Gilded Serpent presents...

Magana Baptiste

Magana Baptiste as NefertitiMagana as Nefertiti

Dancing for a Queen

by Amina Goodyear
posted December 3, 2010

The United States in the 1950s was still a racially segregated country.
It wasn’t until the mid 1950s that nonviolent protests such as "sit-ins" and boycotts produced situations and conditions that forced the government and businesses to change their segregationist policies.

Happily, I can say that the San Francisco Bay Area took part in helping to change the rules on segregation and social and racial tolerance in all ways. San Francisco was considered a liberal city. San Francisco in the 1950s was a city that tolerated differences with a bit of curiosity. San Francisco is a port town, and although it welcomed newcomers from all over the map, most immigrants chose to live in neighborhoods with their own kind.

We had immigrated to San Francisco at the close of World War II from the Philippines and, deciding that they were of Spanish extraction rather than of Filipino extraction, my parents chose a neighborhood that was predominantly Caucasian. Maybe this was a smart move in that we were in a "correct" school district, but it meant that I did not fit in comfortably with my classmates, because I didn’t look like them.

In the mid 1950s, Yul Brynner starred in a hit movie called "The King and I". It was a movie about Siam, the country we now call Thailand. After being ridiculed one time too many because I looked different, I decided to cash in on the difference.

I became a "Princess" from Siam. None of my classmates knew anything about Siam except that it was exotic; so I was accepted because I was "exotic".

I had taken dance lessons since the age of 4, and my new-found identity opened the doors for me to embrace being different and exotic. Already, I had studied the requisite tap, ballet, acrobatics, ballroom, and jazz. The "King and I" led me to new journeys and adventures in music, and I became quite drawn to the exotic sounds. This became the era of "primitiva" and "exotica" music. However, the best I could find was Zack Thompson teaching Afro Cuban and Afro Haitian with more conga drummers than students in cellars and attics in San Francisco’s Black neighborhoods. Again, I was different, but finally, I “passed for white." Thanks to Zack, though, I wasn’t bothered: "Leave her alone, she’s jail-bait." Studying with Zack was probably the most imprinting experience in my dance life. I didn’t know his dance background at that time; however, he was in Katherine Dunham‘s dance company, but his style provided a very strong base for my later dance career and his drummers introduced me to the heartbeat of the dance (all the styles of dance that I would ultimately embrace).

Katherine DunhamIn high school, I became the entertainment for all the school assemblies and rallies.
With my jazz dance and Afro dance background, I enjoyed performing to Ken Nordine‘s "Word Jazz", Les Baxter‘s "Exotica" music and to my favorite record of all-time–Katherine Dunham‘s "Drum Rhythms of Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil: The Singing Gods".

My new-found me, exotic, different, even slightly "beat", led me on a quest to find even more exotic music for enjoyment and also for performance. I found a new LP, featuring one of the most compelling voices I ever heard. It was "Voice of the Xtabay" sung by a supposed Incan Princess, Yma Sumac.

When I think of six degrees of separation, I think of Magana Baptiste.

My aunt worked for her husband Walt Baptiste. A former Mr. America (1949), Walt was a body builder and yoga instructor and owned a health and fitness club in downtown San Francisco. My teacher, Zack, had left for Europe, and I was suffering from dance withdrawal. Thanks to my aunt who assisted in Walt’s office, I heard that Walt’s wife taught African dance. So, this high school girl was off to find a new dance master.

This dance studio was in the heart of San Francisco’s shopping district. I remember looking for the studio and finding it above a smoke shop on Powell Street–the street of the noisy clanging cable cars. I remember two rooms. One room was crammed with gym equipment (weights and machinery), and the other was an empty space; it was a real dance studio, unlike Zack’s dark attics in condemned buildings.

I met Magana. She was one of the most beautiful and exotic looking women I had ever met. She was young, and her dark hair was pulled up in a ponytail; except the ponytail was pulled to one side. She told me that she had studied with the legendary Ruth St. Denis and that she had toured with Yma Sumac! I couldn’t believe my ears. Yay! My “princess dreams” were coming full circle. Maybe I could be dancing with princesses also.

I studied African dance with Magana but soon discovered that her real passion was East Indian Dance. So, continuing my exotic dance training, I became an East Indian dancer. I don’t know if I was any good, but I got to perform in a few shows with her and her other dancers. I particularly remember when we danced for the San Francisco Press Club. The performance wasn’t that memorable to me, but I remember that, after the show, we were treated like royalty. They set us up in a banquet room and each of us got big, fat, tender, juicy, delicious steaks.

What was memorable was that Walt and Magana were vegetarians.  (I had never known a vegetarian before this.) They were trying to decide what to do with all that meat! Well, Walt and Magana looked at each other and said, “Why not?” and they just dug in like the rest of us! Later, I  wondered if they were being polite to the extreme or if they actually enjoyed the meal. I remember I did!

