Gilded Serpent presents...

Walk Like an Egyptian

by Amina Goodyear
posted May 19, 2011

"Step right up, folks,
And see Little Egypt do her
Famous dance of the Pyramids.

She walks, she talks,
She crawls on her belly
Like a reptile!

Just one thin dime,
One tenth of a dollar,
Step right up, folks." *

Ever since the turn of the 20th century we, in the US, have been fascinated by all things Egyptian. There was the Chicago World’s Fair, featuring Little Egypt in 1893 and Tut-mania in the 1920s. More recently in my lifetime, songs like "Little Egypt" and "Walk like an Egyptian" became popular.

Before I learned to "walk like an Egyptian", I wanted to drum like an African! Since my early teens, I  had been collecting African drum LPs (as well as conga and bongo drums) and was either dancing like a possessed child or trying to make rhythms happen on drum skins.

Mohamed el Bakkar's LPMuch later in life, after having bought a record by Mohamed el Bakkar called "The African Arab", I discovered a new passion: Arabic music, Arabic drums, and Arabic dance. My new passion did not happen in that order, as the music, the drums, and the dance to me existed as one entity. From this passion, I focused ultimately my energy to one facet of the music, drum rhythms, and dance, and specifically, that was the music, drums and dance of Egypt!

While working at the Bagdad Cabaret as a Belly dancer in San Francisco in the 1970s, a tourist hired the entire Bagdad crew to tour various Mexican cities. He was a Lebanese Mexican and wanted to recreate the Bagdad’s show in Mexico for the various chapters of their Club Libanes. (Did you know that the world’s richest man is a Lebanese Mexican who lives in Mexico) For me, this was to be a fun vacation as well as an opportunity to bond with the musicians with whom I worked in San Francisco.

One of the musicians was a well-known Latin and jazz drummer, Vince Delgado. Well, he wasn’t Arabic, but he was an Arabic drummer who spoke a little Spanish.  He was Mexican-American and had been born and raised in San Francisco. Between my high school Spanish and his Mexican accent, we got to know each other better and managed to become the  group’s translators for the Bagdad tour. I discovered that, besides Arabic drumming, Vince also played congas and bongos. This clinched it for me!  We decided that when we returned to San Francisco, he would teach drumming in my studio, and I would begin studying drum with him.

I loved it! I was finally learning how to play the drum. Vince was my very first music teacher. He was my enabler, and I was the music enthusiast who wanted to share and pass my addiction on to others. I must confess, although I loved the drum and learning to play it, I really liked dancing to music with drumming in it better  than sitting alone, practicing. It was lonely and worse than that, I really wanted to dance to it, rather than play it by myself. I felt bad that I wasn’t progressing in class as quickly as I should and decided that I needed drum-practice buddies. I realized that I had three potential drum buddies living with me.

VinceThey were my three pre-teen children, Cathy, Susu, and Vinny. "OK," I told them, "You need to start taking music lessons, and I will be your teacher." So, I lined them up and taught them Beledi and Ayoub rhythms.

Susu PampaninTwo of my  children weren’t much interested, but Susu (my obedient middle child) took to it like only an addict could. She became hooked on the rhythms and couldn’t seem to get enough. Although I had been studying for a year or more, I realized after a couple of lessons that she  needed a competent music teacher. Consequently, she started accompanying me to Vince’s class. Now, I had my drumming partner.

However, after only a couple of lessons with Vince, I had a little epiphany that there was a drummer in our house, and it wasn’t me. That was okay with me! I could take drum lessons and learn about rhythms and music, and then I would have a drummer who would beat out the rhythms, and I could do what I liked doing most: I could dance to the drums.

Although I had been dancing and performing Middle Eastern dance since the mid ’60s, having Vince teach in my studio opened doors that only continue to open wider for me, and they never close! In San Francisco at that time, Belly dance was a mixture of everything from the Middle East because that is what we could access. We knew songs from Turkey that had travelled all the way to Morocco, with a few stops on the way, to pick up the sounds of Greece, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt. What we had accomplished might be termed “Americanized Middle Eastern” music and dance, since America has been a melting pot of all nations and cultures.

