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Bert and Najia 1973

Bert leads camel Najia rides towards the Dessert in Marrakesh

Bert strikes melodramatic pose with Najia in front of Lounge in Casablanca

Lorraine, Najia, and Bert board the train to Casablanca

Bert counting coins for the water seller in Tangiers

A tourist photo of Bert in Spain

Bert dancing in a Russian vignette

Gilded Serpent presents...
Bert & Me:
Vignettes From Our Partnership
by Najia Marlyz
June 23, 2008

Getting to Know Him
My dance partner, who first introduced himself to me as Roman Balladine (later known more simply as Bert), has become an icon of teaching in the Belly dance field. Though many articles have been written about him, not many people connected to dance know Bert when he is in his “relaxed” mode at home. Bert has been instrumental in making Belly dance accessible to thousands of dancers worldwide over at least 5 decades.  His teaching methods differed from most other instructors who concentrated on teaching muscular technique and specific body movement combinations rather than the essence and basic concepts that should define all dancing. He insists that it is the quality of individuality and the Oriental dance’s portrayal of the human experience alone that has made the study of Belly dancing different and compelling for so many thousands of dancers, and Bert has had a great deal of influence on promoting Belly dance throughout the world.

Though Bert might like to think of himself as a simple man, in fact, he is a very complex and private person whose lifetime is filled with famous and colorful characters and experiences.

Several decades have past while we were just getting to know each other as people—aside from dance. Though private, he is not a person who finds it difficult to share, but quite the contrary: generously, he tells stories about his career and his off-stage life when he is in the mood for reminiscence—or if he has a point to make that he does not want you to ever forget. 

Bert has been in some sort of show business all of his life; he grew up in turbulent times in Europe and was continuously in contact with show people of all types—from famous ballerinas to circus performers and stars of the Egyptian black-and-white film era.  I have often heard that Bert Balladine is the current day Belly dancer’s “link with the past” because he knew many of the early Cabaret show dancers of Egypt personally and can tell many stories about their antics, strengths, influences and personalities.

Bert’s life has many facets and among the ones I admire most are: his theater experiences, his animal-lover and rescuer role, and the ready-to-laugh-at-life’s-ironies-guy. He loves to laugh about the ridiculous parts of life, and that strength appears in both his dance and his teaching. He has an off-stage life that he zealously keeps private. However, for audiences and strangers, housewives and professional dancers (if he senses they have a flair for the extraordinary) he sets his storytelling abilities into high gear and illustrates his dance instruction with anecdotes and bizarre imagery that makes it both memorable and understandable on a humanistic level. 

He encourages his students to engage in all the peripheral activities surrounding dance performances and to experience the life-style of typical dancers as much as possible.

With his undercurrent of emotionality always operating, along with his ability to empathize with various types of personalities, Bert has developed sharp awareness of motivations and the situations that compel people to dance.

He has a quick and insightful way of reading people’s body language and their output of energy that tells him whether he needs to approach or withdraw in order to inspire them to dance in a compelling manner.  He has, more than once, counseled me to trust my initial feelings about people and to study the way they move, because “those are the insights that most often prove to be correct,” he advised. I have found that advice to be reliable and useful during my own dance career (and in my off-stage life, too!).  

To be an inspiration to so many different types of people takes an inordinate amount of energy, but Bert always bristles with energy whether he is teaching or relaxed in his own home.  His life on his quiet country farm in Petaluma, California, seems an anomaly to his choice of a career in an unusual part of show business. He joyfully implements ways to make interesting things happen within the dance world because, for Bert, a life without some devilish dance strategy or adventure would be no life at all.

Becoming Najia
I met Bert one day in the fall of ‘70 while I hung out with post-doctorate students and free-spirited types near the University of California campus at Berkeley.  During those petulant years that were populated with naive flower children, we favored ethnic and vintage clothing, did not wear make up, nor did we “do” our hair, (which had to be as long as possible and either wild or intricately plaited with ribbons, turkey feathers, or seaweed, etc.).  At that moment, my marriage of 11 years was becoming morgue material, but its undead zombie would be still on the prowl for another 9 years.  I began a quest—and for me, it was an extremely personal dance quest...

My first private words from Bert saved me from my formerly dull life from continuing in its beige boredom.  He sidled up beside me in dance class and whispered, with his distinctly European accent, “I think you have something special for dance. Stick with me, and I will make of you a Belly dance star!”

