Gilded Serpent presents...
& the Birth of the Ghawazee
Trish St. John Photo Archive
1974, a huge development in Oriental Dance in the Bay Area of
San Francisco took place. It seemed to me that everyone was doing
the same "Salimpour" style and ethnic/or cabaret
was still performing with Bal Anat at the Renaissance Faire
and everyone that I knew in Oriental dance believed the origins
of the dance came from a priestess ritual from Pharonic times,
and that the ritual was involved with the process of childbirth.
This 'myth' still appears to be prevalent today for many California
dancers, though there is not enough ethnological or Pharonic history
to back this premise.
in the '70s, though, we took it very seriously that the dance
form had had it's roots in a woman based ancient spiritual
ritual that glorified the divinity of a goddess or goddesses
and the woman's role in birthing. It is still a very powerful
connection and possibly may have had some actual bits of truth
to it. However, historically and ethnologically speaking,
it was a tale built of fantasy.
demonstrate the climate of the times during the early '70's, I
will point out that the dance was divided into "ethnic"
or "beledi" styling, or nightclub dancing with a prevalent
showgirl and glamour presence. I remember Fadil
(the owner of San Francisco's Casbah Cabaret) talking to my friend
and fellow dancer, Rhea,
over and over again, about how some of the dancers did their movements.
He related that in his country, the professional dancers did not
use many of the movements that we professional dancers were using
at the time. Later on, we could see that our dance styling at
the time consisted of a heavy Turkish influence. He would tell
us, that in Egypt, the dancers used very small movements and accented
and punctuated the rhythms with their body language. They also
did not utilize much space within the dance floor area. He said
that an excellent dancer did not have to know more than four movements
or use more than four steps, to captivate an audience. Fadil often
said that Gayla was the only dancer he had ever seen in America
giving this type of performance on stage and keep a crowd mesmerized.
He mentioned that though she didn't have a lot of different movements
or complicated techniques to her dance style, it was her immersion
with the audience and music that captured her audience and made
her a premier performer. Once Fadil even tried to show Rhea the
type of pivot turn that was familiar to him, as opposed to the
way everyone here was executing it. A few years later, after Egyptian
Cabaret burst upon the scene, I now recognize the type of movements
to which he was referring.
Sula of Sula's Belly Dance World, decided to have the very
first "Belly Dance Convention" in the Bay Area. It was
then that everything changed. One of the dancers on the program
was a well-known Bay Area dancer named Trish St. John. Her performing
name was Hanan. She was announced as performing authentic dances
from North Africa, and Tunisia. The crowd was speechless when
she entered and danced to the mesmerizing sound of country/desert
music. Her first dance was a Tunisian dance
one had ever seen this style of dances, the music, nor the
costuming before this. It was like watching a piece of history
transform itself in front of your eyes.
gave a little speech about each dance, the culture, their customs
and style. Hanan showed pictures from the National Geographic
Magazine from around the 1918s to the 1920s that first showed
Ouled Nail women and North African women as they looked then.
Trish St. John looked as if she had stepped right from the pages
of the magazine! Personally, I got a strong chill up my spine
watching these "new" reproductions of ancient tribal
dances and subsequently, my life in dance changed forever. After
her performance, she was engulfed by 100's of otherdancers asking
Trish had been
living in Los Angeles and while she was there, she found a dancer
by the name of Aisha Ali. Aisha was a pioneer in going to
Egypt and North Africa to study, transcribe and preserve the ethnic
dances of those regions. She became an expert on the replication
of these dance forms in their true styles. She also became acquainted
with the now well-known "Banat Mazain Ghawazee Dancers"
and was accepted as one of the Mazain family. At this time, Aisha
Ali had just produced a vinyl recording from her travels and studies
in Egypt, along with musical notation backgrounds, pictures of the
Ghawazee dancers, and historical/cultural documentation included
in the album. In collaboration with her, was the infamous Leona
Wood, who in the early years of the Bagdad
Cabaret, danced on the stage along with Jamilla Salimpour.
The first Bagdad recording with Yousef Koumdjian,
had a turquoise blue cover with a beautiful drawing of Jamila in
a 19th century Ghawazee costume drawn by Leona Wood. The name of
Aisha Ali's first album was simply, "Music of the Ghawazee".
It was like a fever had descended on the San Francisco Bay Area
and Northern California. No one had heard of researched dances such
as we were now seeing, and a fervor arose to understand and see
more of these dances.
Nakashian, a well-known Middle Eastern drummer in the Bay
Area, called Rhea to tell her about this incredible new album
that had come out. Rhea, being a dancer who not only had her own
unique way of dancing and working around the dance politics at
the time, was a true rebel who loved to discover new things to
break up the logjams surrounding any current difficult situation.
Rhea decided to produce a seminar with Aisha Ali, which was held
at the Ramalah Hall in San Francisco.
was a sold out house, and also carried the threat of boycotts
and non-attendance by those who felt that this was all nonsense
or very disrespectful to one of the prevailing powers of the
community at the time. Anxiously, we all waited to learn about
this revival of the art of dance.
is a beautiful, petite woman, with jet-black hair and dark almond
shaped eyes, who did everything with a dynamic, whirlwind presence.
She began by talking about her travels, and studies and research
in Egypt and North Africa. She said she was quite perplexed when
she arrived in the Bay Area to hear stories that the origins of
the dance were based on "birth rituals". She proclaimed
that never in her research and travels had she ever heard such
a thing, and she said that she believed it was some made up urban-myth
here in the Bay Area.
demonstrated the dances from Tunisia, showed slides of the women,
the people, their culture
also the Ouled Nail, and their
incredible plumed regal visages. Here was the very first unveiling
that there was credible study, historically authentic reproduction
of ancient dance forms that still existed today.
was the turning point not only of dancers stepping outside
of the norm. It became apparent that there was a huge wealth
of study and knowledge out there to be tapped.