Even in the early 1970s, Middle Eastern music had extremely limited availablility in the remarkably few record stores that carried ethnic music,  and it was usually limited to Greek, Armenian, and Anatolian music. Arabic music did not seem to exist in our part of the world at all, except music that was imported by a very few Arabic men who seemed to have personally hand-carried Arabic vinyl LPs and 45s from the Arab world. I think I owned every single album available and can quite honestly say that they could all have been carried in a single shopping bag with space available for more. Because I worked with musicians rather than their recordings, I wasn’t concerned with using records for performing, but I did memorize and use every track on the records while teaching my dance classes.

It was quite an exciting moment to hear that our Arabic music source had received a shipment from Egypt! When I would place my orders, I would just order everything without knowing what I was  going to receive. I only knew that it would be Arabic (and not Turkish or Greek). Already, I had begun to discriminate and be discerning about music.

What the term “Arabic” meant to me at that time was either Bedouin folk music, Debke dance music, or songs of Feiruz, Abdel Halim, and the legendary Om Kalsoum. It was an exciting time in my personal relationship to Arabic music. I was learning first hand that I preferred Abdel Halim and Om Kalsoum, and it was exciting to know that while they were still cranking out new songs,I would be the "first kid on the block" to hear and own them! It was truly an experience to know that Om K. had just recorded a new song or that we could hear the pain and anguish in Abdel Halim’s latest song, knowing that he was suffering from the debilitating parasitic disease called Bilharzia.

Bagdad Marquee Geprge Dabai and unknown dancerI memorized every passage in all the songs on my recordings, and Susu had to memorize them too. We learned them together. At that time, I think I taught 8 classes a week, and she drummed for all of them. (I want to  believe that she wanted to drum in order to practice and to please herself and not just to please me. However, I may never know.) I do know that she and I spent many hours together working on breaking down the rhythms and music Vince had taught us as well as those rhythms taught us by our next drum teacher, George Dabai.

George Dabai, the drummer at the Bagdad, decided that all the dancers needed to learn more about the music to which they danced.  He opened a class specifically to teach this subject and Susu and I  became his devoted students. I can say, honestly, that his classes introduced me to  fully understanding how the dancer should connect with the music. Besides teaching us how to drum and play the cymbals musically, he made us listen to and analyze various pieces of music. In particular, he broke down many Abdel Wehab pieces and taught us how to play along with them and other Egyptian songs. This, for me, transferred into my learning how and what to do with various pieces of music. My heightened awareness exceeded any dance class I had attended, and eventually, I was able to know how to translate the music emotionally and with my body through the instrumentation, rhythm, maqam and musical phrasing. Susu, his star student, would become the substitute drummer at the Bagdad. (The Bagdad had a cabaret license that allowed minors to enter.)

By the mid 1970s, San Francisco and the rest of the country had discovered and become saturated with “Belly dance fever”.  Belly dance workshops and vendors selling costumes (You mean, we don’t have to make them anymore?), magazines, festivals, haflas, and competitions began appearing all over the US.

Finally, the music had become readily available. The music from the Middle East was primarily Arabic and Egyptian, not only Turkish, and some was produced in the USA. Arabic musicians living in this country and western musicians who had discovered recently Arabic music, were recording either long-playing vinyl recordings (LPs) or had joined the new audio tape cassette culture. 

By the 1980s, video had also become accessible by way of VHS video cassettes and for the first time, we were able to see the dancers and musicians from the Arab world  in the comfort of our own living rooms. Imagine that! We didn’t have to wait for the monthly Arabic movie to be shown in a rented theater with hopes that there might be an obligatory 3-5 minute dance or singing scene.

Also, in the late 1970s, the Egyptians came to town and we were amazed to see them and work with them in clubs such as the Bagdad Cabaret in San Francisco’s Broadway.

