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“My Adventures in the Big Apple”
by Nisima

In the spring of 1986, my best friend Jadin and I decided we’d vacation in New York City to visit both of our aunts, do some sightseeing and experience the “mystique” of the East Coast style of belly dancing. Remember, this was at a time before the Internet “shrunk” the world so we dancers relied on visiting dancers or videos to learn about other styles. So there was really a “mystique” in the 1980’s about dancing styles in other parts of the US—and especially about the New York style, so different from what we were used to in the Bay Area.

During our week-long trip to the Big Apple, we stayed with my Aunt Irene in her condo, and partied with Jadin’s Aunt Jadin (my friend was named after this aunt, who at seventy was still an active talent scout and very connected in the show business world). Aunt Jadin was so vital and energetic that we knew we could never have kept up with her in her heyday as an “oriental dancer” in San Francisco. Jadin’s aunt got us invitations to a private belly dance studio party at Serena’s studio, arranged for a professional dance photo session for each of us as a gift, and treated us to the Broadway show “Tap Dance”. My Aunt Irene traipsed all over with us to museums, restaurants, all the time insisting that we learn how not to act too “touristy”. Believe me, these two aunts set a killer pace for us; we hardly got any sleep (and didn’t want any)!

So, back to our adventures in NYC. First, at Serena’s studio dance party we got a great opportunity to observe the distinctly different “East Coast Style”. I had seen New York dancers performing only once in a while during the years I performed at the Casbah.

The most noticeable difference at first glance was that the New York dancers’ hip shimmies were not the syncopated ¾ hip shimmies so prominent in the Bay Area; they were long series of vibrating shimmies performed with dramatic, beautiful body lines. There was a “jazz” influence in certain body and arm positions. There were also fewer belly rolls, but a lot of theatric “drama” and very effective stage presence, those dancers projected right to the back of the room.

At the studio party, we observed a dancer performing with one fan. She had it tucked in the back of her belt and seamlessly removed it while doing her veil work; when the veil was finally dropped, the fan was snapped open. Very visually dramatic, it was a gold fan and she used it to emphasize hip drops and shimmies during her performance. Remember, at the time, we on the West Coast were just getting into the concept of the “Egyptian” style of belly dancing, and “layering” moves on top of moves; the East Coast had drama! The live music in New York was different as well, not as many “breaks”, and was lighter and faster so that chest lifts, drops and locks tended to be small and very clear.

I also noticed that zills were not played throughout a dancer’s performance, really only for the entrance, and during one of the fast parts. In the Bay Area, we zilled a lot more, but the musicians wouldn’t tolerate a dancer who couldn’t play well because it threw them off rhythm.

While at this private studio party, there was plenty of open dance time, and when I got up to dance with a scarf tied around my hips, of course it was in the Bay Area style, with ¾ shimmies up and down! When I finished, dancers came right over to our table to introduce themselves and ask, “Where are you from and what are you doing with your hip shimmies?” So, proves my point, there is a lot dancers can learn from one another.

Our next dance adventure was my scheme to dance at the Ibis Club, a posh and beautiful club owned by a woman that featured live music. I’d been told by dancers that Monday night at the Ibis was open auditions night, but that I would have to call in advance to arrange it and that I should not mention that I was just visiting; they really wanted to audition dancers for jobs. So, I called long-distance and booked myself for an audition (well, I could have worked for a week or so…).

Jadin, my aunt, and I arrived at the Ibis and were blown away by the sheer beauty of the place; gorgeous murals on the walls featuring the big, white Ibis birds. It was a large restaurant, with a floor level performing area for the musicians and dancers. As soon as I got into the dressing room, I ran into an old dance acquaintance from S.F., Katarina, who had moved to New York. I was informed by her that the musicians in New York really disliked it if a dancer played zills straight through the performance, they felt it was distracting to their performance as musicians. So you were only supposed to zill during your entrance and the “second fast part”. She gave me the tip about not playing zills too much, and told me she had secured a lot of other dance gigs because of working at the Ibis. The music, she said, was “easy”, kind of Turkish, and no one ever, ever put tips on the dancers’ costumes. The arrangement was that the audience threw tips on the dance floor and the dancers rotated in collecting them and would split them equally at the end of each month, which she said worked pretty well. However,

the dancers did go out into the audience to dance to every table but there was never any actual contact for tips; in New York it was considered improper.

Although I hadn’t had really bad experiences with going out for tips, I thought it would be very liberating not to have to deal with any of the potential pitfalls of going out for tips, which was a requirement at the clubs where I danced in the Bay Area.

I had a great time auditioning at the Ibis in my sapphire blue and fuchsia beaded cabaret costume, and when I finished, the manager came over to our table to talk to me and said, “you are from San Francisco, aren’t you? I can tell by your style; what nights can you work?” Well, I hadn’t expected a job offer, and could only reply “Great, any night this week!” He laughed and said, “well we’re booked for the next month, but if you can come back after that, you have a job!”

The next day, Jadin and I had our photo sessions, which her aunt had arranged as a gift to each of us. We arrived at the studio and found she’d also arranged a make-up artist to do our makeup; I thought I knew how to do stage make up, but this guy was terrific! The makeup took at least an hour and the photo session took another 2 hours—the pictures were black and white 8x10 “glossies” and I was surprised at how tiring it was to dance, pose and HOLD IT for that length of time.

I was a working dancer but found the photo session much harder than performing—but worth it all when we got our pictures!

The rest of our week Jadin and I spent touring the museums with my aunt, going to Broadway shows with her aunt, and having the time of our life in general. We rarely got home before 2 a.m., and in fact my mother called her sister (my aunt) every night at midnight to ask, “Are the girls home yet?” My husband didn’t worry about me but my mother did!

My last little dance “adventure” was on our return to S.F., when something in my baggage set off the security alarms while being x-rayed at JFK Airport. At that time the security, as now, was heightened due to international events. When my baggage showed a square shaped box (my tape player) and several round disks (my zills) two security guards stepped up right next to me and escorted me over to a table area while my bag was checked over. When they opened the bag, they found my sapphire blue and fuchsia beaded costume bra and belt and one security guard said to the other, “Carlos, look, this is gorgeous!”

Of course, then everyone relaxed when they realized there was nothing more dangerous in my luggage than a set of brass zills . . .

So, we arrived home in S.F., extremely sleep-deprived but very, very happy with our belly dance experience in the Big Apple. I’m convinced that by its very nature, belly dance does not have just one “authentic” or correct way to perform it. The “charming beggar,” as Najia so aptly named it in her series, continues to fascinate, enrich and yes, charm all who are open to appreciate different styles.

Yours in dance,

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