The Gilded Serpent presents...
THE LAST NIGHT AT THE CASBAH
Yes, I was there. More, I sipped the last drink ever served there. And it was I who, with a ritual flourish, tucked
the last dollar bill ever given there as a tip into Alana's dancing belt as she left the stage -- after she performed
the last dance ever danced at the Casbah. We both laughed, and she went off to the dressing room. The musicians stood
and stretched and then went off to the bar. I stood up from my usual table and looked around. It was 2am: closing
time. I looked at the stage, at the rugs and tapestries with their rich, deep colors that almost made it seem as
if you were in a Bedu tent. It was the end of an era, and I knew it. So I stood alone in the Casbah, and silently
bore witness-aye, with some sadness, but with more of a sense of completion, as it should be at the passing of
some great good thing. I thought back..
With me it's always been the sword along with the veil. The first dancer I ever saw was at Halberstadt's Fencing
Academy when the Salle d'armes was located on Fillmore street just up from Lombard.
.almost directly across the street from the Matrix, where the San
Francisco Sound was born. I would take my sabre lesson, then go across the street to hear Garcia play with Saunders.
The place was so small that Jerry could reach over to help himself to the pack of Camels I left open on my table.
Yes, the North Beach dance scene was also part of the San Francisco scene of the 60's and early 70's, when the
streets dripped with magic and all things were possible..
My sabre Maestro's girlfriend of that time was Sasha, and one night she danced for us at a party in the salle.
I was still in most respects an Allegheny Mountain boy come to the Big City and I had never seen anything remotely
like this. However, I resolved to see more.
(.Later, Sasha and I became friends. Sadly, it was only for a
brief time, for Sasha left us. She was subject to grand mal seizures and one of them took her, not long after she
had opened her dress shop in Sausalito. She dances now among the stars.)
I discovered the
Bagdad one day while hitchhiking at the bottom of Broadway. I
was On The Road at the time, and before the Loma Prieta earthquake killed the freeway, Broadway was a very good
place to get a ride out of the City. As I was standing there, a taxi pulled up and a stunningly beautiful woman
got out and hurried past. The perfume from the costumes she had slung over her shoulder enveloped me like a cloud,
and I turned, mesmerized, to watch her as she ran up the street. She disappeared into the Baghdad, and I marked
the place for future attention.
But shortly thereafter I disappeared myself -- into the deserts of Nevada for three years, to study martial arts,
mysticism, and magick. But I always knew I would return to the City, and knowing this, I knew as well that I when
I did, I would investigate the two clubs that beckoned on Broadway.
It was a warm summer night in the mid -'70's when I first stepped
into the little alcove of the Baghdad, with its pictures of performing dancers and advertisements for George Elias' record albums. There was a heavy felt curtain across the doorway, and from within
came the sounds of an oud, spinning out the intricate passages of a Taksim. I parted the curtain and entered, and
entering, also entered a place of the spirit that I have never left.
I soon became a regular, and echoed the sentiments of an earlier student of metaphysics who wrote:
".The village boasts a barn where every night one can go
and watch dancing girls. I need not describe their doings, but I may say that this is the only form of amusement
that I have ever found of which I never get tired. I like to drop in pretty early and stay there through the night,
smoking tobacco or kif, and drinking coffee, cup after cup."
I, too, liked to drop in early and stay all night, and although the management did not provide kif, there was coffee.
At the time I was teaching Tai Chi and helping to run a Open University and, remarkably enough, almost managing
to make a living at it. The clubs were my one source of entertainment, and I was well satisfied. I had no car,
but the last Geary St Bus left Montgomery Street at 2:45 am: just enough time to walk down from North Beach after
the clubs closed.
In those early days I went most often to the Bagdad because my favorites danced there: SimSim and Saida.. I have
noticed that dancers will often express their astrological signs in their dancing. SimSim is a virgo, and it showed
not only in the exquisite work of her costumes, but in her dancing style as well. She had a way of assuming an
expression of dimpled, angelic innocence when her body movement was at its most sensual. As Tom Robbins says, if
there is a visual display anywhere in the Universe more sure to turn men's hearts into squirrel cages, it has yet
to be catalogued.
(..and here's a bit of synchronicity. During the days, SimSim
(Mary) worked at Pets Unlimited, an animal shelter near Pacific Heights. She would sit at the front desk working
on her costumes, watched by the admiring eyes of a volunteer who worked at the shelter: a young dark-haired beauty
who in the fullness of time became the dancer Deliliah and my second wife..)
