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American Belly Dancing 1966: B.C. (Before Choreography)
Schehera of Ohio Interviewed
by John Clow

Schehera, of Dayton Ohio, who began her belly dance career in 1966, loves to modestly refer to herself as a ‘big fish in a small pond’in describing her twenty-two years as a professional belly dancer. Self-taught (aided only by the assistance of musicians in a local Greek supper club) Schehera helped pioneer belly dancing in her area, eventually teaching her skill, and her passion for belly dance with hundreds of students. She kindly consented to do this phone interview, allowing us a glimpse of her career, and what belly dance was like long before it became accepted as an art form.

Question: Tell us how you got started belly dancing.
Schehera: Well, I was a waitress in a local supper club where the musician from a Greek restaurant used to come in for their after-hours breakfast and they kept bugging me by saying that I’d make a great belly dancer. I tried to ignore them because I thought they were insulting me.

Question: Was this because of your looks?
Schehera: Oh, yes. They thought that with my dark hair, dark skin and trim figure that I looked the part. Back in 1966, I was young and shapely and that’s what they saw. It also helped that I was an extravert.

Question: What convinced you that they had the right idea?
Schehera: First off, I liked to dance: period. And they kept bugging me for several months until I decided on one of my nights off to see what this ‘belly dancing’thing was all about. I saw pictures out front of the Greek supper club showing the dancers laying on pillows, with a big hookah pipe in the background and I thought they were strippers. But I had to see if I was right. So I went inside and watched one of the dancers, thinking: "Oh, I can do that. I know I can do this." So I got myself hired as a dancer. My problem was that it was OJT—on the job training. The musicians helped me, and every now and then we would have a good ‘feature’dancer and occasionally they were willing to share their knowledge. So I either picked their brain, or I watched their performance, picked out what I like and then try to duplicate it. But the real transition was in understanding the Middle-Eastern music and rhythms; I had to get the ‘western’flavor out of my dancing.

Question: What did you do about costuming?
Schehera: I knew a seamstress who used to make costumes for Go-Go girls and she put my first costume together for me. It was a silver bra and belt with a blue skirt with silver trim.

Question: How long before you really became confident in your dancing?
Schehera: It took a good year, and a lot of work before I no longer felt . . . inferior to the feature dancers. Remember, too, that my first year of dancing all came at a Greek supper club, so the music was very different than what you hear today. Bouzoukee, guitar, accordion. . . . What also helped was that I started doing wedding receptions for the Greek families in town.

Question: When your confidence grew, what was the next step in your career?
Schehera: I had a pet snake, so I added it to my act and danced with it.

Question: Had that been done before?
Schehera: Not in belly dancing. You have to remember that there were only a half a dozen dancers in the state of Ohio back then. Toledo, Akron, Cleveland . . . and that was about it. But I felt like I needed a gimmick because my dancing wasn’t that strong, so I added the snake.

Question: Didn’t your dancing with your snake get you some . . . unexpected fame?
Schehera: (Laughs) My husband was very proud of his belly dancing wife so he sent my resume and photograph to the Tonight Show, in New York, in 1968. Several months later, we got a letter that said if I was going to be in the area, to let them know and they would like to interview me to appear with Johnny Carson. Believe me, I jumped at the opportunity! So I flew to New York, with my snake in a suitcase, and went for the interview. I was only supposed to dance, but they came to me and said that another guest was late, so would I mind more air time? (Laughs) Hardly!

There were other aspects of my performance that weren’t so amusing. One thing that annoyed me was that they insisted I kept my veil on while I danced. The censors didn’t want me to show my stomach because you couldn’t reveal the navel on television back then. Keeping the veil on was kind of hard to do, dancing with a snake. But I went out and did my dance, and afterwards Carson was supposed to come over and help me put the snake back in the basket. When he did, he acted like he was afraid of my snake, touched it and jumped back like it was hot. So I decided to have some fun with him by taking the snake and draping it over his neck like a Hawaiian lei. He grabbed the snake’s head right away, looking like: "What in the hell’s going on?" The snake started squirming and wrapped his tail between Johnny’s legs, whipping it, just like a cat does when it’s angry. Of course, the audience went crazy. And when the snake wrapped around his upper thigh, squeezing, Carson made a funny face, then they went to a commercial. That was my 7 minutes of fame, and for years that clip was shown on The Best Of Carson highlights.

Question: Did you begin teaching soon after that?"
Scherera: No, I didn’t start teaching until late in 1971, and it wasn’t even my idea. The local Y saw one of my ads in the newspaper about where I was appearing and they called them to get my contact information. Then they called me, saying that they wanted me to teach a class in belly dancing. I turned them down, saying that I didn’t have formal dance training; there’s no way that I could teach it. But they kept calling me, saying that they had thirty women who wanted to learn belly dancing; surely you can show them something.That’s how my first class started.

