This photo was taken during a photo shoot on the stage of Le Beyrouth, by our "inhouse" photographer, who also became my good friend, Freddie. I had Freddie take this series of photos after I had accepted my first contract with my new agent. She needed current photos to send to my prospective employers. The owner of the Beyrouth allowed us to use their stage one afternoon to take these photos. The young man was Freddie’s assistant who jumped up and joined me for an impromptu dance!
Queen of Denial, Part IV
posted March 31, 2011
The owner of the newest supper club/cabaret in Athens’ Constitution Square looked like “the Godfather” or Marlon Brando in the Godfather film! Very grim-faced as if he were cut of stone and his face would crack if he dared change his expression! I was rushed through customs at the Athens airport and driven into town in a huge Mercedes sedan making me feel like a star arriving for an engagement at some swanky supper club!
That night, I would find out that my arrival and subsequent feelings of having “made it to the top” couldn’t have been farther from the truth!
One night, after work at Le Beyrouth, a genuine “swanky” supper club in Paris, France, (where I had been performing for the last four months), a woman approached me as I was leaving and gave me her business card. We met the next day and she thrilled me with tales of traveling around the world, dancing on the crème de la crème of stages while performing on the African and Middle Eastern Cabaret circuits. She was a retired entertainer who along with her husband owned a small theatrical agency in Paris, devoted to cabaret entertainers. She and her husband became my first theatrical agents.
The year was 1980, and I was then performing at one of the top supper clubs in Paris for Middle Eastern entertainment, “Le Beyrouth”. However, I was far from the only Belly dancer in Paris, and after being the featured dancer at Le Beyrouth there were a limited number of venues to move to in Paris (as dancing at Le Beyrouth was, in fact, “making it to the top” in Europe at this time). Therefore, the idea of traveling was sounding like the very thing I needed to keep myself a commodity in this very competitive business.
I decided to accept my agent’s first contract to dance seven nights a week in Athens, Greece: one show a night, all accommodations paid, a food stipend, and round-trip airfare to and from Paris along with a nightly salary that was more than I had earned to date.
The venue was a brand-new nightclub in the so-called “upscale nightclub district” of Athens (as compared to the “touristic” Plaka district), Constitution Square. I was going to be performing for the upper crust of Athens society, or so I was told. There would be no backpacking tourists for me, only well-heeled Athenians who could afford to go to the restaurants and nightclubs in Constitution Square! It would be nothing but the best for a veteran dancer like myself who had been the featured Belly Dancer at Le Beyrouth in Paris! While my agent did her job of successfully filling my (slightly bloated) head with all these silly notions of stardom, little did I know that my worst performance nightmare was about to come true…
I was escorted to my very own furnished apartment, which was walking distance to the restaurant/nightclub. The owner said he would swing by and pick me up my first night since I didn’t know the area, and I was the “Star” of his new show! Boy! I was feeling as if I were in a dream, with this darkly suited-up man, looking every inch like a mafia boss, telling me I was his “Star” dancer! He said all the other dancers were so excited that a “real artist” from Paris was joining the show.
Now I should have gotten a clue when he said “all” and “real”. (Like, what were they?) Nevertheless, my head kept swelling with pictures of me, dancing in front of the huge Bouzouki Band that he had hired to play just for my show.
Evening couldn’t come soon enough, and I was ready, dressed to the nines with my costume for the evening carefully packed and ready to go. When we pulled up to the front door of what looked more like an upscale Chinese Restaurant than an exciting new evening venue, I still held my hopes high, looking at the large picture of myself lit-up in the window at the entrance. I was escorted in through the front doors; hmm, no stage door! Oh, well! I had worked plenty of places without stage doors or back doors for that matter. We continued on to my private dressing room through the kitchen, and into a converted liquor closet! Oh, my God! Was I back at Khayam’s or Ali Baba’s in Hollywood? This was the first of many details leading up to the show that I would remember for many years as the worst performance I had ever done, and it wasn’t because of my dancing I can assure you!
I started getting nervous when my new boss came in and asked me to join a party of his “best” customers for champagne to celebrate my opening night.