Of course, I bought his promise—hook, line, and sinker.  His confident boast quickly made me a confirmed dance-junkie. I went to as many classes as I could, wherever I could, attending Bert’s classes twice per week in a former Marin public school in romantic little Sausalito (with its strangely designed houseboats rocking in the posh marinas). There, we laughed and learned to dance from the gut—because, “If you have to count it rather than feel it, girls, you can’t dance!” he shouted.  One day, I sat on the steps of the ex-schoolhouse-turned-dance-studio, waiting for Bert to arrive and open the building, but when he arrived, first he sat down on the step next to me. “Are you poor?”  Bert asked me, surprising me! “Because if you are, you can take the dance lessons for free and pay me back when you are rich and famous.”  I felt honored and flattered to receive such recognition from Bert, and his belief in me has kept me dancing.

The Dance Studio
Skipping forward from that time about four years, I’ll tell you about a time when Bert agreed to join me in teaching in my dance studio in Albany, California. At “The Dancing Girl Studio” (later renamed “Bellydance Arts Studio”), he helped my career by attracting many local “doers” of the time to the Albany studio:

  •  The late Sabah (dancer, instructor, free-spirit who managed to achieve her dream and became a high school history teacher after many years as a professional Belly dancer),
  • The late Sula (dancer who started the idea of coupling Belly dance workshops and pageants/contests as well as the publisher of one of the first published Belly dance magazines--“Bellydancer Magazine” in the early ‘70s),
  •  Rhea (now of Athens, Greece)
  • Mary Ellen Donald (musician and music instructor who was still dancing at the time),
  • Vince Delgado (percussionist and Jazz musician),
  • The late Mimi Spencer (dancer, dance instructor, musician, and singer),
  • Robaire Nakasian (Drummer who helped begin the Rakkasah festival with Shukriya)
  • Aziz (Salt Lake City male Belly dancer and instructor),
  • Patrick (male Belly dancer who was also into other facets of show business), 

and a host of others who were known at the time in West coast dance circles.

I felt privileged to have Bert’s mentoring for both my teaching and for the progress of my career.  Bert’s advice was usually dosed out in little spoonfuls that I could tolerate, such as, “Keep your head down and do whatever you believe is right. Nobody will be able to take personal pot-shots at you if you keep a low profile!” Bert became also a steadying male voice of encouragement when my marriage (that had lasted through 20 evolutionary years) finally underwent dissolution.

During those initial years of the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, dance was exquisitely exciting for all of us because it was all still “new” in the United States.  Belly dance had yet to make much impact in the early ‘70s and had not yet hit its apex in popularity. Many of us dancers were feeling our way along on the periphery of show business—and dabbling in the other arts as well. 

Financing the Dance Studio
Bert and I realized that we were never going to afford to pay both the studio rent and the several thousand dollars for the Yellow Pages Directory Advertisement of the telephone books in the San Francisco Bay Area… We cooked up a scheme to finance our advertisements for the dance studio by inviting everyone who was dancing professionally in our area to participate in a joint venture—a dinner show in a rented theater.

Yes, that’s right: we threw a fundraiser for—ourselves!  To our surprise, it worked because the time was right, and many performers volunteered to be part of it for the love of the dance.

The show was a sell-out in advance. Astonishingly, several hundred people who did not have tickets mobbed the door of our performance hall. Apparently, they had planned to casually “buy a ticket at the door”!  No event quite like ours had ever happened on the West coast before the spring of 1975, and at that time, it seemed unimaginable to Bert and me that all our hundreds of tickets would be sold out in advance!  We had to call the police (who were not pleased) and they set up barricades, sending away all who were not ticket holders. (more)

That was my first theatrical experience in Belly dancing—aside from brief guest appearances at the nightclubs in San Francisco, the Veterans Hospitals, or dancing in ethnic restaurants, local cable television shows, etc. More importantly to me, it was also my first appearances as Bert’s dance partner.  Though dancing in a duet with Bert was an honor, I soon learned it had also a counter-productive aspect; my dance felt insignificant to me when I was paired with “everybody’s darling!”  Bert seemed aware of this, however, and he encouraged me to solo longer; he seemed to understand how ambivalent I felt about our duet.