Question: How well did that first class work?
Schehera: Since I wasn’t aware of any standard terminology, I taught visually, using images instead of fancy language to describe the steps. For example: When I showed them hip circles, I referred to it as one does a hula hoop, and that helped my students get the point. Another way I explained large hip circles was to have them pretend that they were standing inside a barrel, and you want to touch the rim all the way around with your hips. But, pretend that you have a book on your head so you keep centered. And we went on from there; I demonstrated the moves, then came up with visuals to help them understand what I was doing.

Question: So, we’re into the early 70's now, how was the dance perceived then?
Schehera: By then, the public was starting to be more objective about belly dance. Prior to that, when I got my picture in the newspapers every now and then to get publicity for me and my snake, it caused a few problems. I recall having neighbors that wouldn’t let their children play with my daughters because I was a belly dancer. But into the 1970's, it was in the news and getting more popular on TV. It was becoming much more acceptable; I had a long waiting list of women who wanted to learn how to dance.

Question: What was the most common misconception you had to deal with in the sixties?
Schehera: That I was going to go home with a man just because he put a dollar in my hip belt!

Question: Were most of your students in those early days just taking classes for exercise?
Schehera: Yes. I would say a majority of my students were women who loved to try something new and exciting. They took a few lessons and I helped them make their costumes. Many of them were just interested in dancing for their husbands.

Question: Wasn’t that the way belly dance was being marketed as seduction?
Scherera: The records were the most blatant examples of that, yes. From "How To Belly Dance For Your Husband" to "How To Make Your Husband A Sultan" were some examples. Most of the LPs either had a suggestive title, or they pictured dancers who looked sexy, sultry. Though they weren’t always dressed in authentic costumes, they sold records.

Question: Were you a vendor also?
Schehera: Sure. The ladies wanted to know how to make their own costumes so I had a boutique were I taught classes in costume making. I sold material, sequins, jewelry, coins, and beads. I made this resource available to my students and helped them learn how to put it all together.

Question: How long was your career?
Schehera: I continued to dance and teach until 1988. But, after a few health issues get resolved, I plan to get back into the dance in a folkloric style, and do some teaching. One of my strongest talents was in playing finger cymbals, and I have been approached by other teachers in the area to give classes on playing the zills.

Question: In your long career, what was your most memorable performance?
Schehera: That has to be in 1978, I attended a week-long seminar hosted by Bert Balladine and Mary Ellen Donald and part of the workshop included performing, unrehearsed, to live music at the Bagdad Cabaret, in San Francisco.

Question: You mentioned music and the rhythms earlier on. How long did it take you to understand that facet of belly dance?
Schehera: Well, I’m still learning. There used to be a limited number of basic rhythms: baladi, masmoudi, ciftelli, and a few others. Now, with so many other influences in belly dance, I really am still learning.

Question: Is there one truly enjoyable memory from early in your career?
Schehera: When I had the first dance seminar here in Dayton, I hired Bert Balladine to teach, and we had over 250 ladies attend it. We had a show after the seminar and I got to dance with Bert. That was so delightful and wonderful, but we didn’t get a chance to rehearse. It was on-the-fly.

Question: What have you seen in the way of trends in costumes?
Schehera: The biggest change I’ve seen is vendors supplying beautiful, ready-made costumes from Egypt, and from Turkey that even beginning student may be able to buy.

Question: Stylistically, haven’t costumes changed?
Schehera: From my perspective much of what you see today is copied from the old black and white Egyptian movies, especially the strips of sequins and beads over the hips, and belly chains.

Question: Knowing that there’s been a great deal of change in belly dance since your early days, including Tribal, and the many fusion variations, where do you see belly dance heading?
Schehera: The changes will obvious satisfy a broader range of people. The women who are attracted to Tribal would probably never have been interested in the glitz and glamour of cabaret style belly dance. But, honestly, some of what I’ve seen doesn’t impress me. Now there are so many gimmicks that the essence of the dance is fading away.

Question: You mentioned that you loved meeting and dancing with Bert Balladine. What is another great memory from your long career?
Schehera: Well, I really had fun meeting Eddie Kochak. I was hired to do a show in Fayetteville North Caroline and his band was performing. I had done quite a few shows in that part of the country, but when I knew that I’d be working with Mr. Kochak, I got so excited! The interesting part was that you got no rehearsals; you just told him how many parts you wanted in the dance and when you wanted your fast and slow. He asked me about rhythm I liked to dance to, and since I was going through my prima donna stage, I replied: "Oh, I can dance to anything." He smiled, then he and his band wore me out! It was like dueling banjos. . . . I managed to keep up with them, but they wore me out!

Question: Conversely, is there somebody you would have loved to have met?
Schehera: I would really have loved to have met Serena Wilson. She was such a pioneer in American cabaret belly dance. I heard and read so much about her, but our paths never crossed. Sadly, she’s no longer with us

Contact Schehera: bellypages at hotmail dot com
(trying to avoid those spambots!)

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