Hillary in 1974
The Gilded Serpent presents..
Reflections on North Beach
My Lessons with Hillary
and Aida Al-Adawi
(Part I of III):
I must stretch my memory to
recollect people and incidents that I believe began for me about the
winter of 1972! I had had my cosmetology license for approximately five
month and no job prospects were in view except for part-time work in
various beauty salons. I was suffering, at that time in my young life,
with a variety of health issues. Serendipitously, I saw a class schedule
that included "Belly Dance" at the Montclair Recreation Center
located in the beautiful Montclair district of the hills of San Francisco
I figured, "For
only one dollar per class, why not?"
My lessons took place once
a week. The classes were under the instruction of a dancer named Hillary.
I could not wait! The first two weeks of our class sessions were taught
by a substitute, however: the dancer Aida
Al-Adawi. During the thirty-minute break, Aida gave us insight
into the awesome, if peculiar, world of the belly dance community. This
intrigued us to no end!
Aida also told us about her
teacher: a woman named Jamila
In Aida's opinion,
Jamila was the most imitated instructor in the San Francisco Bay
area. Women came from all around the Bay to study with Jamila and,
in Aida's words, "After only three classes, they would teach
Aida gave us a resume of Jamila's
experience. Jamila had danced for twenty-seven years in Los
Angeles. After that she moved to San Francisco and worked at "Bimbo's
365 Club" in North Beach. How Jamila learned to dance, Aida
told us, was by watching her father, an Italian sailor who was on duty
in North Africa. At least, that was the story. (Another of Jamila's
students, Habiba, also perpetuated that "Jamila
Myth". She went even further and said to me, "I tell people
that Jamila was born in Algeria and learned to dance there
According to Aida, Jamila had had a long and famous career as
The Prima Belly Dancer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was
mentor to the top belly dancers such as Galya, Rhea, Meta (later Nedda), Hillary, Raina, Yasmeen, Katoria, Kismet, Sonya,
The other dancers who were well known such as Sula, Sabah, Magana
Baptiste, and Najia,
protégés and therefore considered by the Jamila clan as
personae non grata. According to Aida's litany, Bert was just
one of Jamila's imitators and - perhaps - her nemesis.
Aida's story of her own
experience was different. She took lessons for six months from Jamila
and danced at her first student night, where a star was born. She told
us, "The Arabs respected me because my dancing was different!"
She said her dance was "tribal" and "traditional"
and thus, she earned their respect.
She never wore bead,
because beads represented, at least in her mind, Las Vegas and Hollywood,
and "only a stripper wore beads"!
Aida danced at the Bagdad
Cabaret, and later at the Casbah Cabaret, as well
as the Greek Taverna Restaurant as her main sources
of income. Six months into her dance career, she suffered a foot injury
that almost resulted in an amputation because she had wrapped her Ace
bandage to tightly. Aida said that this distressed her greatly and
that "Dancing was the happiest thing in my life."
Aida also told us a little about her Casbah boss, Fadil
Shahin. She related that Jamila and Fadil worked briefly
together at the Bagdad. Then Fadil opened the Casbah Cabaret.
When Hillary returned from her vacation, she gave us a no holds
"talk-a-rama" in which she told us that Jamila was her instructor
as well, and that she too had performed in Jamila's dance troupe, The
Bal-Anat. She also informed all of us beginning dancers that to
dance in the Bal-Anat was the highest honor that any of us could hope
to attain in Jamila's circle of dancers.
Hillary also told us more about
her substitute, Aida. It turned out that Aida was a former insurance
agent who was rumored to have been dismissed from her position because
"she looked like a Bedouin 24 hours a day." Hillary told us
that this dismissal was the death knell for Aida's marriage, since it
showed how deeply she was becoming absorbed into the Arabic culture.
(This was not considered appropriate for a Jewish girl at that time.)
According to Hillary, Aida was learning to speak Arabic, sing Arabic
songs, and was going to have her name legally changed to something more
one point, Aida was living at Jamila's house, and people gossiped that
she was acting as an unpaid servant. Aida mistakenly thought she
was going to earn Jamila's undying gratitude and her legacy so she worked
hard on Jamila's projects and on her behalf, and groveled.
Beyond all the gossip, during the next six months, we learned
all the necessary beginning dance steps useful in a reasonable dance
We also learned the basics of costuming and music. Also, we purchased
all the required record albums, such as, "Live from the Fez",
"An Evening at the Casbah", "The Seventh Veil", the
old Bagdad LP with Leona Wood's sketch of a very young Jamila on the
cover, and the "new" "Bagdad" LP with Yousef and
Raina on the cover. Hillary performed a solo routine for us, instructing
that we were to construct our own dance and perform solos in class. She
did a veil routine with a circular veil. She said it was heresy for anyone
except Galya, who then danced at the Taverna
Athena in Oakland's Jack London Square, to dance with a
circular veil. Jamila had deemed it so. During this time, Hillary told
me that I was getting a little "too good" for our little class
and she told me to go study with Jamila Salimpour.
Reflections on North Beach Part II by Satrinya
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