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Life was a Cabaret

Noora dances at Molfetas
Noora dances at Molfetas

My Memorable New York Club Years:
Part 3- Beyond Manhattan

by Noora-Aphrodite
posted April 24, 2017

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 3 of my story.

Beyond Manhattan

New York City was “club city” back in the early 1980’s, besides the Middle Eastern night clubs you had entertainment from around the world. Flamenco was alive at the Chateau Madrid, and you could see a Hawaiian revue at the Hawaii Kai on West 50th Street. When Ibis closed for the second renovation, all the dancers went scrambling around looking for another steady place to dance in. One club in particular where I got 6 nights a week of work was at Le Palais in Brooklyn. It was not a favorite of the dancers and one girl even gave me her nights because she was not happy with the music. Well, dancing was my bread and butter and even though it was definitely not my cup of tea I bit the bullet, made the money and learned quite a few things from that experience. Le Palais was an international club owned by Israelis with an Israeli and international clientele. I learned a lot of new music there, like songs they didn’t play in the Arabic clubs. I also danced to regular trap drums instead of the tabla. I had befriended the star singer, a woman who sang in about ten languages. She was an amazing performer, helpful and very sweet.

In the beginning it felt like a culture shock, learning how the foreign male mind thinks. Even though they were different, they were alike in many ways. But, I learned how to be diplomatic and polite while handling sticky situations like getting paid on time, and dealing with unruly male customers while still getting the job done.

Actually, I started learning all this from day one at the Ibis, but this was new territory and it required a certain finesse. In Queens there was a Persian restaurant called Patogh that had just opened, it was more family oriented. The owner was nice and I didn’t have to struggle to get my tips or get paid. There were several clubs and restaurants across the river in New Jersey too with quite a few worthwhile places to dance in.

Molfetas

I worked the Greek scene at Molfetas in Hackensack, NJ and the Turkish crowds at Istanbul Taverna right off of Route 1-9 and the Lincoln tunnel in Jersey City, NJ. Sometimes I worked both places in one night and talk about an international bouillabaisse!

The interesting thing was that you could only dance to Greek music at Molfetas and there was no tabla! My experience from Le Palais served me well. Molfetas was owned and operated by Jerry Molfetas and his brother. It was a beautiful spacious nightclub with a striking Greek décor and two levels of seating. Besides the belly dancers, Molfetas featured seven or more musicians, a Greek and an international singer and also including a house photographer and a flower girl who sold carnations. The custom was the customers bought the flowers tore them apart and threw them at the dancer instead of money and that counted as tips! Everyone made money at Molfetas with all of us sharing in the pot including the house; it was really amazing that we all left with a nice amount in our pockets! Working at Molfetas were very long nights for me because at that time I didn’t have a car and I had to wait for one of the musicians or singer to ride back to the city (Manhattan) with, but I was working, dancing and I was making a living! Istanbul Taverna Biz card

Istanbul Taverna

The first time Istanbul Taverna (in North Bergen, New Jersey) opened and called me to work I was picked up by the owner’s teenage son and worked there as the house dancer for more than twelve years. Most things at Istanbul Taverna were on a smaller scale when compared to the other clubs. They stuck with only a couple of dancers the whole time I worked there. There were three of us as far as I can remember and we alternated working mostly on the weekends. It too was a roomy nightclub, but with a simple and plain décor. It was family owned and managed and everyone in the family worked there. The owner, Mohammed, and his wife were always present and mingling with the customers. Their daughter Cindy handled the tables and later Ray, the son, tended bar when he became of age. They started out in the beginning with a well-known Turkish band called The Sultans which the dancers got to work with, but soon that was cut and the dancer had to use tapes. After awhile I got used to it and the great thing is the owners didn’t care what you danced to (whether Arabic, Greek or Turkish) as long as you did a good job and the customers were happy. Besides the local singers they occasionally booked major singers from Istanbul for major parties and events.

Istanbul Restaurant and Taverna in New Jersey

Atlantic Antics Festival

Although Atlantic Antics is not a night club per se, it does most definitely belong here because it was and continues to be a place for belly dancers to dance! I honestly can’t even remember when I started performing at this yearly event in Brooklyn Heights. But every year up until four years ago I would get a call from Eddie the Sheik with his raspy voice around July or August to book me for the Atlantic Antics Festival. “Noora, don’t forget your robe and slippers” he’d say with his heavy Brooklyn accent!

It is one of the biggest festivals in NYC that fills several long blocks with food, crafts and vendors of every kind, but the best part of it is the entertainment! I always took the easiest route by subway and the #4 train to Court Street in Brooklyn and walk about 7 or 8 blocks delighting in the sights as I walk along the bustling Avenue full of merchants selling their goods. It was a real treat in the early years because back then there were a lot more Arabic restaurants and specialty shops that sold the most exotic goods from the Middle East. In particular was Sahadi’s our sponsor which also gave us the use of their spacious office upstairs to change into our costumes.

The minute you walked in you were hit by the smell of aromatic spices, dates, olive oil, freshly baked breads and good Middle Eastern home cooking. Eddie made sure we had an escort to bring us to the stage and back and it was mostly well organized. Each dancer would let him know ahead of time what music she wanted to dance to and of course we had a wonderful band comprised of the same musician’s we worked with in the clubs. Sometimes though you might not get the music you wanted depending on who got called first, but no matter what it was all good!

