Gilded Serpent presents...

Queen of Denial, A Tale about Life and Belly Dancing

Rebaba dancing at the Casbah

Part 1: The Safety of the Stage

by Rita Alderucci (aka Rebaba)
posted May 6, 2010

In September of 2004 my life was out of control, the addict in me was running the show and it had finally usurped my ability to function anywhere near normal on a daily basis.  It was at this low point in my life that my nearest and dearest, both my immediate family and my Hahbi’Ru family, came to my rescue in the unwanted form of an intervention to save my life.  With nothing but love and fear for my life they put their foots down, and took away the last connection I was desperately trying to hold on to which was dancing.  I had convinced no one but myself that I could keep dancing in that horrible condition. Thank God, they were brave enough and scared enough to say “NO MORE”, and do the one thing that would force me to get the help I needed, take the dance away.

With their love and unending support I entered a rehabilitation program.  In this program I was finally able to accept the fact that I was (and still am) sick with a chronic (but not terminal) illness. 

I started the long and difficult job of getting my illness under control, and learning how to live my life without drugs.  It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but, the joys of once again “living” in the true sense of the word are without parallel.  I can truly say that I have never been happier or more at ease in my own skin.

In my story that follows I will take you on my life journey, the good and the bad, dancing and then not dancing.  I hope this will entertain you as well as help you understand a little about the illness of addiction.  Addiction continues to grow in our country in epidemic proportions.  The sad truth is that there is still no real hope of getting the necessary help to those that truly need it.  The statistics are staggeringly low, with a success rate of less than 5% of those that seek, or who are forced to seek treatment through the courts.  I am one of the lucky ones that have beaten the odds, and I know it and will continue the work for the rest of my life!

To you my dear family and friends, I dedicate this story of my ups and downs, told truthfully and without remorse to all of you.  The lessons you all helped me learn have given me more than I could have ever imagined.  I love you all and will work hard to maintain the wonderful life you have helped me rebuild.  With all my heart I thank you.

 Where should I start?  Do I begin with my career overseas? Should I start upon my return to the USA, or from the very beginning?  I promised an article that will include my story of drug addiction and on-going recovery; so it should begin in San Francisco, with the ’60s era of the “flower children”.  As an alternative, I could begin at the beginning when as a child I became a student of Theater Arts, ballet, modern dance, jazz, and different ethnic dance forms.  I also began suffering with insecurities, anxieties, and eating disorders!  In the ’70s, the disco era, I began my career as a professional Belly dancer in San Francisco’s North Beach, I was 17 years old.  Or, I could begin during the time when I moved to Hollywood, and witnessed the arrival of Egyptian musicians in the cocaine infested nightclubs, and I could mention the fact that in these seedy clubs you could hear some of the best Middle Eastern music in the country!  I just don’t know exactly where I should begin my story…

There is much to tell, with and without adding my addiction to the mix!  I am hoping, though, that you will be as interested in my dance career as you are in the drug scene that enveloped me before, during, and after it!  Therefore, I will begin at the time I started performing, and discovered a new safe place for me.

For many years, the most secure and safe place for me was on stage–dancing and acting.  Performing gave me the security and love for which I yearned  (both with and without drugs). 

So, for many years I was able to keep my addictive illness in check, and maintain a certain amount of control over my life.  Not to say that I didn’t "do" drugs, but, my drug use hadn’t yet escalated to become the monster that took control over my life, and eventually could have ended it.

 

Rita at 13

Rebaba dancing in an improv class.
Caption- " This photo is taken of when I was in the Performing Arts Workshop (PAW). I was in the Work-Study Arts Program and spent a minimum of 2 hours a day studying drama, improv, Ballet & Modern dance & Circus Arts. I was  a student there beginning in Junior High School abnd until I graduated from High School. It was the closets thing to a performins arts school in existence at the time in San Francisco, I was 13 years old in this picture. Gloria Unti, the director, is pictured in the background, left.
Rita at 14
Rebaba at age 14 dancing with her first pot, selected with the help of Nakish. This photo was taken by my mom on the night of the day I bought my first pot with Nakish at White Front (which used to be on 16th Street and Potrero, and was kind of like the first Target) I was 14 years old and the year is 1969.

