Gilded Serpent presents...
Rakkasah Festival 1997
Baraka & the Bus
or What happened to Baraka?
is not measured by the number of breaths we take,
but by the moments that take our breath away."
-- George Carlin
summer of 1997, I have been facing challenges in my dance life.
In that fateful year, I released “The Dancers' Toolkit,
Volume I”, and I had further plans to make a series of
videos for dance instruction.
my video was received with acclaim and awards, I had
additional hopes of making a real contribution to the
art of Middle Eastern dance. However, within six months,
my life had taken a number of unforeseen turns -- for
First, I fought (but lost) an eviction proceeding at my San Francisco apartment,
just at the moment that the city's rental rates were going off the charts,
thanks to the dot-com invasion. With an eviction on my record, finding another
apartment in the area seemed impossible and unaffordable.
I tried to
re-establish myself in Sonoma County, hoping to find a niche
again, but I felt so depressed that it was difficult to get
out of bed, much less promote a new dance alternative in an
already-saturated market --even though I thought that what
I had to offer was unique in its approach and discipline. Interest
was focusing primarily on "American Tribal", which
I found extremely boring and unchallenging. Tribal oriented
students were not ready for the kind of work I expected of
them. For several months, I felt utterly paralyzed, and then
a former San Francisco student offered me a small house on
her property south of San Francisco--for "whatever I could
afford" which was pretty little, given that I had not
been able to find a job and had used up what little savings
I had had simply surviving. I accepted her offer, and moved
all my belongings from a storage unit to my new abode.
Performing with Hahbi Ru in 1995
When I got to my storage place, I discovered the lock on my unit had been changed;
when I inquired at the office, they claimed that they knew nothing about
it. It turned out that someone had cut off the lock and replaced it with
one of their own, allowing them to go into my unit and take what they liked.I
had been robbed of almost all my records and books. I had stored approximately
40 boxes, and only three were left. Of my hundreds of LPs, only 30 or so,
survived. This was another tremendous blow! My mother had read some of
those books to me; in turn, I had read them to my son, and was planning
to pass them to him for his children someday. Recordings I had bought during
35 years of dance and irreplaceable one-of-a-kind items all had been lost
to me. All of the hundreds of books I had loved enough to keep, out of
the thousands I'd read, were gone. Perhaps 200 books on dance, dance history,
body awareness, and movement, were all missing. It felt like losing a host
of friends who had supported me through difficult times, with whom I laughed
and from whom I learned. I was devastated in a particularly violated way,
when something cherished and from which I drew joy and strength, had been
taken with no regard for its intellectual, artistic, or spiritual value.
loss, I had hopes of rekindling my teaching after moving back
to the area. Without a good-sized studio, I had begun teaching
private classes, as well as intensive subject oriented courses
on costuming and developing a personal style, using the converted
1-car garage between a student's and my home. I eventually
found a job in San Francisco and tried to start teaching there
again, when my student/landlord decided to move out of the
area and sold the property. Again, I was without a place to
live, in a rental market where people were thrilled if they
could find a studio apartment for $1500. -- at the time, almost
my entire take-home pay!
America of the Belly Dance
1993-94, Magana Baptiste poses with Baraka
By a fluke connection, I found out about and landed my present job as the publicist
for the Stanford University Department of Music. Still, I had nowhere
to live, and was afraid that I would have to pass on my perfect job (I'd studied
music intensively as a singer and instrumentalist). The school was willing to
give me a couple of weeks to decide, so I packed all my belongings into a storage
unit, and stuffed my little car with my computer, my cat, and a costume in progress,
and headed toward Lake Almanor, where my parents had a cabin. I thought I would
tidy up my records, sit peacefully on the deck and watch the deer, and get my
database of dance connections updated.
It would have been a good plan, but when I opened the database on my hard drive,
it was corrupted. “Good thing I had a backup on a zip disk!” I
thought. However, it was a very bad thing that my zip drive chose the moment
I put that database into it to develop the dread "click of death",
thereby destroying the only remaining copy of my records. That lost me some
3500 names and addresses, and I had no money to pay for data retrieval.
now, having lost my home, my studio, my library, my recordings,
and my database, you would think I would start to get
the hint that it might be time to move away from dance.