Things changed over the years, but for the most part Eddie put a good show together. He’d have up to 6 six dancers including a male dancer, a singer and sometimes a guest dancer or an impromptu guest like Bobby Ibrahim Farrah. We danced to packed crowds with the most amazing, electrifying and appreciative audience I had ever dance to. They knew us dancers by name and called out to us and Eddie knew how to work the crowd, he was the perfect emcee from beginning to end. He’d sing fun songs with everyone joining in and he knew the right things to say to get them going or he’d mention the dancer’s name or even dance a bit with us. The fun usually continued with some of the dancers, musicians and friends gathering to enjoy the good local food.

The Atlantic Antics of today is not the same as I remember. I noticed a difference on a recent visit, gone was the excitement of what it used to be, there wasn’t as much live music as before and the performers at the Middle Eastern stage have dwindled to half or less of what we use to have, even the crowds were less. Despite all that Eddie the Sheik still manages to run the show, God bless him. He made the Atlantic Antics one of my favorite gigs and that I’ll never forget!

Vanishing Clubs

Egyptian Gardens

I got to enjoy and work in some of the best clubs around, however I was sorry to see some of the older places disappear even before getting a chance to see them. While I was still a student at Serena Wilson’s I often heard the mention of the Egyptian Gardens; Serena had danced there and I even knew one of the advanced students who had also gotten work at the popular restaurant. I thought to myself “gosh how thrilling to be able to dancer there!” I kept making plans to go, but sadly the placed closed before I ever had a chance to see it.

Shecouffeh

Another place that disappeared was called Shecouffeh and I believe it was Persian. All I remember about it was that it had belly dancing and the building had these massive, ornate doors on the outside. I never did go inside

Haci Baba

Right before getting hired at the Ibis I had the pleasure of going to the Haci Baba, a Turkish place down in the village before it too closed. I went with a couple of dancers to see a friend that had been working there regularly. It was a cute place and all I can remember was the curtain décor and of course the entertainment. I did fancy myself performing there as well, but soon it too was gone.

 

Publications

Nothing was more enticing than to see the photo of a belly dancer in her magnificent pose and costume advertising a club or a restaurant. There were ads in all kinds of newspapers and magazines. Trade magazines usually listed all the clubs, occasionally highlighting the best and most prominent ones with what they offered and featuring a picture of a dancer or two. It was a delight to be the featured dancer in the following publications: New York Times, the Daily News, the Village Voice, Keys to the City, Dance Magazine, Latin New York and Arabesque Magazine as well as others. Another time, I was chosen to promote the NY State Lotto with fellow Ibis dancer Michelle. Reviews of the clubs by Michael Musto with my picture was used several times to advertise and promote both the Ibis and then later on Cleopatra/The Nile on the west side as well as the Cedars of Lebanon, to name a few. It was exciting and it was all part of a fulfilling time to be a belly dancer!

 

Forever thankful

I wanted to write this not only for myself, but for my students who are always so eager to hear about “the good old days” and to show them how much things have changed and in a sense, how much they haven’t. The dance has certainly evolved and there are a myriad of styles, yet many unrecognizable forms go under the umbrella of belly dance.

The focus seems to be on teaching workshops where for us it was dancing in clubs, the shows are shorter and the six part show is almost a relic of the past. Yet, dancers still struggle with just payment, the internet is a force and has leveled the playing field and we still have a ways to go to achieve a level of respect other dance forms receive!

For me, the 1980s was the epitome of glamour and excitement. Naturally, it was my beginning and everything was new and fascinating. I had entered a world that filled all my senses. It was intoxicating with music and rhythms, with costumes that were colorful and ornate, and foods that were savory and exotic for every kind of palate. The Middle Eastern club scene was a community that held onto their traditions and shared them at the same time. The clubs were vibrant and exhilarating with people whose culture, similar to mine, was warm and inviting. In the 90’s I had become a seasoned professional, and was still making new discoveries with my travels abroad. I got to be a part of the club scene and culture in the most amazing cities throughout the world. All this I discovered through a beautiful, feminine and enchanting art known by most as belly dance and I will forever be grateful!

 

More photos!

Istanbul Taverna

Istanbul Taverna

Istanbul TavernaIstanbul Taverna

Istanbul Taverna

Molfetas

Molfetas

 

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   |       |    5 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    David Porfirio

    Apr 24, 2017 - 12:04:53

    Nice , Noora you are a treasure !!!!

  2. No Gravatar
    Carla

    Apr 24, 2017 - 04:04:29

    Bravo!
    Well said and very well done!
    I still love hearing these stories because they are classic and never loose their sense of style.
    “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

  3. No Gravatar
    Zenaide

    Apr 26, 2017 - 11:04:34

    Dear Noora,
    Thanks for your wonderful memories and insights into our special dance careers in the 80’s! We were fortunate indeed and your photos are a gem to remind us all of the glamour and beauty that you exuded on stage. Bravissima!

  4. No Gravatar
    Noora

    Apr 30, 2017 - 05:04:08

    Zenaide, what good times we had for sure! How fortunate that we had an appreciative audience and we didn’t have to compete with cell phones! We are lucky to have the photos we do and I have seen some of yours. They too captured a beautiful dancer and an unforgettable time! David and Carla, thank you for your lovely words and support!

  5. No Gravatar
    David Porfirio

    Jun 25, 2017 - 10:06:25

    This article every volume has attracted me to this dance and culture more than most dancers I have seen live . Noora you are a true virtuoso and you have the one quality that can not be taught , Passion . You are an artist of the highest caliber.

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