Gilded Serpent's North Beach Memories
for the Goddess, A Dancer's Odyssey
Interviewer: Anne Hawkins
Legacy Oral History Project-
posted with permission from the San
Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum
The first excerpt sets the scene. Jamie had
just moved to the North Beach area of San Francisco
to live with her partner, Bob Scheer, who was politically
and worked at the famous "City
Lights Book Store".
ANNE: So even though you were not personally
involved in politics, you were still hanging out in that environment?
He and Sol Stem and other people started "Root and Branch",
which was a radical magazine that became "Ramparts".
Bob was working at City Lights, so I went over to visit him, and
that's when I first saw North Beach.
I thought it was shockingly beautiful. And Lawrence Ferlinghetti
was his boss. I told him I had a crush on Lawrence Ferlinghetti,
and Lawrence Ferlinghetti personally signed this book for me.
It was so exquisitely beautiful, North Beach. And, of course,
the "Beats" had been there; it was at the end of the
Beat era, and it was all exciting to me.
AH: Had the Broadway club scene started
up by that time?
there was the Jazz Workshop; there were jazz clubs. Yeah, there
were clubs; it was definitely the entertainment area of San Francisco.
AH: Was Carol Doda doing her thing?
yet. I lived in North Beach in February of 1963, and I started
working in nightclubs that summer. No, I started working in night
clubs the next summer. I started working in nightclubs the summer
of '64, and that's when the topless happened. So, I was there
when the topless was happening.
GS: Now we take an excerpt where Jamie
sees her first belly dancer.
Belly Dancing, First Contact
AH: Were you still in school at State?
And then, I decided I'd become a Comparative Literature Major
[laughs]. I thought maybe that I could use everything I was doing.
By then, I'd taken a lot of different literature classes.
Thinking whether I should do that.
At the end of the semester, I was almost out of money. There was
a certain amount of money I had to go to school, and I was almost
out of it. I decided, "You know, I just don't know what I
want to do with a B.A.". So, that's why I decided not to
go to school any more. I decided to do what I really wanted to,
which was to work in nightclubs. That's what I wanted to do. So
I got a job cocktail waitressing.
AH: Did you know anybody in
that world at the time?
nightclub world? Well, see, the "Committee Theater" was
on Broadway, so I felt comfortable; it was, my home. North Beach
was very much my home, and I felt comfortable with the whole situation.
But also, it did seem mysterious and kind of forbidden.
AH: What drew you? The exotic?
And because it was forbidden. Because I was brought up middle
class, so it was, like, lower class. I worked for two weeks at
the Greyhound Bus station, in the hotdog stand. I used to dread
it if they asked me for a milkshake, because I wouldn't put it
in properly a lot of times and it would splatter all over! But,
anyway, I decided that the men who were at the Greyhound station
kind of men I was into, and that if I wanted to meet men, I should
go to North Beach. I decided what I really wanted to do was to
work in nightclubs. I was attracted to that whole world.
AH: So how did you do it?
got a job as a cocktail waitress, and it was at the Bagdad. And I heard my first Arabic music and saw my first
AH: And you were hooked!
I went nuts! A friend of mine, someone I had known at the Art
Institute when she used to model for art classes, was up on stage
becoming a belly dancer. I talked to her about it. She told me
to talk to Jamila. Jamila
didn't like me, so she gave me Bert's number, which was wonderful.
Because she and I never would have made it. I called Bert, and
I started working with him privately twice a week. And I practiced
a whole lot. I knew I wanted to do it professionally.
AH: Tell me Bert's full name.
AH: And was belly dance what he taught?
He was teaching belly dancing to do it professionally. I was one
of his first students.
AH: Where was his studio?
did it in his home; it was on Oak Street in San Francisco.
AH: What was his background?
He's from Germany. He remembers scrounging in the garbage pails
so that he and his mom could eat during the war. He grew up in
the circus. Then he had an acrobatic Adagio act with someone who
had been a ballerina with the San Francisco Ballet, and they went
around the world. They were in Singapore or Shanghai or something,
and they met a woman from Morocco who was a belly dancer. And
that's how they both picked it up.
AH: You were working as a cocktail waitress--
didn't work as a cocktail waitress very long. Someone asked me
if I wanted to "roll out of bed".
AH: Would you explain the phrase?
Well, there was this carnival nightclub called the "Red Balloon".
They had a girl who rolled out of bed. Judy Mack, who later went
on to start "The Swim", and became famous in that kind
of pop culture, had been rolling out of bed. And then another
woman named Barbara. For whatever reason, Barbara decided not
to roll out of bed anymore! So, I took that job. And that was
just when topless was starting. I got to go on first with pasties;
then the pasties wouldn't stay on, so I went totally bare-breasted.
AH: How long did you do that?
rolled out of bed during the summer of 1964: July and August,
and into September.
AH: Were you studying belly dance also
during that time?
I was. I was using the money I was making to pay Bert, to take
private classes twice a week. I was studying quite a bit; I was
also practicing, of course.
AH: Were you buying
costumes and materials at that time?
yet. I started getting my costumes together after I quit.
AH: How did it feel to be dancing again,
even though it was -- different kind of dancing.
felt really good to be dancing again. It was great. And belly
dancing felt wonderful.
was still working with Bert, studying and practicing, and I slowly
started to dance. I did my first bachelor party--my first job
when I got paid was a bachelor party-and Bert went down with me
down the Peninsula. I did this party. Jack was real supportive
also. I did an audition at his friend Whitey's, who had a place
in San Rafael. My first real job was in January at the Cameo Club
in Palo Alto.
