Layout & editting
Meredth McGuire,
Najia and Lynette

The Gilded Serpent presents...

and the North Beach of Yore
An interview with Gayle
by Meredith McGuire

I.Gail Discovers the Bagdad
It was 1967. I had a roommate named Pat and we took ourselves down to Broadway one night for a wee bit of fun and adventure. We were walking along Broadway and we saw one particular barker, dressed in a sheik's costume, standing in front of the Bagdad. He enticed us inside.

We entered, and were totally stunned by the music, the dancing, and the way the cabaret was decorated. I'd had no experience with belly dance at all before this. The stage was all beautifully decorated, and it was so mysterious! There we were, two exceptionally straight-laced women!

My roommate was the daughter of a Baptist minister, and I was just out of navy. We both had short hair, and were wearing conservative miniskirts; neither of us were into sixties drug scene, so for us to walk into this den of iniquity (laughs)…

Manny, Yousef and Gili Gili (Fatma's husband)

Amina was dancing that night. Her specialty at that time was dancing on the floor displaying her long dark hair; it was fabulous! Two other dancers who worked there were Aida (not Aida Al-Adawai) who was Mexican - and a bombshell named Zoraida Torres. She was from Puertro Rico - short, dynamic, powerful, a real bombshell! There was not a lot of variation in her moves, but what she had was so powerful. At the time Fadil Shahin was working for Yusef Kouyoumjian, who was a musician there. Along with Yousef and Fadil there were various drummers and a Greek guy named Manny Petro who played the guitar.

Fadil came and introduced himself. We were so entranced that we kept coming back, two to three times a week. We lived in Burlingame and had to take bus. We picked up guys who'd take us home. For instance, Kamal Ayub, a friend of Fadil's, who hung out at Bagdad. I met him there. Later he opened the Casbah with Fadil. I had dinner with him a couple times, and Pat went out with his friend, Mike.

This scene was all very mysterious and provocative to us. I was twenty-one; I had studied ballet and modern dance. At first I just liked coming to watch, and then, after two or three months of watching and after we had met a lot of people, Fadil (who was very friendly) gave us Jamila's phone number. That's when I started taking lessons.

[who is this lady?]

hustling for drinks

an Arab girl from Jordan

Pat, Princess Scheherezade andYasmeen

Bad George

married to musician, John Caplani


Magana Baptiste

Bert Balladine dances with partner and student Najia

II. Lessons with Jamila
I don't know how long Jamila had been teaching when I showed up. She'd come to the Bagdad originally around 1960 (this was 1967). She might not have been teaching that long at this time. I know she danced on Broadway until she was 40. Interviewer's note: Amina, who was present during the interview, adds, "She was dancing until just before I started, and I started in 1966."

When I first saw her, she was in full makeup. She had huge sausage curls, and her hair was raven black. She had these huge, mesmerizing eyes that just looked through your backbone, and I thought she was very strange. It's like seeing a cobra coming towards you: you're fascinated and you can't possibly leave.

When I first started, I was very stiff and awkward, but I was a fanatic. We went out and bought finger cymbals right away. The next week I could do the basic patterns because I was just sitting in that chair day after day playing right left right, right left right. The way Jamila taught, drilling us on the basic moves each week and just embellishing the moves, you'd have had to be blind and deaf not to progress. She's still the best dancer I've ever seen.

Jamila's classes ran two hours or until she got tired. She was the person who most inspired me when I was young. She was the only person who ever believed in me. She was the most influential person in the course of my life in a positive way and though I haven't seen her in years, I still love her dearly. When she saw how serious I was, I really got a lot of support and attention from her.

Jamila was the only person who ever believed in me; she was the most influential person in the course of my life.

I worked all night in a hospital so I could take my lessons. I took the night shift so I could be free on Saturdays. When I came home, I would dance for two hours before I'd let myself sleep. I was a fanatic.

For my first performance, Jamila made me the most beautiful red costume with silver dots in it. She handmade the bra and the silver girdle out of silver coins. I still have two original Jamila costumes, but my performance bombed at my first student night at the Bagdad. My veil fell off, and I stepped on it and tripped. The second student night, after six or seven months of studying, my dance was a big hit.

