Gilded Serpent presents...

Life was a Cabaret

My Memorable New York Club Years:
Part 2 – The Darvish, Cedars of Lebanon, and Other Clubs

Noora dances at Cedars of Lebanon
Cedars of Lebanon- You can see Antonio’s face, the owner of the
Cedar’s, in the pictue of me dancing at Cedars of Lebanon
restaurant.  A young guy wearing glasses, has a mustache and
a suit on.  It’s the only face you can see!

by Noora-Aphrodite
posted March 10, 2017

To read Part 1 of this article click here

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 50s 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.
This is part 2 of my story.

The Darvish

If ever there was a rival for the Ibis for the best in Middle Eastern entertainment, it was the Darvish. If the Ibis was a jewel box, then the Darvish was a diamond with rough edges. Located on 8th Street in the West Village, Champaign!this little hole in the wall was difficult to find. The entrance was a simple door that led down a narrow staircase to a basement. At the bottom stood a doorman that looked like a genie on a bad day. I remember the first time I went there, the manager said to me “don’t worry he’s OK, he’s Egyptian.” I guess I looked a little afraid, but the guy (I don’t remember his name) turned out to be a real sweetheart! The décor of the club was like a tent with stripes on the ceiling; it had a much earthier feel than the Ibis. They also had a terrific band. For me you couldn’t miss the Darvish sound without the sweet flute playing of Tony Hajar; he was such a virtuoso! I always enjoyed doing my taxims and chifties to his exquisite, tantalizing playing. Some of the other great musicians were Tony Abajian, Said Emam, the amazing Tony Frangia and the fabulous bouzouki player Trifonas.

There had been a time where if you worked at the Ibis you didn’t work at the Darvish and as usual there was a core of dancers that danced on a regular basis in most of the clubs. Every once in awhile a new dancer showed up, but the owner Francois was particular, as was Samiha, about who was a regular or not. When I started working at the Darvish I was actually hired by both Francois and his girlfriend Carmen who was also a belly dancer. I remember the face of the Darvish changing only in terms of entertainment type. They were more open to international music than the Ibis was and they also did folkloric group numbers, with Yousry Sharif and his group performing there regularly. Another thing I loved about the Darvish was the dance floor. It was bigger than the Ibis of the east side. Combined with the cozy tent feel plus the variety of music, that made it the perfect atmosphere to dance in! Although a lot of the same customers came to both clubs, the Darvish had some of its own clientele too – like friends of the owner. One time I was dancing and Francois was sitting at a big table with a bunch of friends from out of town. I had been dancing a while and my set suddenly became longer as his friends requested specific songs. These guys made up for it by sending me a bottle of champagne, which the maître’d poured for me on the stage while I danced. Of course I had to stop to toast with them! It was such a special gesture – it felt like something out of the movies. It was the only time I had ever had a drink during a show, but it was worth it!

Cedars of Lebanon
Noora performing at the Cedars of Lebanon Restaurant, NYC

Cedars of Lebanon

The Cedars of Lebanon was not necessarily a club – more of a restaurant with music. It was known for its exquisite Lebanese cuisine, accompanied by fabulous music and dancers. It was owned and operated by brothers Tony and Carlos Hosri, with Tony running the show and booking the dancers. Later on they brought their sister Amal over from Lebanon. She took over the role of hiring the dancers. It was a rather small, narrow place with simple décor, located on West 30th Street. Besides the sometime tourists that showed up, the Cedars had its regular clientele that came to hear their favorite singer Tony Frangia and later on another wonderful singer and oud player, Maurice Chedid. Some of the musicians made the rounds of the clubs and restaurants just like the dancers did, while others specialized, working just in one place. Some of the other musicians at the Cedars were the great guitar player Carlo Fakhoury and crowd favorite percussionists Hanna Mirghe and his brother Maurice Mirghe. Each club and restaurant had its own sound that you could recognize right away. As I prepared in my dressing room, I could hear the belting out of the songs, the twang of strings and the pounding of drums, all blending to create that unique Cedars sound.

Some of these places weren’t glamorous at all. The Cedars had a makeshift dressing room down in the basement, which was dark. Dancers had to climb a set of steep stairs while making sure they didn’t dirty their skirts or veils. Sometimes I waited by the door one song too many, but no matter how long I waited in that dark cellar, I still emerged a beauteous butterfly ready to dance! Because the Cedars was a restaurant and in the shape of a narrow rectangle it was not the easiest place to dance in, but dancers there became experts at dodging the waiters and customers. There were usually three shows a night with one girl that did two shows and the other that did one. Those who did the single show were usually booked at other places and were in and out. Dancers who performed two sets might invite friends to hang out with and enjoy the food and the fun atmosphere. Sometimes I would hang out at the bar and chat with Carlos, the bartender, who became a good friend of mine.

