Dancing in LA Nightclubs in the ‘70s and ‘80s
Interview by Kamala
Many of these photos may be by Kathy Sanders, all are from Shira’s archives.
posted March 26, 2013
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, along with the multiple Arabic clubs in Hollywood, there was also a thriving Greek, Armenian and Persian nightclub presence in the Los Angeles area. Shira (Jane Padgett) was a popular dancer in those clubs and is still a popular working dancer in Southern California. In this business, there are the dancers with a presence in the dance community due to participation in showcases, competitions, teaching and self-promotion,and additionally, there are the "workhorses", those who slogged away at the clubs, entertaining the masses for years and years, flying under the radar.
With a dance career that expands over decades, Shira has a wealth of information to share about the history of belly dance entertainment in the Los Angeles area, and indeed, I learned so much about the dance universe that is parallel to my Arabic nightclub experience – the Armenian, Greek, and Persian clubs of LA.
I met Shira at Hajji Baba’s Supper Club in Inglewood, California, in the late 1970s. Literally, “Hajjiʼs” seemed like a three-ring circus; three dancers rotated through three crowded rooms while a five-piece Armenian orchestra pounded away in the main dining room. The shenanigans that went on in that place were priceless: finger cymbals flying and sometimes, hitting patrons, false eyelashes falling into customer’s butter dishes, and bra pads falling out of costumes onto the stage! The majority of dancers were recruited from Diane Webber‘s classes at Every Woman’s Village, and Shira was one of her stars.
Shira tells her stories with a keen memory:
“Oh my Goodness!”, she laughed, “I loved working at Hajjiʼs with you! That was so much fun, working with two other dancers every night, gossiping during the intermissions in
our crowded dressing room. I lost parts of costumes there as well, but was nevercaught [short] because Diane taught me well [how] to handle problems on stage! We were frantically busy most nights at Hajji Baba’s in Inglewood. Wasn’t it 3 showseach night with 3 dancers? And then we had to switch rooms during the show, and takeour cue from whichever dancer was in the main room with the musicians. That was myfirst restaurant job as a soloist; so definitely, I learned to dance and think atthe same time on my feet.
I started taking lessons from Diane Webber when I was about 10 or 11 years old because my mom actually took me along to her belly dance classes at Every Womanʼs
Village. I loved the music and the dancers. Boy! did I look up to Diane and all the other adult dancers, and I wanted to be just like them when I grew up. Of course, I was never the dancer Diane was, but I did my best to emulate her. Diane had a huge influence on my life, besides practice, practice, practice, she taught me from day one always to show up on time, be sober, how to make my own costumes, and also how to take care of them. Darn it… I still iron them before performing! Diane was a close friend of my momʼs; so I would see her often at my home as well. Because I was a kid, I was a bit intimidated by her. (She scared me to death sometimes!) I loved Diane, but if she was over at my house, I always had to start practicing — out of guilt! My first time on stage was with the Perfumes of Araby as a slave girl and in the Guedra. When I was a little older, once I had my braces off and could pass as an adult, she put me in the regularchoreographed dances.
In the 1970s, the Perfumes had at least 5 musicians playing our music on stage, and it was a great show. Diane was arguably the first woman to start her own belly dance company there. I remember seeing her and the Perfumes of Araby at the Renaissance Faire in the ‘60s, and it made me want to be a dancer as well. Funny, …a few years later, Iwould end up taking lessons from Diane through my mom.
Hajjiʼs was one of the first places I worked. I wasn’t driving yet, but I could work there and hitch a ride from another dancer. It was wonderful to be able to do that! As soon as I was driving, Diane started sending me out as a soloist to all sorts of different clubs. The Golden Village on Hollywood Blvd… it was also called The Greek Village at one time. (I can’t remember which came first.) At The Seventh Veil, I nearly fell off the stage the first time I worked there because the club was so dark inside! In the ʻ70s, everybody did floorwork; hence, Dianeʼs rule about not wearing g-strings! The old style was: opening dance, taxim with veil work, 4/4 bridge, slow floorwork maybe to a bolero, drum solo, and fast lastsong and finale.