II. Gail Becomes Yasmeen
About that time, Fadil opened the Casbah - which really pissed off Yousef Kouyoumsian. So when Yousef saw me dance, but didn't offer me a job, I went and auditioned at the Casbah. Fadil offered me a job. It was six nights a week, ten dollars a night, plus all the tips I could get away from the musicians. This was for three 45 minute shows a night, and you didn't know what music you were going to get. In between each show, we hustled drinks for customers. My stage name was "Yasmeen". Zahra danced there. She was going out with Fadil's brother Walid. She hated me. I was a newer, younger dancer and I was working for much less money than established dancers (they were getting $25 a night). They didn't like that; they felt it was a slap in the face of the professionals.

There might have been 50 dancers in the city at that time and everyone had more work than they knew what to do with. No one would have been caught dead dancing to a tape. We had the best musicians; some came up from Los Angeles. I danced at all the San Francisco joints and worked private parties too, with live music, and mostly for Middle Easterners. I wasn't even soliciting, but I was still getting more gigs than I knew how to handle.

Sometimes I'd take a weekend off and go down to Fresno. The Arabian Knights was down there. Fresno was little Armenia. Arabian Knights was run by woman named Becky Hooritarian. She had a dancer named Wedad Khan, also known as Bedawia, an Arab girl from Jordan, who wasn't much of a dancer at the time, but was beautiful and had a great figure.

I danced at Casbah for a year. Amina parted ways with the Bagdad and came over to Casbah. I also danced with Zahra Anise and a Turkish girl named Princess Aisha. Middle Easterners would sometimes put on airs for being from the Middle East, but they also received a lot of social

condemnation. The Princess' husband, Hoshang, was the nicest man and so good to her, and took a lot of flak from other musicians and Middle Easterners for letting his wife dance. She used to come out with a little tiara and high heels; she was very ladylike and had a pretty show but I thought it was a little boring. She sang too. She and Zahra were always looking down their noses at me. Amina was always very friendly.

For the year I was there, we were mostly the main dancers. I was the only dancer who was at the Casbah, Bagdad, and Greek Taverna. After a while the other dancers at Casbah accepted me, but it took them a long time. Once I accidentally used Zahra's hairbrush and she had a fit in the dressing room, screaming and cursing. There was a lot of jealousy and stupidity among us back then. I was too naive to understand the politics that was going on, so I just stayed out of it. Between the dancers, there was a lot of backbiting, but I wasn't aware of it. When I was dancing, everyone thought I was stoned (which I wasn't) because I got so high from dancing.

One day, while I was dancing at Greek Taverna, I had a car accident, and broke my arm. I sprayed the cast gold and went to work the next day. That's how much of a fanatic I was.

It was such a wonderful time to be involved in dance. I had plane tickets being sent to me through the mail, sight (of me) unseen. I got a ticket from a Greek club in Vancouver called the Aster Restaurant and also received one from the Acropolis Restaurant in Baltimore. I didn't even need to send them a picture. A lot of the time, if they heard you'd studied with Jamila Salimpour, you got the job. That was Jamila's reputation.

However, after a while, Fadil was getting complaints that people were seeing the same dancers. He fired Amina and me and kept Zahra - apparently people still found her exciting, and they were getting tired of seeing me and Amina. Amina adds, " Fadil knew you were depending on this for your income. When he wanted to get rid of someone he would say, I'm going to cut your nights because the Arabs are getting tired of you because you're overexposed." Yousef at the Baghdad had a larger variety of clients, which included more Americans, but he still had quite a stream of dancers coming in and out.

I wanted to travel, and I'd heard of other places. After a car accident on the way to the Greek Taverna, my car was totaled, and I didn't have a way to get to work. This call came from Baltimore, and so I was back there in Baltimore and Boston for about a year. My mother was back there. I had hospital bills to pay. In Baltimore, I was paid $200 a week, which was considered "fabulous money". Eventually I danced in Los Angeles, San Diego, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Salt Lake City, Boston, Vancouver, B.C., Nairobi, and Mumbasa, Kenya. In all the places to which I traveled, I had fabulous musicians: Richard Hagopian; Fred Elias; and Richard Barham, just to name a few.

IV. Personalities
My roommates during the North Beach period were Pat who was very thin, and Princess Scheherezade. Princess used to screech as she went across the stage at the Bagdad, and was more voluptuous, so they made a nice pair. They would pal around to parties. They weren't very responsible. I always wound up having to pay the rent. They wound up going to Texas and there was a scout looking for dancers that came up to the Bay Area.

