This photo of Marliza was donated to the
Gilded Serpent Photo Archives by Patrick Au of Cost Less
Marliza, I thought this would be the perfect time to interview
you, since I hear you are leaving Las Vegas soon, after having
performed and taught belly dance here since 1965!
Yes, I am moving home to Chicago. It's time. My moms are elderly,
and ill, and I want to be with them.
Did I hear you say "moms?"
Yes, I have two moms
a birth mom, and a foster mom. I am
close to them both, and spent parts of my childhood with each
I see. As much as we'll miss you here, it's wonderful you'll be
living close by them now. Will you be back to Las Vegas to visit?
and to offer workshops, that kind of thing. I will
still be involved, but the excellent dancer and teacher Lisa (Aziza)
will be taking over my classes and the troupe (The Magic Carpet
I want to impress on the readers that the name "Marliza"
has been absolutely synonymous with belly dance here in Las Vegas!
Yes, I'm leaving behind a legacy here, it's true. I've trained
almost every belly dancer in this town at one time or another!
Maya: As you know, Marliza, we're doing this interview
for Gilded Serpent, a web site that has a special interest in
the exciting North
Beach dance scene in San Francisco during the late 50's through
the 80's. So let's use that location as starting point for talking
a little bit about your remarkable career. What do you think made
that area such a vibrant belly dance scene?
Because that's where a lot of the Arabic people went
so we had a population to draw from to come to the clubs, and
to give support to the dance. And then a lot of non-Arabic people
would come, see the excitement, and it would catch on. It was
really an exciting time.
And you were a North Beach performer?
Oh yes. Jamila Salimpour
hired me to dance at the Bagdad.
And that's where I met the famous Bobby Farrah.
Let's back up a bit
just to set the scene for that point
in your career; what were you doing just before you hit the North
Well, I was the star of the show at "Hawaiian Gardens,"
in San Jose. I worked with Aki Aleong, a famous Japanese
movie actor. I did belly dance, jazz, African numbers
let me do whatever I wanted.
What was the highlight of your time at "Hawaiian Gardens?"
They asked me to do something called "The Pearl of Osaka."
With my long hair, I looked Oriental.
a tiny bikini, I'd dive into a lighted pool outside the restaurant,
and come up with a pearl in my mouth! Actually, the pearl
was hidden in my mouth to begin with! These were very fine
pearls from Japan. People would then applaud from behind the
big glass windows as I emerged from the water. I would then
swish the pearl in the water and drop it into the drink of
whomever had ordered it, and then the drink would be sold
with the pearl.
Oh, how Hollywood-like! I just love that!
Yes, it was like a movie! And I was doing double-duty
then I'd go back in, dry my hair, and do a dance show! But I loved
it was really, really fun.
So why move on to North Beach, then?
Well, the owner from a North Beach club called "Gigi's
Port Said" came and saw me belly dancing at Hawaiian
Gardens, and offered me more money to dance there, so I thought
I'd go check it out.
And what did you think?
I was impressed! And wow, what good belly dancers they had! They
were tops, from the 'old country.' I said "yes" to the
offer, packed up my son, who was a toddler, and the baby sitter,
and there I was in North Beach! Then, that's where Jamila Salimpour
saw me and offered me a job at her place, The Bagdad. At first,
I didn't even know who Jamila was. Then later I thought "Whoa,
this is cool!"
What comes to mind when you recall dancing at The Bagdad?
Jamila called me her "Little Debke Dancer," because
in the middle of my number I would go into Debke, or other ethnic
stuff, dressed in cabaret costume, stomping in my high heels.
I always danced in heels. The Arabic people would go bananas.
And I was famous for my hand movements.
Still are! So how did you meet Bobby Farrah?
Jamila introduced me. Again, I did not know who he was at first.
He said he'd been watching me and thought I was very good. Backstage,
I needed to change into costume as we were speaking, and in those
days, when you had to change, you just did, no matter who was
in the room. So I started changing. He said, "I'll help you."
And so he helped me get dressed! He hooked me up, set my straps,
checked my make-up. He said "I'm a dancer too, and I really
love what you do." Later on when I realized who he was, my
mouth fell open! Recently, at a conference in California, just
before Bobby died, I was walking out of one of the rooms and ran
right into him.
