Gilded Serpent presents...
Memoir- Part 5(& 6)
5: I Arrive at My Teacher's
by Zaharr A. Hayatti
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.
the address I had been given, I admired the beautiful houses and
all the lovely flowers growing in front of them. Butterflies
danced before me, making me think of the dancers I had seen so
long ago. My heart was soaring. I had finally found my teacher!
The signs had been revealed slowly, if only I had been paying
more attention: The Middle-Eastern name I had been given, the
new but antique Assuit which I had received, my exciting adventures
in cooking Middle-Eastern food.
at the address I was looking for and stood in front of yet another
towering, marvelous Berkeley house. Trembling with excitement
I pressed the doorbell. A little girl opened up the door and
asked: "Are you Zaharr?" She introduced herself and my heart stopped
soaring and came down to earth with a thud.
I thought, this can't possibly be my teacher. I looked around
her to see if anyone wearing flowing chiffon and beads might
be hiding behind her. She was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt,
had no make-up on, and seemed just like an ordinary little
girl. I had known she was sixteen, but I wasn't prepared for
her unpretentious charm.
me in and showed me around her house a little bit. We explored
the first floor, admiring the stained glass windows and the large,
comfortable rooms. One room we entered had a lot of containers
with screens covering them. "What's inside of these?" I asked
innocently. "Oh, those are for the mice that I breed to feed
my snake." she answered casually. My stomach clenched and my
heart began to pound. I had been absolutely terrified of snakes
since I was a little girl. A nasty cousin had chased me waving
one in my face. I had never gotten over it. "He's right here,"
she said smiling as she reached into a big terrarium. I was about
to be introduced to her snake! Thinking fast, I tried to calm
myself. What would she do if I cowered in fear? It was almost
like a test. I wanted to appear nonchalant as if I met snakes
all the time, but I could feel the fear welling up inside.
reached into his cage and brought him out very tenderly for
me to hold.
My arms reached
out as if by themselves and took the meter-long baby Boa Constrictor
from her outstretched hands. Could he feel me shaking, I wondered.
Apparently he didn't mind, for he began curling lazily up my arm,
winding himself around me as naturally as if I were a tree. He
was warm and muscular, and tickled me with his little tongue,
which kept shooting out, exploring my skin. "He's not slimy!"
I said to my teacher, my voice full of surprise at this discovery.
She laughed and said "Of course not! What made you think he would
be?" I really had no answer for her, for my pre-conceived notions,
for my years of snake-prejudice, and all my misconceptions.
"His name is Satha" she told me. "What does
that mean?" I asked, a little calmer now that her snake and I
were getting to know one another. "It's the word for 'snake'
in Arabic" she answered, gazing at him affectionately. "He's
a Rainbow Boa from South America." She moved closer to me and
showed me how his scales gleamed iridescent in the sunlit room.
"He's truly lovely." I said sincerely, watching him crawling up
across my shoulders. She took him gently away from me. He had
been very charming and I was happy to have held him for a while
and relax my fears, but I was relieved to see him safely back
into his cage.
Now we headed
into a large living room. Several people who lived in the house
paused briefly as they passed by, a little curious to see what
we were up to. I smiled crookedly at them, still a little nervous
about the snake and the mice. Having absolutely no idea of what
to do, I just stood in the middle of the floor.
now my teacher first showed me how to stand correctly. "Flex
your knees, keeping them about a foot apart." she said. I did
my best to imitate her, but I was starting to feel a bit wary.
First, I had been disappointed by her total lack of glamour, and
then meeting her snake had been an odd surprise. Truthfully,
I did not know what to expect next. I positioned myself with
her gentle assistance, however, and began to try the hip moves
she was showing me. Clearly and carefully she explained each
one, checking my posture each time. "Sometimes dancers can injure
their backs if they don't stand correctly." she warned me, "so
always be aware of how you are holding yourself. Now make a little
circle like this." I watched her isolate her hips, totally fascinated.
I could NEVER do that I sighed to myself. "Flex your knees a
little more. It
will help. Now hold your arms out wide and round your elbows
like this." My quick glance in the mirror was a mistake. My arms
were NOT curving roundly as she had shown me, rather they seemed
to be sticking out at right angles. "Here, bring your chin up
proudly, like this." She struck a beautiful pose. "Smile."
