The Gilded Serpent presents...
An Interview of
of Athens, Greece
by Phaedra Ameerah
interview has been edited and reprinted with permission.)
Phaedra Ameerah- My first encounter with the legendary
Rhea came In October 1995 while traveling in Athens, Greece. Rhea
was gracious enough to take me and my
traveling companions around the city to all the hot spots for music
and dancing. Meeting her was the highlight of our trip. I asked
her to tell us about her dance career in California and about her
decision to move to Greece. She told of her life and adventures
at length, as follows:
Rhea- I decided to
move to Athens after a vacation for my thirty-fifth birthday in
December of 1976. I had had surgery and was unable to dance or teach
for two months. I had wiped out the small amount of savings I had
and was left with no source of income.
I became obsessed
with the idea that I must go to Greece. I had no money, but began
making plans to go anyway. Two things helped me to accrue the
financial means to expedite the trip.
First I came into some money
from an unexpected source that enabled me to go not only to Greece,
but to Egypt as well. That source was a Saudi Arabian prince, Musaab
Ibn Al Saud. Musaab was regular customer of the Casbah,
owned at that time by Fadil
Shahin who played both oud and violin, in addition
to vocals, joined by Jallalladin
Takesh, now owner of the Pasha
Restaurant in San Francisco, California. Prince Musaab was always
generous with his tips.
We dancers shared
our tips with the band, all of whom had microscopic vision. So
when Musaab wanted to impress new dance students of mine who came
to see me and the other dancers who were dancing on Broadway at
that time, he would wrap up a hundred dollar bill in a "fiver"
and give it to the girl to give to me as a tip.
He was trying to impress
one young lovely at a fish restaurant in Sausalito where we had
gone for lunch. Upon hearing me explain to her that I would go to
Greece he was appalled. "What? You will go to Greece, and you
will not visit Egypt?" Upon explaining my limited financial
resources, he made an expansive gesture of pulling a roll of hundreds
out of his pocket and peeling off ten of them. The young lovely's
eyes popped out! "Take this, but you must go to Egypt."
He said. Which I duly and dutifully did.
The second lucky push was
Pons at the Belly
Dancer of the Year Pageant, sponsored by the late Sula,
where we were both judges. It turned out that my student, Selene,
won that year, and Marliza got a chance to see my troupe, Nara
Nata, in action. That led her to invite me and my dance troupe
to Las Vegas to teach a seminar and perform in one of the clubs.
We also brought Fadil Shahin as we wanted to be
sure of quality of musicianship. Naji Aziz attended
that seminar and decided to bring me to Salt Lake City to teach.
The city was a hotbed of passionate Belly Dance aficionados who
even today are avid proponents, such as Jason and
Yasmina, who mostly enjoy the "old style."
Those chance seminars and shows provided the money for the ticket
Some would ask me to explain why I didn't choose Cairo over Athens.
That is a long story, fit for another time. Suffice it to say that
I had a dream that I was dancing in the Greek theater, after seeing
Melina Mercouri there, addressing us students with
passion to save Greece from the then existing junta. I had also
studied Greek mythology and had read the Odyssey and the Aenead.
This was a prerequisite for my major, psychology, and also for my
minor, English literature. But I always loved fairy stories and
had checked out every fairy story from the library when I was a
child. Archetypes have always fascinated me, although at a level
that I had not been previously able to identify. Greek mythology,
however, captured my imagination as no Grimm's fairy tale ever did.
I wanted to breathe
the rarified air that Socrates, Homer, and Plato breathed. Now
I have been living here ever since Easter of 1977, under the shade
of the Parthenon and Acropolis.
But no matter what my romantic
inclinations were, I probably wouldn't have left San Francisco at
all if things were still as they were in their heyday. San Francisco
teamed with exotic night life and after hours clubs. People went
from one club to another: Casbah,
Taverna, Minerva Taverna, and Plaka
Taverna. If they could still stand, they crossed the San
Francisco Bay Bridge to go the Jack London Square and take in the
where the Farfisa player kept a gun under his electric organ in
case any irate, cuckolded husbands wanted to get even.
