Supporting Roxxanne’s Documentary
by Christina “Tinah” Silva
posted August 8, 2013
Located on Sunset Boulevard in legendary Hollywood, The Fez was the first Arabic night club in Los Angeles. During its heyday, The Fez was a popular haunt of celebrities. Jayne Mansfield, Richard Boone, Danny Thomas were just a few who enjoyed the exotic ambience, and most of all, the beautiful belly dancers accompanied by Arabic music.
Lou Shelaby was the owner of The Fez from 1959 until 1971. During that time, Lou Shelaby was not just the owner; he was a musician, but above all, an extremely popular employer among the belly dancers. Many belly dancers began or blossomed in their careers at The Fez; among them were: Feiruz Aram, Jenai Rathor (mother of Ansuya), Antionette Awayshak, Tonya Chianis (mother of Atlantis), Marta Schill Kouzouyan (mother of Jenna Kouzouyan) and Fahtiem. Many of these belly dancers credit Lou Shelaby with their growth as consummate performers and artists. The Fez was also known for Arabic music and even had an album called “Live at the Fez in Hollywood” (Aram). The Fez set a standard of what a Middle Eastern night club should be, and that standard has never again been duplicated. Many of the belly dancers who began their dance careers there went on to become leaders in the Middle Eastern dance community.
On July 14, 2013 Lou Shelaby’s daughter, Roxxanne Shelaby, hosted The Fez Forever Fundraiser at the Barsil Cultural Center and Copoeria Batuque. Roxxanne Shelaby is raising funds to create a documentary about Lou Shelaby, her father, The Fez Nightclub, and the artists who performed there. This documentary is intended to be not only a homage to her father. Roxxanne Shelaby believes this is a part of important Middle Eastern dance history that needs to be documented and preserved.
Although this fundraiser was a casual hafla held at a dance studio, a phenomenal line up of belly dancers agreed to perform. Some were alumni from The Fez, and others were well-known belly dancers. The lineup consisted of Lee Ali, Atlantis, Helen Vlahos, Fahtiem, Anisa, Jillina, Masa, Cory Zamora, Tamra-Henna, Anaheed, Aisha Ali and Sahra Saeeda. To spice things up, there was also the Samba trio Irani and The Sambarinas. Some of the dancers were accompanied by musicians such as violinist Maurice Saba, oudist Rico Orel, percussionist Var Daghevarian and on tabla, Achmend Al Aswar. On the schedule was a brief viewing of a trailer for the documentary and a raffle in which the prizes were vintage photos from The Fez.
When I looked around the packed room, I saw several notable people from different facets of the belly dance community. In attendance were: former owner/editor of Habibi Magazine and dancer Shareen Al Safy, IAMED director Suzy Evans, music producer Dr. Samy Farag, Princess Farhana, as well as Aubre Hill. The Fez alumni present (but not performing) were: Feiruz Aram, Jawaher, and Tonya Chianis, but unfortunately, Antoinette Awayshak and Saadoun Al Bayati were unable to attend.
Prior to the show, the room was full of joy and excitement as many people greeted each other and shared their stories from The Fez. I started belly dancing in 1996, so this was not my era, but listening to these women talk was fascinating! A woman sitting next to me named Vicky Schell shared with me that the first time she saw a belly dancer was at The Fez. In her bag was a copy of the album “Live at The Fez in Hollywood” that she was hoping to have autographed. It was clear that, to these people, this was a timely and important project that Roxxanne Shelaby was undertaking.
When the show began, the room was abuzz with anticipation and excitement. The first performer, Lee Ali, looked as though she had stepped out of one of the vintage photos and delivered a marvelous performance to a medley of Arabic music old favorites. The crowd went wild, and that set the tone for the night; this was a highly enthusiastic, appreciative audience. Atlantis followed wearing a costume that harkened to the glitz of the ‘70s and was a class act! Helen Vlahos had danced at The Fez and looked ageless in a gorgeous blue bedlah, delivering a virtuoso veteran dance performance. Fahtiem, who was one of the last Fez belly dancers, followed, dressed in shades of purple and performed a playful routine with flirty interaction with the audience. Anisa had an infectious smile and danced with baladi sass. Jillina mixed it up with a Tahitian fusion piece followed by her signature drum solo.
During the intermission, Roxxanne Shelaby invited alumnae from The Fez up to the stage area so the crowd could applaud them. At the dimming of the lights, Roxxanne Shelaby presented a segment of her documentary. The documentary was clips of interviews inter-mixed with vintage photos, and it definitely whet the audience’s appetite for more.
The live music segment of the presentation began with the Masa who glowed in bronze and expertly interpreted the music. Cory Zamora and Anaheed could have been mistaken for twins, wearing gold coins and white satin, both bringing their own vintage flavor to the show. Tamra–Henna, costumed in emerald green, seemed like a cool breeze blowing in from the River Nile, and she delivered an elegant performance. Aisha Ali was regal in royal purple, while Sahra Saeeda rounded out the belly dancers, costumed in black and gold and performed her usual, expressive interpretation of the dance. Roxxanne Shelaby then created a pretty tableau with singer Hamid Abouleban to finish out a long (but fabulous) show.
The morning after, many people flooded various social networks and declared this evening had been magical for them. Electricity was nearly palpable in the air during the performances. My takeaway from this evening was the realization that the Middle Eastern dance, a.k.a. belly dance (this mysterious entity to which many of the people in that room had dedicated their lives) is an important cultural and artistic dance form that needs to be documented and preserved for the future! This is Roxxanne Shelaby’s goal.
Maurice Saba, oudist Rico Orel, percussionist Var Daghevarian and on tabla, Achmend Al Aswar.
Dancer in photo at top of page is Tamra-henna
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