As every dancer knows, tribute from the musicians is as rare
as hen's teeth, but the musicians at the Bagdad always treated SimSim with a respectful deference, and not simply
because the High Priestess in her commanded it. It was also the quality of her dancing.
She was in fact the club's darling, as we found out one night after
closing. SimSim was writing down Bert Balladine's phone number
for me (Bert was her teacher), when the barkeep descended upon is and loudly demanded to know what we were doing.
God forbid that she should be giving her phone number to The Frank!
For that was how I was known among the Middle Eastern men of the Bagdad. At the time I sported a beard and hair
well below my shoulders, and so they christened me The Frank, which is what the Arabs call European invaders of
any nationality whatever. It tickled them, especially the Lebanese, to think of me as some sort of a Crusader.
In fact they liked me, especially big George the drummer, because when they were good, I would sometimes pay them
more attention than I did to the dancer. I may be one of the few Americans who has ever actually tipped the musicians.
It was not until the mid-eighties that I began my own serious study of the drum, but I am sure it came to me so
easily because of all those years when night after I night I sat listening and absorbing baladi into the very fibre of my being.
While SimSim's figure was sweetly curved in what may called the classical style of the bellydancer. Saida was more
petite, with the petite dancer's focus and clarity. Her complexion was pale to the point of translucency, in striking
contrast to her long straight black hair and dark eyes. The proud sweep and arch of her nose revealed her part-Indian
Sometimes I liked to come in on the off nights: Tuesday or Thursday, when the club was nearly empty. The girls
would often complain that these nights were insufferably boring (as well as hardly paying for cab fare ),
but every once and a while, when it was late at night and the musicians
were in the proper mood, you would behold a wonder. For then Saida, looking at her own reflection in the big mirrors
that lined the wall opposite the stage, would begin to dance for Herself. Then would one scarcely breathe, fearing
to disturb the spell, as there came into the dark eyes of that dancer a thing remote and serene, as of something
that only visits Time, but belongs to Eternity.
But of course the other really memorable nights were on Fridays and Saturdays, when the club was packed.
Then sometimes everything would come together, the musicians, the
audience and the dancer, and you would be involved in one of those experiences that every performing artist dreams
of. Then, hair flying, body glistening, the dancer would take the energy of the musicians and the audience and
dance it back to them, and they would roar out their applause and she would be lifted on its waves to even a higher
level and George's hands would fly on the strings like fire and the drum running through it all, caressing her,
challenging her, driving her until finally the music would thunder to a close, and she would stand in her finishing
pose, triumphant, skin flushed, eyes glowing.
For this, the dancers will tell you, you want an Arab audience. And the audience was mostly that. I saw no other
western men who came as regularly as I did. There was often a selection of freshly scrubbed sailors from the world's
navies, but one advantage of being on Broadway was that those who wanted to see erotic dancing ( rather than sensual
dancing) left us pretty much alone, because there was so much of it available all around us. They would open the
curtains, see that the dancer was more or less clothed, and leave.
Not that things could not get intense at times, in a typically Middle Eastern way. There was once a loud political
argument in the back between Palestinians and Jordanians in which the only reason knives were not drawn was that
nobody had thought to bring any. It was violent enough to cause SimSim to stop performing at the club. She wanted
none of that nonsense, thank you very much, and so she left.
One thing required of the girls was the quaint custom of "sitting with the customers". It was by no means
hustling drinks, or, if that was what it was in fact supposed to be, the dancers of the Bagdad and Casbah were
never really very good at it. (something I am sure they are quite proud of ). The dancers liked to sit with me
because I took the trouble to make myself companionable and I used alcohol very sparingly, often drinking only
coffee. Thus I could speak coherently and kept my hands to myself. Since I was quite a regular, I counted as "sitting
with a customer". So I was a pleasant alternative for the dancers. Unfortunately they would thus often stay
at my table overlong and so earn a Meaningful Glance from the bartender. This would typically send them to a table
occupied by a loud big spender in his cups. And there the poor odalisque would sit, trying her best not to squirm
uncomfortably and praying all the while for her next set to come 'round so that she could gratefully escape to
the dressing room.
Word soon got around that I was not only safe but interesting, and so dancers would actively seek out my table
to sit at. Saida did so the first time by means of a charming subterfuge. Passing by my table on her way off the
stage, she stopped. "My earring is about to come loose" she said. "Can I leave it here and come
back for it so I don't lose it?" and she placed it on my table. She came back for it after she changed and
almost always after that when I was there. I forget all that we talked about (besides music and the dance, of course)
but the memory of our conversations is still a very warm one.
