The Gilded Serpent presents...
A Tale of Two Gigs in the City
by Jawahare

During the typical holiday season I’m feeling fairly prosperous and popular as my “dance card” fills up and I go gig-hopping all the month of December. For the last two years, however, I’ve noticed a decline in the belly dance business due to a lackluster economy. In Northern California, the epicenter of the nation’s economic slump, Silicon Valley’s dot com demise has trickled down to the supporting businesses of the techno-biz infrastructure. Caterers, vending machine companies, event coordinators and entertainers of every ilk are feeling the shift from abundance to scarcity.

Fortunately, I support myself from several income sources, so I don’t depend on performing to get the mortgage paid. Nevertheless, survival mode is a daily reality for me, along with many of my friends and neighbors.

It was in this space of scarcity that I accepted a Christmas party gig by telephone that left me with some doubts. The woman who contacted me was pleasant enough as we negotiated the details, but the more I found out about this company’s Christmas party, the more uneasy I felt.

It was the annual holiday gathering for a large janitorial service located in the industrial area between Hunter's Point and Bayview in San Francisco. I queried Josephina, the contact person, about the choice of entertainment. She assured me that a belly dancer (not a stripper) is what they wanted and that “ the boys” - all 150 of them - would be OK because I would dance earlier in the evening "before they got too drunk.” “ Oh, sure,” I responded without conviction, wavering between rejection and acceptance of this increasingly dubious situation. Then that holiday spirit of consumerism tipped the balance as I considered the cash outflow for gifts I wanted to purchase for my daughter. The twinkle of holiday lights momentarily outshone the gloom and the potentially dangerous aspect of the gig itself. Even so, I decided to ask my boyfriend to accompany me, just to be on the safe side.

Several days later I got a call for another holiday party to take place on the same night as that of the janitorial company. This one, a seemingly high-class affair for a group of physicians, was to be held at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on (S)Nob. Hill.

Nancy, the contact person for the doctor’s office, questioned me extensively about my dancing. She wanted to make sure there would be nothing crude or unsavory in my performance (i.e. Stripping). She appeared very interested in my experience and how I would interact with the audience. “ An educated audience,” I thought, ” what a great opportunity for an easy, lucrative gig”.

As the two-gig Saturday approached, the weather grew nastier and the knot in my stomach was not just about cookies and eggnog. I dreaded navigating a spooky area of the city in the rain. I pondered: Would my dance sword really intimidate an armed carjacker?

As I packed my dance bag with costumes, music, makeup and other dance paraphernalia, I explained the layout of the evening to my boyfriend and we both chuckled at the juxtaposition of such different performance situations. I was assuming that the first event would be would be a white-knuckle-it situation that I would endure as a matter of course in the life of a dancer for hire. I eased my mind with thoughts of the second gig - hopefully an elegant affair with some good networking opportunities.

Heading over the Golden Gate Bridge, I tried to keep the conversation light, and even though I reiterated the directions several times, we found ourselves taking a wrong turn. By trial and error, blundering along the scenic route of a somewhat industrial neighborhood, we arrived at “We Mean Clean”, or whatever it was called. I felt I deserved a new set of zills just for reaching the destination on time without any petty arguments over directions or morbid crimes committed by stingers lurking in crosswalks.

The party was in full swing and the street outside was an active and entertaining sight, with couples piling out of cars and slow-moving mamas carting vats of steaming enchiladas and tamales.

We stepped inside the building, making introductions and establishing the show plan with Josephina, the contact person. I felt calm and comfortable, noting the cleanliness of the lobby and the tasteful art and aromatherapy soap in the bathroom. As I changed into costume, my beau Robert got the inside company scoop from a dedicated employee: one of those Horatio Alger types of American success stories. Here was the beauty of capitalism expressed in the simplicity of the service mode, flourishing with pride and respect. It was in this arena, represented by 100 Latino men and their ladies (moms and/or wives) that I presented the Mean-Clean Company Holiday appreciation gift: a belly dance. Initially they were quiet and reserved as an audience. About half way through my show, I felt a need to stir up the atmosphere of polite appreciation. I chose to pick on the young son of one of the tamale chefs by plucking his hat off and dancing with it. With an air of playful machismo he joined me in a short dance that broke the ice and got the group stomping and hooting with laughter. After the show, as we prepared to leave, Josephina respectfully presented my payment, adding a generous tip and sincere compliments for the dance.

