Gilded Serpent presents...
An Interview with
“The Lady With The Eyes”

by Sausan

Searching the Internet a few months back for information about one of my former teachers, I came across several inquiries on a couple of web sites asking if anyone knew the whereabouts of Nakish, one of the most prominent American belly dancers of the late 20th century.  A few years ago, a friend of mine had given me Nakish’s contact information, but in the daily throes of living life in general, and in spite of my good intentions, the contact information lingered in my to-do file.  Then, during the week after Christmas and before New Year’s Day, 2007, my cell phone rang; on the other end of the line was the very familiar voice of my former teacher, Nakish.

Nakish and I talked for a while on the phone while I sat in my car with the clock ticking towards midnight, each asking how the other was and how life was in general.  All was fine.  We wished each other a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and I suggested we get together for a long-overdue interview.  Later that week we agreed on a time and a date.  I was glad we had made contact after so many, many years.
Nakish greeted me at her San Francisco home in Visitation Valley with the warm welcome that only her huge dimpled smile could bring, and I found myself following her up the stairs of her three bedroom home and into her well organized work room.

  Looking around I saw samples of lovely wedding veils pinned to head forms, and noticed walls of containers full of beads, which I later found out were real gems and pearls.  Patterns lay pinned to green iridescent fabric on a worktable, and I later learned it was for a costume in the works for an upcoming project.  Years had passed since I last saw Nakish, yet everything in that room, including Nakish, felt comfortably familiar.  We sat down amongst the evidences of her abundant creativity, and exchanged up-to-date news.  I then began my interview.

Nakish was born in San Francisco into a family of many siblings.  When she was about six years old, she began taking ballet.  In high school, she also studied Flamenco and Modern Dance.  She would go on to train as a Martha Graham dancer under one of Martha Graham’s students during her high school years.  If she had accepted, she would have become the second black performer and first black female performer to have ever trained in the Martha Graham technique.  But as a young woman, she was not prepared to venture into the unknown territory of that East Coast city during the turmoil of the 1960s, and so Nakish enrolled in the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance and studied with Sheila Zoragas.  At the same time she also studied Modern Dance at City College.
In 1962, Nakish enrolled in the Louise Salinger Academy of Fashion, then located at 101 Jessie Street, a facility now owned by the Academy of Art.  After she graduated in 1966, she became the assistant to Patricia of London Design in 1967.  In addition to the study of design, Nakish ventured into stone and gem cutting and added jewelry design to her portfolio.

Bal-Anat days
Nakish wanted to be sure that the readers knew the pictures with the sword and the one where she is standing under an umbrella were not what she eventually became known for, and that would be her cabaret style and performance.
I asked Nakish how she was first introduced to belly dance.  “My boyfriend used to work at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire as a blacksmith, and he told me about it.  He tried to encourage me to participate in it as a belly dancer.  I didn’t feel it was right because belly dance is not part of my ethnic culture.”  However, a year later Nakish ventured to the Renaissance Fair and went to watch the belly dancers on stage, which at that time were Jamila’s troupe, Bal-Anat.  “Rhea was performing with her sword.  She saw me standing there watching the dancers and came up to me and said, ‘You should be in our group!’”  In 1969, Nakish began taking belly dance lessons from Jamila and soon after became Bal-Anat’s next sword dancer, as Rhea left the group to go dance in Greece.  "Why belly dance?" I asked.  “Because it is a dance I could do and express by myself,” was the answer.

The 1970s were bringing about great changes in San Francisco, and Nakish participated in those changes by becoming the first black belly dancer.  In fact, she was the first and only black performing belly dancer in the Bal-Anat Middle Eastern Dance group, and she participated in troupe performances at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire for the next three years. 

In fact, Nakish is known to be the first black or African-American belly dancer both nationally and internationally.
In 1973, Nakish broke away from the Bal-Anat Middle Eastern Dance group and began teaching at the Randala Inn, then on Taraval Street near 20th Avenue.  She appeared in numerous trade publications, including being on the front cover of Habibi Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 3.  In 1976 she joined the staff of the Belly Dancer Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 12, as its Beauty Editor [Ed- a magazine published in the '70s unrelated to the current publication of the same name] .  Watching Nakish pulling magazine after magazine out of her memoir box to show me articles and pictures about her in these publications, which included Jet Magazine, PSA Magazine and other well-known magazines of the times, left me humbled.  A few were even dated prior to her study of belly dance; specifically, on February 6, 1966, Nakish appeared as a dominant personality in the first ever Black History Month event.
Around 1978, I began taking lessons with The Lady With The Eyes.  Her small studio on Frankfurt Street in San Francisco would help open doors for me to a life of excitement in the arena of belly dance.  As we sat and talked, the story of her life began to take on a familiar air, as I recalled that much of what she was telling me occurred during the time I was her student.

In 1980, club owners in Japan began contacting Nakish with requests for her students to dance there, but the contracts they offered were not to her strict and high standards.  She traveled to Japan to find out first hand what the clubs where like in Japan and after seeing for herself what she did not want her students to experience, she requested that the contracts be changed to her staisfaction.

Rather than sending her students to a country that at that time had a bad reputation for turning foreign dancers into prostitutes, she leaned toward safety for her students and turned down the invitation.The club owners there were unwilling to comply, and she returned without accepting the contracts in lieu of her students' safety.

In December 1983, Nakish was invited by Dr. Bousaini Farid, then President of the Women’s Club in Egypt, to go to Egypt to dance for the Friendship Force International program, a nonprofit international cultural exchange organization headquartered in Atlanta that was founded with a single mission – to create an environment in which personal friendships were established across the barriers that separate people.  Now active in over 60 countries, this program was founded in 1977 by its first president, Wayne Smith, and was announced on March 1, 1977 by President Jimmy Carter at a White House gathering of state governors.  Nakish was to be the featured dancer at the Nile Hilton, where she performed for Egypt’s elite. 

