Snake

The Gilded Serpent presents...
Loving Remembrance & Requiem:
the Best "School" That Ever Was, Part 1

by Morocco/ Carolina Varga Dinicu
© 2001

In late 1960, I got my first job as an Oriental dancer. How? I was a Flamenco dancer with the Ballet Espanol Ximenez-Vargas & we were rehearsing at a Manhattan studio, owned by a Greek Orthodox priest, who was a friend.

There was no pay for rehearsals & I was getting skinny. He told me he knew of a good dance job paying $125 a week, starting at nine thirty in the evening, so I could still rehearse with the company from noon to eight, get made up, work that job from 9:30pm - 4:00 am, go home, sleep, get up & go to rehearsal .... & have money to eat.

Went with my guitarist to the Arabian Nights (unfortunately no longer in existence.) The owner looked at me, looked at my guitarist & asked "Who is this guy?" "My guitarist." She says "Well, we have a guitarist."

Thinking in terms of Flamenco, I ask "Does he know all the rhythms?"
"Yes."
"Can he sing?"
"Yes."
"When I change tempo will he change tempo?"
"Yes. Go change into your costume & we'll give you an audition."

I change into my costume, called bata de cola in Spanish. It's the dress with the long, ruffled train, that all these very intense ladies kick around. I come upstairs & the owner asks, "What's that?" I'm thinking well, this is a restaurant. Maybe they don't like the costume because it would raise dust. I tell her that I have a short dress with polka dots or the riding habit.

She says "Honey we don't want Spanish dancers. We want a belly dancer!" I said "What's that?" Never seen it.... Never heard of it.. Knew from nothing... She sits me down (on all the ruffles & frills & starch of the bata that you can't sit on) & says, "Watch."

Out comes this creature... I've been in the business over 42 years now & only twice have I seen anybody as bad as that woman. I looked at her & said, "If I can't do better than that, I'll hand in my feet!" A case of having more guts than brains.

Another dancer, who overheard me said, "Oh yeah?!? Let's get you into a costume & see what you can do." She lent me her costume - I went out & slunk around from one end of the dance floor to the other. I thought I was hot stuff because I didn't fall on my behind. Nobody ran out. No one threw rotten eggs. They even threw money, which came as an extreme shock. I'd never seen that before either. The owner said "All right. You are a dancer. Not a Mideastern dancer, but you are a dancer. You have the job. For 2 weeks. You learn, you stay. You don't learn, thank you very much & good bye."

The 1960s were a special time in New York: 8th Avenue, from 27th to 29th Streets, had 10 restaurant/ night clubs with continual live, nightly Mideastern music, 3 dancers 6 nights a week, & a 4th on the 3 days the others were off. That's 40 dancers needed in a city that had maybe 10, who knew what they were doing. The hit movie "Never On Sunday", starring Melina Mercouri as a "happy hooker", set in the port of Piraeus, in Athens, Greece, was the main reason there were so many successful, crowded Mideastern clubs in New York at that time & so much work for dancers of whatever degree of skill or lack thereof: in that film, Americans "discovered" bouzoukia & were flocking to the ones here in droves.

In proportion to the economy, dancers' pay was much better then than it is today & there were so many job openings, that if Godzilla had a costume, she could have gotten a well-paying & steady gig. There was a whole category of "dancers" we called the "Wonderful Walkers" - & they were. That's all they did: get out there & strut around the dance floor & twirl their veils, but, oh, how they did it! There were some truly charismatic & artistic dancers, there were the "smoldering sexpots", there were the novices, learning on the job & a few truly bad, awkward performers.

This new audience of "civilians" came for the music, dance & excitement they saw in the film & went away having gotten even more than they'd hoped - including discovering & being fascinated with the Oriental dancers they saw there. There were none in the movie "Never on Sunday".

The first club I worked in was called the Arabian Nights, because while the bouzoukee, clarinet & guitar players were Greek, the kanun, oud & accordion players were Arabic-speaking. In the other NYC clubs they were all Greek, Turkish, Sephardic & Armenian. Mohamed el Akkad, our kanun player, had just arrived from Cairo & many years of playing in Om Kolsum's orchestra. By playing together nightly, they learned each other's songs & rhythms. It was a wonderful time of sharing, where knowledge & friendship were freely given. It is where & how I got my stage name, the name that has become who I am: " Morocco" - because the Lebanese/ Greek owner, Marianthe Stevens, insisted I looked Moroccan. My first night there, they taught me Semai - a 10/8, so I could play it on the dumbek: not difficult for me, since Seguiriya is the same thing in reverse. Fell totally in love with the music & rhythms my first night - an affair that's still going strong.

