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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Zaharr's Memoir- Part 1 (&2)
Washington, D.C.
by Zaharr A. Hayatti

Zaharr shares her struggles and her triumphs as a dancer from 1966 to the present. “For many of us, it was a hard road that led to North Beach and beyond.” she writes. Return to read her story as it unfolds here in the Gilded Serpent.

It was June, 1966. I lived in Potomac, Maryland, an elegant suburb of Washington D.C, and had just graduated from high school. There was a party thrown for me after the graduation ceremony by my sister and brother-in-law, with whom I was living at the time.

We waited at home with the punch, and the cake, and the music ready to dance to, and no one showed up. Not one guest!

Since it was the sixth high school I had attended in four years, I had not really had time to make very many friends. It made me sad though to have made the effort for this party. I had begged a new dress and Courreges boots, and was ready to party in my new fashions.

Thinking back on it, I suppose my sister and her husband must have felt sorry for me, for later that afternoon there was a surprise visitor. An old school chum of my Dan's, my brother-in-law, “Just happened to be in the neighborhood”, and had stopped by to say hello. He had also “heard” it was my Graduation Day and had brought me little gift. It was a charm for a charm bracelet in the design of the “Tree of Life”. It was depicted as a tiny gold tree with different sorts of precious stones like fruits in the branches.

He said this was the beginning of my life now, and I could pick any of the fruits I wanted from the tree. Then he pretended he had just come up with an idea and told us to get ready to go out for the evening as a “special treat”.

Driving into Washington, he regaled us with stories about his summer job in college as a tour guide in the Middle East. He talked about adventures in exotic places and cities in Egypt and North Africa that I had never heard about. He had me enthralled by the time we arrived at a lovely nightclub called the “Algiers” on Wisconsin Avenue in D.C.

Probably because it is such an international city and has so many diplomats, there seems to be no real drinking age for young people if they are out with adults. So I was given my first taste of “Arak” accompanied by the first mezze I had ever eaten. The pita bread delighted me, with the way it just opened up by magic in the center! The cheese, olives, grape leaves…everything was new to me, but seemed so familiar and perfectly right for a special celebration!

There was a stage against one wall with about five or seven musicians seated on it. They were playing instruments I had never seen, and music I had never heard, but which held my complete attention. I felt I had been transported to another world, but one which seemed hauntingly familiar, though it could not be possible.

Soon, the MC announced the first show. A woman entered draped in chiffon veils and glittering beads. She had something in her fingers that sounded like little bells, and I couldn't take my eyes off her.

After a superb show, another dancer followed her and then another, and another, until I had seen nine dancers and had spent hours transported by the dreamy sounds of the music and the magic of my very first glimpse of “La Danse du Ventre”.

At one point in the evening, the MC announced that the dancers were giving “Belly Dancing” lessons, and if anyone wanted to get more information, they could talk to him. I got really excited, and begged to be allowed to sign up. There was only silence from my family.

That night, when we returned home, I sat for a long time gazing at the fish in our big aquarium, swimming silently in the eerie glow of the aquarium lights. I watched their lovely fins and graceful bodies and began thinking deep thoughts about my future. I wanted to make the night very, very special, and so I vowed, from that moment forward, I would do everything there was to do in life that interested me, and nothing would stop me in obtaining my goal. It was a vow I made seriously, and I have remembered it ever since that night. As the fish glided through the water, I saw the dancers again in my imagination, gliding gracefully across the stage in their lovely costumes.

At the time of my graduation, I was planning to go to the University of Maryland. They had a respected drama department, and I was planning to study acting and theater. Though my father had been a Shakespearean actor, and my mother a big band jazz singer, they would not agree to this. My mother wanted me to do one thing, my father another, and my sister and brother-in-law, something else yet again. After the night when I had seen the exquisite dancers though, I made up my mind that that was what I REALLY wanted to do!

To dance like that, graceful and flowing, to the hauntingly beautiful music, seemed to be the most wonderful thing I could imagine.