My Childhood 

I was born and raised in San Francisco (and that reminds me, we, my group of “artistic” friends,  had a club for a while in High School, and we made T-shirts emblazoned with “B&B NSF”), and I grew up here in the ’60s and ’70s.  I was a product of that very special time in San Francisco: a “chemical child”, a very young, hip “party girl” if you will.  Perfectly suited to this era of non-stop pot smoking, which was hardly considered “doing drugs” in those days. (In fact, drinking alcohol was considered a much more serious problem for a teenager, and of course it still is one.)  In the ’60s and ’70s, many dancers and artists believed that the natural high from smoking pot was an enhancement to our art and increased our creativity!  When I began dancing full-time in San Francisco’s North Beach Belly dance venues, almost every dancer I worked with smoked pot.  I don’t know about you, but, I tended to “dance for myself” when dancing stoned. 

Eventually, I learned to remember I was onstage while dancing high, (at least most of the time) and overcame my tendency to space-out, lose focus and end up with a blank stare on my face.  I trained myself to look at my audience, keep listening to the music and smile. Never stop smiling!

The Obsession of My Youth

It was many years later that the hard drugs that I had convinced myself I could control, completely consumed me.  Between then and now, I managed to have an interesting and successful career as a Belly dancer.  Traveling to distant countries helped me keep my ugly demons at bay and even sober up for much of that time. (Although, I replaced drugs with eating particularities/disorders.)  During the years that I danced overseas in the late ’70s and ’80s, I didn’t do drugs–except when I visited my hometown. Then, it was non-stop partying for up to a month, mostly smoking pot, snorting cocaine and drinking alcohol.  Then I would stop, cold-turkey, and return to my life of dancing 7 days a week, 365 a year.  I filled my time with dancing onstage, and in jazz classes during the day while living and working in Paris, and in the gyms while dancing in the resort hotels of the Middle East and Africa.  I would starve myself and then binge about once a week, taking laxatives daily to be able to relieve myself at all, which becomes almost impossible when you don’t consume any oil in your diet. 

I was high on controlling my eating habits, which by-the-way, is the addictive high of anorexia and bulimia, and I was the thinnest I’ve ever been.  European Belly dance venues expected their dancers, and especially their star dancers to look like a professional dancer, meaning thin, very thin and beautiful, which I was though I didn’t know it at the time.

Of course, being the sick person I was, I took every criticism to heart, from anyone, onstage or off.  When you are constantly being judged by men, owners, musicians, and fans, you can never win.  I was too fat, then too thin, and I believed them all.  Unfortunately, all these opinions of me only fed in to my psychosis and insecurities, allowing me to justify my actions as being necessary for my "art".  So, even when I wasn’t actually indulging in drugs, I most certainly remained a victim of my obsessive/compulsive behavior.

In hindsight, these years of traveling, and living in Paris were the happiest of my young life, and during this time, I was as close to sane, though clearly still not quite right, as anyone (and more than many).  My life was a fairy tale, and if I had to starve myself to attain and maintain it, that was a small price to pay.

(No!  The damage I did to my body during those years of laxatives and food obsessions didn’t show up until I stopped the behavior.  I am sterile, do you think these were contributing factors?  Most likely they were–along with lots of flight time and tons of exercise.  It’s possible this may have occurred without the eating disorders, but, they certainly didn’t help, and most likely were a major contributing factor to my sterility.)

My Public Image

Now that I have exposed some of my guts, my skeletons in the closet, I would like to tell you more about the image that I vigorously maintained for many years. It is the story I naturally believed to be my public life, and not the big secret that I tried (with varying success) to keep hidden.  I was the last person to understand that I was sick.  I had become an expert at convincing myself that my behavior was more normal than not.  I was a professional dancer and entertainer, travelling the globe, being paid to do what I loved best, dance, dance, dance!  I had convinced myself that drugs and eating disorders were as natural and necessary as were my costumes and makeup!  The reality was that during the years that I was dancing and touring professionally, I was able to successfully keep my additive nature under control.  My most destructive behavior began later in life, once Belly dancing became my hobby, and I was no longer an entertainer by profession.

