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This photo of Marliza was donated to the Gilded Serpent Photo Archives by Patrick Au of Cost Less Imports

An Interview with
Marliza Pons
by Maya

Maya: 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!

Marliza: Yes, I am moving home to Chicago. It's time. My moms are elderly, and ill, and I want to be with them.

Maya: Did I hear you say "moms?"

Marliza: 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 of them.

Maya: 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?

Marliza: Oh yes! … 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 Dancers).

Maya: I want to impress on the readers that the name "Marliza" has been absolutely synonymous with belly dance here in Las Vegas!

Marliza: 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!

North Beach
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?

Marliza: Because that's where a lot of the Arabic people went… and 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.

Maya: And you were a North Beach performer?

Marliza: Oh yes. Jamila Salimpour hired me to dance at the Bagdad. And that's where I met the famous Bobby Farrah.

Maya: 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 Beach scene?

Marliza: 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… they let me do whatever I wanted.

Maya: What was the highlight of your time at "Hawaiian Gardens?"

Marliza: They asked me to do something called "The Pearl of Osaka." With my long hair, I looked Oriental.

In 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.

Maya: Oh, how Hollywood-like! I just love that!

Marliza: Yes, it was like a movie! And I was doing double-duty… because then I'd go back in, dry my hair, and do a dance show! But I loved it… it was really, really fun.

Maya: So why move on to North Beach, then?

Marliza: 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.

Maya: And what did you think?

Marliza: 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!"

Maya: What comes to mind when you recall dancing at The Bagdad?

Marliza: 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.

Maya: Still are! So how did you meet Bobby Farrah?

Marliza: 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."

Maya: Umm hmm…

Marliza: 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.

Maya: What was that like?

Marliza: 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."

Maya: Wow. Had you kept in touch over the years?

Marliza: 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, looking back?

Marliza: The music! It was wonderful. George Elias and also Mike Sarkissian at the Baghdad. And Vince Delgado at Gigi Port Said. Fadil Shaheen. We always danced to live music back then when performing; dancing to recorded music was unheard of!

Maya: Anything about working North Beach that wasn't so great?

Marliza: Well…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, you know…

Maya: Expected more than dancing?

Marliza: Yes. And that wasn't something I wanted to do, so I'd just find an excuse to be somewhere else.

Maya: Is there anything you miss about your North Beach days?

Marliza: 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.

Childhood Days
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.

Marliza: 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… in ballet, because that was the thing to do.

Maya: What was it, Marliza, about seeing those belly dancers, as a little girl, that drew you in so powerfully?

Marliza: 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 level.

Maya: And when did you begin performing?

Marliza: 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.

Maya: 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!

Marliza: Yes. I was very well protected there, though… it was 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.

Maya: So Mary was your first belly dance teacher.

Marliza: 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.

Maya: Did you learn a lot from Fara?

Marliza:

Oh, yes… 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.

Maya: And you teach the same way at times, in your own class.

Marliza: Yes. I learned that technique from her.

Maya: Which teachers had the most impact on you later?

Marliza: Jamilla Salimpour and Nadia Gamal.

Maya: 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?

Marliza: 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.

Maya: Whose music have you most enjoyed dancing to over the years?

Marliza: 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.

Maya: What do you think of the trend of dance fusion, in belly dance?

Marliza: Fusion is fine. But do it in a way that compliments belly dance, if belly dance is what you're doing.

Maya: Over the span of your career, which have you enjoyed most: freestyle belly dance or choreographed routines?

Marliza: 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.

Maya: 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.

Marliza: 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.

Maya: Belly dance has been a constant in your life, hasn't it? Your main and abiding passion?

Marliza: 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" for TV.

Maya: No!

Marliza: Oh, yes. It wasn't like it is today.

Maya: So that's when you started going more in the direction of…

Marliza: The theatrical, yes. Belly dance has been the main focus of my career, but, as you know, I've done a lot else!

Maya: 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…

Marliza: Yes. African, Hawiian, Calypso, Tahitian, Tap, Ballroom, Adagio. I was very light, and also studied acrobatics.

In 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.

Maya: Too much! And you've acted…

Marliza: Yes… 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 hats!

Marliza: 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.

Maya: 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?

Marliza: Watch your posture, feel the music, go with your guts… and hold yourself proud.

Hold 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!

Maya: And advice on the business aspect of the dance?

Marliza: Oh! This is a tough question.

The 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.

Maya: Why did you decide to come to Las Vegas in '65?

Marliza: 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 us.

Maya: Dancing at the Flamingo in the mid-sixties… what comes to mind when you think about that time in your life?

Marliza: 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 of mine… like family, really.

Maya: Where else did you dance in Vegas, besides the Flamingo?

Marliza: Oh… 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.

Maya: When did you stop performing?

Marliza: Oh, gosh. I performed up until the late eighties. Even after that, I would perform in my own productions, especially for conventions.

Maya: Where were you steadily dancing last?

Marliza: That would have been "The Greek," a restaurant across from the "Stardust."

Maya: How does the Las Vegas belly dance scene seem to you now, compared with what it was in decades past?

Marliza: 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 an exercise… 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.

Maya: Was teaching here in town your first teaching experience?

Marliza: 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."

Maya: How has belly dance fared here in Las Vegas since the seventies?

Marliza: It's deteriorated.

Maya: How so?

Marliza: People don't understand quality…. or the beauty of the dance, in the artistic sense. That's what I've tried to do… uplift 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 understand.

They 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.

Maya: And Marliza, that brings me to what seems to be a very popular topic of conversation these days among belly dancers… the 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?

Marliza: 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.

Maya: What makes their job so difficult, do you think?

Marliza:

The 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.

Maya: Well, but we are still the entertainment capital of the world, do you agree?

Marliza: 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."

Maya: Tell me something about your travels to the Middle East

Marliza: Well, I went to Egypt once, just last year.

Maya: Surely, that was not your first trip to the Mid East?

Marliza: Yes, it was. It was a dream of mine to go.

Maya: This surprises me… 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?

Marliza: What I got to see I was disappointed in… mediocre. The quality of dancing is now better here at home, generally speaking.

Maya: Give us just one taste of your Egypt experience.

Marliza: I got (literally) swept up in a zeffa …

a wedding 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 !

Maya: What would you like to be doing a few years from now?

Marliza: 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 video, too…

Maya: So I take it the word "retirement" is not in your vocabulary?

Marliza: No. I will be teaching till I die… I can still move, can't I?

Maya: Yes… that you can!

Interviewers note: Marliza Pons recently danced for her friends at her own birthday hafla… a riveting performance that included floor work. And yes, she had us in the palm of her hand from the get-go.



Ready for more?
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 pregnant.

Fouad Marzouk, Interview by Amina Goodyear
I remember at first feeling intimidated dancing to one of Soheir Zaki's musicians.

Rakkasah '01, March 23-25, Richmond, CA photos and layout by Zuzu

 
 

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