Berkeley in the ‘70s
by Najia Marlyz
Most photos by Jules Kliot
The Greek Eagle (O Aitos) flew over Berkeley in the early ‘70s, as did a good many other things, and it landed at the far end of University Avenue straight down the hill from the University of California campus. O Aitos Taverna was a dream child of Ted Sofios and his brothers, John and Keith. They set up their tavern in a former U.S. post office that had a huge skylight and a hardwood floor that had been worn smooth as silk. The brothers were from a Greek American family and Ted’s dream was to teach ethnic dance, a different type, every day and night of the week. What he could not teach he found teachers who could conduct classes while he and his brothers served Greek food with a beer and wine bar for the dancers.
At the time, I was floundering on an ocean of confusion about what to do with myself that would be creative and would not constitute what my husband du jour would consider “a real job” because he “did not want his wife working”. (Those were still the sentiments of the sixties and early seventies, people! The feminists had not yet revolutionized our way of life into what you might consider acceptable today.) In the Fall of 1970, there appeared in the Berkeley Gazette a notice and a photograph that a Wednesday afternoon (happy-hour) belly dancing class was being organized, to be taught by Roman Bert Balladine, at a new folk dancing establishment located in Berkeley near University Avenue at Hearst called O Aitos, which meant “the eagle” in the Greek language. That seemed to me to be a more interesting prospect than the boring ballet class for adults that I had been attending up on College Avenue on Saturdays that was eating into our precious social weekends, so I became determined to go to O Aitos the very next Wednesday and get started.
Our dance lesson with Bert was two hours long and was taught in a circle of about twenty or twenty-five young women while people sat at the bar drinking happy hour beer, watching us bumble about the dance floor.
Truthfully, I had never laid eyes on an authentic belly dancer, live or on film at that point, so I hardly knew what to expect. However, I had nothing else to do; it was happening in Berkeley, and I was ready for just about anything! The entire atmosphere was non-threatening for me, and I followed along with the group, some were in costume and some in bizarre quasi-dance outfits but all were barefooted and laughing at Bert’s wild stories. I fell in love with the atmosphere of the Aitos from the first hour. Owner Ted Sofios was in the bright sunlit kitchen with his mother preparing food for the evening dinner, and during the class break, Bert suggested that I order a glass of Sangria from Ted and try to “loosen up” a little and stop struggling to be so perfect. That did it for me; so loosen up, I did! I found that all the yoga and women’s exercise classes I had been involved in for the past few years might pay off in a new and unexpected way for me. My movements were becoming smooth as silk–so much so that Bert whispered to me, “If you stick with me, I will make you into a star!”
About 8 months later, I came to the Aitos with a friend on a Friday afternoon for lunch because Ted, the Greek owner who openly “hated the Belly dance”, had decided to feature a belly dancer for his Friday lunch crowd who thought that belly dancing was Greek and had been asking him “Where is your Bellydancer?”. She was Shiamara, one of the more beautiful and experienced dancers from our Wednesday afternoon class with Bert, and she had a dream of going to Bangladesh with her boyfriend to help the starving children with distended bellies. I had not heard how soon she had planned to leave however. After lunch, I said to my friend boastfully, “Well, I really think that if I had a costume, I could dance that well right now!” What I hadn’t realized was that Ted Sofios was standing directly behind me. He had overheard me, and he patted me on the shoulder, saying, “Okay, then, I heard that! You will be our dancer next Friday!” I am not one to back down so I made it happen, although I was wracked with stage fright. I had, after all, opened up my own Pandora’s box! Ted hired me after that first terrifying performance, and I danced every Friday afternoon, and then eventually, added in every Saturday night also for five years.
The gig was a bit strange because the Meraklithes Greek band that played at the O Aitos every week had been hired to play the folkdance songs for the patrons of the taverna and Ted wanted me to dance the Belly dance with recorded music during their half-hour break to keep the interest of his customers. This meant that usually I did not dance with the live music; I was expected to dance with pre-recorded Turkish, Egyptian, or Lebanese music arranged in dance sets because they did not want the belly dance to be considered of Greek origin. Fortunately, during an era when it was difficult to access good recordings, I had access to unusual equipment for recording dance sets that seemed to fit together in reasonable fidelity in a time when recorded music for dance sets was extremely rare to unavailable. When I traveled to Greece many years later, the tour guides explained how that prejudice against belly dance and all things considered Turkish came about and what the history of the region was that caused the attitude against belly dancers.
At one point after I had been working for Ted for several years, and he had learned more about the belly dance and the skills involved, he ashamedly admitted to me that once he had ignorantly thrown a loaded ashtray at a performing dancer in another taverna!
I couldn’t believe it; he was such a nice person, good employer, and loyal man who absolutely loved dancing and admired those dancers who could perform well! He admitted that he was ashamed of what he had done, and he made a point of apologizing to her eventually. That dancer became a close friend of mine and still is until this day. (Unfortunately, Ted is no longer living.)
It was acceptable to me that I did not usually get to perform with live Greek music of the Meraklithes Band because it meant that I had free reign to find whatever music I wanted for my sets and to develop my dance along with the music to fit it precisely and to change it each week rather than to repeat the same set for five years. I became musically oriented and fixated on creativity and variety within the dance because my audience was approximately the same people every week—so they kept me on my toes, finding unusual music and creating unexpected costuming and unique things to surprise and fascinate them each week. Because I noticed that the Greeks were more than appreciative of “daring-do” in their own performances, I began to make certain that there was an element of body strength, balance, and danger associated with many of the dance movements and show business “shtick” that I incorporated into my sets. This shtick was far beyond anything I had learned in Bert’s belly dance class, except that all things were fair game in “show biz”. Fortunately though, it all began to make sense to me when I began to travel to the Middle East, and I saw that the well-known stars of the dance in the Middle East were not only different from country to country, they were all different from each other within a country and responded differently to their music.
Going on private gigs to Shaver Lake, Fresno, Reno, Elko (Nevada) Big Sky (Montana), and some Greek Orthodox Church festivals and picnics with the Meraklithes Band and the O Aitos Dancers were the most exciting things I had ever done as a dancer. I miss those days and I miss those adventures. When I looked back through my photographs for illustrations for this article, I realized how many innovative, warm and talented performers we have lost. So here are a few my photos of the day. Perhaps they look dark and brooding but we were happy and we laughed and had fun with the music, the dance, and the changing times.
Ready for more?
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