I am sometimes asked if the dancing is different now than it was then. Of course it is, and of course it isn't.
On the one hand by its very nature and perhaps more than any other form, bellydance is eternal and unchanging.
(..When, long ago
in the hidden deeps of time, a woman first heard the insistent rhythms of a drummer, and her body was taken with
the sound and she became the First Dancer, her first spontaneous impulse was to simply mark time with her feet.
Then, as she surrendered more deeply to the drum , answering its pulse with her own, her hips began to move, and
as they moved more freely, to sway; to sway as her leg lifted with each step. And so it has been ever since, down
the long years, in all of Her daughters: in all of their infinite variety of form and feature and coloring, of
race and of nation, of soul and of spirit: all still dancing that same step which is the essence of woman in movement,
and of her glory: step, lift, sway...)
True enough, but like all art forms, the dance is a reflection of the culture in which it finds itself, and so
along with its unchanging essence there is a mutability of style and emphasis. In general then, we saw in the late
80's a movement in the dance, as in much else that is feminine, away from Aphrodite and towards Artemis. Yet this
cycle, too, has already reached its fullness of expression and yet another is beginning. Whether the new emphasis
in the dance will incorporate more of the style and spirit of the Broadway days is hard to say ( .for She is infinite in Her variety, and Her house has many mansions.), but the interest in those times, shown by this series of articles and memoirs,
suggests that it well might.
One thing , however, is certain: the cabarets gave the dancers who
performed there a solid grounding in performance that is hard to come by when such venues no longer exist. The
dancers of the Bagdad and Casbah did three shows a night, twenty minutes each. Night after night. They learned
is all about, the good and the bad. How to work an audience, to respond to its moods, and, at best, to make the
audience and even the musicians follow your lead. . You don't get that on the stage at Rakhassa, or even at a Restaurant:
only a cabaret setting, where the patrons are there for the entertainment alone, provides it. It can be a hard
and demanding school - I have seen dancers do their three sets, and do them superbly, while practically collapsing
from the 'flu ( and they did collapse when they got to my table) - but that, paradoxically enough, was part of
the magic. Those women were living as dancers, and doing so fully. The younger Bay Area dancers long for it, in
a way, and, in a way, are right to do so.
But it passed, and we saw the end coming. The Bagdad went first ( it was in October of '83, not '84 ) and then
we heard the news. I brought chocolates for the girls as consolation. The crowd had been getting sparse since the
previous summer, and got even sparser. Things went on much as usual, with only a few odd occurrences, like the
"real" dancer from Cairo who came in and danced for a night. She was, I am afraid to have to say, a bit
of an airhead, telling everybody who would listen about how her "boyfriend" had just bought her a brand
new Mercedes. But she could dance, with that unconscious sinuous skill and assurance that comes from being brought
up in the culture that has nourished dancers for millennia.
Then the last night came, and it was really much like any other night. At 2 PM, the bar closed, the music stopped,
and we all went out into the chill April night. I remember looking up at the stars.
It was not, however, the last time I was there. There was a bar on Union Square called the Powell Street Station that,
unaccountably, featured belly dancing. No live music, of course. Many of
the Casbah girls ended up there as refugees.
I stopped in occasionally as well. By then we all knew that the Casbah
had become a place of "exotic dance"
and some of the former Casbah dancers, curious as cats, pleaded with me
to go there and find out what it was like.
So I did.
The décor had been stripped bare. All that remained was the stage,
a strobe light-equipped juke box, and
empty black-lighted walls. There was something happening on the stage,
but it could not by any stretch of the imagination
be called dancing. The place seemed much smaller, somehow, and very hard.
It was not the Casbah. I was glad: glad
that nothing remained to be sullied by the transformation.
No, that night in April was the last night of the Casbah. But in a way that is not true either. For as I stood
looking at the stage on that final night, I whispered something to all of them, all the dancers of the Bagdad and
of the Casbah.
"You will dance in my heart forever", I said.
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Drummer's Advice to Beginning Dancers -
by Kirk Templeton
"...Know your rhythms!
I have drummed for bellydance classes where the instructor not only couldn't
clap baladi but didn't even know what it was..."
7-31-00 The Dancers of the Infidel Emperor by
Did you know that Belly
Dancers played a significant role in the life and destiny of a great European