You Good Show”
This dreaded quote would come every now and again in different nightclubs.  In general, this meant that the musicians attitude was ‘we play what we want - you just collect tips that we all share.’ 

The songs most often played when I heard this quote was Shishela and Fafelu.  To this day,  I can’t listen to those two songs without thinking “Don’t worry, Honey, we play for you good show” and feeling the condescending pat on the shoulder.

Souren and author

May 2007 at the FolkTours CampArtemis Mourat asked me to be a guest artist in the teacher show.  This was a great honor and knowing that Artemis, Dalia Carella and myself all like the same music (slow 9/8, fast chiftitelli, fast 9/8), I spent an hour or so with Dalia and the band leader, Souren Baronian, arranging the show so that we all had what we liked and that the shows would be different from each other.  We had all of the specifics worked out as to which rhythms, which songs, which instrument takes a taxim in each song, where in the song the taxim is played, how long each selection should be, how the songs end, and the transition from one piece to the next.  This was on Saturday and Souren talked over Dalia’s and my show with the musicians who were already there and would practice with the other musicians who were to arrive on Sunday’s show day.

Sunday afternoon, Souren, my dear friend, took ill and I accompanied him to the emergency room where we spent a few hours until he was happily released with an all clear for health.  I returned to the camp in time for dinner, a little shaken after the hospital experience, with Souren feeling better and saying he was well enough to play that evening.  When, I checked on him an hour later, he said, “Oh, Aszie, I’m so sorry.  I can’t play tonight.”  The oud player of the evening, Mike Uzatmaciyan went to Souren’s cabin and they again talked over the show.  Mike took the music lists and then spoke to the other musicians.

A little aside about the FolkTours Camp before I continue with my story.  You are inspired just as you walk around camp hearing music from every little corner or seeing a few steps from a dance class.  The dance and music teachers are all excellent and tops in their field.  The musicians for the evening shows are the teachers and guest musicians who are also tops in their field.  The dance teacher performances are with these fabulous musicians and watching their shows is a special treat.  As with the whole camp experience, it is a learning experience that stays with you and helps you grow as an artist.

Having said all that about the musicians, it now comes time for me to talk to these wonderful musicians about my show.  I have only worked with the drummer before so I need to introduce myself to the rest of the band and to make sure that the show information was translated intact.  I introduce myself to the new band leader,

...Tomer and as I start to ask about my show he says, “Don’t worry Honey. We play for you good show.”  I can’t believe my ears!   I try to discuss the particulars of the show and he repeats, “Don’t worry Honey. We play for you good show,” all with the accompanying pat on the shoulder.  I feel the panic rising;

yes, even after all of these years performing, I get nervous.   Add to that my weakened emotional state after being at the hospital with Souren, the “Don’t worry Honey. We play for you good show” was a little more than I could bear.

2007 Folktours Camp in Green Lane, Pennsylvania
Musicians pictured frm left to right: Mike Uyatmaciyan, unknown clarinetist, Tamer Pinarbasi and Hamit Golbasi
photo by Jennifer Peng

Show time.  I am dressed and ready, watching the show from the vendor section of the room.  The musicians were absolutely incredible.  They played a Longa that was so technically excellent at a speed to defy mortal human beings.  Once you thought that they couldn’t take it any faster, they did. Then again, and then again!  They are true masters of their instruments and we are so lucky to hear such fabulous playing.  Dalia performs and she is so beautiful with all the excitement and passion that she shows with every performance.  She receives a well deserved standing ovation and without so much as one song in between to let the audience calm down, I am on.  They play the opening  just as I had worked out with Souren.  We come to the first song and they changed the taxim instrument.  This happens throughout the show; they made changes to better suit the players.  The show was wonderful!  But they decided that my show needed to be longer and just as I am waiting for the last piece, a Laz, they start playing, can you guess it, the “Don’t worry, Honey. We play for you good show” song ‘Fafelu.’  I danced and laughed my way through the piece and this was one time that I didn’t worry, they played for me a fabulous show. 

They had changed who plays the taxims in each piece to accommodate their skills - which key the song is played in correlation to which player is most accomplished or comfortable playing a taxim in that key.  In discussing music with musicians, key is sometimes a determining factor as to playing taxims.  One player knows the song in one key, the other knows it in another key.  One of them has to switch keys and it’s not as easy as it sounds.  Some keys are more comfortable than others for the player so always listen to them and ask if it is comfortable. 

Your taxim instrument choice may have to change because you want the musicians to play their best.  When you all work together, you all fly higher. 

Additional offsite info:
Avram Grobard-

photo by Ed Stone

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