Fazil’s

You could say Fazil’s was in a class of its own, as it was an after-hours club by night and a dance studio upstairs by day; in reality Fazil’s dance studio came first and the club was added later on. This studio and venue was owned and operated by Fazil Cengiz, along with his brother and sisters. Fazil’s was one of the cheapest studios to rent in NYC and it was home to belly dancers, tappers, flamenco and lots of Broadway dancers as well. I got the same thrill going to take Bobby’s (Ibrahim Farrah) and later Yousry Sharif’s class as I did when I first started at the Ibis. You could feel the stomping of the flamenco dancers, hear the clickitty-clack of the castanets and the Middle Eastern music; it was as if the whole building was dancing. Fazil’s was located on 8th Avenue between 45th and 46th streets in a seedy neighborhood that was a blend, at that time, of peep shows, souvenir shops and great restaurants in the nearby theater district. There were still street walkers in those days in the early 80’s and you did not want to stand to wait for anyone, lest you be confused for one. This happened to me once. I can tell you I ran up the stairs and into the dressing room faster than you can blink your eyes!

Fazil’s the nightclub was the place to go after doing your show; there were no frills, no fancy schmancy anything, just unbelievably good music and dancing and Elena Lentini. We would go to see the magic happen and learn from the star dancer. For me this place was raw, it was dark and it had a Gypsy feel to it. The music was a mixture of many different sounds, but mostly I remember the Turkish flavor and the saxophone that made you melt inside and out! I always left Fazil’s thoroughly inspired and ready to add another dimension to my dancing! Fazil’s night club was also the host to Bobby Farrah’s yearly workshops and the place was usually packed with local dancers and dance students from around the world. It really was a fascinating place to experience belly dance and of course the enchanting sounds of the band!

Other Clubs

Another nightclub I got to dance in around the same time I started at the Ibis was the famed Sirocco, owned by Ari San. This was at the beginning of my dance years and all I could remember was how busy and flashy it was. It reminded me of a saloon from the cowboy movies, bawdy and coarse at times. This place was always jam-packed and loud and it is where I met one of the nicest Egyptian waiters named Henry Nassif. He later became one of the most esteemed Maître’s of not only the Ibis, but of several other clubs and restaurants. I also met his lovely wife Christina when she was a dancer at Sirocco and showed me the “ropes” of working there.

I was most comfortable dancing to Arabic music and became an “Arabic belly dancer”, so I seldom ventured into the Greek or other Mediterranean style clubs, except for Molfetas. Two other places with belly dancers that I did not dance in were Sagapo on East 48th Street and El Avram down in the village on Grove Street, both with belly dancing and more Mediterranean style music and food.

Though I preferred to dance to Arabic music, I did not totally discount dancing at other places that had more Greek, Armenian and Mediterranean music. But in those days most of us were adept in Greek, Arrmenian and Mediterranean styles.Today the dance has changed a lot; it has morphed, evolved and split into many factions with specific labels. Today I am considered Egyptian in style, but back then it was just “cabaret.”

Beirut and Byblos

There were two other restaurants in Manhattan that were similar to the Cedars of Lebanon with live music and belly dancing: The Beirut on the corner of 32th Street, not far from Herald Square and Byblos. Both these places offered good Lebanese food but only Beirut, like the Cedars, had a small band and a singer. The customers at the Beirut could enjoy the singing of Violette, a young singer with a lovely voice who later married the boss and restaurant owner, George.

What I liked about the Beirut was that it had a nice little stage. This is where I perfected my dancing to the masmoudi rhythm. It happened that this was the drummer’s (Tony Zeitun) favorite rhythm to play during the drum solo. He would always ask me whether to play it or not and I would always say yes. Interestingly enough I don’t remember other drummers featuring the masmoudi rhythm as much as Tony; it was his signature drum solo rhythm after all, and it was quite good.

Tripoli today
The Tripoli as it looks currently in 2016

Over time I too became adept at handling this rhythm and have Tony to thank for it! Byblos was opened by Saba, the ex-manager of Beirut, later on. It continued to have dancing, but by then it was just using a keyboard player/singer that accompanied the dancer.