The Egyptian Gardens
in Greektown

The Arabian Nights had 3 female singers: Lebanese, Greek & Turkish, all of whom danced during the taxims between the verses, in their formal dresses. From 9:30 pm to 4:00 am, when not changing into costume or doing one of our 2 shows each a night, we sat on stage, in our fancy, party-dress "civvies", with the musicians.

In those days, they didn't want to hire drummers, so the dancers & singers played for each other. Most of them hated it.

To the delight of the other dancers in the clubs in which I performed, I saw it as a marvelous opportunity to learn all the tempos & countertempos & hogged the drum most of the night, banging away & bouncing around in my seat. We drank countless cups of Turkish coffee &, those who smoked, did - like chimneys. There were no anti-smoking laws for restaurants & night clubs then.

Whole families came, from the great grandmas down to the newest baby, who usually slept under the table in a basket. Once, one family forgot the baby & had to come back! They came to listen to their music, eat their food & do their own dances. The homesick, who might never have gone to such places in their own countries, paid for special songs & cried when they danced to them. Men actually danced!: alone, with another man, in lines & circles - for their own pleasure. Something your typical American male would never do! (Ask me to tell you the hilarious story about my reaction the first time I saw a young Greek man do a solo zembekiko!) ** 

I watched it all & sponged it up. When a movement one of the customers did caught my eye, I'd wait till the (usually older) woman went to the ladies' room, follow, & convince her to teach it to me then & there. At home, I tried all the moves I saw the dancers do - often with hysterical results. Fortunately, the Mambo, Merengue & Cha-cha arrived during my early teen years, so at least I knew I had hips & that they could be moved, but this was something else entirely! Thank heaven there are no videos of what I was able to get away with calling "Oriental dance" in those days, while I learned on the job!

Elderly musicians (many were in their 60s & older) & female customers, seeing that I was a "family girl" (meaning they never saw me smoke, drink alcohol or speak/go out with any of the male customers - the very strict, NYC Cabaret Laws** notwithstanding), extended their protection, advice, encouragement & continual, invaluable instruction & information about music, dance, lore, social custom, as it existed when they were young men & women & what they'd been told by their teachers, parents, grandparents, etc. These were people who took their ethnic heritage very seriously & with the greatest respect. Of course, some younger musicians made passes & when I refused, did some really "interesting" things to my music in revenge - which is why I can now dance to anything, in any tempo - when necessary. I also figured out how to get back at them - in a way that got their attention & respect.**


Greektown musicians-
Pericles Halkias, clarinet
Lazaros Harisiadis and
George Rambos

Our Oriental dances were improvised to live music for at least half an hour, often more, using what was considered the "expected" format at that time: fast opener/ magensi, slow/ rhumba-like tempo, heavy chifte telli or wahada kebira, drum solo & fast ending or fast Karsilama. Later, another upbeat section was added between the rhumba & the wahada or heavy Chifte Telli. We all used what we'd seen, learned & felt inspired to try. We learned to think on our dancing feet, since there was no guarantee as to who would play what nor when. My Flamenco & Latin dance gave me a love for & skill in executing complicated rhythms, countertempos, improvisation & soul.

What I lacked then in technique, I made up for with warmth & enthusiasm - lots of enthusiasm!, so audiences took to me. I had a new "career"! No such thing as courses in Oriental dance, so  it was on the job training. In spades. Of course, I made mistakes: most of them innocent, because I didn't yet know that some things, considered valid, beautiful dance steps by Western standards, were considered very vulgar & quite unesthetic by Eastern standards (ask me about my slooow Arabesque during the wahada & what Garabad the Oud player told me not to do & why!).**

One thing really bothered me: what the music was "saying" to me & most other dancers & what I was seeing certain dancers do, were very different things. While most of the dancers were totally suitable for family viewing, one of the many "styles" in the clubs at the time was what I would come to call "Turkish whorehouse".

I asked the musicians about this. They explained that some of these women really had come out of the Turkish "pavillions" or brothels, some had learned here by imitating them, but that I was to ignore those who did that style, as there will always be some who cater to the lowest common denominator. They told me to observe how the audience reacted to the different dancers. Trashy dancing got a loud, coarse reponse, while classy dancers were rewarded with attention, respect & admiration. Rote or bored looking dancers were ignored. They told me that I was definitely on the right track & they'd let me know if I did anything that didn't fit. They did, but always gently & with love. There were also truly marvelous & inspiring dancers to watch: to this day, I have never seen anyone do heavy Chifte Telli like Minee Coskun, or equal Saliha Tekneci's "attitude". The Algerian dancer, Badia, inspired the beginnings of my hipwork. I learned, bit by bit.