There are no words
to describe those days. All that was missing was Al Capone and
bathtub gin. My goodness, we had fun in those days of wine and
roses. And money! The dancers wore furs (before that became a
social taboo, although people still wear leather shoes), had salon
hairdos, wore designer dresses, and bought Parisienne perfume.
We took pride in making our own costumes. We went out for breakfast
with the high rollers after the show and got together for two-martini
lunches to discuss any gossip we might have missed in the preceding
eight hours. Would I leave San Francisco then? No way!
However, things change,
as things have a habit of doing. As the old poem goes, "Love
is rare, and life is strange, and nothing lasts, and people change."
People at that time blamed it on the recession. "People don't
have money." "Times are tough." It's almost always
societal changes and changing tastes. What was so wildly flamboyantly
"in" began to die slowly. No one else saw her, but mythic
Cassandra spoke in my ear, beckoning me with her bony fateful finger.
I heeded her call. I got out while the getting was good.
I think courage and bravery are, in many instances, a denial of,
or a reaction to, fear. Yellow is both the color of courage and
fear, just as the yellow sun represents courage and yellow bellied
is a noted term for fear and cowardice. And to say that I felt no
fear would be wrong.
But I'm one of
those funny people who would rather die on my feet that live on
my knees, and I couldn't live knowing that I really wanted to
do something and that I was afraid to do it. Better to do it and
die that to want to and pine away.
The old guard dies but never
As Nikos Kazantzakis says in his prologue to "Report
to Greco," addressing his mythological grandfather, El Greco,
who was also from Iraklion, Crete, "Grandfather, when I have
completed the ascent (his allegory for life) and they examine my
body, know you well that there shall be no wounds in my back."
Both El Greco and Kazantzakis hailed from Crete, an island famous
for defiance of tyranny. He also said that there are three kinds
(1) "Lord, I am a bow. Draw me lest I rot."
(2) "Lord, I am a bow. Draw me lest I rot, but don't draw me
too tight, lest I break.
(3) "Lord, I am a bow. Draw me as you wish and who cares if
I guess that you have gathered which prayer that this Sagittarian
archer lives by.
As the Greeks say when they are in their cups, "Spas ta olla!"
(Break everything! Who cares about tomorrow? We live for today!)
So while other belly dancers can say that they got their first exposure
to Oriental Dance of "haflas" and the like, this belly
dancer didn't have such exposure. It was from my teacher, Jamila
Salimpour, taking us innocent initiates to the clubs
to see the dancers that gave me my first taste of Mediterranean
culture, and led me to a life of travel and adventure.
As the oldest
child of five, I used to take my brothers and sisters in a wagon
ride far from our neighborhood. We had sandwiches for provisions
and they had to first swear to secrecy, on pain of death and no
My parents would have had
a heart attack if they knew! We always encountered hostile boys
who would challenge us to our right to be in "their" territory.
They would ask, "Where
are you going, little girl?"
"Yeah, around to your own block."
"Because we say so."
"We don't want to."
"Well, you have to."
"Well, you and what army is going to make us?"
This was when the proverbial
commodity always hit the fan. At that point we turned the wagon
sideways, where I made the little ones crouch behind it and I had
it out with them. It was usually hand to hand, because I could never
throw straight. I knew those boys could throw a rock straight, but
not if they were physically disabled. Although I never started one,
I never lost a physical fight, and I felt as though I must have
come from a race of amazons. But when I became fourteen years old,
the boys got seriously bigger than the girls and our fights stopped.
I have always believed in names, and my given name is Deanna.
Which is Latin for Artemis, Queen of the Amazons,
Archer Supreme, and fearless protectoress of women in childbirth,
small children, and the helpless. It was thought before I was born
that I would be a boy (from various signs that people were able
to glean in 1941), my parents were ready to name me David. Even
if I had been a boy, I would have grown up to slay Goliath. Maybe
courage was "bred in the bone," and proclaimed to be my
destiny. I was also very much like the myth of Atalantis, who was
thrown away by her father (who wanted a boy) and who was left to
die on the hillside and was raised by wolves. She went on to become
a fast runner and sure archer. Her fame spread, and her father took
her back, but insisted that she marry. She didn't want to marry
and said that whoever would become her husband would have to win
her in a race. If he won, all well and good, but if he lost, she
would kill him.