As Walt and Magana became more successful, their clientele grew too big for their tiny studio, and they moved to a larger one. This studio was quite large and was in another part of San Francisco, but still part of the downtown area. (This was not the building that they eventually bought.) The dance studio attracted a number of students, including a woman named Violet Mahsoud. Her Turkish husband, Leo, had been raised in a Turkish harem where he learned to play the oud. Violet later became a dance and yoga instructor thanks to Walt and Magana.

Magana had another young high school girl in her dance class. This one was a writer. She wrote a play about King Tut. I remember Magana, her friends, and all the other more experienced dancers, rehearsing for the play. It was quite exciting to stay after class and watch the rehearsals. Magana was cast as Queen Nefertiti, and I don’t believe I ever saw a more beautiful or believable Queen than Magana. She eventually used a publicity shot from that play to promote her dance school. To me, she was Queen Nefertiti!

I don’t know if you could imagine my joy and excitement when she asked me if I would like to be in the play and perform a short solo dance. Me? Yikes! Could I do it? She said she’d train me. I couldn’t believe that–not only would I get to be in this prestigious play–but I’d also get personal attention from Magana! So, after school, Magana would train me to be a dancing girl.

That is how I got to be an exotic dancing girl in a play about King Tut and Queen Nefertiti. I was the only exotic dancing girl. I didn’t dance with princesses, I got to dance for a queen. Many years later, I realized that what I performed was a Belly dance.

Thanks to Magana, I got my start in a career that has become my life.

use the comment box

Have a comment? Use or comment section at the bottom of this page or Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?

  • 3-16-05 About my teacher Magana Baptiste by Horacio Cifuentes
    At the time when her husband placed second in the Mr. America body building contest, and mind you, these were the days when body builders took no steroids and were true examples of healthy humans, Magana placed first runner up in the Miss USA beauty competition held in Los Angeles in 1951.
  • 1-25-04 Chapter 1: One Ad Changed My Life by Amina Goodyear
    I was very desperate and determined to get back to my old self.
  • 3-24-04 Chapter 2: "I’d Rather Stay Home with my Kids" by Amina Goodyear
    I asked her how to take it off, and she told me to figure it out when I was on stage. Then I heard – "Our "guest" dancer, Amina, all the way from upstairs!"
  • 4-17-07 Chapter 3: A Marriage Made in North Beach by Amina Goodyear
    The stage was alight with the flames of the candelabrum’s candles and the eerie glow of her costume. Fatma’s costumes were always comprised of material that glowed in the dark as her show began with no light—except for “black light”.
  • 6-6-07 Chapter 4: Smokin’ by Amina Goodyear
    Now that I was legitimately part of the Bagdad family and on the payroll, Yousef told me that all the dancers had to split their tips 50/50 with the band. This meant that I was making less money than when I wasn’t getting paid at all.
  • 6-30-07 Chapter 5: Listen to the Music by Amina Goodyear
    Yousef wanted us to look exotic, like we were from the Middle East, so he made us stay downstairs, look available and wear sexy, skimpy pantaloon outfits or diaphanous caftans when we were not dancing.
  • 8-15-07 Chapter 6: Bert, by Amina Goodyear
    On my first Monday at the Casa Madrid, Bert came to support the place and me. Well, what he saw was equivalent to a San Francisco earthquake.
  • 2-8-08 Chapter 7: Yousef – Black Lights and Veils by Amina Goodyear
    It was kind of hard to compete with this kind of action when we kept our clothes on.
  • 12-2-10 Long Distance Bellydance Relationship by Dahab
    I am very grateful technology allowed us to have this very special kind of troupe, one whose members live thousand of miles away.
  • 12-1-10 Practice Makes Perfect, or Does it? by Adriane
    It is because mediocre or non-existent practice makes for a mediocre performer and perfectly consistent practice makes for a perfect performer.
  • 11-30-10 More is More, Mohamed El Hosseny by Thalia
    Some might find El Hosseny’s creations busy. The popular approach is to slow down to interpret the music whereas El Hosseny’s approach is just the opposite.
  • 11-27-10 A Dancer’s Dancer in 1980s Hollywood, Interview with Yasmin by Kamala
    L.A. was heaven for fabrics though. You could find anything you wanted, and if they didn’t have it, you could have it made, like the beautiful gold lame’ sunburst skirt and veil I had pressed for a costume.
  • 11-26-10 Struggle for Legitimacy, History of Belly Dance in Quebec, an Overview by Marthyna
    They were not always accepted by the general public because of the revealing costumes but also because sometimes dancers performed between two strippers. This created a taboo around bellydancing. No one wanted to be caught learning it or performing on stage.
  1. Shelley Muzzy

    Dec 8, 2010 - 08:12:31

    I am pleased to see an article about Magana Baptiste.  Several years ago my producer and I did a long taped interview with Magana at her house in SF and I was impressed by her grace and good humor.  She is an important dance pioneer in the US and her legacy lives on in our community.  Someday I hope to put our interviews out on DVD for everyone to see, but until then, I applaud Gilded Serpent and the amazing Amina (who we also have on film in an interview) for bringing her back to the spotlight.

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.