Life was a Cabaret
My Memorable New York Club Years: Part 1-The Ibis
posted September 22, 2016
I sometimes think how fortunate I was to have been a dancer in the 80s and 90s. We were the last generation to enjoy the club years, in the tradition not unlike that of the 1950s through the 70s. Our music was live with some of the finest musicians and singers around, who played and sang songs that touched your heart and made you jump with joy; and dancers that flavored their shows with their own inimitable style.
In those days the clubs were a melting pot of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean folks, young and old, families and the stars of the past; like actress singer Eartha Kitt and Laine Kazan and 1940s screen siren Dorothy Lamour. I remember getting the courage to go talk to Ms. Lamour one night and what a thrill that was! She was very nice and still beautiful.
The audience then had an appreciation for music from the old countries, kept it alive in their new home and introduced it to the younger generations. It was a blend of culture and arts that left you intoxicated.
Our costumes were glitter, beads and long fringe, our shows were long sets – about 30 to 40 minutes long. We danced the six-part show to the songs of the past, the classics that everyone loved. It was glamorous, it was fascinating, it was unique and it was fun. It was truly an amazing time to belly dance in New York and other cities worldwide. This was the standard that I came to expect in my travels later on! For me it was something more than special; I felt at home. Similar to those in my own Latin and Greek cultures, the people were warm, friendly and fun loving; they loved to dance and party and the food was flavorful and well-seasoned just like ours! It was a place where I felt totally comfortable and accepted. Here is a glimpse of what it was like to dance in the clubs during those years!
Noora’s audition at El Sultan (before the venue became the Ibis)
in August, 1981
The first club I ever worked at was the Ibis. I remember my audition was on a hot summer night in August of 1981. I was thrilled and petrified at the same time because everyone knew the Ibis was the premier club for belly dancers. Mondays were audition nights. You had local girls who came to try out, girls from out of town and all over the world who wanted a chance to dance at the famous Ibis and savor the music from its incredible 7-piece band! Earlier that day Serena, my teacher and mentor, had prepared me for my try-out. Though my peach-colored skirt and veil with a red bra and belt weren’t up to par by Ibis standards, she made sure that the costume fit well and that the veil was wrapped around correctly. And because she understood how petty showbiz can be at times, she made a flower out of a small scarf and tucked it into my belt to cover my appendix scar. Unfortunately, the flower flew off after just a few minutes of being on the stage, but I kept dancing and smiling. She also gave me tips on steps and audience participation, and most important of all she told me not to forget to smile.
What sticks out the most in my mind from that night was my other teacher La Donn, who was sitting at a front table mouthing for me to “slow down, slow down!” I did smile, however. Maybe that helped, because out of the five girls that auditioned that night I was the only one selected to work there. I was so lucky to be living just twelve blocks away from the club. I would skip to work walking up the stairs, my heart full with the spellbinding music from my last show. Even the screechy sound of the musicians tuning up was sweetness to my ears.
In those early days the Ibis was called El Sultan. It was this little jewel box perched atop of a winding staircase above the Café Versailles Club on East 50th Street and 3rd Avenue. It was actually two clubs in one – the Café Versailles offered a Parisian revue downstairs featuring headline acts from the best in show business. This was as good as it got for a young dancer with stars in her eyes, I thought when I first started there. The owner was an Egyptian woman named Samiha Khoura who ran the business with finesse and savvy. We were billed as “The World’s Most Beautiful Belly Dancers” with posters and postcards strategically placed on the tables downstairs inviting you to see the show at the little jewel box upstairs! We were all over the place in ads, with write-ups in trade papers and magazines such as Dance Magazine and newspapers such as the New York Times and the Daily News. How exciting it was to see my picture used to advertise the club in all three, and other publications as well.
The Ibis became my training ground not only in dance, but in music and in culture too. I came in a novice and stepped out a professional. I got my stage name, Noora, from the lead musician Hamouda Ali. He also gave me great advice regarding music, professionalism and how to be not just a good dancer, but a great one. Dancers at the Ibis were exposed to top-of-the- line musicians such as Magdy Helmy (flute), George Tanous (accordion), Sharif Saraby and Ashraf Fouad (keyboard), Tony Frangia, Charbel, Ibrahim and Youseff Kassab (oud and vocals) and many others.
This was such a special time for belly dancers because we had live music. But it was also serious business, because you had to know your stuff! I especially loved working and learned so much with best of the best drummers like Gamal Shafik, Mohammed Abdel Aal, and of course, master drummer Gamal Gomma.
I got quite a lesson in Arabic music and soon I was learning the classics. I learned how to listen to and interpret each instrument individually then together, allowing the music to guide me flowing from moment to moment! I also learned how to captivate the audience with nuance and detail; a twist of the head or the rolling of one shoulder at the right moment was all it took! Although Egyptian music was not easy to understand at first, once you got it, it was magic and electric; you connected synergistically with the musicians and the audience and you were forever transformed.