Kavkaz on Sunset Blvd… I was there for years and years until it closed in the early ʻ80s, when Wolfgang Puck bought the building and put in his Spagoʼs Restaurant. Spagoʼs is closed now, but the building is still there, and I get sad every time I drive by, because thinking of Kavkaz brings back so many memories. It was one of the best Russian Armenian nightclubs anywhere, and it had a great spot right above the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. There were long, huge windows overlooking the Strip, and the lights below were so beautiful! The dressing room was upstairs, and I used to love doing my homework, looking out the window at all the huge artistic music industry billboards displayed in the 1970s. I think that the ʻ70s and ʻ80s were the best time for billboard art, at least regarding the music industry. That has nothing to do with belly dancing, but it was fun to work there in those days. Lots of stars came in. I remember that Yul Brynner would always drop by when he was in town because he was friends of the owner, Yervand, a wonderful, sweet Russian-Armenian man who had actually been in the French Foreign Legion during WWII. His son owned another popular Russian-Armenian nightclub called Mishaʼs, and I started working there as well, right after Kavkaz closed.They usually had 3 to 5 musicians, nearly all Armenian, and they would playpassionately and really fast! Boy did I get a workout!
The other clubs around in those days, besides the Arabic, were the Greek clubs. The Persian nightclubs started showing up in the late ʻ70s after the [Persian] revolution. I worked at a bunch of them and would do a couple of shows every night to very fast music. It was a lot of fun, and I always shared the show with lots of different singers, sometimeseven magicians.
It was like that back then. I was working 2 nights here, 2 nights there, 3 nights somewhere else, sometimes, 2 to 3 clubs a night. I would be driving or even running across the street to the next gig. There was really a ton of work and all [with] live music. I wish that I could remember all the names… [There were] dozens, actually hundreds of clubs… I worked at The Fez as well but only a few times… and a million Greek places. Sadly, many places opened up for about a year and then were gone. Only a few stuck around foryears like Kavkaz and Hajjiʼs.”
I asked Shira what a typical night was like for a working dancer, and when I mentioned that most dancers these days only dance for other dancers, I had to laugh when she said, "Some dancers like to dance for other dancers; I like to dance for drunks!" – a joke but with a bit of truthfulness about our occupation!
Shira continued, “Hey, I love to dance for drunks, they are always happy and are good tippers. No, seriously, I just love to dance and perform for anybody, and I have been lucky because nearly always I have had wonderful audiences. I’m a lousy teacher, and I have done my best contribution to support the art of belly dancing by not teaching! But seriously, so much of the work simply is learning how to handle an audience and how to gracefully get away from grabby hands (another thing that Diane taught me well), and I never got grabbed and never had to slap anyone! (I remember once hearing a story about one poor dancer who defended herself and ended up getting knocked downa flight of stairs in a restaurant.)
In the ʻ70s, ʻ80s and ʻ90s even, a typical night could be driving from club to club to club in the same darned costume because I didn’t have time to change! That is one thing that I personally never liked to do: dance in the same costume twice in the same night, butoften, it was necessary because of the time factor.
I have danced for many famous people over the decades, including Frank Sinatra and Tom Cruise, but I was thrilled and speechless when, in 1993, Stephen Hawking came into Burger Continental, and I ended up performing the first time for him. In fact, I was almost too scared to come up to his table, but then I noticed his nurse, Pam, put a 20 dollar bill in his mouth to tip me. So, being greedy, I got a little friendlier and started chatting him up, I even put my lavender veil around him for photos, but then I joked to him that I knew it really wasn’t his color, and I joked, saying something like ʻYour best color is black; isn’t it?ʼ and of course, being a genius, he understood even my dumb joke and replied through thecomputer, " Yes, black hole! " I guess I became his favorite belly dancer after that! …well, one of his assistants told me so, but maybe he was just being kind, and it kind of startled me — the time he started to follow me around with his wheelchair…all over the restaurant, and rather quickly at that! That isn’t an easy thing to do with all the tables and uneven brick floor. In fact, I almost got run over a few times, but fortunately, that didn’t happen!
