The Gilded Serpent presents...
Zaharr's Memoir- Part 5(& 6)
 Part 5:  I Arrive at My Teacher's
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.

Walking to 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.

I arrived 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. 

No, 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.

She invited 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.  

She 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.

All business 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!

Next, she 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, know. maybe this really isn't for me after all, " she moved over to the stereo and put a record on.

Suddenly 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.

After some 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. 

I thanked her kindly and said goodbye, but my heart was in turmoil.

Slowly 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 all.

"How did it go?"  Kathy called out to me cheerfully when I got home. I burst into tears and fled to my room.

Part 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.

First stop: 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.

Next 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 lesson.

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.

My teacher 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. 

I 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 here.

My 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 I passed.

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. 

We reviewed 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 was doing!

When 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 arm positions.

She 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.

  "When you 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."

From then 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. 

The 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!

Hamza al-Din 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."


Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for More?
More from Zaharr
8-8-03 Zaharr's Memoir, Part 3- Teas of Green and Gold, & Part 4- My Teacher Arrives by Zaharr A. Hayatti
The friend who was a dancer had told him she would teach me for free! “She’s only sixteen”

6-9-03 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.

9-16-03 Delightful Dina in Dallas by Amaya
By far the most controversial costume was the last one. It was barely there.

9-16-03 Facets of Success in Dance by Ireena
At 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.

9-15-03 A Tale of Two Gigs in the City by Jawahare
It was in this space of scarcity that I accepted a Christmas party gig by telephone that left me with some doubts.




 Gilded Serpent
 Cover page, Contents, Calendar Comics Bazaar About Us Letters to the Editor Ad Guidelines Submission Guidelines