There was the good George Elias and the bad George Elias. The bad George was a jerk from Los Angeles.

Fatma Akef had long hair and huge eyes and she danced with a bird. She stood on glasses, and the bird would be on her shoulder and say, "Awk, awk!" and then he would defecate on the stage. She had a golden heart. Gilly Gilly, her husband, would come out and imitate a belly dancer and he was funnier than hell. He was a musician too. .

Jamila considered Galya Copas her greatest achievement because she was a fabulous dancer and they got along; they were close. Even John Compton will tell you that she was a fabulous dancer. When she danced at the Bagdad she'd only do two shows because that was all the energy she had. She was paid the same as dancers doing three shows a night.

Aziza was dancing at the Bagdad with Samia Nasser, from Iraq. I also thought that Samia had "a heart of gold". She used to come out with this little tiny voice - Squeaky! Squeaky! but she was so talented! She had high teased red hair that just stuck out everywhere, and always wore these low cut dresses, like a Middle Eastern Elvira. Amina adds, "She was my inspiration."

She used to make incredible facial expressions. She would open her mouth and try to be sexy. The first time I saw her, I thought she was horrible, but she grew on me. She was always so nice to me. She always felt that she was a queen. There was a Greek dancer at the Casbah for a while, named Zeina. She was an acrobatic dancer. She was short, very slender, and had a straight up-and-down figure. She used to do flips in front of Fadil. She was so fast it made your head spin to watch her. She'd incorporate the acrobatic moves, and it was phenomenal. She was married to George Elias next door. He used to come over and they would have fights and yell expletives at each other. Amina adds, "I saw her chasing him down Broadway with a knife. Later he rang the door bell and asked if he could hang out until sunrise." They did marry, but later on, he married Arousiac.

I went out with a guy named Gazi once or twice. He started shouting at me while I was dancing. He was awful; they had to take him out of there. Fauzia danced at Casbah. She was Jewish and her husband's name was John Caplanis; he played down at the Greek Taverna.

Politics never carried over. About musicians and dancers, even now we have Turks, Greeks, Jews and Arabs from every part of the world, and we're there because of the love of music and dance. We're completely apolitical. It only became political if somebody was Jewish and somebody was Arab and they wanted to get married to each other, but
that was more of an issue between families.

V. The Men
Jamila had warned us not to get involved with the guys in the clubs. That was good advice! I was involved with Rocky Aayoke (owner of the Benihana chain)'s for two years, and I met him while I was

dancing. However, from my observations, once you got involved with an Arab, you couldn't dance anymore. I never dated any musicians or club owners. I had a lot of offers but I really just stayed away from them. Dancing was a lot more important to me than going out with any of them. Initially, everyone

went into dance because they loved dancing. Then they would meet men and before you knew, it they weren't dancing anymore. Zahra was going out with Fadil's brother Walid, and he wouldn't marry her because she was a Jew. He went out with her for years, and finally moved back to the Middle East. Selwa ended up marrying her Arab boyfriend. She went back there and adopted the whole Arabic lifestyle, living in a village, etc. Zahra converted to Judaism, ended up marrying a Jew, quit dancing, and had an Islamic/Judaic wedding.

VI. The Style of the Times
What we were doing at the time was Turkish Oriental styled dance. The Turks had had an empire for 500 years, and their influence in music, dance, and culture affected the whole scene. It seemed to me that everybody did Kashlima, Shef Tetelli and the different songs played all over the Middle East. We wore sheer, sexy costumes. We had very high energy, used clean, big movements, danced to live music, and did lots of floor work . Back then, a very strong, earthy style was in vogue. Not everyone danced the exactly the same style, because a lot of dancers were dancing from Back East. We were using traditional instruments: oud, kanoon, violin, and dumbek. This probably started changing in the late '70s, when the Egyptian blitz came in vogue with its synthesizer music. It was not a good change for me. In modern Egyptian style everything became very orchestrated, with a lot of synthesized music. It seemed to me that it did away with oud, violin. It sounded to me like everything was accordian. I called it the "la la music."

