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Hillary in 1974

The Gilded Serpent presents..
Reflections on North Beach

My Lessons with Hillary
and Aida Al-Adawi

(Part I of III):

by Satrinya / Masalima

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 Bay.

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 Salimpour.

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 belly dancing!" 

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 also.")  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, and Nakish.  The other dancers who were well known such as Sula, Sabah, Magana Baptiste, and Najia, were Roman "Bert" Balladine's 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 1973

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 barred "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 Arabic sounding.  

At 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 routine.  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. 

Ready for more?
Reflections on North Beach Part II by Satrinya

Another article on the North Beach scene:
Nazir Latouf on North Beach interviewed by Lynette
An article by a different author: 
Living with Constrictors by Eva Cernik
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