I’ve done choreography, but my thing has always been improvisation to live music. You learn all the steps and how to move so you can just let yourself go with the improvisation. Sometimes, people would comment on what I did, but I couldn’t remember because I was so caught up in the spirit of dance.
I learned that from Diane: how to improvise and how to handle a crowd. I’ve worked with some great dancers besides Diane such as: Kamala, Anaheed, Laura Crawford, Stasha, Princess Farhana, Veena and Neena, Jacqueline, Roxanne Shelby, Renee Arnold. Over the decades, [there were] so many that I can’t even remember, and now I am forgetting some of their stage names, and I am so sorry about that! …and the musicians! I have worked with some wonderful and gifted musicians, of course, such as Lou Shelby, John Bilezikjian, Guy Chookoorian, Yerevan, Coco and Andy at Burger Continental; unfortunately, I can’t remember all their names now, but my inspiration always came from the wonderfulmusic!”
I asked Shira to what she thinks she owes her longevity in the belly dance industry, and how a dancer maintains a dance job in one place for so long. Her answer was simple and true:
“Dianeʼs Nazi Belly Dancer Rules: Show up on time, be sober, practice every day, do daily costume repair, no g-strings, and wear full bikini underwear that matches the costumes, be clean and wear good deodorant, and (for Godʼs sake) don’t date the customers, and more than that, don’t date the club owner! (Although I have to admit I have known some amazing dancers who broke the last rule.) I should have had more funwhen I was young, oh well!
However, those were all of Dianeʼs rules, and they were deeply embedded into my subconscious at a very young age. I guess she was right because I always stayedat my jobs forever, or until the place closed down.
You know, at this point, I have been performing regularly for over 40 years in LA clubs and restaurants. Oh my, how scary! During the past few years, I have been going through cancer treatments; so needless to say, I have only performed intermittently. The love of dancing has kept me going nearly my whole life, and I plan on performing again this weekend. I’m keeping fingers (with zills) crossed about that! The times I have been able to dance recently have taken me away from the cancer world and into the audience andmusic. I am so thankful to have dance in my life!”
I asked Shira about the differences between the types of audiences for whom sheʼs danced. For example: How would she change her performance for Persians, as opposed to Armenians?
Shira answered, “The big difference to me was the music, because with Persians, I always ended up doing 6/8 [rhythms], with Armenian, sometimes a 9/8 or a sword dance. Arabs seemed to love the candelabra (shamadan). The Greek and Armenian music was usually really fast and friendly. Whatever the music told me to do, I tried to do my best to express. By the way, another reason I am an improvisational dancer is because I’ve got a lousy memory! It has saved me over the years. I always listen to the audience, and give them back what they want. They are there to be inspired and entertained but really just to be happy and have fun! I feel how they are responding to my show and dance accordingly. Now that I think more about it, the Greek and Armenian places always wanted to have a good time, the Arab audiences were usually more subdued, and the Persian very demanding and sometimes [wanted] super long shows but [they are] lots of fun to be around. Also, working with live musicians always allows me to tailor the show as necessary. For example, if I were doing a strong drum solo, and it was obvious that I had everyone mesmerized. I would extend it, keep going, maybe go off stage into the
audience or move around the stage and take advantage of the space in which I had to dance. [I’d] shorten or lengthen sections as I felt like doing, hopefully without driving the musicians
Hey! Another thing Diane taught, was always to leave your audience happy but wanting more. She was an incredible performer, and I tried to learn as much as I could from her about simply performing. I sure miss her because she was like a second
mother to me. I can still hear her voice in my head, going on about stuff, and I will neverforget her wonderful sense of humor!
