A Dancer’s Destiny Part 1
by Antoinette Awayshak
posted December 16, 2011
It is unusual for an Arab girl (bint Arab) to become a dancer. My parents and grandparents were Syrian and migrated to America in the early 1900s I lived in Brooklyn with an extended family that included my mother, two aunts, three uncles, grandmother and grandfather. My grandfather was a cabinetmaker, and he specialized in making ouds and inlaid backgammon tables (talwas). I grew up with the Arabic culture deeply ingrained in me. I ate Arabic food, listened to Arabic music, and spoke only the Arabic language until I went to school. My mother sang, accompanied by live music at the Arabic parties (haflas). Like many little girls, I would dance to the Middle-Eastern rhythms. My mother and grandmother would take me to the movies to see the famous dancers and singers.
Dancers Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal fascinated me as they glided like gazelles in their gorgeous costumes. At home, I often amused myself by watching myself in the mirror as I imitated the dancers I had seen in the movies.
Out of this background grew my love for dancing. Desperately, I wanted to be a ballerina, but my mother wouldn’t let me take ballet lessons for fear it would build ugly muscles in my legs. I was so determined to learn that I secretly checked out books about ballet from the library and practiced the steps on my own. Of course, I couldn’t really learn much that way!
Finally, after graduating from high school in Southern California, I could make my own choices. One of the first jobs I had was teaching for Arthur Murray Dance Studios. I reasoned that I would have to learn all of the dances in order to teach them. The more I taught, the more I learned, and the more I found myself drawn to the Latin rhythms. I found a dance partner and started doing exhibition dancing at Latin concerts at the Palladium and other venues in Hollywood where I met a young man who was a Flamenco dancer, Roberto Lorca who became my partner for some of the exhibitions. He had been dancing with the Jose Greco Flamenco Dance Company. He aroused my interest in Flamenco dancing, and I discovered that I could relate to the emotions and the expressive nature of the Flamenco music and dance. It was almost the same intensity of emotions and expressiveness contained in Arabic music and dance. Roberto Lorca went on to become a successful Flamenco dancer. I married, had a son and decided to go to college, but all I could concentrate on was dancing; I took modern dance in college and then enrolled in workshops taught by choreographer Lester Horton, who headed a successful dance company.
Around this time, my mother was singing at Mahrajan’s when they held Arabic functions and there was a dancer by the name of Kanza Omar, who was my idol.
She came to the affairs dressed in mink coats and looking like a movie star; her costumes were dazzling! She appeared in several films in the Middle East and also in a few American films. I aspired to look like her when I danced. I begged my mother (They were friends.) to ask Kanza to teach me how to dance in the Arabic way. Unfortunately, Kanza died an untimely death-but before that she had given my mother one of her dancing skirts to pass on to me.
Here I am in the skirt that Kanza gave to me.
This was just a bra I bought and sewed some sequins on. We didn’t have the costume resources like today. We picked up stones off the ground and glued them on (just kidding!). The gas stations had a promotion where they gave away presidential memoritive coins. I gathered about 100 and had someone drill holes in them and made a costume out of them as a joke. I made my own belts and bras using authentic coins. I like the weight and sound. I had a gold and a silver one and just changed the skirts.
I had some Arabic girlfriends who were dancing in a small company that was headed by an Arabic woman named Delal Muir. Delal created Arabic shows around town and entertained soldiers on army bases with her dancing. Her brother, Antoon, wore a turban and played the drums and her other brother played the oud. I joined her troupe at the urging of my friends. It consisted of Delal, four girls, and me. We traveled around in a big bus, sometimes hundreds of miles away, to the shows. Delal was the star of our show, and her performances included snakes slithering out of wicker baskets! This type of dancing did not live up to my perception of how Arabic dancing should have been performed…
Delal Muir (I’m 3rd from the left) and Antoon on the drums. This is before I started working in the clubs. We would go to the military bases on a bus. She was Arabic. Dancers, left to right: Delal, ?, Antoinette, Martha Karam, Teresa Karam (twin sisters) The twins were my friends and got me into this. The guy on the floor is Delal brother- Antoon. Another brother played the oud. I don’t remember the 4th girl’s name.
During one of our performances at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, a woman who had a Flamenco troupe performing that evening approached me. She was Rita Lupino, and I believe she was the sister of Ida Lupino, an actress who was popular at the time. Rita asked me If I wanted to join her troupe, but I explained to her my limited Flamenco dance experience and that the little movements that Roberto had taught me was not enough to perform professionally. She said I had “the perfect look for a Flamenco dancer” and promised that she would train me. I was delighted, of course, and went to her rehearsals and studied her routines, heel-work and castanets, but the experience was short lived.
When one of the girls in Delal’s group went to audition for a dance job in a Hollywood nightclub called the Fez Supper Club, she asked me to accompany her. The Fez featured an Arabic show (the only one of it’s kind at the time). I had been to the Fez before. They brought in Arabic musicians, and dancers from the Middle East. The food was Arabic and the décor was right out of a scene from “A Thousand and One Nights”! The owners were two brothers, Lou and Fred Shelby. Lou was the violinist who played at the Mahrajan’s where my mother sang and Kanza danced. My girlfriend auditioned–but I was hired. Lou Shelby said I had just the right look for a Belly dancer. My Arabic looks, olive skin and long black hair helped. I told him I had never danced in a nightclub nor had I ever danced solo, but he said, “Don’t worry about it; we’ll teach you.” He asked me to start the coming Friday night.
The only other time I had ever dance solo in front of others was at The Peacock Alley, a Jazz club that held a weekly “Arabic Night”, featuring live music. My mother and some of her friends taunted me into dancing, so dance I did, in street clothes, feeling totally mortified! Little did my mother realize that night she had launched a career, which initially, she had been against.
Club promo photo 2—Antoinette, Shuckr, Lou Shelby (Roxxanne’s dad), unknown guy in fez, Najeeb on oud. I have a beledi dress on so this is a different photo session from the top photo.
Club promo photo 1 at top of page. This is a press release. Lou Shelby is Roxxanne’s dad. Lemi Pasha is a Los Angeles resident. On oud is (Dick) Barham who is an Arab. Majib Harab is on drum and is not as young as he looks.
Part 2 of Antoinette’s "Dancer’s Destiny" coming soon.
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