Having been a dancer literally all of my life, I simply
couldn't give it up!
out of the scene for the better part of two years, barely keeping
my head above water financially and emotionally.
performing at the Marrakech Restaurant
During this eventful stay at peaceful Lake Almanor,
I got a call from an old friend who'd just broken up with her boyfriend,
taken a job in the East Bay, and bought a house -- and she wanted
me for a roommate! That meant I could accept the job at Stanford
and have a place to live, albeit a longish commute. Since the job
was perfect for me and the rent more than affordable, I snapped
at the chance!
I took the
job at Stanford, and found that there was a Health Improvement
Program for Employees; so I proposed a dance class. They hired
me to start teaching a class in the summer of 2000. I taught
the first two classes, and then, in early July, left to go
on tour with our Jazz Orchestra and drummer Louie Bellson (who
played for years with his late wife, Pearl Bailey).
Little did I know that that trip would end my dancing forever.
Benicia street fair, circa 1976
We'd flown into Zurich, played in Grindelwald under the Eiger, at the Montreux
Jazz Festival on Lake Geneva, and at the North Sea
Jazz Festival in Rotterdam. On July 18, 2000, my dance career came to an end.
That evening, we had done the final gig at the Luxembourg Gardens in
Paris, and had arrived for a post-dinner cruise on the Bateaux Mouches,
(open-air tourist boats that circle Paris' Île de la Cité).
As we stood
in line waiting to board, I was talking with one of the students. The
next thing I knew, I was overwhelmingly dizzy and nauseous, surrounded
by people who were telling me to lie down. "Why? What happened?" I
managed to mumble from behind a blur as the world spun around me. "You
were hit by a bus."
Those words rocked the
earth under my feet. I was confused and bleeding. I hurt everywhere, and
I couldn't focus my eyes. I collapsed to the pavement. The next forty-eight
hours are a blur of paramedics, ambulance, emergency room, x-rays, stitches,
and voices. "We're going to have to cut her hair." "What year
is it?", "Who is the president?" Mostly, I heard the French
language. My command of French, at that time, was adequate but rusty. It
had been over 30 years since I'd been fluent in French, but I could shop,
get around, and manage simple conversations. However, after putting a six-inch
hole in the windshield of an Italian tour bus with my head (fortunately,
it was the windshield and not the steel body, or I would not be writing this!)
I found I could not think of simple words and phrases even in English.
to take forever to get an idea from my brain to my tongue, and just
attempting to speak drained me completely. What French I could comprehend,
I couldn't process. I realized that something was wrong with my brain!
After some interminable
time in the emergency ward of the Hôtel Dieu, located just
across the street from the Cathédrale de Notre Dame, it was
determined that I would be kept at least overnight for observation. Alone
in a hospital room in a foreign country, concussed, bruised, cut, and battered,
I came close to panic. If I had not been thinking so slowly, I sure I would
have worked myself into quite a state, but I simply fell into an exhausted
sleep, hoping that the morning would bring me back to normal.
That hope was not to be realized.
By mid-morning, my fellow tour manager, Laura, had returned
to the hospital with Estelle, the head of the Stanford in
Paris program and our only contact in the city. A native Parisiénne,
Estelle was able to explain to the doctors that I was not nauseated, but queasy
from the dizziness. Estelle was able to go to the local police and arrange all
the required paperwork to be filed about the accident. Angel that she is, she
even let me use her cell phone to call my son back in San Francisco and let him
know I had been injured. It took most of the day to get to the point of being
released from the hospital so that I could fly home with the rest of the group
the following day.
I'd been as
insistent as I could be from flat on my back, that I would feel better
getting home than staying on in Paris to try to recover. It might not
have been the wisest decision, but by this time all I really wanted
to let my hair down, stop being brave, and get home to my own bed and
my cat, so I could just cry, rest, and try to sort everything out.
At least I would be in familiar surroundings.
Powell Street Station in 1979
I was worried that I couldn't
think clearly but believed that it was probably due to shock and disorientation,
and that things would be better when we got home and I could be comfortable.