I asked Shira about the changes in the belly dance business, her observations about how dance itself has changed, how the politics of dance have changed, and how the nightclub scene has changed.
Shira agreed it is a different world now. “Huge changes… hey, how much space do I have? I could write a book about that! When I started seeing dancers and taking lessons it was the ancient 1960s! There were only a few restaurants that had belly
dancers in Hollywood, The Fez and The Seventh Veil. The dance was still rather rare and exotic and I used to go with my parents to these clubs. I saw incredible dancers, Diane danced there as well as the amazing and beautiful dancer Fairuz. Could Fairuz handle an audience! The masters Diane and Fairuz, and everybody played zills. By the 1970s, when I started performing solo, there were a lot of clubs all over the place. I remember that Hollywood Blvd once had 5 nightclubs with Middle Eastern entertainment within one block! There was a lot of work in those days, and my pay at Kavkaz was $50 a night plus all of my tips, I think that was about standard in those days.
The dancers used to always keep all of their own tips. I noticed in the ʻ80s or ʻ90s that tip sharing started showing up in some clubs. Before that the guys would never want to accept money from a dancer, but of course there are stillmusicians like that now.
That is the sad thing, we aren’t being paid that much more than we were in those days. I used to get $100 for a party in the 70s. and when the Moroccan restaurant Dar Maghreb hired belly dancers regularly in the 1970s they paid us $100 or was it $150?it was a lot for those days. That place never had live music by the way. However, the pay continued to go down because some dancers started accepting low salaries. By the time Dar closed a few months ago, I heard that the dancers were only paid about $25 a night and that makes me very sad.
I remember when the belly dancer union started up back in the ʻ70s, they were trying to increase the pay and improve working conditions. I was a kid but I remember that we almost got the teamsters behind us. Sadly that fell through so the union never reallyhad any clout with the nightclubs and restaurants.
Even in the 1980s there was a ton of work and most places had live music. Everybody played zills. That is what makes me especially sad and nostalgic. I miss the live music! To me all dance is the physical embodiment of music. We are there to show the music to the audience so they can ‘see’ the music besides hearing it. My favorite compliments that I’ve gotten from musicians is when they told me that I was just part of the band. I loved hearing that and I love playing zills with the band. I wish young dancers that are starting out had the chance to work with live music more often. Just feel the music and listen to the musicians! After working together awhile you learn to queue each other so easily and the show can get very exciting when that happens. I know musician friends now that have told me that they sometimes work with new girls that only want to perform a choreographed show to pre-recorded music. Hey ladies! If you are reading this, next time you get a chance to work with live music, talk over your show with the band a little in advance, then, just jump in there, and go for it!”
Considering her long dance career, I asked Shira what advice would she have for new dancers interested in a career as a working dancer?
She answered, “Besides passing on Dianeʼs pearls of wisdom, of course, [you should] practice daily, look up and out at your audience, smile, work on your zills and your musicianship. There used to be an unwritten code between dancers for club and restaurant jobs and I guess that this isn’t a bad place to repeat those old ideas that I also learned from Diane.
Never go into somebody elseʼs gig and try to get their job.
Audition only when the restaurant is closed or a very off hour — in other words — don’t ever do a free show. Honestly, if you aren’t good enough yet to be paid, you probably shouldn’t be performing yet. (Dianeʼs words) Another never is: never go into a place and work for less thanthe current dancer is making; no undercutting someone elseʼs pay!
However, what is so sad is that there just aren’t enough places to perform anymore. My last advice is to go out and watch other dancers, support your local belly dancer, and please be a good audience. Applaud, tip, (but don’t play your zills, wear a costume or get up and dance at someone elseʼs show). Because that isn’t the time to do it. Just watch and learn, because there is always something to absorb from watching another dancer. Every artist is an individual and has a beautiful and unique expressionand style.”
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