She so dazzled her audience that she was invited to stay and to perform for the New Year’s Eve Party at the Yacht Club for over 50,000 people.  Her performance at the Yacht Club was cut short when Nakish fell ill with pneumonia.

  She spent her New Year’s Eve and Day sick in her hotel room.  “I was so sick!  And it was even worse when I learned that there were going to be over 50,000 people there to watch me!”  On her way home from Egypt, she sought the medical help of English doctors in her layover at Heathrow International, and arrived back in San Francisco a much healthier but a much thinner Nakish.

Popular trade magazines (both covers and inside features) was only one venue where Nakish appeared.  During the 1970s and 1980s she also made several television appearances to demonstrate her belly dance talents: specifically, she was on the Belva Davis Show, as well as the Jim Dunbar Show.  The late Herb Caen featured her in one of his well-read columns, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.  She was also the first black woman to teach at the YWCA in 1977.  Her workshop, seminar-teaching, and performance schedule had her traveling all over the United States and to Canada as well as to Japan.  Two of her first sponsors were Jodette and Harry Saroyan.  She was also asked to be a board member for the newly established Ethnic Dance Festival in 1978, but had to decline because of her already hectic schedule.
I asked Nakish about the North Beach/Broadway nightclub scene.  “I really wasn’t into the nightclub scene.  I really didn’t like it.  I liked doing the big fairs like the ones at Brooks Hall, Cal Expo, Cow Palace, and the Civic Center.”  She talked about how she had demanded respect from the club owners for her students when they went to dance at the clubs.  I’m sure it was because of her that I was treated with the utmost respect during the time when I worked at the Bagdad.  Nakish did perform monthly in the Middle Eastern nightclubs, but she reserved the right to turn down even those opportunities to suit her schedule, a right  to which the owners gladly agreed.
Nakish stopped teaching dance altogether in 1993 after she injured herself working on "The Phantom of the Opera", where she worked in the Wardrobe Department.  She does continue to teach workshops on beauty and makeup and is sought out often to design costumes and millinery for large productions, including the San Francisco Ballet’s "Dybbuk Ballet", "Beauty and the Beast", shows at the San Francisco Opera and other Bay Area theater companies.  She was also invited to showcase her millinery items at Neiman Marcus.  Today, Nakish's love remains with designing theater millinery, working with silver and gold, and dancing.
In the 1970’s Nakish was responsible for encouraging a young belly dancer named Yasmeena to acquire The Belly Dancer, a trade magazine of the time.  She helped in the production of numerous belly dance shows throughout San Francisco, with some of the top name musicians of today, such as Mary Ellen Donald and the late Mimi Spencer.  She was one of the first teachers ever to teach at the Rakkasah festivals  I asked Nakish if she would ever consider doing a belly dance workshop again.  “I would, but I would have to see what is out there right now.  I’ve been so busy with my other work that I really don’t know what is going on right now in the belly dance scene.  Also, I would do one, but only to very serious students.  I don’t like teaching group classes because I don’t see the dance as just fun and games.  The student must be serious about this dance.” 
What was Nakish's most memorable dance gig?  She said, “The one in Egypt.”  Why?  I asked.  “Because I was invited.  To me that was an honor like you would not believe it!  I was invited by Egypt’s elite to dance for all of Egypt’s elite.”

What is the one thing Nakish still wants to do with regards to belly dance?  “To make sure that young belly dancers know about the co-founders of this dance and how hard we really worked to make it a respectable dance form here in the United States.

I worked hardest for the dancers in San Francisco to wipe out the discrimination factor and to make sure that all cultures were included in the performance of this dance.”

  Nakish has always kept her belly dance life private because of the stigma attached to the dance form.  “I get tired of ignorant people and get angry at their perception of this dance.” 

When asked where she saw belly dance going today, she responded, “I have no idea because I have not been in the field.  But I can tell you that the good old days are gone.”  "What do you like or dislike about the belly dance trends today?" I asked. “The lack of study on the part of the dancer.  Everyone is so anxious to get out and dance.  The respect has gone out of it; there is lack of knowledge as to where it came from or how to present it as honoring the women.  There seems to be too much bump and grind in it now.  It takes years and years of study in order to understand the music and to be proficient enough to transfer that knowledge to the student.” 

  "What do you like most and what do you like least about the dance today, compared to yesteryear?"  “The costuming has become softer and more beautiful, but there is one thing I would like to pass on.  One of the most important things in this dance to understand is the word choreography, and where it comes from.  Choreography is the accumulation of many individual steps that is applied to music and which is taught to a dancer from her/his instructor who has had years of experience. 

From that, a student will be able to master choreography to any music she/he wants.  Always remember, there always will be more steps and different steps, but the understanding of the dance and music will be much greater.”  Nakish continued, “Don’t be in a hurry to get out and be seen in the public.  Take your time and really learn the dance correctly.”
In closing, Nakish stated, “This dance is already a very sexy style dance.  You don’t have to add any more sexiness to it in order to dance it well.  Also, if one is looking for teachers, see if their classes can be visited, even if a charge for sitting in on a class is required.  If that can’t be done, then go to the next teacher.  Then learn it to its fullest!”

Nakish's name, which she said means “Beautiful One”, definitely identifies her warm spirit and her genuine demeanor.  Perhaps with a little coaxing, we may encourage her to come out of retirement and share with us the knowledge and stories of her unique dance past.

"Friends of Nakish" on Tribe.net should anyone want to contact her...

More photos-

Introduction as Beauty Editor of Yasmeena's Bellydancer Magazine

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