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The Gilded Serpent's North Beach Memories

Excerpts from 
Searching for the Goddess, A Dancer's Odyssey
Narrator: Jamie Miller [Sabah]
Interviewer: Anne Hawkins

Legacy Oral History Project- June 1993
posted with permission from the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum

GS: 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 oriented 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?

JAMIE: Right! 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?

JM: Well, 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?

JM: Not 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?

JM: Yeah. 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?

JM: The 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?

JM: Yeah. 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 weren't the 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?

JM: I got a job as a cocktail waitress, and it was at the Bagdad. And I heard my first Arabic music and saw my first belly dancer.

Early Teacher: Bert Balladine

AH: And you were hooked!

JM: 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.

JM: Bert Balladine.

AH: And was belly dance what he taught?

JM: Yes. He was teaching belly dancing to do it professionally. I was one of his first students.

AH: Where was his studio?

JM: He did it in his home; it was on Oak Street in San Francisco.

AH: What was his background?

JM: 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--

JM: I 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?

JM: Yes. 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?

JM: I 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?

JM: Yeah, 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?

IM: Not 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.

JM: It felt really good to be dancing again. It was great. And belly dancing felt wonderful.

Early Gigs:

JM: I 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 many nights?

JM: Six nights a week.

AH: That's a lot.

IM: Uh huh.

AH: How many performances would you have to do in an evening?

JM: Three.

AH: What was it like to dance in a club, after having such a high art background?

JM: I 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.

Finding Identity:

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 you say,

"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."

JM: Right, right.

AH: Did that kind of feeling come out later?

JM: I 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.

JM: It 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?

JM: Yeah, I did. And then I got a job at "The Baghdad", working with Arabic music, and that was amazing!

AH: Live band?

JM: That was really hard. Yeah.

Stage Name:

JM: That's 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?

JM: It 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?

JM: I 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 idea.

Club Dates and Social Context:

AH: Was the Baghdad the only place that had live bands?

JM: "The 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?

JM. : 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?

JM: Right. 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 doing it?

JM: Most 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!

Further Training:

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.

JM: The 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!

JM: Oh, 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 website:

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