Robert and I spent the 20-minute drive across town chattering about the success of the first gig. We recalled how uptight we were beforehand, and yet these people turned out to be so sweet and kind. While basking in this state of relief we parked in a garage on California Street. Gathering the dance stuff out of the trunk, we made our way to the garage elevator, smiling and light-hearted. A young couple, looking quite generic in their holiday attire, stared at us with intensity as we boarded the elevator. Their eyes darted to the dance sword that Robert was carrying.

Robert, feeling their apprehension about the sword, started to explain about my dancing, how I balance the sword and so on. Their anxiety increased even more and at the next floor they scampered out, Chihuahua-like, with big eyes. I should have just said something like, “We’ve got a job to do. You’ll read about it in the paper tomorrow.”

At The Mark we encountered the next party, again in full blast, but with a completely different energy. The loud sounds of 1980’s disco karaoke came crashing intermittently out of the ballroom as guests oozed out the door to grip and grin. These folks were dressed in evening gowns and tuxedos and most looked and acted like they’d been taking advantage of a fully hosted bar. My first approach to inquire about the whereabouts of Lucy, the contact person, was rudely rebuffed. A second try brought notice, but the fat cat in the cummerbund wanted to flirt instead of helping me find Lucy. At last Lucy made an appearance, and we started a confusing negotiation around the how, when and where of my show. She wanted to me to start later. (Ok, she mollified me with an extra $50.00 for that one). Then she wanted me to only dance for 15 minutes, but to make sure I got certain people up to dance. After getting into costume and assessing the chaotic blend of tipsy medicos that were frolicking to ABBA, I decided on an even shorter music mix of 12 minutes. During my performance things went from bad to worse and I ended up nixing the sword stuff altogether and cutting my show down to 10 minutes.

The scene got creepy after my showcase number with the medical director. The crowd taunted and cheered as Lucy and several office cronies poked their hands at me, whining about my dancing with the rest of his doctor buddies. Some of the men gestured crudely and made lewd remarks, but the worst was a giant guy with a seething temper who grabbed my wrists and snarled at me, ” I don’t want to be up here! ”

My first impulse was to give him a good roundhouse kick to the ribs, but I realized this would cause a bad scene. A different approach would be necessary to make this situation OK for everyone present. I smiled at him and said firmly, ” We will turn, face the people and then take a bow. Then, you will go sit down.” We followed the plan with a certain guarded grace and then he stumbled angrily offstage. I did a few laps around the perimeter of the dance floor as a preamble to my finale, and then, after a few courtesy spins, nodded my head briefly as a parting bow. They had used up the applause on the big Doc and his friends. To add insult to injury, a woman pushed me away from the stage area in her haste to get out there and shake her moneymaker. I felt like growling at her. Robert was standing at the door, very still and quiet. I could tell he was angry and in shock at what he had witnessed.

Our footsteps were heavy and our faces stone-like as we headed out into the night and towards the car. At the foot of the driveway of The Mark lay a spray of white cymbidium orchids. The weather or the ignorant feet of pedestrians had left it wilted and broken. I picked it up anyway and tossed aside the most badly bruised ones.

I was trying to salvage an intact flower, as if that could restore my own ragged sense of dignity.

Those fragile orchids symbolized an essence of purity that I wanted to hold and protect. I carefully opened up the conversation with Robert, explaining to him the complex nature of my relationship to the dance as a means of personal expression and creativity. Trying to describe the many complexities and layers of my identity surrounding my art and my dance, I realized that I myself am still in the process of trying to figure it out.

Our conversation carried on about the odd events of the evening as we made our way, exhausted and bewildered, over the bridge and through the rainbow tunnel to the naively homogenous homesteads of Marin County.

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