Reflections on North Beach
Meta / Neddah
My Lessons with
(Part II of III)
by Satrinya / Masalima
1. Meeting Jamila Salimpour
I went to my first Thursday night class in Berkeley at the Alxandra Zubeck School of Ballet and I was totally unprepared for what I saw. At the time I participated in these classes, Jamila was 49 years old, and not in bad shape at all. She could "out-do" some of the best students in the class in both shimmies as well as the more complicated finger cymbal patterns.
But when she walked in, dressed completely in black, with her hair and black eye make-up done in such a style that I cannot tell you what ran through my mind!
I met the regulars, Libby, Linda,
and Meta. By the end of the two-hour class, I saw that Jamila was portraying her interpretation of a Middle Eastern type of image. Sometimes Aida would show up before heading over to the Casbah Cabaret in San Francisco. She was also imitating the image that her teacher and mentor, Jamila, was projecting.
I also continued to take lessons at the "Grace Mann School of Ballet". Grace knew Jamila by reputation. Grace Mann was a former Prima Ballerina for the Ballet Ruse de Monte Carlo. Grace asked me if Jamila ever mentioned a male dancer named Roman "Bert" Balladine. Grace told me that Bert used to dance in the Ballet Ruse, and that he and
another ballerina toured around the Mid-East and had been bitten by the "Belly Dance bug". Bert and she became dance partners and she told me that
my teacher, Jamila, would sit in the club every night, watching them perform. She went further to state that Jamila and Bert operated a dance studio as partners. Then they had a disagreement and split the dance studio partnership. I couldn't believe it,
so I asked Hillary if this was true, and she said, "Indeed, it was true - BUT," she cautioned, "don't EVER tell Jamila that you know!" That is when I was warned about a lot of information I should never disclose on pain of excommunication from Jamila's circle of students.
I was also taking karate lessons on Grand Avenue in Oakland at the now defunct Karate Ways. My instructor's
wife was also a Belly Dancer and instructor, Carol Israel. My karate instructor told me that his wife had a big falling out with Jamila.
There was a radio talk show back then that was called "California Girls" hosted by Dan Chamberlain. The show was mostly sex talk, relationships, and that sort of fare. Don and his crew were having the first annual "Love Faire". It featured books, relationship experts, psychics, astrologers, lotions, potions, and.Belly Dancers! My instructor told me that the radio station had hired his wife and her dance troup to entertain at the faire
and that they were to be paid fifty dollars.
However, Jamila called the radio station and said that the Bal-Anat would dance instead, without pay. So Carol Israel and her troupe were out and Jamila and the Bal-Anat were in.
He said, "Will you ask Jamila if she remembers a woman named Janet?" Jamila and Janet used to share a house together and there was always an interesting string of comings and goings. Grand Avenue was a very entertaining place.
After about three months, I started to take belly dance classes three times per week. Jamila said that I was showing great promise and that she saw no reason that I should not take Saturday classes at the "Old Poultry Company" in San Francisco. That is when I first saw all of the "Bal-Anaters", including Jamila's little daughter, Suhaila. The majority of them considered themselves the most elite. They were, therefore, the most aloof of any of Jamila's dancers. Very few would talk to us mere mortals (i.e., the new dancers). Aida and Hillary would (probably because they were dance teachers), but the others treated us like non-entities. I recall seeing John Compton, Habiba, Katura, Rubaba, Sonya, Kismet, and Nancy Kerr, just to remember a few. When Jamila asked
me "Why aren't you in Bal-Anat?" the attitude of the other students regarding me changed. I became "acceptable"!
I took costume classes from one of her dancers named Sabah (but not the same Sabah as Jamie Miller).
I selected a professional dancing name, Masalima, mostly because it was a name that nobody had claimed previously. Jamila commanded, "Use
it!" Thereafter, I did. I remember Aida exclaiming jealously, "She has the best name!"
I became increasingly aware of the rumors, the battles and the reputations of not only the dancers, but of the night clubs.
