Queen of the Dancers in the Golden Era of Tinseltown
by Kamala Almanzar
posted October 29, 2009
The late 1970’s and early 1980’s were the best of times and the worst of times for Belly Dancers in the Los Angeles area. The large influx of people from the Middle East brought with it a burgeoning Arabic club and restaurant scene, and most of the large clubs were centered in the gritty neighborhoods of Hollywood. There were a handful of dancers who did the circuit, and I think we believed it would never end – working 7 nights a week with live orchestras and a minimum of three Raqs Sharki dancers a night. The downside was the long nights, poor pay and a general lack of respect.
Attempting to track down dancers from this era has proven challenging, but I am determined to find as many as possible to interview about their memories of this unique time and place in American Belly Dance. This first of these interviews is with Jacqueline Lombard – the former reigning queen of Hollywood Belly Dance. Jacqueline was the first to leave LA for the Middle East, to return with a one hour, one woman, large orchestra show. A friend once described her as being chi chi, and I thought that was the perfect description, in the best possible way. Jacqueline quit dance cold turkey at the top of her game, and became a sort of "Greta Garbo" figure – living on a ranch far away from the Arabic stage. I tracked Jacqueline down for this interview:
Kamala: When did you begin Middle Eastern Dance, and who was your teacher (teachers)?
Jacqueline: I started dancing at 5 years old in ballet & jazz and I continued until I discovered Belly dancing. I had 2 classes my sister paid for in a bribe to drive and take the classes with her, don’t remember who that teacher was. That was in the seventies. Much later I saw Belly dancing at the Renaissance Faire in Agoura [near Malibu, CA], and started to teach myself.
Kamala: What was the 1st club you worked in & what clubs were happening at that time?
Jacqueline: I entered a contest at the Seventh Veil on Sunset Strip in 1973. I won first place, and the prize was $25 & a one night a week job for $25 a night. I became one of their top dancers before they closed down. During that time I was a struggling actress. My first dance job outside of the Seventh Veil was with AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artist Union).
I was hired to dance at a press conference for Alice Cooper. He loved snakes so he decided to hire a belly dancer, me, and a gorilla who carried me off at the end.
It was on all the news channels and teen magazines! Boy, I thought I really chose the right career! I then went to the Greek Village on Hollywood Blvd. That’s where I learned how to "entertain". After that I soon realized I needed the real deal, Arabic music. I got lucky, Ali Baba’s opened on Sunset and La Brea in Hollywood. It was a very beautiful club, great stage and Arabic music, but things were not grand… the musicians were abusive.
They refused to play dance music or anything you asked for…got to admit, that really taught how to pull off a show & think quick on my feet. You never knew where they were going with the music, & they tried to make you look bad.
Kamala: Do you remember the Egyptian group that came to Omar Khayam’s and changed the face of dance in LA?
Jacqueline: The first time I got to dance and relax was when the Egyptian musicians came to LA. Omar Khayams was a hole in the wall club on Vermont Ave with a tiny stage. I really hated that, but the music was hypnotic. I had to retrain myself how to move, the music was so different. It was then that I got to see and meet Nahed Sabri. This was a big turning point in my dance. She was wild, exciting and did movements that had phrasing with feelings attached to those specific movements. I knew all that I had been exposed to before was an interpretation of jazz or something western, and that’s why I remained self taught.
Now here in front of me was Nahed – packaged, professional and over the top creative. She chewed gum during her show! I loved her, and when she saw me dance she said "you’re the best I’ve seen in America".
Armed with that information, I now knew I was on the right track, my confidence grew. I watched the Arabic people everywhere – at other clubs, weddings, anywhere they would get up and dance. They taught me how to move with the music, how to speak their language. That is how I learned this dance.
Up until this time those were the only clubs I remember being open. I went back to Ali Baba’s and got a whopping $50 a night (Ha!) I only agreed with a concession that the musicians had to rehearse and play the music we wanted. This was for all the dancers. I got a lot of flack from, of all people, some of the dancers! They just wanted to model on stage and get paid, or so I remember. The majority, though, were professionals who wanted what I wanted – to put on a show of quality and enjoy the experience. The smaller clubs made the dancers do 3 shows a night, no choice of music and low pay. There was a protest against the clubs at that time. No one spoke to me or asked my opinion. It was sad for me as I knew I could start the change with myself, for all dancers, and when the customers came for the professional show, the other clubs would follow suite. In the end we (Belly Dancers) got a lot of publicity, and it helped the industry I feel.
Kamala: I met you on the set of "The Man with Bogart’s Face". Did you know that scene has a sort of cult status? I still get fan mail! What do you remember about the filming of that movie?
Jacqueline: The Man with Bogart’s Face – what a blast! The director was very appreciative of us. I will always remember you, Kamala. I was very proud to be in it with you. We all looked good and were able to be who we were, not some circus act Hollywood thought we should be. I got more of those auditions than not. That was a memory for all time. I didn’t know it was a cult scene! I still have lots of pics with the giant and Bogart!
Kamala: Do you remember who the dancers and musicians were in those days, and what music was played for you?
Jacqueline: It’s so long ago, alas, I can’t remember musicians’ names now. I guess most were unmemorable, except the end of my career when I hired my own bands and ran the clubs I was in! (something about having to pay them helps the memory!) The dancers, that will take time to remember those who deserve their names remembered. As for the music, well that depends. I had my own music written for me and other pieces arranged for me. That part of my life was so fulfilling that now, that’s all I remember. It was all about competing with my last show. If you try to compete with other dancers you’re doomed, because you can’t copy an expression, it comes from inside. Being real, that’s what makes one unique and then successful.
That’s not to say we don’t all look at favorite dancers and try to learn the steps, expression and heart. You have to make it your own, get inspiration where ever you can find it.
Chapter two to come later….. Rebirth
Ready for more?
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