Gilded Serpent presents...
Sultana Changes North Beach
In the early '80s, a few years before the whole club scene died on North
Beach, a strange phenomenon took place. It was like a hot sirocco
wind from the desert, appearing mysteriosly one night and mesmerizing to us,
changing the Broadway scene during the few years. It was the appearance of
a new dancer at the Bagdad
Cabaret. No one from the San Francisco Bay Area knew anything
about her, but she was an incredible dancer beyond equal. One night she appeared
on the Bagdad stage and this charismatic desert mirage began to draw in customers
and dancers alike to see her performances. Never, in all my years at the
Casbah and Bagdad, had I seen anyone with the dance style, fascinating
stage presence and command of the audience as Sultana! The
first night I saw her dance, I don't believe I even blinked my eyes once from
the moment she stepped onto the stage. She was a beautiful, raven haired, almond
eyed beauty, with the most voluptuous body I had ever seen. She seemed to me
to be a cross between Sophia Loren and Raquel Welch in body shape. She had
dance moves the likes of which we had rarely seen in this area such as hip
shimmies combined with rolling hip drops, debke hops interspersed joyfully
within the context of the rhythym, 3/4 shimmies to die for, and showmanship.
she came onto the stage, no one talked at the tables.
No one's eye's left the stage. The musicians at the
Bagdad starting playing lively songs that were new
that she had the body of a goddess and the soul in dance
of a siren. There were many stories about her origins and
all the typical gossip, but I was able to become close to
her and found her to be an intriguing and mysterious woman.
She would get the women in the audience up to dance, during
her tipping time, a practice which was unusual in our area,
and she always had a gracious comment towards anyone who
danced or performed their moment of beledi.
the musicians and the stage, beyond anything I had seen before.
I felt that I was almost in the presence of a tempermental
she did not like the music, or the attitude of the
crowd, she would impetiously leave the performance
in the middle of her set, not to return! Before long,
a phenomenon began... dancers from the Casbah who had
never set foot in the Bagdad (due to local dance politics),
were coming over to the Bagdad especially to watch
all of Sultana's sets.
style was so different from what was standard cabaret dance
in our area for so long, it seemed like we were being awakened
from a deep sleep. Sultana's costumes were unique, and one
always wondered how her ample attributes were able to stay
ensconced in her bra. It became almost an obsession for many
of us, to go see her as much as possible. I saw men become
infatuated with her the minute she began to dance. The Arabs
loved her, because she interpreted and knew the songs and
movements of their music. The musicians were rewarded with
money being thrown at them, and often she would have long
necklace loops of taped-together dollarbills, wound around
her shoulders like a veil by her fans.
shocking thing that happened with her advent on the North
Beach scene, was admiration from the ever-present Aida.
Aida was the most dedicated Jamilla
Salimpour student, sergeant-at-arms, teacher
at the Salimpour School and a "fixture" at
dance style never deviated from what she learned from
Jamilla, and of all the dancers I have known, I would
say that she faithfully represented and promoted the
Jamilla Salimpour style of dance.
also the only dancer at the Casbah whom Fadil allowed to
wear pantaloons under skirts and dance with the "ethnic
look" in costuming. I believe his respect for Aida,
her devotion to Jamilla's dance style, and her excellence
in performance allowed Aida to stay true to that style.
became enthralled with Sultana's dance, unlike anything I
have ever seen! (Remember that Aida carried the "bloodline" for
the succession of students and lineage of the Salimpour style
of dance.) There were few dancers with whom Aida would have
been impressed. Sultana was the exception, even though their
dance styles were like night and day. Aida would come to
the Bagdad as often as possible to watch Sultana and they
became good friends. Aida adapted some of Sultana's moves
into her own, somewhat regimented, format. It was wonderful
to see the inspiration generated in Aida and all the other
dancers who crowded into the Bagdad to see Sultana.
a well known dancer at Zorba's in San Jose,
and she taught for many years in Danville, California. She
remembered Sultana from a time in the San Francisco Bay Area
many years previously, when they danced together. Based on
that connection, Malieka sponsored a few dance workshops
with Sultana, that were fully booked.
could hold the audience in the palm of her hand, and she
had innovative costuming and makeup techniques that also
became a highlight of her workshops. Robaire Nakashian,
well known drummer in the Bay Area, became friends with her
and sponsored her in a few large workshops also (along with Habibi
magazine when it had its original owners, Bob
and Lynn Zalot). When Sultana hit the scene, I felt
that everything about the local dance world changed. The
concepts and ideas of movements and interpretation in cabaret
dancing were mobilized to a new level. Her signature pieces
of music were a delight to hear and were heard requested
time and time again. A couple examples of the most popular
ones that Chad always played for her were, "Zagarut
El Helwa, and "Salamet Om Hasan."
Bagdad, which had been perceived of by dancers to be
in the Casbah's shadow as far as audience draw, was
flowed out the doors every night that Sultana performed.
People stayed through the entire evening to see all her sets.
If you were to go into the Casbah during this period, it
was in sharp contrast with the past, when the Casbah had
the larger clientele, and where now only a few patrons would
began incorporating Sultana-like moves into their dance repertoire.
She had a shimmy that was incredible to watch and very hard
to duplicate. She did seem to prefer Middle Eastern audiences
and when they came into the club, she gravitated towards
them and became even more lively. I knew of quite a few well-known,
professional dancers on the scene who were just as infatuated
as I was with her performances and stage personality. She
never seemed competitive and was gracious to all the dancers
around her. Yet one could tell she dominated the Bagdad,
and as I've said already, she was the only dancer I have
ever seen walk off in the beginning, or middle of her set
, not to return, because the music or audience did not please
reign also coincided with the arrival of a professional
five-piece Egyptian band at the Bagdad.
was jammed-packed from then on. It was amazing to see the
transformation on Broadway. Everyone wanted a chance to dance
to the Egyptian band, and everyone wanted to hear their incredible
music. Jad Elias beamed from the stage....everything
had turned around and the Bagdad was the "happening" place!
Unfortunately, Fadil (owner
of the Casbah) started firing any dancers from his
club nearby, who were found to be patronizing the Bagdad,
and many were trying to obtain jobs there rather than
strange tension....everything seemed to move in slow motion
after a while into a downhill slide, and eventually, to the
closing of both clubs.
was like the Phoenix who woke the dying embers of the North
Beach scene into a new life...but when she unexpectedly left
to return to the Los Angeles scene to dance, the fire died
down. The Egyptian musicians went to the Casbah for a while
and then left due to their visa restrictions. That was the
last time I felt or saw the magic of North Beach in the clubs,
before their decline into closure.
years later, I contacted Sultana in Los Angeles and went
to see her dance. Nothing had changed, except her hair seemed
to be a lot more "beehive" style, her rounded hips
seemed to have lost their natural proportional curve and
her legs were too thin compared to the predominance of her
breasts. I began to notice this phenomena of body imaging
throughout the southern California scene. But her dancing.....the
old fire, the live music and clubs in southern California
made me long for the old days on Broadway, and I wanted to
transplant myself to Los Angeles and become her student.
I will never forget Sultana, her incredible dancing, her
regal attitude and looks, respect from the musicians, and
her friendship to me. She was a performer that inspired,
delighted and entranced. Sultana was, unwittingly, the epitome
of the last days of North Beach.
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