Now, I should interject that there was a “No, fraternizing, no B-Girl” clause in my contract, meaning no sitting with customers, and especially no sitting with customers to sell them drinks; however, to this Greek gentleman, I was his employee and expected to do him this one time “favor” because he hoped the party of wealthy “business men” would become regular customers. When I refused, telling him as politely as I could that I didn’t sit with customers, and that he knew there was a clause to this affect in my contract, and that if I was the “star” that he kept telling me I was, it certainly wouldn’t look right for me to join the audience, especially before opening show! Needless to say, he looked me dead in the eyes and told me that I should do him this “very small favor” as he had just spent more money bringing me from Paris than he paid all the other dancers put together! Warning signs lit up in front of my eyes, but to tell the truth, he rather scared me, and at this point in my 26 years, I hadn’t had a similar encounter to call upon for aid. So, I relented and said, “Only this once, as a special favor to you”! He made a big deal about bringing me to the table of more mafia-looking guys, making big hand flourishes and talking a million miles an hour in Greek. I was scooted forcibly into the middle of the booth where they were all sitting. As I remember it, they were all very polite and didn’t speak a word of English between them–apart from “hello”, the usual “pretty lady”, and “American”. At this point, I noticed there wasn’t an actual raised stage, but instead, there was a space left at the end of the bar where I saw a couple of instrument stands and no musicians. Oh no, another bad sign! Oh well, I had worked in restaurants back home without stages where you had to dance around tables and/or there was an open area left for the dancer to perform in in front of the musicians. Once again I sighed at the thought of the nightclubs I had been working in since coming back to Paris to dance. They were all first-class, and they all had stages! I kept making excuses to myself, such as: “Think of how much money you are making”, and “you are in Greece, for goodness sake”, and “who cares about a little thing like a stage?” While I was having this internal conversation with myself, a waiter came with the champagne buckets and flamboyantly opened the champagne which didn’t pop. Hmm, another warning sign went off in my head…It couldn’t be flat; “the waiter must be so adept at opening champagne, and held the napkin just so that I couldn’t hear it pop, right”? Wrong! It didn’t pop because it wasn’t champagne! What came out of that bottle was some kind of mixture of 7-up and coca cola, and even crystal champagne classes couldn’t disguise the fact that there wasn’t one drop of even the cheapest wine in the yellowish colored liquid that was poured into crystal champagne glasses, and served with all the dignity of the real thing! “Okay; it’s just as well,” I told myself. I didn’t want to drink before my show anyway, but bad went to worse very quickly…
The two photos (including the one at top of the page) were taken during a photo shoot on the stage of Le Beyrouth, by our "inhouse" photographer, who also became my good friend, Freddie. I had Freddie take this series of photos after I had accepted my first contract with my new agent. She needed current photos to send to my prospective employers. The owner of the Beyrouth allowed us to use their stage one afternoon to take these photos.
At the same time, I was coming to terms with the fact that the champagne wasn’t champagne although hundreds of Drachmas had passed hands for the bottle of soda pop, I started taking a better look around the nicely appointed room. There seemed to be an awful lot of Asian women for a Greek Nightclub, or any nightclub that would feature a Belly Dancer. Now, I should say at this point that while working in Paris and other European venues, I had become used to the amount of “ladies of evening” in all the fanciest of nightclubs, discos and restaurants where I had performed as well as others I had frequented as a guest. This was true all over Europe, but it was most evident in Paris where prostitution is legal and there are multitudes of beautiful women plying their trade amongst the rich Middle Eastern tourists and locals. Keeping this in mind, to see a salon full of beautiful Asian women was still very unusual, and I quickly started to realize that I wasn’t in your normal European supper club or, at least, nothing like those I had been to up until this point in time. My agent had told me that the show was a “variety show” with international acts, and I would be representing the “local color”. Even though I am not Greek, I was still going to be the “house Belly Dancer” in this up-scale Athenian nightclub.
Once the show started (I was to be the finale), I just about had a heart attack at 26 years of age! International acts, my eye! Strippers, Strippers and more Strippers, that’s all I really remember: strip-pers!
There were strippers dressed as cowgirls, strippers dressed as French maids, strippers dressed as Hawaiian dancers, strippers with feathers, strippers without feathers; all were dancing and lip-sinking their way through a crazy mélange of musicals from every end of the planet. At some point in my mounting hysteria, I came to terms with the fact that I was the finale of the show and I was going on-stage after 9 strippers!” (Me, Rebaba, Rita Schwartz, a born and bred San Franciscan, and liberated woman of the “Love Generation”!) It wasn’t bad enough that I had grown up having to defend my career choice to family and friends, and almost every male I had ever encountered, and constantly explain that Belly dancing was a legitimate art form, etc. (You know the drill if you are over 40 and have been Belly dancing for 20 years or more), and “not the hootchie-cootchy dance” that most Americans believed Belly dance was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Here I was: the last dancer in a never-ending show of tits and ass. Seriously folks, I thought I was going to faint!