When I was still
young, every boy who was desirous of becoming my boyfriend had
to beat me in a fight. None ever did, until I became fourteen.
I think that one of the
things nowadays that confounds people is the quest for the "good
life." This tends to be true particularly for people living
in a western industrialized and computerized society. It is often
thought that education, and particularly higher education will provide
an instant key to the "good life" which will be rendered
unto us by obtaining a "good job." Presumably a "good
job" is a well paying job, and one that is respected by society
In the words of Thoreau, "Where is Walden Pond?" "Where
is the contemplative life? " "Where is the road less traveled?"
I could go on, but my main point is that being an Oriental Dancer
is an exemplary life choice. It gives one an excellent chance to
study life as it is, not as we would wish to re-write it to live
in a sanitized world. Once you've taken on the dragon of entertainment
and "show-biz", academia is rendered more accessible by
having lived, much like Miss Gootch said in the play "Auntie
Phaedra- I told Rhea her name was very beautiful
and unique, and asked from where she obtained it.
Salimpour, my dance teacher, gave me the name "Rhea"
in 1968. At that time, she was placing particular emphasis on the
fact that Oriental Dance evolved from pre-historic, matriarchal
times. She explained that goddesses were worshiped in those times.
Rhea was the name of an ancient mother goddess. Rhea was the wife
of Chronos (father time) and the mother of Zeus. It is instructive
to understand that in more ancient times, time itself was not looked
at linearly but circularly. Along with patriarchal religion came
an understanding of linear time and death. The main reason I have
kept the name is that when Jamila gave the name, I immediately became
pregnant after seven years of barrenness. I assumed that it was
Kismet. In the '60s we were all into living our dreams, and my dance
name and the dance itself opened up new dreams for me that previously
I had not dared to dream!
My daughters, Piper,
(the eldest) and Melinda, (the youngest) have danced
since Piper was seven years old (when I first started taking lessons)
and Melinda was only two. They were in various performing companies
I have directed, and they have traveled with me from the age of
seven and fourteen. Melinda's father was with a family circus as
well as the San Francisco Mime Troupe and Melinda learned
acrobatics, juggling, balancing on the shoulders of people, and
other circus acts. She was a regular performer with the circus from
an early age and still performs with her step-mother in a travelling
circus as a Belly Dancer who is reviled by the early puritans who
tried to chase away the "Hootchy-Kootchy" dancers at the
Chicago World's Fair. Melinda began dancing with me in my troupe
at the age of two and used to dance with me every night at my jobs
in family tavernas and tourist tavernas in Athens since the age
of nine, under the benign and watchful eyes of the spirits who also
watch over the Acropolis. Piper went on long Pullman rides to perform
in luxury hotels outside Athens from the age of fifteen. We were
always respected and treated very properly.
We were the only
trained Oriental Dancers in all of Greece.
The American Belly Dance
style has a high emphasis on entertainment and a display of technical
virtuosity. The dance is universally well-received and a popular
dance anywhere in the world. We were seen by literally millions
of tourists. I've had people send me my picture in Russian and Chinese
magazines, and African trade journals. I've met people in Montreal
that saw me in Khartoum, and people in Barcelona who saw me in Athens.
My children have also danced Greek folk dances in costume with a
local performing group, dancing for the tourists in Plaka. They
also formed a duet when Melinda, the youngest, was fifteen, and
danced in all the Arabic Middle Eastern night clubs that proliferated
at that time due to the unfortunate situation in Lebanon and other
war-torn countries. It was a time during which many people were
forced to leave their homeland, and many of them came to Greece.
Of course, they wanted to hear their music and dance their dances,
and always it was difficult to bring a dancer from their country.
So my daughters were a perfect act, being two, being professional
and having many costume changes. Their special act was seen by many
and incorporated into the repertoire of a popular Middle Eastern
comedian who put them in his night club act. Big money rolled in,
as well as television contracts and movie parts.
This money went
towards financing education at universities for them. They began
by paying themselves and later were able to apply for scholarships,
proving that beauty, brains, good character, and Oriental Dance
can go very well together. Melinda now has a Doctorate Degree
in Medieval French Literature and Piper is about to take her Doctorate
Degree in Human Genetics from John Hopkins University.