For instance, Jamila not only danced at the Bagdad, she was the part owner of it. She described her co-owner, a man named Yousef, as "an Armenian opportunist". Jamila also told us dancers of the nicknames she was called by the other dancers and their teachers. "Mother J." and "The Fortress" were two of the names. Jamila herself talked about her past in these Saturday classes. She said that her first husband was East Indian, "before it was fashionable to marry an Indian." She and her first husband parted ways when she came to dance in San Francisco. Then Jamila told us some things about her second husband. He was Persian, and when they married, he swore that he would slash her legs if she ever danced in public again. This was Suhaila's father.
I heard of one teacher named Jodette who lived and taught in Sacramento. She had been a child star in Jordan, and was hustling for students in the audience at the Renaissance Fair for her own benefit, though she was not performing there.
Jodette was handing out her own business cards, and she was telling everyone that she was the teacher of Bal-Anat. She also had a cymbal poster somewhat similiar to Jamila's large poster of basic finger cymbal patterns.
This infamous poster sported a photo of Jamila that was snapped at the Bagdad Cabaret twenty years prior and the musicians in the background included Fadil Shahin.
One summer afternoon in 1973, Yousef came to sit in on Jamila's Saturday
class . He kept eye balling me, and he asked Jamila who I was. Jamila informed me that Yousef wanted me to audition at his nightclub.
After class, I was asked to audition by Mr. Yousef. He also invited me out to dinner!
At our little tete-a-tete, I got
an earful! Jamila and Youself were not only business partners. According
to Yousef, they had been engaged. Yousef said that Jamila and the Persian
drummer ran off and got married. Jamila telephoned him and gave him her
news. He told me, "Jamila said, 'He loves me!'" Anyway, I auditioned
at the Bagdad and was assigned one night per week to start. The Bagdad's
décor was, in my father's opinion, "Upholstered Sewer",
but this is where I met the lovely dancers Raina, and SimSim,
who were the regular weekend dancers. Armand was the kanoon
player, George Dabai the drummer extraordinare, George
Elias the singer and oudist.
3. On Broadway and North Beach
North Beach was an area ripe with stories. I learned that Fadil
used to work at the Bagdad, and then he intended to open his
own club. When he told George Elias his news, George asked him
where he was going to open his club. Fadil told him, "Almost
next door". Fadil, according to George, not only took dancers
with him, but musicians too, along with the bartender Haroun,
and even George the Doorman! That exodus is
when blood began to boil. Dancers used to work back and forth
between the two clubs, but now, not anymore! We used to sneak
into the Casbah before the Bagdad opening hour. We were always
careful not to be caught.
I remember the one and only student night that Jamila held at the Bagdad
while I was there. Yousef and she had a falling out at the last minute and
she refused to attend. She sent Meta to represent her.
was not allowed to dance because she was too young to perform in nightclubs.
She was only eighteen, but she did manage to do a solo anyway.
Another student apparently told
Aida what had happened. Meta was not in good stead with her teacher for
a while! There was a big and ongoing rivalry between Meta and Aida. They
both started taking lessons at the same time and each was thought to be
the consummate dancer by her peers. One night in the dressing room of the
Casbah, Meta was going to dance at one of the "Moon Celebrations" and
forgot her perfume. She grabbed a bottle of "Jungle Gardenia" and
I told her, "That belongs to Aida". Consequently, she slammed
the bottle down hard.
On Wednesday nights, I danced along
with Kismet and Vallie. Though Kismet danced
in Jamila's troupe, she had
previously taken lessons with Magana Baptiste at the Royal
Academy of Dance in San Francisco, which was not the first dancing school
where Belly Dance was taught in San Francisco but was, perhaps, the first
formal one. (By the way, my father knew Walt Baptiste and
said that Walt was a fine body builder and his wife was known as a "Hindu
All of the time there was gossip about the people in the clubs and about some
dancers sleeping with customers. My first night there, in the dressing room,
I heard one dancer ask another something truly vile about her activities, and
to this day, I do not know if she was serious!