Jad EliasHowever, when I was leaving work one evening at the Bagdad and saying goodnight to my boss, Jad Elias, as usual, I remember thinking we had hit a low point.  We had been down-sized to only two musicians; Jad, who managed the Bagdad for his brother, George Elias, would casually sing and play the oud and a drummer who always seemed to have a cigarette between his fingers while playing the drum. It was just another night at work. Of course, it was still enjoyable because we danced to live music and singing, but then again, enjoyable and comfortable did not always mean that it was memorable.

The next evening, though, was memorable! It was an evening I will never forget. I walked into the Bagdad, expecting another evening with Jad singing a song written for Om Kalsoum in epic form from beginning to end (40 + minutes) as the middle section of a show.

Instead, I walked into a club with 4 men on the stage who were wearing tuxedoes! The first man, Abdel Khalik, the drummer, was standing and supporting his tabla (drum) on his knee while that foot rested on top of a chair-seat. (He looked rather stork-like to me.)  The other musicians playing accordion, sax, and riq looked rather squished on the musicians’ bench that usually just held one other musician among full and empty glasses of drinks.Inside the Bagdad

What happened next was also quite memorable. I was the first dancer that evening, and I started my show with my finger cymbals clanging  and my veil wrapped over my costume. Instead of the usual entrance song, (I usually entered with “Sawah”, “Ala Hesbi”, “Gamil Gamal”, or “Ya Gameel”.) I was introduced to something less old-fashioned like “Mashaal”. This was unusual; Jad never played pieces like that!  We had used those pieces in class but never at the Bagdad for performance.

Okay, so although I knew the piece and didn’t much like it,  but at least I knew all the changes in it. Next, they played a taqsim. In the usual Bagdad format, the second piece would be a slow bolero-type song so the dancer could unveil slowly . Even before I was completely unveiled, the taqsim was over and they were on to the next part. What it was, I don’t remember, but this was usually the heart of our set! This was the part when Jad would sing his almost hour-long Om or Abdel Halim song. Nonetheless, these musicians played a short little piece and indicated that I was to refrain from playing my cymbals. In fact, I was to remove them from my fingers forever. (Granted, I didn’t much like playing cymbals anyway.) Next came another taqsim. In the Bagdad language of the night before, that meant time to dance the “floor-work” section. So, down to my knees I went. Well, the musicians were aghast and motioned for me to get up off the floor. Okay, there would be no floor-work either.

No veil, no cymbals, no floor, and hardly any singing. Fine! What next? Another taqsim and then, finally, something really nice. A beledy taqsim with drum.  After this section,  it was time to go off-stage and "collect" tips. I am sure they wanted to object to this also, but since they must have been told that they would get their share, they allowed this part to happen.

BagdadIt would have been nice, Jad, if someone had told me, the first dancer of that evening, that our regular 5-part dance format was to become history rather than find out the hard and embarrassing way! Perhaps that would have been too easy?

These musicians lasted a while before breaking up and moving on to various other parts of the US. They were only a preview of other Egyptian musicians who passed through San Francisco and some who eventually ended up making San Francisco their home. (Yousef Mustafa, Fouad Marzouk, and Reda Darwish are some who came and stayed.)  With the coming of "the Egyptians", the music and the dance in the clubs changed. Although the other musicians were of various Arab and Middle Eastern nationalities, the general format of the shows became  increasingly Egyptian influenced. With the Egyptian show formula and music, it was only natural for the dancer to also become more Egyptian in styling until we all learned how to "walk like an Egyptian."

Besides the many dance teachers I have had, I especially thank Vince and George, as well as other drum and Egyptian language and singing teachers, for all the doors they have opened for me and others in this area. The music of Egypt beckons through those doors and I must follow.

I am forever addicted to this music that makes me dance and want to drum and am ceaselessly searching for more music to collect and learn. Along the way through this music, I have met and become friends with many people who dance and play music. We have collaborated, worked together and even started up bands together.

It was while one of the bands was sponsoring a dancers’ nights that I became aware that not all dance instructors, dancers, and dance students are as keenly interested in pursuing the music, its history, and its culture as I am. Some dancers perform without first doing their homework –without learning first how to analyze a song, know its cultural roots, or even learn the titles.  To these dancers I say: Consider that you may owe it to yourself and your audiences to reach for a little more education, so that you, too, can "walk like an Egyptian."