Noora dances at the Tripoli
Noora dances at the Tripoli restaurant on Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn

Tripoli

Another popular Lebanese restaurant just outside of Manhattan in Brooklyn Heights, the Tripoli, is actually still there. Back then it used the basement as a club with about three musicians and a singer. It was a small intimate space, nicely decorated with painted scenes of fishing villages in Lebanon; upstairs the theme was more rustic with even an ancient Phoenician boat carved into the seating arrangement.

It is a family place owned by Mahmoud and his brother. Mahmoud’s two sons work there as well. I saw the boys grow up in the restaurant and today you can go see the second generation running it. One day Omar, the older son, showed me a terrific drawing of me, Noora the dancer, as a superhero, which he had made. What a terrific surprise; a super belly dancer with Wonder Woman muscles! Tripoli had its special charm and all the waiters that worked there were very friendly. The place was always packed and you could count on seeing the regulars there every weekend, as with most places during these times.

Our dressing room was a large bathroom shared with the female customers. The customers often stayed to chat with dancers and sometimes I got a booking for a party right on the spot. I always had my dinner with the musicians between sets and had a good laugh with them too! One of the sweetest musicians around that I had the pleasure to work with not only at Tripoli, but at other places as well was Elias Sarkar, who was known for his sweet singing voice and terrific oud and violin playing. Some of the other regular Tripoli musicians were George Moussa on keyboard, singer Nafiz and drummer Amir Naoum.

Ginray

I want to add one final club here called Ginray, which happened to be Japanese and was located right across the street from the Ibis on East 50th Street. I don’t know what possessed me to go in there and propose doing a belly dance show for them. Maybe it was because I was still on a high from my trip to Japan, or maybe because it was close to the Ibis, but they agreed to it and loved it. Whatever it was, it was another place to dance and I got some of my other dance buddies work there too. In fact there were countless little restaurants, some whose names I can’t even recall that I waltzed into and got to work in; it didn’t matter if they were Middle Eastern or not. In those times, the market wasn’t as saturated as it is today.

As I developed as a dancer, I was lucky to be part of the Middle Eastern club scene of that time; it was a community that held onto its traditions and shared them at the same time. The Manhattan clubs were vibrant and exhilarating with people whose culture, similar to my own, was warm and inviting. But the dancing didn’t stop there…

Part 3 Coming soon!

Resources:

use the comment box

Have a comment? Use or comment section at the bottom of this page or Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?

   |       |    4 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    David Porfirio

    Mar 10, 2017 - 05:03:12

    Article was well worth the wait !!!!! Fazils was interesting a studio and nightclub in one . Noora you present me with an envy of not being around in this era . Music played by musicians. Dance interpretation by actually dancers. I love this article fantastically written by a true virtuoso of her craft Noora . 🙂

  2. No Gravatar
    Carla

    Mar 10, 2017 - 05:03:51

    This is a great article from a wonderful, creative dancer and teacher!
    I especially loved the attention to detail in the article as if i was there myself.

  3. No Gravatar
    Dorit

    Mar 11, 2017 - 12:03:34

    Noora! Beautiful dancer and talented in so many ways.
    Great to read these stories and see your pics.
    I was the last dancer to get into the Ibis on 44th street.
    I was lucky enough to get my start there and then graduate to the solo midnight shows. I got the tail end of Cedars also, and a few other places with live music. That was an education in dance, in culture, in how much you’re willing to put up with too lol. Amir Naoum who you mentioned was my drum teacher, he would have me sit in at the Mogador and play after my dance set. So I had the dance and the music lessons on the spot the way it was done years before I even stepped into class. Things are very different now. Im sure Arabic live music is happening now, but there are just a few dancers they keep rotating in and out, and its very hard to break in to those very closed circles. Also costuming is so incredibly open now, and also the dancers working in those places are getting thinner and thinner. Its just something Ive noticed as I get older. Thanks for the articles!

  4. No Gravatar
    Pia-Camilla

    May 31, 2017 - 02:05:52

    Noora! I love reading your stories and descriptions about the places, the people and the atmosphere among everthing else imbedded in your stories.
    I absolutely LOVE looking at your pictures and I too wish I lived here in the USA at that time so I could experience it all.
    Thank you for sharing your wonderful stories.
    Pia

Click and type in the comment box to add to this discussion. If you want to see an avatar for yourself, set up an avatar at http://www.Gravatar.com

 

Gilded Serpent

MaryEllen Donald