As a child, my obsessive/compulsive personality drove me to hone my dance skills at a very early age via incessant repetition.  My unwavering concentration and absolute need to perform led me to seek out venues to feed this need as far back as I can remember.  These aspects of my obsessive/compulsive behaviors were not totally destructive.  There was definitely a part of my nature that lent itself perfectly to the demanding life of an artist, or, any person who specializes in one field and strives for perfection in it.  From my earliest memories, I was unhappy, spending my waking hours doing anything else besides dancing and performing. 

Of all the activities with which children and teenagers usually occupy their time, dancing was my major preoccupation.  I managed to be dancing or acting most of the time, in school and after school.  I began performing onstage when I was 10 years old, dancing the hula with Leilani Rodgers Company.  When I was 12 years old, I was enrolled in the Performing Arts Workshop. PAW is still in existence today, under the direction of the daughter of the woman who founded it in the early ’60s, and with whom I studied both theater and Modern dance as a child, and then teenager, Gloria Unti [pictured in second photo above].  I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the PAW’s Work/Study program in junior high school.  (In the ’60s this was the closest thing to a high school for the performing arts.)  I went to school from 8:30 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. to take my core academic classes, and then went to the PAW every afternoon.  I was paid $20. per week, which was a small fortune for a kid back in the ’60s!  On top of the multitude of classes I received in the PAW, both dramatic arts and dance, I was taking Modern dance classes at the Margaret Jenkins studio, Polynesian dance with Leilani Rodgers at the Buchanan Street Berkeley YWCA, and I started taking Belly dance classes with Jamila Salimpour at the Presidio Avenue studio where she began teaching Belly dance in San Francisco.  I was involved in all of these activities before I turned 13 years old!  Fortunately for my single mother, most of these classes were free, or they became free to me once I distinguished myself, making it possible (affordable) for me to take all these different classes.  I was obsessed with dance and better than the average kid at it.  By the end of 1969, I started to perform with Bal-Anat

1st Ren Faire1st Ren Faire
1st Ren Faire
These two photos were taken at the first Renaissance Faire at Black Point in Novato California in 1970. Aida and I shared Pot Dancer duties (she is in the back round along with:
Jamila and Suhaila, Mark Bell, Galia, Mehta, Lisa (the first Bal Anat snake dancer), Sharon Carew (who did the occational finali, Snake dancer and then Kahslama with me some years later).

Jamila

In 1970, I performed at the first Black Point Renaissance Faire in Novato, California.  Aida and I shared the first water-pot dance, alternating shows three times a day.  It seemed like a dream come true for me, dancing with Jamila’s incredible dance company.  I had first seen Bal-Anat as an audience member about a year earlier (1968) at the very first Renaissance Faire held at China Camp in Marin County.  I  fell in love immediately with the hypnotic drums, music, and mysterious beauty of the performance art that was Jamila’s fabulous creation, Bal-Anat.  I started taking lessons as soon as her classes resumed after the faire, and exactly one year later, I was up there with Jamila, and a very young Suhaila, the exquisite Nakish (who was my faire chaperon because of my young age, and took me to Novato every weekend as I didn’t yet have a driver’s license).  I was performing on the same stage as the incomparable Galya, Rhea, Anne Lippe, Reyna, Mehta, Lisa, and many other beautiful women, all dancing with sabers, snakes, pots, veils, cymbals, and draped in assiute cloth, lots of assiute!  It was an incredible, unique blend of fantasy and reality, based upon Jamila’s vision of Egyptian Tribal Dance.  She was, and still is one of the most amazing women I have ever had the honor of knowing.  I consider her an astute historian whose personal research and unending fascination with Egypt and the Middle East, close to a singled-handed resurrection of an art form in San Francisco, of all places! 

Her classes gave us so much more than just a Belly dance.  Jamila, with her wonderful story telling and strong hand as a teacher gave me, and many like me, a new and fantastic feminist life-path that was strong and woman-dominated. 

Casbah Dressing room shot, taken in 1973, I just graduated from High School, and was dancing Tuesday and Thursdays there before leaving the states to go to school in Switzerland.
Casbah Dressing room shot, taken in 1973, I just graduated from High School, and was dancing Tuesday and Thursdays there before leaving the states to go to school in Switzerland.