This idea did not sit well with anyone in my family! Everyone had reasons why it was unsuitable for me, and my father was especially vocal in his objections. I still remember him howling: “MY DAUGHTER! A Hoochie-Koochie Dancer? NEVER! Over my dead body!” he roared. What a pity, for he never did see me perform before he died…

Two weeks afterward, getting nowhere with my plans to talk my family into letting me begin dance lessons, I decided that the vow I had made to myself on graduation night was the most important thing to me now. One night, as my family lay asleep, I left my home with only the clothes I was wearing and a lovely pair of earrings from Syria that I had been given by my mother.

My high school friend had arranged to pick me up several blocks away from our house, and we roared off into D.C. on the back of his motorcycle. We had a few friends with places of their own in the city, and one of them arranged to let me stay until I could get a job and my own place.

With no money for the Belly Dance classes at the fancy nightclub, I set out to find some kind of work that could get me what I needed. It could not be too far away from what I ultimately wanted to do, which was to dance like the girls I had seen, to the music I had fallen in love with.

And that is how I came to learn thirty-six variations of the “Cha-cha-cha”! My very first job was as a dance instructor, training provided, at an Arthur Murray Dance studio!

New York to Berkeley
Memoir, part 2
by Zaharr A, Hayatti

Life as a dance instructor for Arthur Murray soon paled. I was asked to extract information from my students regarding their financial well-being, and try to convince them to book more and more lessons with higher prices and advanced teachers. It seemed cruel to extract money from unsuspecting partners, and soon I asked to be released from my contract to teach.

The job had not lasted long enough to get much money ahead, and my roommate was sending broad hints that maybe I should find my own place, somewhere else…

There were some friends of mine preparing to go to New York City for the weekend, and I had so little luggage, they were happy to take me along. We drove along the East Coast Corridor from Washington, D.C. to New York City, and I contacted a friend of mine from high school who was working as a model there. I got involved in her world for awhile, and put aside my dreams to dance temporarily.

One morning, in the middle of winter, I looked out the window of the apartment I shared with a photographer and couldn’t believe the snow! It was so deep that there was no traffic on the streets, and even some of the subways, which had elevated lines, were temporarily out of service.

We looked at each other and he said: “You know, I have this brother who lives in California…”

There was more to pack this time, and three days later, as the traffic once again began to move, we got into a cab and headed for the airport. As I turned to say good bye to my lovely apartment, I listened one last time to Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band playing an old Cajun tune: “Parlez Nous Aboire.” I hummed it on the way to the airport, thinking how nice and warm it must be in California.

My friend’s brother met us in San Francisco Airport, and drove us to Berkeley. On the way, he told us that the house where he was living was full of artists and musicians, and we were really going to love it. I had been studying photography as a way to get out of the modeling rat-race and so I was looking forward to meeting some like-minded spirits. I had toured for a while, when I was really very young, as a folk singer/guitarist. It was in the days when folk music was replacing the energy of the Beat Generation with a more positive kind of message. I still loved playing and singing, and hoped to meet some earthier kinds of people than had been in the art scene in New York.

We parked on a quiet street with big, leafy trees, and walked toward this huge, three storey house. The neighborhood was really peaceful and lovely, and there were flowers growing everywhere in everyone’s front yards. I was thrilled to be out of the snow and into the warmth of California.

“There are a few musicians on the top floor who play in the ‘Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band’”, remarked my host. “Some of them are also in “Dr. Humbead’s New Tranquillity String Band and Medicine Show.” I really thought he was pulling my leg!

We walked up the steps to the second floor and I heard the sounds of a button accordion coming from inside. “Who’s that playing?” I asked cautiously, “Oh that’s John Paul. He plays with the band “The Golden Toad”. Before I had a chance to recover from laughing at all the wonderfully fantastic names, I had stepped through the door and had my very first “only in Berkeley” experience.

There, in the very center of the living room with his back to us, sat this man playing an Old Cajun tune: “Parlez Nous Aboire”.

“I’m home”, I thought. “This is absolutely where I am supposed to be.” and I started laughing again…

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