All of this was
so foreign and rich to the senses, that it was almost overwhelming.
The last dance of the seminar was the Ghawazee dance. Everyone was
at a fevered pitch to actually see this dance, since they had only
seen pictures of it in the album sleeve of "Music of the Ghawazee".
Aisha Ali explained the costuming, the long history of the Banat
Mazain and then returned to the stage in full modern Ghawazee regalia.
Mazain Ghawazee Dancers
with anything extremely different or new, a hush fell over
the hall, then the whispering began. " This could not
possibly be a dance to take seriously", people whispered
and appeared uncomfortable at this strange spectacle unfolding
in front of our eyes.
dressed in a modern day Ghawazee costume was dressed and dancing
in a turtleneck sweater that was topped with a bright sparkling
palette fringed vest, a skirt with rows and rows diagonally of
fringe and beads and palettes, topped with panels that carried
more palettes, on top of this she wore high-heeled shoes and nylons.
Atop her head was a gaudy, jeweled bedecked fabric looking tiara
(later we learned is called a Taj). The movements consisted of
huge hip swings, with the skirt jumping up at the edges to expose
more leg. Her finger cymbal pattern was a straight forward singles
rhythm, and she would use foot stomping during part of the hip
swings that carried the skirt almost over the front row. People
were really whispering loudly now...(remember this was a time
of wearing full pantaloons under skirts, dancing barefoot, and
mostly costumed using coins).
people even walked out with a disgusted expression, and many
others just whispered that they thought it was a strange dance.
I remember leaving there in a numbed but very excited state...
At first, I couldn't relate to the gaudy and earthy dance
of the Ghawazee, but something had grabbed hold of me that
I couldn't quite shake.
this was the talk of the area for months. Dancers were at odds
debating whether this was a credible dance or something to be
quietly pushed under the rug. However, it was too late, a revolution
was starting. Dancers wanted more information, more challenges
to what they were taught, more expression, and wanted the delight
of actually knowing the origins of a dance's particular style.
I was one of them and fell helplessly in love with trying to learn
the authentic reproductions of dances of Egypt and North Africa
from the best teachers throughout my career. It was and still
is to me an exhillirating love.
was instrumental in introducing our naive dance world to the larger
geography of the people whose dances we were trying to copy. Other
major contributors to this whole reproducing stylizing and ethnocultural
study were Leona Wood, from the Bay Area, Trish St.
John, Malea, Katerina Bourda and Alexandria
Parafina. They all made sacrifices to go to take classes diligently
from Aisha Ali, travel to Egypt and Tunisia/Morocco to learn from
the dancers themselves and unselflessly passed it along to others
who were entranced with "The Birth of the Ghawazee".
I take pride in the fact that I always studied riguoursly the
origins and traditions of this new type of dancing and for many
years carried forth with my dance troupe and my own dancing to
continue the reproduction as authentically as possible.
a little knowledge can go a long way, (the wrong way...) and
we became over saturated with dancers who did not take the
time to distinguish between the music, stylizing, or traditions
of each dance they tried to replicate.
began to also see a form of bastardization and a "mish-mash",
in which people would learn a few steps from any of these traditions,
put on caftans, 19th century Ghawazee/Ottoman Turkish coats and
dance a mixture of Beledi, Bay Area Stylizing and whatever else
they could think of and mix it together. It was creative, not
factual. It was like dancing with Armenian 6/8 rhythm, dressed
in an Ottoman Turkmen coat, with movements befitting Egyptian
Beledi. But there were the purists, and so today we are lucky
to have the actual knowledge of these dance forms, costumes, tribal
cultures and music, which is now disappearing from its source.
is known for her earthquakes, but this was a "dance-quake"
that woke up a generation of dancers from being satisfied with
cookie-cutter performances to a new era for the dance world.
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More by Sadira-
2-12-02 What's in a Name
lived and breathed the dance and its ethnic beauty.
Belly Dance Book" Edited by Tazz Richards" Reviewed
This book has
a surprising change of format from all the various books that
have been published recently...
Nomads of the Spirit
by Sierra Suraci
Know what are you contributing - either
to their dilution as a people or the strengthening of their true
North Beach Memories!
Please join us as we travel
back in time to the North Beach district of San Francisco between
the years 1957 through 1985. We'll read about a vibrant
period of Middle Eastern Dance and Music Performance as presented
in our interviews with musicians, dancers, and club owners who
created this exciting history.
Mazin Struggles to Preserve Authentic Ghawazi Dance Tradition
when Khairiyya Mazin retires, one of the most distinctive traditions of
Ghawazi dance may come to an end.
Al-Ghawazi, Part 1
Begun in the mid-1970's , the early sections of "Sirat Al-Ghawazi"
were first published under the title "The Mystery of the Ghawazi."
We are happy to be able to respond to the continued demand for these articles
by making them available to our readers worldwide.
5-16-04 Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part 2 by Edwina Nearing
8-8-04 Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part 3 by
9-12-04 Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part 4 by
9-12-04 Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part 5 of
9 by Edwina Nearing .
7-5-05 Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part 6 by
9-5-05 Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part 7 by
12-3-05 Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part 8 by
1-9-06 Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part 9 by
8-10-09 The Ghawazi: Back From the Brink of Extinction (For now)
The really fabulous news is that Khairiyya’s sister Raja has come out of retirement and is dancing again.