On New Year’s Eve, the Ibis was the place to be! Besides the belly dancers in their best beaded and long fringe costumes (the style of the ’80s), audiences always looked forward to Ahmed Hussein and his partner in their show-stopping cane number. It wowed the crowds every time. Occasionally the Ibis had a folkloric troupe of girls to dance along with the singer. But, the show-stopper for that night was our very own Samiha who strutted gloriously on the dance floor with a smile on her face, carefully balancing a candelabra headpiece. The place was so packed with revelers, there was little room to move, and the floor was so littered with money you couldn’t even dance. During festive times (and actually every night if you were the last dancer), performers stayed until the end of the night to count the tips with the musicians. Those times I was sure to leave in the early morning hours and often went for breakfast with the other dancers, musicians and friends, some who were the steady customers from the club.
Left- Samiha dancing with shamadan on New Year’s Eve, right- Ahmed Hussein dancing with cane on New Year’s Eve
New York TImes ad
Samiha was very particular who she hired. Besides dancing ability she also looked for dancers that carried themselves with confidence and had an attractive, polished, well put-together look. A Middle Eastern look with long flowing hair was a definite plus as well. She once told me to get rid of a braid I wore to keep my hair from flying into my face and she was very direct about it! Several years later she was more relaxed and she opened the doors to those who weren’t necessarily her ideal. I learned the value of many things while working at the Ibis, like always looking my very best, and dressing “to the nines”. Samiha always stressed we should look our best whether in costume or not.
Dressing well was about creating an image. We also had respect for the seasoned dancers and knew our place as the newbies coming in.
The Ibis was also a place where dancers made friends and had adoring fans. These fans were customers who came to see particular dancers, listen to their favorite music and have fun. Over time, dancers knew the regulars who also became their friends. One particular regular made crowns out of dollar bills for the dancers to wear. You never knew when you’d get one, but it was fun and a sort of honor to wear it. There was a special camaraderie among the core group of girls from my early years at the Ibis. We were not only on the weekly dance schedule, but got hired at big events and parties too. We learned from each other, had a healthy competitiveness, and some of us were fortunate enough to work at other local and even international venues together. Some remained friends for life.
The clubs were also a platform for getting work not only locally, but at interesting places around the world. Middle Eastern club or restaurant owners knew if they wanted the best dancers they would come to NYC. For belly dancers, they came to the Ibis. Dancers got booked for parties, grand weddings and traveled to local and exotic destination such as Paris, the Ivory Coast, West Africa or Tokyo, Japan in my case. Back in those days there was no social media. Getting work was all word-of-mouth! Dancers didn’t even have to audition. Anyone looking for a performer came to watch your show and if they liked your work you were hired. Before you knew it you were off to some exciting destination and dancing in the grandest of places!
In my experience most of the international jobs were legit, however you did have to do your due diligence and make sure you weren’t getting into a messy situation. I will never forget my two- day trip to the Ivory Coast. It was a grueling journey with several hours of layovers and delays, changing planes (and airports in Paris) because of an airline strike and getting on a rickety put-put plane in Senegal for the final destination to Abidjan. Upon my arrival, I was met by three gorgeous Lebanese men and I felt like hiding because I did not look or feel fresh and lovely. Another time on my second trip to London I was given the keys to the entertainers’ flat. Once I got there I found a bunch of Arabic men drinking and playing cards in a smoke-filled room and the door to my bedroom was hanging by only one hinge! I can say I did also have my share of unpleasant undertakings both local and international, but that will have to be another article or maybe a book! Whatever the deal, it was sure an adventurous chapter in my life.
The El Sultan became the Ibis about a year after I started, with some changes to the interior. A couple of years later it had renovated completely, expanding to accommodate more people. Later, it moved to West 44th St. It took a while for the Ibis to prove itself and to create the same magic the El Sultan had. In that time we saw musicians and dancers come and go. An era was closing and a new one beginning.
It was 1989 when the Ibis relocated to the west side. It was a magnificent club that looked like you were entering a pyramid with giant Egyptian mummies that met patrons at the door and framed the stage. The décor was elegant with white, gold and turquoise as the main colors. It was the toast of the town again with write ups in the Daily News by Michael Musto and even a caricature drawing in the New Yorker. It was such a beautiful, well-designed club with a bigger stage.
Now there was room to do the Egyptian horse dance routine, which was an audience pleaser.
Although the concept, music and some of the entertainers were the same, this place was quite a different Ibis in many ways. One of the changes that came in the ’90s was the audience. There were not as many families as before, but a lot more tourists came in. Some of the charm of the little club on East 50th Street was simply not there. We were still enjoying the wonderful live music; little did we know that soon all this would be over. For now we were young, we were having the time of our lives. Tomorrow was just another day!
The recession of 1990-92 took a huge toll on business, and the Persian Gulf War began to change the economy and the general public’s view of Middle Eastern culture even before the move to the west side. The management tried to revitalize business by changing the club’s name a few times. For the record, it was known as the Nile, Cleopatra and finally the Ibis again before closing its doors around 1996.
Ibis ad in New York Magazine 1983
Ad for Eartha Kitt appearing at the Ibis
Zou Zou the Maitre’ D and Noora on New Year’s Eve
Left- Noora dances with dollar bill crown at the Ibis
Part 2 Coming soon- Noora tells of her memories working at the Darvish, Cedars of Lebanon and more!
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