I won't bore you with the agonies of flying for 12 hours, untaped ribs and
all, on medication, and then getting through customs, and then waiting over
an hour for my son to find me. My hopes were dashed again. As soon as I could
get home, I went to the doctor and got a diagnosis in English. I had 2 broken
ribs, a serious concussion, cuts to my head and face, pain pretty much everywhere,
and an overwhelming dizziness that made even turning over in bed a process
to be done in slow degrees. To simply turn my head gave me grief; walking
was only possible if I had a hand on a wall. If I could stay awake for four
hours, it was an accomplishment. It was a month before I had enough strength
and balance to walk half a block to the store, and I needed a nap after managing
that much. I couldn't return to work, because I couldn't hold a thought long
enough to get it into words. The prognosis was between six months and two
years to recover.
I filed a Workers' Compensation claim. Please let me tell you, this is a complex
process even when you're in complete command of your mental faculties! Trying
to make sense of it all with your brain wrapped in layers of wet felt was nigh
onto impossible. WC referred me to Dr. Ralph Kiernan, a neuro-psychologist
whose specialty is working with victims of head injuries. He slowly helped
me to understand the process of recovery, to find ways of being able to manage
my job in small doses, and to try to be patient with my recovery. I gradually
returned to work, first for 3 hours a day by telecommuting. After four months,
I returned to the office first for a few hours a day and gradually increased
my stay. It was very much a trial and error process. After 8 months, I found
that I was going to have to move and thus pay much higher rent. This meant
I would need to work full time, but I tried for a month and had to cut back
to 3/4 time because I simply couldn’t manage the hours without exhausting
Despite Dr. Kiernan's help
in adjusting mentally to the change in my condition, I was, and still am, frustrated
that certain areas of cognitive function and verbal processing are beyond my
reach. For instance: I know that there's a word I want, but can't form it. I
stumble over pronunciations or transpose syllables without realization. My ability
with numbers (never my strong point) is virtually nil. While I have learned to
work around most of these problems, or avoid situations where they would be a
significant drawback. At this point, two and a half years after the accident,
I have recovered to perhaps 85% of my capabilities.
The first troupe (name long forgotten) in 1976
For the first 18 months,
I suffered from continual dizziness and spatial disorientation. Any rapid
movement made me nauseous. Driving was dangerous for me, since quickly turning
my head to react to another car could set off the spells. I was sent for
a neurological exam, which confirmed that the dizziness was caused by my
inner ears, rather than a brain injury as I had feared. All the small and
delicately balanced bones in the inner ear regulate balance, and mine had
been jarred every which way by the impact of a double-decker bus going about
Meanwhile, most of the obvious
physical injuries were healing. The stitches in my forehead had healed and my
hair grew back over the scar. (My bangs now have a part they didn't have before.)
The ribs had healed, but I continued to have headaches and numbness in my limbs,
as well as some visual effects like flashes of light.
Mark Bell drumming,
Tahiya and Baraka with Hahbi Ru
I have always been a proponent of massage therapy, especially for dancers,
but now I was going to find out exactly how far it could take me in my
recovery. Conventional medicine would have treated me with drugs to mask
the effects, but this was not a solution, just a panacea. I hated taking
drugs for that reason. I went to my masseur, Frank Aviles,
and we began an intensive program of therapy, which was, thankfully, paid
for by Workers' Comp.
sessions became what I lived for, as it was the only time that the
pain would be relieved.
Over the past two years,
Frank has relieved virtually every physical problem from the accident. At
first, he just worked very superficially, trying to work out the overt tensions
from the accident. When I had been hit, my right temple took the first impact,
which torqued my entire body to the right. According to witnesses, I spun
around, went down to my knees, and got back up. The result was that my skull
had been knocked out of alignment with my spine, and was putting pressure
on a nerve. All my vertebrae were misaligned, my hips were uneven, my left
leg was twisted and numb. No wonder walking was a chore!
Frank is a genius of massage
and works primarily on dancers and with people recovering from injuries or
surgery. He is empathic and supremely sensitive to the body's needs, and
has done more to restore my physical health than any other treatment I was
able to find. It took months before we could begin to address the deeper
effects of the accident. Now, nearly three years later, he has managed to
realign my skeleton. He is working on healing not only the accident-related
injuries but has also been able to correct problems I had for over 40 years,
including a weakened knee joint and a broken foot, which I had exacerbated
by dancing during the healing process. Even so, I have found that the problems
reappear if I miss more than a couple of treatments, so I expect to continue
receiving treatment for these problems on a continuing basis. I am slowly
learning to balance again, and dizziness is less of a problem even though
it recurs if I move too quickly or try to do too much.
the Grapeleaf in 1983
I've had to accept that I will never again be able to dance professionally,
even though the movements are now so ingrained that no matter what music
I hear, I still move like a Middle Eastern dancer. Even with classical
or modern composers, I feel and imagine interpreting the music with the
same vocabulary of movement. However, this improvement doesn't give me
the renewed desire to dance again. That Italian tour bus was the final
message in a long string of them, and I've accepted that outcome.