I also met the infamous "Prince
M. of Saudi Arabia". He would sit at the bar and hold court with
the owner of the place, the musicians, and whomever he found of interest.
Whenever he pulled out a cigarette, five lighters would be at his immediate
Vallie told me plaintively, "He
used to tip me twenties when he liked me." Apparently, he had
become more entranced with a dancer named Shiraz who had been one of Bert's
students. Yes, Prince M. had an unusual reputation. People said that he was
a silent partner subsidizing the Casbah, but I would not know anything about
that. I do know that when he entered the Casbah, everyone seemed to pay some
sort of homage to him. However, some of the dancers disdainfully referred
to him as "The Cockroach" - behind his back, of course.
At the Bagdad, I also met Sula. Sula was a dance teacher from
Walnut Creek in the East Bay and she owned "Sula's Belly Dance World",
a studio and costume shop. She and her sister designed, made and sold beaded
costumes, dance skirts, veils, and all the accessories for the modern dancer. Lisa,
one of her students told me that Sula started her business as her own income
and started the "Belly Dancer of the Year Pageant". Sula wanted to
be able to purchase things without being told
by her husband, "Now, Sula,
you really don't need that, do you?" I never actually saw Sula
dance, but I saw a photo of her performing
the "Dance of the Flickering Flame". I became
acquainted with her, but a sad postscript to this was when Lisa told me that
Sula died at a fairly young age of pancreatic failure during a bout with skin
cancer in 1978.
Another fixture in the dance scene was Naji
Baba. He used to have his own television program
on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon. It was called "Belly Dancing with
Naji Baba". Naji usually played the drum and sang. Sahara was
Naji's house dancer, and often did a solo every single show except the one that Najia and
I did for him with Najia's dancers, Abdullah on
the violin, and Taka playing
the drum also. Jamila told all of us during a break in her class that Naji would "Even
make you breakfast if you dance on his show." What she was implying
I do not know, because Naji treated Najia and me with great respect.
Naturally, we all watched his show and harshly analyzed the dancers. He and Aida
had a mutual dislike for each other. He accused her of murdering every Arabic
song she ever sang. I do not know what it was that she held against him... perhaps
it was that he accused her of murdering every Arabic song she ever sang.
The Casbah was, according
to Jamila, THE place to perform. There was Flamenco dancing as
well as Belly Dance. George the doorman would entertain on the
sidewalk out in front, as he smoked his stogies.
When Jamila held her student
night, the first Monday night of every month, the house would be
packed. She had talks, films, and once a film crew was there to document
her and her interpretation of the dance. When the girls danced the "Moon
Celebrations" each month, every one of us wore silver and black,
and coin bras and girdles. Each of us did nothing to offend Jamila!
Takesh was the kanoon player at the Casbah then and
a little Arabic man named Gilli-Gilli was the drummer
and comic relief. Fadil Shahin was the singer oudist,
and not to be out-done, produced his own record album. Aida was
the reigning queen of the Casbah, dancing there as one of the three
regulars five nights per week, until she had a run in with Prince
M. and was reduced to three night per week. What the particulars
were, I do not know, but when she danced, and they worked the crowd
for tips, he would disappear until she was back on the stage.
Sonya was hired to dance at the Casbah. She was
a Russian girl and came from a strict Orthodox family that begrudgingly
allowed her to perform with us in the dance troupe only during the
Renaissance Faire. Unbeknownst to the family she also became the
new number one performer and was the darling of the nightclub. The
Arabs loved her. When told how wonderful Sonya was, my friend Judy had
to see her perform. "I was never so disappointed," she
complained to me. "All she did was prance around the stage and
for her 'floor work', she fanned herself and I could hear Jalal tell
her to start dancing." She continued this way for about
one year until her brother accidentally saw her photos in the nightclub's
glass display window in front of the club. Her family put an abrupt
end to her dancing.
to the next part of this article:
Reflections on North Beach: Part III
another article about the North Beach scene:
Last Night at the Casbah by
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