It gave me a sense of pride and self-esteem for the very first time in my life.  It was the first time in my short life that far that I felt truly special, beautiful, and talented!  I was mature enough to realize that I wasn’t alone in my new found sense of self-worth.   Many young American women who began taking Jamila’s Belly dance classes at this time had similar experiences.  I have always felt extremely blessed to have met Jamila, and studied with her when I did, and especially at my young age (12 years old).  As you can imagine, from what I have previously described to you so far, Jamila’s influence over me was very instrumental in helping me become a stronger and much more secure young woman, much more so than I might have done if left to my own devices.  Her classes and Belly dance in my life gave me the outlet I so desperately needed to keep my addictive nature in check for many, many years. 

Belly Dance Saves Me

Believe me; my later drug abuse problems might have taken a much earlier and uglier chunk out of my life if I hadn’t started Belly dancing.  These classes in the ’60s were the beginning of what was to become a historical force in the woman’s movement San Francisco, the Bay Area and eventually the rest of the country.  The Belly dance craze in the ’60s and ’70s wained in the ’80s, and then returned with a vengeance and new direction in the ’90s with the advent of American Tribal Style (ATS).  That is also when John Compton, Paula, and I created Hahbi’Ru Dance Ensemble in 1992… I was, for more than once in my life, in the right place, at the right time, and with the right mind!  Belly dance embraced me like another mother, and gave me a secure path in life which could only be described as kismet!  From my teens to my 40s Belly dancing was like a safety net with a strong enough influence in the right direction, the good and healthy life direction, that it helped to keep me sober (and at the very least, a functioning addict) for many years at a time. 

North Beach

After graduating from high school, and approximately 18 months of university study at San Francisco State as a dramatic arts major, I dropped out to take my first dance contract and travel to Calgary, Canada, to perform for two months.  Two days before I was to leave the owner passed away!  So instead of traveling to Canada to dance full time, I started performing on Broadway at the Casbah Cabaret as a regular dancer (described in North Beach Memories, Part I)…  I was 17 years old, and in heaven!

Travel 

In my nineteenth year, I left San Francisco and the Casbah, to go abroad.  My mother’s father was from Switzerland, although he died very young, a long time before I was born, his (and now my) family were plentiful with 6 sisters and one brother all living in Switzerland.  In 1974, I had my Grandfather’s sisters and brother still living in Geneva and Lausanne, Switzerland.  It was time for me to meet more of them, and see France, Spain, and Italy as well.  I saved up and left with a Eu-rail Pass (a gift from my mom) for what was supposed to be a summer long trip through Europe.  I arrived in Frankfurt, Germany, and decided right then and there that I wasn’t going home anytime soon!  With help from my mom and my Great-Aunt (my Grandfather’s oldest sister), I secured funding from the Swiss family bank to pay for my education.  I was invited to room with another Great-Aunt, and my mom committed to send me spending money.  I started intense language school in September of 1974, with the hopes of passing the strenuous language tests necessary to gain admission to the International School of the University of Geneva, Switzerland

My intent was to study the French language and eventually go on to one of the many translator schools Geneva is famous for and that supply the United Nations.  I imagined myself working in the UN as a translator and living in Europe full time.  Well, I got as far as a year and a half of 8-hour a day language school under my belt, before dropping out and jumping a train for Paris, France.  In Paris my best girlfriend (and she still is), was working as an “Au Pair”, taking care of a single mother’s two girls.  She had also taken some Belly dance classes with Jamila Salimpour in San Francisco back when I first began to study with her.  She had written to me while I was still in Geneva, saying that she had met some Arabic musicians playing in the Metro.  They told her about an Algerian restaurant named Al Jezair, off the Place de Ste. Michel, on the left bank of Paris, where they played nightly in an orchestra, and there were Belly dancers in the show!  When she told them her girlfriend was a professional Belly dancer in San Francisco, they laughed, and said there was no such thing as an American Belly dancer!  She tried explaining the current fad/trend in San Francisco that Belly dancing had become over the last couple of years, but, they were hard-pressed to believe it.  They said that I should go to Al Jezair for an audition when I arrived in Paris.  (Personally, from what my girlfriend told me, I think they were just being nice and flirting with her as she was, and still is, also a beautiful Jewish girl from NYC.)  When she wrote me this story, it took me exactly one day to decide to give up my dreams of becoming a translator at the UN, and jump on the next train to Paris with 8 dollars in my pocket, and the hopes of a job Belly dancing on the left bank!