Once the show started, I went into some kind of shock. I managed to get up and find the Mafia boss owner and asked him if I could have a word. He took me into his office and as I tried my best to make sentences that he could understand, I broke down sobbing, body wrenching tears, hysterical, and unable to continue talking.
He summoned one of the waitresses who spoke English and Greek as he was horrified and thought I was sick or something. When he finally understood that I was telling him I couldn’t possibly go on after nine strippers, what followed was nothing less than an explosion of Greek yelling, and even though I didn’t speak a word of Greek, I knew he was furious to the point of violence! He backed me (as well as the poor waitress) into a corner and finally spit out–in broken English– “You dancing or you fired and in street”! I was shaking and started crying all over again as he stormed out of the office. The waitress was really nice to me, even though I could tell that she thought I was being a big baby, but my tears and anguish had been real enough for her to recognize the fact that I was a fish totally out of water!
I was too scared of him at that point to do anything else and terrified that he would literally throw me out on the street. So, I pulled myself back together and somehow managed to change into my costume and actually do the show. While dancing in a kind of dream state, I kept having to remind myself to look at the audience and smile, keep smiling, or I would start crying again. I was totally convinced that the audience (made up of well dressed men and beautifully dressed women. Women that I had believed were the other dancers, and now knew were professional “B-Girls” and prostitutes) would at any minute now start shouting for me to “Take it off!”. To my real surprise, the audience was very appreciative and seemed to really enjoy my show. (I guessed they must have had their fill of tits and ass by the time I went on and were happy to watch something else.)
I remember vaguely the owner driving me home that night and asking something like “Okay?” He thought obviously that because I did my show that I was going to be okay! That couldn’t have been further from the way I was feeling, more like I had been sent into white slavery! As soon as I got back to the apartment I called my agent, and fortunately she answered almost immediately. I started screaming when she answered, and honestly, I don’t remember what I said exactly, but, at the end of our conversation, she promised me she would be on the first plane to Athens the following day. I told her point-blank that I wasn’t going on again and that I would pay the owner back the airfare and vacate his apartment and check myself into a hotel first thing the next morning. I was determined never to have to repeat such a shameful performance ever again! Since I wasn’t going on again, I wanted to hide from my soon-to-be “former” employer. The biggest shock to me was that she had booked me, a dancer and artist whom she had “discovered” working in the best nightclub in Paris, into a Strip Club (albeit a fancy Strip Club) that was paying me a good deal of money but a Strip Club nonetheless!
Suffice it to say that she kept her word and arrived the following afternoon and came directly to my hotel room. I really was a baby lost in the woods, and once again, hysterically crying when I met her at the door. Upon seeing me, she finally understood how devastated and humiliated I was.
According to her, the owner had deceived her in that he never once mentioned the fact that all the other acts were strippers. However, she had sent me there without having ever stepped foot in the place because of the high sum the man was willing to pay me, and in turn, pay her a very good commission. She had to negotiate with an extremely pissed off club owner, and in the end, she was able to talk him into not “Black-Balling” me from performing in Greece ever again or suing me for lost revenue, which he had the legal right to do, as I was breaking a signed legally binding 2-month contract.
She won my trust back by fixing the situation so that I didn’t lose too much money, and I was able to walk away without losing my right to perform in Greece again. However, the fact that I had given up my coveted position in Paris to go on the road, and the idea that I didn’t have that job or any other job to which I could return in Paris was the biggest loss for me. Considering all that could have happened to me, I really was lucky and fortune showed up in the form of a two-week engagement that my agent was able to book in one of the Bouzouki Clubs (no strippers–just Greeks, Greek music and dance) that surround Constitution Square while she worked out the details of my next contract dancing in Zimbabwe, Africa.
In retrospect, it was a wonderful life lesson for me because I experienced the worst first, or at least, the worst scenario I could not have imagined at that point in my short life, and showed me that I could survive it… I performed after nine strippers and still managed to hold my head up and dance with dignity (a dignity that I wasn’t feeling at all believe you me!). I learned that I could stand up for my rights and make certain professional demands that, prior to this experience, I would have never even considered. All in all, for me, this experience was a kind of “coming of age” as a dancer and laid the path for the many wonderful, scary, and incredible experiences I was going to have over the next few years while on the road, dancing!
To be continued…
Unfortunately, due to the circumstances of my trip to Athens, Greece, I don’t have any dance photos. However, these photos represent my preparation to go there and what I walked away from when I committed to my first contract.
Ready for more?
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