We weren't so much worried about if what we were doing was authentic; we just danced. I believe now that Jamila was teaching us a traditional Egyptian Beledi style. What she taught was big strong movements. I don't remember her ever mentioning it, but now I've done research and seen so many dancers and spent time in Egypt, that is my conclusion. At the time we were just studying and
dancing and learning and trying to form our own styles. However, we were doing Turkish Oriental. You have to take into account the kind of music, costumes, dance steps, and instrumentation to decide what type you're doing. There is a lot of cross-over. Steps done in Morocco are also done in Tunisia and Egypt. At the time I was dancing, I never saw Moroccan and Tunisian dance. This is something I became much more knowledgeable about in the last five years. Now Egyptian Cabaret is the type that most people are learning. I never got into it so much because I wasn't inspired by the music. The main thing that propelled me into dance, even before I met Jamila, was hearing Fadil Shahin. He's the greatest musician I've ever heard, and I've heard everybody. I still hate taped music; I have my own band now.

VII. Bert vs. Jamila
(Sighs)There were only two other people, aside from Jamila, teaching at the time: Magana Baptiste and Bert Balladine. Jamila didn't have any particularly glowing reports about either one of them. She said Magana had never been a professional dancer, defined by Jamila as someone who'd performed to live music. I don't know if that's true or not; I'm just repeating what she told us. (ed-it's not!)

Jamila didn't like Bert for several reasons. She didn't like the way he moved, and she felt that what he taught his students was limited. When I watched them dance, I concluded that she was right. I went to one class of Bert's. Jamila was so methodical about the way she taught, you did so much of this, and so much of this. It was military style, but you learned it. However, with Bert, everyone was "doing their own thing" and moving their own way. I do not say he wasn't a talented dancer, but he wasn't teaching in a way conducive to me. Jamila would say, "If you're going to study with me, study with me; if you're going to study with Bert, study with Bert."

Bert taught a lot of showmanship but Jamila didn't. Bert would say things like "You might only dance only four steps, but it's more important the way you present those four."

I think that there's some validity to that. He's a very dynamic dancer, he's about the same age as Jamila but he's still teaching. He teaches verbally, but I believe that his teaching always was based on the power of his personality, because his dance technique was fairly limited, in my opinion.

Jamila was more into teaching technique, choreography, costuming, and finger cymbals. Many of her dancers were much stronger on the finger cymbals than Bert's. She had very strong ideas about costuming; she didn't like beads. She felt that when you danced, you provide a lady-like image: your feet are together, your legs are together. She felt beaded costumes were reminiscent of strippers so she wanted you to wear coins. Most of Bert's students wore beads. She didn't like spangles or anything like that. It was very serious to us. Her style of dance was a very holy thing that she was giving to people. She was trying to turn it into a serious dance form and gain respect, and she felt that the glitzy costumes undermined what she was trying to do. When she did Bal Anat, it was a totally folkloric styled presentation. Everyone was covered and they danced with pots, swords, and snakes. She was so marvelous at the Renaissance Faire. Bal Anat was the biggest attraction at that Renaissance fair. I danced with the troupe as a soloist at that time.

I wish I had spent more time studying with her. She said, "You're going to dance six nights a week and then you're going to drag yourself into my class?" Once I got a professional job, she wanted to push me forward and into the professional scene. I could have gone a lot further than I did.

Dance helped me through school. I have met most of my best friends through dancing. It's how I met my husband; Phil Wayne. Phil is my lead musician; he plays everything from the violin to the oud to mizmar to Tunisian bagpipes. Currently, I'm teaching; I have a troupe called Aladdin's Lads and Lasses; I have a band. I sponsor my own event at Ardenwood Historic Farm. We do most of the Middle Eastern festivals like Rakkasah, Festival Fantasia, and Desert Dance. We're going on our third year at The Camel Races in Benicia.

Learning to dance has been the most influential thing in my life. It never occurred to me back then that, "Gee, I could go to school and study dance ethnology." However, I'm doing what I want to do with dance now.

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Ready for more?
Zil Thrills in the '70s, Memories from another Viewpoint

11-8-05 My Adventure Begins! by Asmahan
At last, another North Beach Memory! "I was creating my life as an adventure, I was making my own destiny; this was Kismet!"

7-17-04 Dancing in North Beach by Sausan
On the occasions when the door was still locked, I was often invited to drink coffee next door, where young girls made their money stripping.

6-10-03 North Beach and Mark Bell from an interview with Lynette
A lot of my getting the jobs was because I was there available when the opportunity arose.


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