SMILE? I was groaning inwardly instead. I had no idea how HARD
this was going to be!
showed me some ways to walk that I had never imagined even trying
before. She did a sort of down-up dip, with her rib cage lifting
and dropping, rippling gracefully before me. Catching another
glimpse of myself in the large mirror over the mantle-piece, I
watched in despair as I stumbled around after her. This is never
going to work, I thought, envisioning flowing chiffon and graceful
dancers and facing the reality. I was feeling exactly like a
stump of wood. Just as I was about to say, "Thanks anyway, but.you
know. maybe this really isn't for me after all, " she moved over
to the stereo and put a record on.
my spirits soared. That's it! That's the music, the sound
I've been longing to hear again. Joy began to flood my heart.
And there she was this little girl transformed before me,
gliding and twirling around the room with a big smile of encouragement
on her face.
I sort of
lurched forward a couple of times while keeping my mind on my
flexible spine, my flexible knees, my flexible rib cage, my flexible
hips. I wandered behind her, trying to catch her movements by
looking down and out of the corners of my eyes, from the upward
position of my chin. Every now and then as we passed that mirror
I would groan inwardly at how clumsy I looked waddling behind
her. She moved so natural and elegant! The comparison between
us was devastating.
time had passed, she went back to the stereo and turned it off.
"That's probably enough for today," she smiled warmly. "Let's
talk about what you are going to need to get started." I sat
down gratefully next to her on the sofa, listening and taking
notes. She took off her finger cymbals and showed them to me.
So THAT'S what makes that sound, I thought as I handled her four
brass discs with elastic loops. She demonstrated how to hold
them, how to slip the loops just over the knuckles of my thumb
and middle finger and to make sure they were facing inward together.
I scribbled directions about where to buy my own set, and also
about where to buy an album of Middle-Eastern music so I could
practice at home. We settled on another day to meet again, and
I tried my best to return her sunny smile.
thanked her kindly and said goodbye, but my heart was in turmoil.
making my way back home I passed all the same charming houses
with the pretty flowers growing all around them without even seeing
them. The thought kept racing through my mind that I had made
a terrible mistake. What had just taken place was NOT what I
had expected at all. What's more, I was still feeling embarrassed
and awkward, winded from the workout I had done so poorly.
Not only had
I left my home because my family objected strongly to my desire
to learn this dance, but I had traveled very far and sacrificed
so much for my dreams! They had seemed so real and so close to
coming true. Now it appeared that they were only dreams after
"How did it
go?" Kathy called out to me cheerfully when I got home. I burst
into tears and fled to my room.
Six: Cost Plus and Woolworth's
When I recovered
my sense of balance and stopped crying, I tried to be more objective
about my goals. I decided that it was better to try my best to
see things through with my dance instruction. I remembered the
many obstacles in my path that I had already overcome to get this
far that I simply had to go on. To do this, it was necessary
to move forward with my new teacher, and so I got out my class
notes and went shopping.
Cost Plus on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. A lot
of my friends shopped there for Indian bedspreads, which became
curtains, wall hangings, clothing, floor coverings, just about
anything BUT bedspreads. It was here that I was to purchase a
set of finger cymbals. I wandered the aisles fascinated by the
all the jewelry from India. There were bells and bracelets, elaborate
headpieces and earrings, things I had never seen before. This
is where my finger cymbals were, in a big bin, for ninety-nine
cents for four. They weren't particularly pretty. They were
just smooth brass with numbers inscribed on the bottom of each
disk. They had a little elastic loop in the center and were basically
not very impressive. I didn't know what I would do with them
once I got them home, but my teacher said they were essential,
and so I bought my set and looked at my list again.
stop was the Woolworths Five and Ten-cent store on Telegraph
Avenue in Berkeley. Here they were selling an album by "Eddie
'The Sheik' Kochak and his Ensemble". The 33 1/3 L.
P. was on sale for that magical price of ninety-nine cents again,
in the "Bargain Bin" at the front of the store just like my teacher
had told me it would be.
Now I was
ready to start practicing the moves I had learned from that first
The only stereo
in the house was in Bill and Kathy's room. Whenever they went
upstairs to the Tea Room, I was invited to use it. I would go
into their room, put on my album, and stand in front of their
mirror. Frowning and grimacing at the image I saw there, I evaluated
my chances of ever moving as freely as I had seen my teacher move.
If I moved my hips, I couldn't concentrate on the position of
my arms. I could smile, but then I couldn't move. I tried walking
with the rib cage lifts, and bumped into the furniture. So after
trying some of this with "Eddie The Sheik", I sat down and just
listened to the music. One-two, one-two, one-two, I counted
the beats as my teacher had shown me with the finger cymbals.