What was that like?
He gave me a big hug. I told him I'd been looking for him, because
I'd wanted to say hi and give him a hug as well. He asked me if
I recalled him helping me dress at the Baghdad. I said "yes."
He then said, right there in front of other people, "You
were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen."
Wow. Had you kept in touch over the years?
Oh yes. We were friends and remained so. He's the one who
called me whenever my idol, Nadia Gamal, would come to
New York for a workshop and concert. And I always figured out
a way to get there, no matter what.
Maya: What was the best part about the North Beach scene,
The music! It was wonderful. George
Elias and also Mike Sarkissian at the Baghdad. And
at Gigi Port Said. Fadil
Shaheen. We always danced to live music back then when performing;
dancing to recorded music was unheard of!
Anything about working North Beach that wasn't so great?
the Saudi's, the way they acted
they would give
us a little bit of a hard time; they wanted us to sit with them,
more than dancing?
Yes. And that wasn't something I wanted to do, so I'd just find
an excuse to be somewhere else.
Is there anything you miss about your North Beach days?
That whole era. Oh, it was just great to be able to do our thing.
There was a sense of togetherness. We really learned belly dance
from each other, too. I have a good eye
I watched and learned.
Maya: Let's go way back to Chicago now, because your love
of belly dance started in childhood. As your student, Marliza,
I recall you sharing with your class the story of how as a child,
starting at age six, you began peering in a nearby restaurant
window, watching the belly dancers.
Yes! I lived only two blocks away from Chicago's Greek Town. I
would not be let into the restaurant, due to my age, but I would
go back again and again, studying their moves. I would sometimes
stand for hours, glued to one spot, watching them. I learned this
way. I would copy them at home. I would dance with my mom's curtains
one curtain would be a costume, the other, a veil. My mom called
me "the curtain dancer." I knew from the start I would
be a belly dancer, and told my parents so, but they just poo-pooed
this at first. They did allow me dance lessons
because that was the thing to do.
What was it, Marliza, about seeing those belly dancers, as a little
girl, that drew you in so powerfully?
I wish I knew exactly. I do know I had a real sense of déjà
vu, as if I had done it before. It was familiar to me on a deep
And when did you begin performing?
Oh, I was still just a young teenager! I looked older with make-up
and long hair, and those were different days. Anyway, I was hired
by a lady named Mary who owned a Greek restaurant club right in
my neighborhood. She liked the way I looked, and my dancing, and
so we got my mother's permission.
So, you still had no formal belly dance training at this time.
You were at this point a very young, self-taught belly dancer,
working in a restaurant!
Yes. I was very well protected there, though
one of the stipulations of me working there. And this is where
I started getting the training, from Mary, who was from Greece
. she helped me.
So Mary was your first belly dance teacher.
Yes, she took me by the hand. And one day, in that restaurant,
a woman named Fara, from Egypt, walked in. She had Cleopatra hair
and a thick accent. She had come to see me! She had formed a Chicago
troupe and needed a dancer to replace her for awhile. She had
brought her band, too
I thought they were bodyguards! She
offered to train me. My eyes got very big. I got permission from
my mom, and accepted.
Did you learn a lot from Fara?
she put me through my paces! I danced and traveled
with that troupe for a couple years. I learned old-style Egyptian
dancing from Fara. She could not verbalize the moves that
well, because of her English, so she taught me by having me
feel the moves on her body. In this way, I could feel where
the energy was coming from.
And you teach the same way at times, in your own class.
Yes. I learned that technique from her.
Which teachers had the most impact on you later?
Jamilla Salimpour and Nadia Gamal.
Marliza, as a teacher yourself
one of the things that strikes
me about you as a student in your classes is how very in tune
with the soul of the music you are. Do you have a formal musical
background, or is that self taught, or perhaps instinctual?
Instinctual. I hear the music. Sometimes, I hear things others
don't hear. To be very honest, I think it is a gift God gave me,
that I was meant to use. The way I played zills at first was instinctual.
Later, I had training; but what was interesting is that I was
already on the beats
the only thing that needed correcting
was the handling of the zills themselves.
Whose music have you most enjoyed dancing to over the years?
John Bilizikijian. Raja Zahr. Buddy and Mike Sarkissian, the Armenians.