Morocco 1962
at the Egyptian Gardens

I was thoroughly enamoured & fascinated with the music & rhythms, the variety within one dance performance that was possible; more so, even than in Flamenco. I switched allegiances, but was subsequently to find out, through logic, linguistics, knowledge of history & in-person observation, that I had unknowingly gone back to the roots, the origins of Flamenco, which came from the Moors - the Moroccans, who ruled Andalucia for about 900 years - the very word "flamenco" came from Arabic: fella al mengu. The heelwork/ zapateo originated with the Moroccan Houara & the Rekza part of the Schikhatt. We won't even talk about the Zambra Mora right here!

Also learned Greek, a bit of Lebanese Arabic & some Turkish by asking the singers what their songs meant, & my co-workers got a charge out of helping me acquire an even more interesting & useful vocabulary.. On my night off, I went to other clubs to see the other dancers, hear more music & dance for my own enjoyment, since as a customer, I could join in the line & circle folk dances & learn them, something forbidden to me where/ when I was working by NYC's Cabaret Laws of the time. I loved it & was totally bewildered when non-Mideasterners & other Flamenco dancer friends gave me major "attitude", when I told them what I was doing/ where I worked. Thanks to the American misnomer, the misconceptions that arose from it & those who chose to cater to the "harem fantasy" & lowest common denominator, it seems they thought I had gotten aboard that handcart that was going straight to hell. Nothing I could say about how much fun it was, how great the music was or that it was family entertainment, a folk dance, fer chrissakes!, would change their minds. As a former academic, I realized that at the very least, it would take cultural & historical fact to begin to make a dent in their kneejerk misconceptions & change their negative attitudes.

The older musicians & grandparents, who came to the club, were the ones with the cultural knowledge I sought & they complained that their own grandchildren were so busy becoming Americans, they had no time for them & their stories about the "old country". I had the time & wanted those stories, so I made friends with a few of the grandmothers (let's hear it for the Ladies room!) & was invited to their homes & family celebrations. I saw the culture from the inside - over countless cups of Turkish/ Arabic/ Greek coffee, in the kitchens & parlors, while the menfolk were at work, & at frequent haflas, maharajans,kefs, glendis, church socials, engagement parties & weddings for which I was hired to dance. My obvious love & respect for them, their music, dance & stories, plus my (to them) Mideastern looks made me a welcome guest & gave entree to the women's culture, something no male, even from the culture, had. On the other hand, since I wasn't really "bint al balad", fortunately most sex - based restrictions didn't apply: I had almost "honorary male" status. Sadly, that wonderful world & best of "schools" is gone: those children & grandchildren I mentioned did become American,  moving away from the old neighborhood & the music & dances of their old - country parents.

Then the end came in the late 1960s, when the Fashion Institute of Technology tore all the buildings down along one block to build a student center. Four clubs gone in one night, the center of that wonderful world. The rest didn't last much longer.

If you had worked in New York's vanished "Greektown" & were liked, you had a fabulous extended family, there & wherever there were Mideastern & Mediterranean clubs in the US & Canada. If anybody in that family needed help, everyone: waiters, musicians, singers, dancers, owners gave what was needed, without question or expectation of payback. If you had an argument with a husband, wife, lover, everybody took a side, had an opinion & gave it. Three minutes after anything happened, everyone knew it. The stories I could tell .. like the time Inglesos & Kezban had a screaming fight at the Egyptian Gardens, & she reached into his mouth, pulled out his upper plate & skedaddled off to their hotel room, locking herself inside for 3 days, while he slept, minus his uppers, in his club...

While almost everyone insisted that Raks Sharki/Oryantal Tansi, by whatever name, from whatever country was a true folk dance & an integral part of their culture, when done in proper/family settings, I was made aware that there were varying degrees of "opposition"/ reputation damage for a female that went along with doing the same very dances, but in costume, for money, in a public that contained men not in the immediate family.

I also found it extremely interesting & frustrating that, depending on the country of origin, there was a different name & variation as to the origins & meaning of Raks Sharki, Raks Farrah, Raks, Raks Turkos, Turkos, Oryantal Tansi, Raks-e-Arabi, Anatoliko Horo, Chifte Telli. One thing was certain, no one from the cultures to which it belonged called it by anything that translated as Sol Bloom's 1893 American misnomer "belly" dance.