The pursuit of higher education
forced them to abandon their dance careers for awhile, but they
are now beginning to perform again and to teach. I am proud to say
that they are much better than I am or was, although for my time,
I certainly was among the front runners. One good thing that both
my daughters believe that they have received from their unusual
careers, is the ability to deal with just about any situation and
some of the more rarified creatures one encounters in the academic
I found Rhea's dance career fascinating and asked her when she began
My dance background started unfolding at an early age but developed
very slowly. I used to try to walk on my toes and consistently fell
on my nose. As I am the oldest child of five children, brought up
without a large cash flow, there was no extra money for dance lessons!
However, I was able to participate in community dance programs where
we children did "creative dance." I always wanted to play
the role of the snake, which I discovered is my Chinese horoscope
(1941). I used to organize circuses in which I made all the games,
tickets, drinks, etc. and dance for the neighborhood children. When
we had family gatherings, we children were always trotted out to
recite poems, sing, dance and perform small plays. I was always
chosen to do whatever dance there was at school plays, and when
we studied American Indians in the second grade, I was the only
child who could do step-hop, step-hop, throw my head up and down,
while covering my mouth with my hand to give what was considered
in those politically incorrect times, an "Indian War Whoop,"
all at the same time. Although I always won rock and roll contests,
and generally enjoy any kind of dance, if I hadn't met Jamila, I
never would have considered a professional dance career, let alone
a professional Belly Dance career!
I learned about Jamila through
the student newspaper at the University of California, Berkeley
campus where I was a secretary, trying to save money to continue
At that time
Jamila was calling this dance, belly dancing, with particular
emphasis on the fact that the belly movements symbolize childbirth
(and I defy anyone to deny this or to prove otherwise). That's
what I also call it, although as far as I'm concerned, you can
call it whatever you like as long as you dance.
"Dah rose by
any other name would smell as sweet." Gertrude Stein.
Of course, if you dance
it well, so much the better. In my more mature age, I have learned
not to care so much about this, and to let life take of itself,
and for me to take care of myself. If some dancers are rewarded
by life or society whom I don't consider the very best proponents,
well, God is great, as the Muslims and the Greeks say, and who am
I to say anything contrary?
I should point out that I had planned for myself a career as a psychologist,
or something in the field of psychology or psychotherapy. When we
were students during the sixties, we used to participate in anti-war
demonstrations, sit-ins and general societal insurrection. My second
ex-husband's band, the "Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band,"
used to be the warm up band for Joan Baez concerts,
and any other anti-war performer. Before he went on to be back-up
guitar player in Joe Macdonald's group, "Country
Joe and the Fish," I used to dance with them as a pregnant
belly dancer, and was delighted that I chose to do this at that
Suffice it to
say that I was arrested and put in jail for on offence that today
would not be considered a felony. However, in those troubled times
was viewed as very frightening to society in general, and I was
prohibited from ever becoming a teacher, a psychologist, etc.
Today, this judicial record
has been expunged, but I have always been grateful that this unfortunate
thing happened, even though it meant the loss of my oldest child
for two years, and many other things whose pain has fortunately
been ameliorated with the years. I have also come to believe that
God is great and has a plan for everyone, and that we must try to
realize by the outcome of things how to look at the whole and to
not moan and groan about what might have been.
So my main introduction
to the dance and major inspiration, one might even say mentor,
was Jamila. I have often said that if I had first been introduced
to the dance by anyone else, even my own self, I would have not
have been drawn to it. She had that quality that made you want
to emulate and follow her. I had never met anyone like her before
or since. That she lived her life as she did, and had born a child
after the age of forty, was unheard about and something that I
had never encountered.
I started dancing professionally
in San Francisco in 1969, three weeks after Melinda was born, and
one month short of closing one year of lessons. Jamila told me that
I had talent and introduced me to night clubs. As hippies, we did
a lot of "be-ins" and "sit-ins" and social gatherings,
but these were usually day time activities. I had never been in
a night club in my life, except when we went after high school graduation
to the requisite night club and sat in the special seats where you
don't drink alcohol. There was a circuit of clubs on Broadway and every dancer tried to perform as many
nights as possible in one or another of them.