Armenian, Greek, and Turkish music has always been very prevalent
in my life, because that's what worked a lot
we didn't have
many Egyptian musicians in the country at the time.
What do you think of the trend of dance fusion, in belly dance?
Fusion is fine. But do it in a way that compliments belly dance,
if belly dance is what you're doing.
Over the span of your career, which have you enjoyed most: freestyle
belly dance or choreographed routines?
Freestyle. But that taught me how to feel and interpret the music,
which benefits choreography. Every piece of choreography I have
done has been felt, not framed.
Yes. I notice in class, when you want to develop a choreography
for a piece, you would sometimes ask us to freestyle to it for
you, so you could see how we feel it.
Yes, without the spontanaity, there's no emotion. This goes for
all dance forms. Gotta feel it, and emote it! From the chest,
your gut, and your heart.
Belly dance has been a constant in your life, hasn't it? Your
main and abiding passion?
Absolutely. It was what I wanted to do, and did, all my life.
In high school, I did excel in English and public speaking. I've
gotten awards for public speaking, and even went to broadcasting
school. But even back then, I never stopped dancing. I would have
loved to have also become a journalist or newscaster. But I was
turned down too many times because I was "too exotic looking"
Oh, yes. It wasn't like it is today.
So that's when you started going more in the direction of
The theatrical, yes. Belly dance has been the main focus of my
career, but, as you know, I've done a lot else!
Yes! I so wish we had time to delve into it all! But let's try
to touch on each facet of your professional experience briefly.
You've performed and taught other dance forms
Yes. African, Hawiian, Calypso, Tahitian, Tap, Ballroom, Adagio.
I was very light, and also studied acrobatics.
a show in Chicago, I once played a princess who got thrown
into a volcano. On cue, I would have to swan dive into the
"volcano" and my partner would catch me; I could
have gotten hurt, but I never fell
he was a good catcher.
Too much! And you've acted
theater, TV, also movies. Not big parts, but speaking
parts. I'm still a SAG member. When I divorced in Chicago, I moved
to Los Angeles to act. In less than a month, I had an action part
in Ensign Pulver. Then I got my first speaking part with Robert
Ryan. From then on, I did all kinds of stuff. I did a pilot for
a series with William Shatner ("Alexander The Great")
he and I are still friends. I've studied voice as well,
and I used to sing.
Maya: And I know you play drum as well as your amazing
zill playing. Let's see
you're a troupe leader, an agent
also a choreographer
you've worn (and still wear) lots of
You forgot costume designer
and I used to model as well.
You know, doing so much was good, because it enabled me to pick
up work over the years whenever it came up, work in addition to
dancing, so that I was then better able to support myself.
Right. I know you've accumulated many dance awards over the years,
but I want to mention the Life Time Achievement Award you received
from the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition in 2000, for
your contribution to Mid East Dance. What advice would you give
to a belly dancer today who aspires to become a pro?
Watch your posture, feel the music, go with your guts
hold yourself proud.
the audience in the palm of your hand, from the minute you
come out, or it's not gonna work; if you don't have them from
the get-go, it's a waste of time, might as well forget it!
And advice on the business aspect of the dance?
Oh! This is a tough question.
situation is rough right now; there's too much competition.
Everyone is teaching. Sometimes for cheaper, and students
don't know the difference in quality of instruction. This
has taken away from me my own living. And in some cases, dancers
are performing too soon, taking away from those who truly
are ready. We need to stick together, in keeping the pay up,
at a decent rate. In the old days, I was treated royally,
tips were give respectfully and were enough alone to live
on! This was a different time.
Why did you decide to come to Las Vegas in '65?
I didn't decide. The same man who had hired me for a Lake Tahoe
show said "We've got an opening for a star at the Flamingo
Hotel in "Cleopatra's Nymphs of the Nile, to play Cleopatra."
I said "me?"
so it was he who brought me here.
My son was six, and we again brought the same babysitter with
Dancing at the Flamingo in the mid-sixties
what comes to
mind when you think about that time in your life?
The great thing about it is while we were rehearsing, I got to
meet my second idol
Cyd Charisse. She complimented
my dancing. She and her new husband Tony Martin became friends
like family, really.
else did you dance in Vegas, besides the Flamingo?