Gobek Tansi
used with Shira's permission

Turks told me that there was, indeed a "Gobek Tansi" - a "belly dance", but it was a different dance: a comic folk dance that was done at weddings, where 2 men drew faces on their abdomens - a man's & a woman's - pulled their shirts up over their faces & pretended the "guy" was chasing the "girl" & trying to kiss her. They roll their abs a lot in this one. I've seen it several times over the ensuing years: it's great fun, but it sure as heck is not Raks Sharki/ Oryantal Tansi. Most, especially Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians & Saudis, mentioned that some of the movements had a link to easing childbirth. (See "Bellydancing &Childbirth", Habibi:Vol 3 #2, 1976, Sexology, April, 1965 or my website -http://www.casbahdance.org - under "Articles") I'd learn more about this in Morocco in person in 1967. So: who/ which story was the correct one? Was there more than one answer? How could I find out? That door would begin to open in 1963, again thanks to serendipity.

Meanwhile, in addition to my total immersion in the cultural milieu, I sought every possible source of information. Carrying my library card, checkbook, eyes & ears wherever a printed or provable fact could be found, bought, read, that would aid in my research, notebook carefully concealed in pocket or purse, small change at the ready for every passing xerox machine, fingers permanently smeared with dust from rooting through thousands of old magazines for pictures, buying prints, learning to distinguish which of the Orientalist painters had really been there in person & which had only been there in their overly-fevered racist/ erotic imaginations; which of the writers were accurately describing what they saw & whose opinions were greatly colored by colonialist assumptions or religious fanaticism & hatred of any form of dance; which were colored by Victorian hypocrisies & ignorance. Which of these mostly foreign men got to see anything in a normal household's women's quarters? None.

Which writers deliberately took the whorehouse tour of the Middle East, such as Flaubert & Curtis? Which photographers paid poor peasants or prostitutes what seemed like tremendous sums to pose for whichever of their fantasies they sought to depict or thought their readers wanted to see?

Which photos had captions that reflected the condescending racism of the times or were downright wrongly labelled? Where were the kernels of truth in the muck of sensationalism? What is Ethnic dance anyway? How can we tell if we are doing the "correct" thing? Is there such a thing as "correct"? Does it change? How? Why? How far can we go & still be "ethnic"? How much room is there for creativity, or must it be rote imitation? What kind of leeway is there in music? Dress? How can I tell if what I'm being told or shown is correct? Who are the authorities? Are they always correct? What are the criteria by which we judge all this? Can we sit in judgement? Must one be a native? Can we believe what we read? How much do personal tastes, morals & opinions color so-called "historical accounts"?

I have a book, published in 1894, consisting entirely of photos of the pavillions & personnel of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893: the Columbian Trade Fair & Exhibition that was supposed to have opened in 1892, but was .. a bit late. Some of the photos are incorrectly captioned, some of those captions insulting to the subjects depicted.

I have National Geographics dating back to 1906, but bear in mind that although nowadays many consider it a prestigious magazine, with decently accurate, albeit superficial reportage, it was the "Penthouse" & "Playboy" of the early years of this century, purposely showing brown-skinned "native" women & girls in their supposedly "natural" state.

Because they were brown-skinned & there was some sort of text with pretensions of educating, it got by the censors & into homes. The main thrust of the magazine was & still is the promotion of "First World civilization" & its "White Man's Burden", its bare-breasted "maidens" & "fierce warriors" deliberately depicting non-Western cultures as "backwards", "childlike", "impulsive", "lascivious". I suggest getting & reading "Veils & Daggers" by Linda Steet & "The Colonial Harem" by Malek Alloula: they say what I have been trying to get across for over 42 years & provide pictures & foot-noted references. Just one example: the January 1914 National Geographic has Lehnert & Landrock photos of the Ouled Nail taken at the close of the last century, more than fifteen years before they were printed. In 1917 some of these were reprinted, with different captions & hand-colored with incorrect colors. Imagine a poor, innocent, novice researcher coming upon the 1917 version! Some photos in the 1914 issue are obviously contrived poses: Pp 11,15,40,41, just to mention a few.

I understood that knowledge of clothing styles worn at various times, materials used, etc., could be very valuable in determining how one moved within or in spite of the garments worn. Were they the real garments of the area or were they imposed by religious fanatics or filthy-minded colonialists & missionaries? Were they ornamental or utilitarian? An indication of status, religion, ethnicity? A form of competition? Were there tattoos? For what, on whom, when & where? If there were any, what kind & where were they placed? What were the socially acceptable methods of flirting or was one supposed to look shy? Haughty?  How far could one go in a particular dance? Did one acknowledge the audience or ignore it? The list is endless - as were the answers, which depended on era & area. . . .

** we will try to find more about these stories in August when Morocco comes back from her current tour!

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send me dark chocolate!
 

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