The goal was to be one of the weekend
dancers, as the best dancers had the weekends and the most week
nights as well. Some girls consistently prowled the extended circuit,
going to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and Canada.
Other dancers remained loyal to one club or another. Since I had
kids, I tried to be a weekend dancer and teach during the week.
My teacher had a large and faithful following
and was a major presence in the existing dance community. I saw
that it was the only way to create and practice dance, while remaining
economically viable. A following meant that when the boss wanted
to replace me with a young luscious curvy cutie, people would complain
and threaten not to come anymore. I had eight years of constant
growth and change. I was constantly trying to be innovative and
stay ahead of the main herd.
What exhilaration! What fun! Oh, never-to-be-seen-again days!
Part II: Rhea,
American Expatriate in Greece
Sadly, clubs featuring dance closed, and life changed. Off I went
to Europe and the Middle East. I've danced a good lot in my day.
I've seen Nagua Fouad at the Sheraton
and Zohair Zaki at El Leil Night Club,
after and before which she and her extended orchestra ran, in four
old vintage cars, from place to place. I danced at the Hilton
Hotel in Khartoum, by which the White Nile flows into the Blue
Nile under the bridge from Khartoum to Onderman. This is the first
leg of a journey that can take you to see the whirling Dervishes
arriving from the desert. I've danced in Casablanca, Barcelona,
Madrid, Rome, and countless Greek Islands, (including my favorite),
To explain why I'm here
in Greece is a book in itself. To a small extent, I was introduced
to exotic music, dance and culture through the places I've worked.
There's something about Greek society that allows me to express
myself on a basic and archetypal level: the duality of life, the
changing emotions, the exuberant spirit. Greek society gave me
the feeling that all things are possible, and that nothing is
possible. "Who you know" counts for a lot, and "who
you say you are" plays a major role.
One can re-invent oneself here,
for better or for worse, because the society in general is forgiving
and forgetting and believes in love and forgiveness rather than
punishment. Naturally, this results in a lot of chaos in society,
and I say the more the merrier.
Does this tell you a little bit about why no other dancer has been
able to survive here? You have to take the rhythm of life into account
and nobody wants to do this anymore. No one believes in God anymore,
only insurance companies and trying to make one's life safe. Please,
merciful God, spare me! There are no real laws. The people are the
law, and the people always change, although some things remain stable
at their base. Greece has the least amount of crime and violence
in all of Europe. There's a lot of shouting and letting off of steam.
There are challenges, and brinkmanship, but nothing serious.
Talk to us about your view of the Greek style of Belly Dance.
There is a Greek style of belly dance that resembles the Turkish
and Lebanese styles, in that it is exuberant, celebratory and exciting
rather than soothing, lulling, hypnotic, and languorous.
The Greeks live a fast paced
life and they like lively music.
When I went to
Cairo in 1977, I went everywhere and danced to enthusiastic audiences
who "sagareeted" their hearts out and who came up to
me afterwards and told me to slow down, that I was wearing them
out. I asked them, "Then why did you sagareet for me?"
They replied, "Because that is what your energy calls for.
But we would prefer to be more relaxed when we see a dancer."
Naturally, I prefer the
place where my audiences and I are more naturally in sync. But the
Greek style, although fast paced and exuberant, should still be
danced smoothly with no apparent effort, gliding through a number
of tricky bodily movements and turns. The Greeks call Oriental Dance
"Tsif t'telli" after the Turkish rhythm, chif tetelli,
as Greek has no "ch" in the alphabet. It is one of the
most common rhythms played in the music to which they like to dance.
However, their popular "Tsif t'telli" is a low form of
dance, sometimes deliberately vulgar in its presentation. That is
because it has remained from ancient times as a dance from early
matriarchy where sexual expression was not denied a woman and was
viewed as vulgar with the advent of patriarchy. (It would be worthy
to note that in societies that are at present matriarchal, nudity
or semi-nudity if taken for granted and rape does not exist.) When
I first came to Greece twenty-two years ago, there was no "nefos"
(smog) because people had very few cars and hardly any industry.