I danced at almost every major hotel, at one time or
another. I was in the lounge at "The International"
(now the "LV Hilton") when Elvis was in the showroom.
We were friends. He and his entourage would come in, sit in a
booth and watch my show.
did you stop performing?
Oh, gosh. I performed up until the late eighties. Even after that,
I would perform in my own productions, especially for conventions.
Where were you steadily dancing last?
That would have been "The Greek," a restaurant
across from the "Stardust."
does the Las Vegas belly dance scene seem to you now, compared
with what it was in decades past?
When I first came here, the belly dancing was nil, except for
the show at the Flamingo. People went wild for the Flamingo show.
And then in the seventies, all of a sudden it became popular as
a way for women to work out. I started teaching
in my home, and before I knew it, I had a room full of people.
In 1972, I was talked into opening up a studio. It was packed.
I have taught some of the top people.
Was teaching here in town your first teaching experience?
Oh no. I was teaching way back, in Chicago. Not formally, just
one on one, for people who would say "Oh, please, show me
How has belly dance fared here in Las Vegas since the seventies?
People don't understand quality
. or the beauty of the dance,
in the artistic sense. That's what I've tried to do
it, to more like an art form
rather than people thinking
it's "bump and grind." Now, there are a lot of dancers
besides me here trying to maintain that, but the hotels and restaurants
don't care about talent, only about how the girls look. And
the audience doesn't know the difference, unless you educate
them and let them know that this is the way it's supposed
to be done.
And Marliza, that brings me to what seems to be a very popular
topic of conversation these days among belly dancers
frustration that many belly dancers feel about the fact that belly
dance does not have the same status as other dance forms, like
ballet. Your thoughts?
Well, this is what I've been fighting for. Everybody needs
to make sure they keep the dance at an artistic level and not
let anybody tear it down! I worked so hard here to build it up
to the point where people were beginning to respect it. But some
people just don't care, or are uneducated. Those dancers in town
who do care have a big job.
What makes their job so difficult, do you think?
big corporations have come in to town and taken over. So a
lot of the care and class that was put into entertainment
in general here is gone.
but we are still the entertainment capital of the world, do you
No, I don't think Las Vegas is that, not anymore. I'm disgusted
with the town frankly
performers used to present a glamorous
"star quality" persona, and this was in turn respected.
Now people run around with their T-shirts hanging out, and no
one cares who you are, you're a number. It's so impersonal. When
I fly back in to town now, I no longer have the happy feeling
of coming home to "my Vegas."
Tell me something about your travels to the Middle East
Well, I went to Egypt once, just last year.
Surely, that was not your first trip to the Mid East?
Yes, it was. It was a dream of mine to go.
I had imagined you traveling there frequently,
perhaps even dancing there; I think this is because your dancing
seems so authentic. What did you think of the belly dancers in
the clubs in Egypt?
What I got to see I was disappointed in
mediocre. The quality
of dancing is now better here at home, generally speaking.
us just one taste of your Egypt experience.
I got (literally) swept up in a zeffa
parade! Coming out of an elevator, I just got dragged along!
I was dressed to the teeth, so they thought I belonged. I
caught on right away, then I saw the bride. I just mingled
with the crowd, and walked along with them. I got to see the
whole thing, the dancers, and how they did their thing! It
was just like I'd been told, just as I'd been doing
just like I knew. What fun !
would you like to be doing a few years from now?
I would like to be
( long pause)
now you've got me
grinning! Doing more workshops. Teaching in Chicago, and designing
costumes. Making sure my moms are O.K.. And writing my book! I
want to write an autobiography. I'm thinking about doing an instructional
I take it the word "retirement" is not in your vocabulary?
No. I will be teaching till I die
I can still move,
that you can!
note: Marliza Pons recently danced for her friends at her own
a riveting performance that included floor
work. And yes, she had us in the palm of her hand from the get-go.
Of Hips and Hippies: The "Good
Old Days" in San Francisco Part I, by Rhea of Athens.
I used to come out in a simple costume dancing to a rendition
of the Coasters' "Little Egypt" dancing barefoot and
Marzouk, Interview by Amina Goodyear
I remember at first feeling intimidated dancing to one of Soheir
'01, March 23-25, Richmond, CA photos and layout by Zuzu