AH: What did that job consist of? How
nights a week.
AH: That's a lot.
AH: How many performances would you have
to do in an evening?
AH: What was it like to dance in a club,
after having such a high art background?
liked it! Basically, it felt good. There were all kinds of variety
acts; it was real show biz, real entertainment, and I enjoyed
it. It was scary.
AH: I'm going to quote something you
said from Ann Kent Rush's back book--I don't know if it was in the
context of this time in your life and this performance or not. But
"It felt healthy to
proclaim my sexuality publicly, but the process was
filled with a lot of anger and pain." And you
go on, "Being forced to exhibit yourself in unpleasant
surroundings is another matter. It isn't the form of
the movement that's good or bad, it's the intention
behind the movement, and the situation of the dancing." So,
that gave me a different impression."
AH: Did that kind of feeling come out
think it came out later. I think in the beginning it was all so
new, that it was just unknown. But see, the "Cameo Club" was
not too bad; I mean there were a lot of acts there. And it was
such a new world, and I was seeing all these different people,
doing their different things.
AH: It was more like show biz.
was very "show biz". I think as I continued with it,
it got to be more upsetting, how sexist it was. But right at the
beginning, I think it was just so amazing, I couldn't even believe
I was doing it. I remember how it felt.
AH: How did the business aspect of it
go for you? Did you find that you continued to get work?
I did. And then I got a job at "The Baghdad", working
with Arabic music, and that was amazing!
AH: Live band?
was really hard. Yeah.
how I got my name, "Sabah". At first I didn't know Arabic
or Turkish, so Bob Owen, who was the barker when I rolled out
of bed, suggested Rami. My first publicity for the Cameo Club
said "Rami." But then I asked Fadil and Walid
Shaheen, who were from Jordan [They were Palestinian brothers from Bethlehem. GS] if
they could suggest any names, and they suggested "Sabah".
When I heard that, I said, "That's it!"
AH: What does Sabah mean?
means "morning, dawn"; I look a lot like a very important
singer, Sabah, who's Lebanese. That's why they thought of it.
AH: When you first began your training
as a belly dancer and first began to perform, were you aware of
the older, deeper traditions in belly dance, or were you really
just being exposed to cabaret dance?
was just being exposed to cabaret dancing. I didn't have any idea
about belly dancing. None. The first time I heard Arabic music
I was totally taken with it, but I had no experience of it. But
I believe in past lives, and I believe that in past lives I've
been a belly dancer before. I've come from that part of the world.
I am Jewish,
and there are a lot of Jewish belly dancers. But no, I had no
Club Dates and Social Context:
AH: Was the Baghdad the only place that
had live bands?
Bagdad" did, and "Gigi's" did.
I ended up working at "Gigi's". And "12 Adler Place"--I
don't remember if it was still live. "12 Adler Place" was
where belly dancing first started, pretty much.
AH: Was that during the 195Os?
No. It was in 1964 when I became involved, and I think it was
just a few years before that.
AH: So you really came along during the
resurgence of belly dancing in the area?
There weren't that many people doing it.
AH: That's very interesting! Were you
able at this time to see any belly dance in a more organic setting,
outside the cabaret setting? From teachers or other people who were
of what I saw was in nightclubs. But some of the people in nightclubs
were Middle Eastern. Though, they weren't necessarily good dancers.
Some of them were; some of them weren't. A few times, I remember
I got to go to a party of Arabic people. Some of us went--people
who were dancing in the clubs, and the musicians--I remember going
to that party. It seems like at that party we watched a film with
a belly dancer in it leading the wedding procession. Then, in
later years, I spent some time with friends who are Armenian and
Assyrian. They showed me steps like folk dance steps. I remember
that. Through the years, of course, I used to see people come
in and dance at the clubs, particularly the Greek clubs. The Arabic
clubs, too. In other words, people would come in who were Arabic.
That was really neat!
AH: What particular form did your training
take? What tradition? In fact, perhaps you'd better describe the
various traditions that there are, and fit yourself into that context.
thing is, a lot of it gets changed by coming to the West. Bert
very much works with improvisation. At the time, I started, there
were two main people teaching in the Bay Area, Bert and Jamila,
and they had opposing camps. Now she's down in L.A., but we've
all worked to cut out the animosity,
because it's so destructive. But, he works very spontaneously,
very much with improvisation, and she doesn't. She works very
structured, with choreography. He says that a good belly dancer
is like a good blues singer: subjective, spontaneous. So he was
the one for me! And, he's down to earth; he's real practical and
pragmatic. Although, now that I'm into the feminist aspect of
it, or philosophy, in terms of belly dancing --he doesn't believe
in any of that--so I now have gone on to a different place. But,
he's wonderful the way he works with people. I still consider
him a very good friend. He's a wonderful person, very supportive.
Although he did tell me that he thought women couldn't teach other
women, because women are too competitive. I remember thinking
when he first said that, "Boy, do I not agree with you!"
AH: And you still remember it!
I still remember it, just like I still remember some of the first
movements he gave me. I remember those classes.
Jamie goes on to tell about her friendships
with other dancers and touring outside of S.F.
For more context, and to continue with
Jamie's story outside of North Beach, Contact the SF PALM At their