The Broken Egg
Bert has unusual amounts empathy for animals, and I recall an incident that happened in our studio in Albany, California.  Bert often brought me fresh eggs from his farm, and on that particular day, the dozen were on the bench at the side of the dance space.  A dancer carelessly whirled by and crashed the egg box to the floor.  We all held our collective breaths as he picked up the box and said, “Oh, good!  Only one is broken,” then, he quickly sucked it out of the shell and swallowed the raw egg!  We all groaned, “Yuck! How could you do that and keep it down?”  Bert looked amused at our collective reaction and replied, “Well, if you could just see the poor little red hen do this: He scrunched down and winced. You would lay your little egg, and after squawking about it all morning, you would not waste it either, if it got broken!”

Bert’s Cows
I remember one time, trying to tell a prideful story about my new dance friend, Bert, to a little group of women who had gathered in a circle around me in the dance studio after taking his class.  I boasted, “He says that he just loves the peaceful relationship he has with his cows!” (Why I did not mention the horses, goats, peacocks, bunnies, mule, birds and other critters on the farm, I do not know.)  At any rate, a late arrival to our gathering screeched back at me,

“Bert calls his students cows?
What right does he have to characterize women like that?” 

For just a moment there was stunned silence, and then we all burst into laughter as I corrected her: “No, Bert calls his cows ‘cows’…not his students!”

Our Second Class Train Travel in Morocco
When Bert and I went on our famous trip to Morocco together, along with two other women, in the mid ‘70s, he and I were traveling from Marrakech to Casablanca without our companions.  We seated ourselves safely in the first-class section of the train, but the ever-restless Bert went exploring throughout the train.  When he returned, he told me that second-class cars ahead were much more comfortable (and cleaner) than the first class cars and that I should really go see them because they were almost empty.  That was true enough, but he did not mention that I would not be very smart to sit in a train car—alone with two Moroccan gentlemen who were looking for love in all the wrong places!  As one of them wedged me in, the other planted a big nasty wet kiss on my face, and when I came up sputtering, I saw Bert’s greatly amused face watching me in the round window between the cars—and I have been getting even with him ever since!

Moroccan Hotel Room Key
I was not an experienced traveler when we went to Morocco; in fact, I had to apply for a passport for the first time.  Subsequently, when we checked into the hotel, which looked nothing less than a movie set, I listened to him check-in, speaking Spanish.  Wrongly imagining myself to be a “woman of the world”, I had not the least idea how I would be perceived in Casablanca—an American woman traveling alone with an unrelated man.  I silently planned my answers to check-in questions in my rusty high-school Spanish—sorting out the correct words carefully from my confused smattering of college Italian: “I am a dancer and instructor,” I planned to say proudly.

However, Bert turned and handed me my room key with the huge golden tassel dangling from it.
“But…” I protested, “I haven’t even told them my answers...”
With a maddening little snicker, Bert said, “They are not going to ask you anything—because they already believe they know what you do!”

The truth of that statement was later born out by their night hotel clerk when we arrived back at the hotel late at night after seeing a dancer in a local cabaret.  We asked for our keys and a shriveled little Moroccan man in a red taraboush grinned his toothless grin at me as he handed Bert his key and refused to retrieve mine at all.  I huffed behind the counter myself and got my own key; then, Bert and I laughed ‘til the tears ran down our cheeks.

You Can Call Me Bert
I feel that I have to warn you however: Bert Balladine’s overt and immediate friendliness in his role as a dance instructor and mentor does not automatically make you his best friend, although it may feel that way sometimes. I recall that one dancer once made the social error of addressing Bert as “Bertie” as an endearment, and he quickly informed her that calling him by an endearment was disrespectful and that she should refer to him as “Bert.”  He shows only what he wants seen of his life, both on an off the stage, in and out of the classroom and dance studio. However, if you listen carefully to his not-so-random show-biz adventures, anecdotes, and this and that, there are always important points of wisdom behind each story and his laughter, too. To sum it all up, I would have to say that Bert is very much a chameleon—becoming for you whatever you wish him to be. I have known him for many years and never would dare to think of him as “Bertie”! 

Bert opened up the world of dance to me, and, in only a few years back in the 1970s, he also changed the course of my life. Whether it was for better or for worse remains a point of contention—but my path was irrevocably changed, nonetheless.

*(You can read more of this story in The Magnificent Fundraiser and The Magnificent Fundraiser, Part Two- Police Barriers Surround Event )

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It is possible to be an artiste in a non-art form in the sense that one may be skilled, professional and artistic at the business of entertainment.

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2-28-05 A Question of Style by Bert Balladine
Since most of us have chosen Oriental Dance for the pleasure of doing it, being a zealot about purity and ethnicity will just hamper getting the fullest enjoyment out of the dance.

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