This went a little bit better, and so I spent more time doing
this until I was tired.
had no other students that I knew of, and so there was no one
else to talk with about what we were doing. There were no books
at the library to read that I knew about either. In fact, there
was really nothing at all to refer to. Of course there were the
posters advertising Jamilla's classes in many of the shops along
Telegraph Avenue. But those pictures were vastly different from
the pretty, flowing, chiffon and beads adorning the dancers I
had seen on my graduation night. There was a photograph on the
poster of a woman with dark rings around her eyes, and little
dots in patterns all over her face. She was dressed in some kind
of heavy black dress and an elaborate black headdress hung with
chains and pendants.
couldn't make the connection that she was teaching the "Danse
du Ventre" which I had seen in Washington D.C.. Must be something
else that she's teaching, I thought, maybe I missed something
next class was just a few days later as my teacher had suggested
we meet three times a week. I walked through the pretty neighborhood
once again, trying to conjure up graceful images of myself dressed
like a flower, or dancing like a butterfly, inspired by the gardens
Now when she
answered the ring of the doorbell, I was prepared for her smiling
face and sparkling eyes. We went into the living room and I told
her about buying the album and practicing with the finger cymbals.
"Ready to start?" she asked, smiling.
the moves she had shown me before and did them over and over together,
walking forward, and backward, side by side. She was patient
with me and demonstrated each new step carefully. I began to
relax into the movements a little more. She would frequently
check my posture, calling out encouragement over our friend Eddie-The-Sheik,
and I found I was beginning to have some fun with what my body
we took a break she examined my new finger cymbals. She showed
me how to attach a wider type of elastic to them and she positioned
them carefully over my knuckles. We sat beside the stereo playing
them together. The one-two, one-two went very easily and so she
demonstrated some other, faster rhythms. This was easy too, and
so we sat for a long time and played with the music. "Now let's
dance!" she said. We got up again, and another disaster happened.
I could play the finger cymbals, or move forward, but not at the
same time. I could smile and play the finger cymbals, but I couldn't
move my hips. I could walk forward and backward, but forgot my
saw my frustration and told me it would all come in time.
I just had to practice every day until I was tired. She gave
me a little chain that had coins attached to it every few
inches, and told me to wear it around the house all the time.
are doing the dishes, make the coins shake. When you are vacuuming
the floor, do the same thing. Walk around the house and do the
steps until they feel easier. You are doing fine you know, you
are catching on very quickly."
on it got easier for me. I wore my little coin chain all the
time, cleaning, cooking, working in the garden, and felt my hips
relaxing more each day. I danced through the house, carrying
my laundry, making the little coins shake. I would stand at the
sink rinsing the dishes and work on my hip moves. I only took
off the belt when I left the house.
finger cymbals were a now a great source of joy for me. I would
sit on the floor listening to the stereo and experiment with the
rhythms of the songs. I imagined myself as part of Eddie's ensemble.
I would copy the sound of the clarinet, or the drums. Then I
would strike the cymbals on different places along the rim. In
and out of the rhythm I would go, playing softly, playing harder,
and throwing in new accents and flourishes.
Bill and Kathy
spent more time in the Tea Room upstairs, and never once mentioned
my longer hours of practice in their room. Looking back on that
time, from where I am today, having played finger cymbals on many
albums for different bands over the years, all I can feel is gratitude
and amazement. There were many days when my practice stretched
to four hours or more, and yet Bill and Kathy never once made
any remark to me about it except to smile and encourage me to
keep working. Their complete support enabled me to grow as a
dancer, and I send them a silent "thank you" whenever anyone says
my finger cymbal playing is powerful!
once commented on my finger cymbal technique after seeing me perform
in Tokyo in 1994. I was doing a promo tour all over Japan with
a band I had recorded with. "You play like a musician plays, Zaharr. You
are part of the orchestra."
a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
More from Zaharr
Zaharr's Memoir, Part 3- Teas of Green
and Gold, & Part 4- My Teacher Arrives by Zaharr A. Hayatti
friend who was a dancer had told him she would teach me for free!
“She’s only sixteen”
A New Series! Zaharr's
Memoirs, Part 1- Washington D.C. and Part 2- New York to Berkeley
by Zaharr Hayatti. I got really excited, and begged to
be allowed to sign up. There was only silence from my family.
Delightful Dina in Dallas by Amaya
far the most controversial costume was the last one. It was barely
Facets of Success in Dance by
times, I’d been afraid not to follow the status quo of what
I was expected to do in each step of my dance life.
A Tale of Two Gigs in the City
was in this space of scarcity that I accepted a Christmas party
gig by telephone that left me with some doubts.