* "Little Egypt" by Ray Stevens

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Ready for more?

  • Chapter 1: One Ad Changed My Life
    I was very desperate and determined to get back to my old self.
  • Chapter 2: "I’d Rather Stay Home with my Kids"
    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!"
  • Chapter 3: A Marriage Made in North Beach
    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”.
  • Chapter 4: Smokin’
    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.
  • Chapter 5: Listen to the Music
    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.
  • Chapter 6: Bert,
    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.
  • Chapter 7: Yousef – Black Lights and Veils
    It was kind of hard to compete with this kind of action when we kept our clothes on.
  • Magana Baptiste, Dancing for a Queen
    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".
  • A Moulid in an Egyptian Village
    After the feast, the traditional Sai’eet (story teller), who could be a man or a woman, started telling stories accompanied by a full traditional orchestra. The entire village enjoyed stories about life, love, religion, and wisdom. Throughout history, the Sai’eet has been the educator, entertainer, and critic of life.
  • Back from Bahrain, Tiny Kingdom’s Riots are Puzzling
    Approximately at the same time as the invasions of the French, British, etc. upon the Ottoman Empire the art of Belly dancing was introduced in cabarets of Egypt and Lebanon, as well as Turkey (Istanbul).
  • Get Over It! Soundbyte Bellydance Part Two
    Imagine yourself dancing inside of a huge plastic jug full of gel or detergent. Pull and push your movements through the viscosity with conviction!
  • Moroccan Dreams: My New Festival in Marrakech
    There is a mixture of faces in one region. There are so many different cultures that live in harmony –in the same place– that it is difficult to remain indifferent.
  • Ana Ra’asa Showcase: Egyptian Bellydance Past & Present
    My purpose for doing this show was to bring Bellydance to the stage. We have such amazing talent in the Bay Area, and I feel that those dancers deserved a stage to showcase such amazing talent.
  • Raqs Royalty Lights Up Atlanta! Black Orchid Danse, 2010
    She turned this modern Maghreb raqs raissa into a belly dance fusion fanatic.
  • Rakkasah West Festival 2011, Saturday, Page 2" J-Z
    This group of photos is from Saturday, March 12, 2011. Bands in the background include: Vince Delgado and Coralee, The Mediterranean Raqs Band, Pangia, and Al’Azifoon

   |       |    3 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Cassandra Shore

    May 24, 2011 - 06:05:51

    Beautifully said!

  2. No Gravatar
    Sadira

    Jun 11, 2011 - 10:06:40

    Amina…it is so wonderful to hear your stories and feel the passion and love of the dance, music and culture come through.  You always inspired for that knowledge to be shown to the dance community and I always loved learning what you had to share.  YOu are a remarkable woman and dancer….I remember Susu when she first started drumming.  Being married to a Middle Eastern drummer, as soon as I heard her first riff come through I was startled, then amazed.  Susu has always been in my mind one of the most talented and gifted musicians we have.
      I remember the whole group of Egyptian musicians who came directly from Egypt and started the Bagdad rocking!!!!  They were phenomenal and brought a new life to the Broadway scene.  I couldn’t stop coming to hear them play and wished I was dancing on that stage.  Dancers from the Casbah would sneak in to soak in the infectious music.   What a time of delight we enjoyed in those days…!   Thanks for expecially reminding newer dancers (anyone dancing after the late 80′s), that you have to understand the cultural roots, traditions, musical history, rhythyms, styles and folk music of the Middle East if you want to dance in this venue…even Tribal dancers, or I should say, from my experience, especially!!! Tribal style dancers!!!

  3. No Gravatar
    Tara

    Sep 17, 2012 - 02:09:59

    Amina I really enjoyed reading about your life as a professional Belly dancer. I love how honest, non judgemental and real you are which makes more of an enjoyable read.

    Thanks :)

    Tara 

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