To be continued…

Don’t miss-Author Rebaba will be performing with Hahbi’Ru at the upcoming Tribal Fest held in Sebastopol, Ca Sunday, May 16th at 4pm(ish), 2010.

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Ready for more?

  • 10-1-08 North Beach Memories- Casbah Cabaret, Part I Circa 1973 by Rebaba
    We performed what I have dubbed “conveyer belt dancing”, that is three dancers doing three shows each, starting promptly at 8:30 p.m. without stopping until 2:00 a.m., whether we had an audience or not.
  • 11-8-05 My Adventure Begins! by Asmahan
    At last, another North Beach Memory! "I was creating my life as an adventure, I was making my own destiny; this was Kismet!"
  • 6-10-03 North Beach and Mark Bell from an interview with Lynette
    A lot of my getting the jobs was because I was there available when the opportunity arose.
  • 3-22-00 Wave #2 of North Beach Memories!
  • 1-4-00 LatifaThe Rest of the San Francisco Dance Scene- Powell St Station.
  • 2-25-00 Bert Balladineat long last Bert begins his story
  • 2-25-00 George Eliasa tribute written by his daughter, Nadia Elias.
  • 3-22-00 John ComptonFinnochios, Bal Anat, to Hahbi’ru
  • 3-22-00 Abdullah Kdouh well known musician interviewed by mail
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    When pregnant, I practiced Belly dance moves each day in preparation for giving birth, mainly focusing on the circular, soothing and stretching movements but avoiding shimmies and moves that were contra-indicated by midwives and sports professionals.
  • 5-3-10 A Very British Kind of Bellydance by Charlotte Desorgher
    This incongruity is something that characterizes the English bellydance scene. Many of our festivals are held in historic sites, such as castles or ancient towns, and we are used to the surprising sound of Arabic music floating across an English lawn.
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    I realized that I’m more at home on a felucca sounded by Egyptians with Shabii music blasting than in a hip hop club, with girls in short skirts rubbing up against guys. In my life in San Francisco, my friends and I were living a combination of both, but we had to have Arabic music at the end of the day, because that was what moved us.
  • 4-27-10 San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the
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    by Oscar Cwajbaum, Introduction by Davina

    We were fortunate to have a new photographer at our last gala show on November 14, 2009. It was Oscar’s first belly dance event, and though I invited him purely to get photos of my own costuming work, he spent the entire day snapping shots from our show and has fallen in love with our art form. Here are some of my favorite shots from that day.
  • 4-16-10 Belly Dance and Feminism: Different Issues, Different Perspectives Introduction to IBCC Panel on Bellydance and Feminism
    Feminism embraces more than one point of view, and feminist perspectives lead to many different decisions and courses of action. Feminism is a tool for thinking – for understanding and putting a name to issues you may be wrestling with in your own dance life, and for seeing belly dance in the light of broader economic, social and political realities.
  • 4-15-10 Mass Media, Mass Sterotypes: Beginnings by Shira
    From the very beginning of moving pictures technology, moviemakers have used “Middle Eastern dance” as a means of adding sexual innuendo and sexy eye candy to their productions.
  • 4-14-10 Nights Out in Cairo, Part 1: Wednesday Through Saturday by Nicole
    The beauty of Cairo is often in the every day things, the small things that we wouldn’t consider so worthwhile, but in fact, make up the real substance of what it’s like to live here. I don’t go to museums or monuments or see famous Belly dancers every day, but I am here in Cairo every day and that is special in and of itself.

   |       |    3 Comments

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    Linda Grondahl

    May 24, 2010 - 05:05:52

    Fascinating and I can’t wait to read more. Didn’t realize you started so young! Amazing that despite the drugs you accomplished so much and now are clear-headed enough to enjoy the memories!!

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