There are certainly things
I miss: I miss being active and healthy and having the stamina of someone
many years younger (though I'm slowly improving on that score).I miss the
sheer joy of expressing every nuance of music. And I miss the pride of seeing
a student excel. However, teaching requires mental abilities I have yet to
recover; such as being able to talk, observe, give feedback, assess students,
keep a lesson plan flowing, challenge or rein in where needed, and to do
this all at once. I might be able, on a very good day, to keep two different
things going occasionally, but for now, mono-tasking is my method.
When I was
dancing and teaching, I wanted to make a contribution. I wanted to
raise the bar and challenge dancers to improve and represent the art
of Oriental dance in the best way possible. I tried to expose more
people to good dance skills and technical excellence, as well as interpretation
and individuality. I wanted to see dances that were technically strong
and musically coherent. I wanted to weave strands of tradition with
innovation and personal expression. I wanted to reach for perfection
and inspire others to do the same.
I could never be happy dancing
badly, nor giving less to my students than every student deserves--the best advice,
guidance, and knowledge I could. I am painfully conscious every day of the slowness
of my thoughts, the difficulty I have tracking conversations or being in groups
and the way I have to search long and hard for the word or phrase I'm seeking.
I've had to learn ways to compensate for the gaps in my memory and to re-learn
how to do my job all over again.
In Tunisian costume at Northern Renaissance Faire
There have been compensations,
though they may be different from what I would have expected of myself. After
my accident, small things became much less critical and even "large" things
that might have been real crises before the accident became less problematic.
For instance, about a year ago, I parked my old Ford Escort (with the nifty
bumper sticker "Isis! Isis! Ra Ra Ra!") in front of my building
at work. Moments later, one of the professors dashed into the office saying, "There's
a car on fire by the box office!" Of course, we all went out to see
the excitement and, to my surprise, it was my little Kudra there-- self-immolating.
Everyone else was panicking, but I was essentially unfazed.
internalized the fact that, if the situation can't be changed, you
can always change your attitude toward it instead. So, getting hit
in the head by a bus has, in the long run, had some good effects, but
I certainly don't recommend it as a regular spiritual practice. Ironically,
I used to joke that I would arrive somewhere "If I don't get hit
by a bus!" Believe me, that's no longer part of my vocabulary.
Now, I'm sorting through
costumes and tapes and fabrics and a large pile of back issues of various
magazines in hopes of selling them. I'll be having a mega-yard sale the last
weekend in July to make all my treasures available to loving dancing homes,
to which readers are cordially invited. Without dancing, my income's noticeably
smaller, so if you remember something you've seen on me and would like to
find out if it's available for sale, do get in touch!
If you would like to get
in touch with my masseur, Frank Aviles, he can be reached by telephone at
415/831-1554. I’m sorry, but he's so 20th Century that he doesn't have
a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for
other possible viewpoints!
Ready for More?
from the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival, The Opening Night Gala by Tahseen Alkoudsi
and Shira held
at the Mena House Oberoi Hotel on June 10-17, Cairo, Egypt. More
30th Annual Belly Dancer of the Year Pageant photos by Susie
Abrupt musical transitions were rampant throughout the pageant. The
competition was fierce in the Duet / Trio category...
News from the Ahlan wa Sahlan 2003 in Cairo reported by Shira
of the instruction and dancing are very different from that offered by the
U.S. festivals, and it offers an exciting opportunity for immersion in the
Egyptian dance arts.
Night in London Town by Justine Merrill
That’s how after a day at the Tower of London, I found myself navigating
the Edgware district after dark, in the fog and light rain, looking for dinner.
Christina trailed behind me, feet dragging, whiney and hungry, but hanging
on after a full day or of walking.
Artwork of Ginger Royal
just the grace and agility, but the total engagement of the dancer is a gauge
of her skill, ultimately inspiring exuberance and passion in others."