People bought and sold any number of things from each other in the
I once saw a man selling a dressed pig with an apple in it's mouth,
rolling it along in a baby carriage. Lottery tickets were hawked
loudly. You commonly found shoeshine stands next to newspaper stands.
A single medium-size supermarket was built, the first encroachment
on the "Mom and Pop" stores. People kept chickens in their
yard and "Oh!" how you could hear the roosters at dawn,
when people were either coming home from a night on the town, grandmother
in tow, or getting up to go to work! Time means very little here,
although now, with the European Economic Community, many things
have changed, (damn it's eyes!).
to go out together to hear music, dance, drink and eat until cock's
crow. Many plates were broken as "kefi" (good feeling,
fun enthusiasm) erupted here, there, and everywhere. Being close
to the sea, it used to be possible to buy lobster and crab, all
kinds of fresh fish and all of it cheap! They were served piping
hot with lemon and twice pressed virgin olive oil, and washed
down by the barrels of wine sold by the weight.
Store hours were more strictly
kept, and everyone went home at noon to eat a big meal and sleep
until the evening shift. Police strictly controlled store hours
and what the stores could sell, although the ubiquitous black market
always existed. Many products, which were much sought after by the
general populace, were not produced in Greece. Such products which
were produced in Greece were perceived as being of inferior quality
to the foreign made, whatever. Therefore, a huge "suitcase
economy" flourished with many highly prized items being smuggled
in valises which people carried home. Pornography was outlawed,
so you could bribe the customs inspector with an American Playboy.
It was never offered directly but placed visibly on top of everything
in the suitcase. Often male amateur "good-will ambassadors,"
operating at modest costs, would assiduously attach themselves to
lone female tourists and graciously offer their "services"
producing many a humorous book about the Greek male. Television
hours were strictly controlled. There were two stations offering
programs, ERT 1 and YENED, the military station, and the hours of
these stations were strictly controlled. They stopped at siestas
and at 12:30 midnight.
At that time, the population had only recently arrived from some
faraway village, whose parents or grandparents might have been Greek
refugees from Asia minor or Egypt, Russia, or Albania. People were
at once more personally trusting and more generally fearful.
If people accepted
you, they took you into their hearts. You became one of the family.
To have a friend might involve sacrificing your life, or at least
be ready to.
People had fewer consumer
goods and recycled everything they had. You hardly ever saw a lot
of garbage on the street, every bit was re-used. Whatever people
owned was more precious to them due to its scarcity and was much
valued and looked after.People cared! Greeks were very quick to
speak out against injustice (still), and they come to the aid of
someone in distress (not so much anymore). Even now, ordinary people
are known to stop bank robberies in progress.
So I've been here nigh onto twenty-three years, with one year falling
into the next. In the beginning, I always said that I would go back
home. Maybe, as Thomas Mann wrote,
"You can't go home again." I have no plans but a lot of
memories. A lot of time has been spent with a glass or two of ouzo
and a little meze, listening to some bouzoukie music twanging in
I can only say
that something intangible keeps me here. Is it, perhaps the freedom
that exists within chaos? Won't you pass the Retsina and stay
a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
more about Rhea
My Greek Transformation
A Conservative Engineer meets the “Instigator of Revolutions”
by Barbara Grant
Rhea displayed boundless energy, far beyond my own at the best of
times. How would I be able to keep up with her?
A Search for the Soul in All
Things. Or On Turning 61 and ¼
By continuing to dynamically entertain and stay ahead of the pack,
they embolden all women, even of a lesser dynamism, to remain in
the fray as long as they desire, instead of being cast to the sidelines
as the official baby sitter for grandchildren.
My Belly Dance Baptism,
or A Tale of Armpit Hairs
There was a rumor (that was the truth) that I didn’t
shave under my arms.
Adventures by the Nile,
Part 2, by Rhea
Return to a Changed Sudan
Rhea's Adventures by the Nile, part 1
guess every belly dancer's dream is to dance in a five star hotel
in the Middle East.
Recounts, Part II, Of Belly Dancers, Bullets & The Men in Blue,
or A Change of Scene: Rhea moves to Greece
Where the bullet went, or how close it came to hitting us, I'll