The Gilded Serpent

The Gilded Serpent presents...
Aisha Ali
& the Birth of the Ghawazee

by Sadira
photos courtesy of
Trish St. John Photo Archive

In approximately 1974, a huge development in Oriental Dance in the Bay Area of San Francisco took place. It seemed to me that everyone was doing the same "Salimpour" style and ethnic/or cabaret dancing. Jamila was still performing with Bal Anat at the Renaissance Faire and everyone that I knew in Oriental dance believed the origins of the dance came from a priestess ritual from Pharonic times, and that the ritual was involved with the process of childbirth. This 'myth' still appears to be prevalent today for many California dancers, though there is not enough ethnological or Pharonic history to back this premise.

Back in the '70s, though, we took it very seriously that the dance form had had it's roots in a woman based ancient spiritual ritual that glorified the divinity of a goddess or goddesses and the woman's role in birthing. It is still a very powerful connection and possibly may have had some actual bits of truth to it. However, historically and ethnologically speaking, it was a tale built of fantasy.

To demonstrate the climate of the times during the early '70's, I will point out that the dance was divided into "ethnic" or "beledi" styling, or nightclub dancing with a prevalent showgirl and glamour presence. I remember Fadil (the owner of San Francisco's Casbah Cabaret) talking to my friend and fellow dancer, Rhea, over and over again, about how some of the dancers did their movements. He related that in his country, the professional dancers did not use many of the movements that we professional dancers were using at the time. Later on, we could see that our dance styling at the time consisted of a heavy Turkish influence. He would tell us, that in Egypt, the dancers used very small movements and accented and punctuated the rhythms with their body language. They also did not utilize much space within the dance floor area. He said that an excellent dancer did not have to know more than four movements or use more than four steps, to captivate an audience. Fadil often said that Gayla was the only dancer he had ever seen in America giving this type of performance on stage and keep a crowd mesmerized. He mentioned that though she didn't have a lot of different movements or complicated techniques to her dance style, it was her immersion with the audience and music that captured her audience and made her a premier performer. Once Fadil even tried to show Rhea the type of pivot turn that was familiar to him, as opposed to the way everyone here was executing it. A few years later, after Egyptian Cabaret burst upon the scene, I now recognize the type of movements to which he was referring.

Around 1974, Sula of Sula's Belly Dance World, decided to have the very first "Belly Dance Convention" in the Bay Area. It was then that everything changed. One of the dancers on the program was a well-known Bay Area dancer named Trish St. John. Her performing name was Hanan. She was announced as performing authentic dances from North Africa, and Tunisia. The crowd was speechless when she entered and danced to the mesmerizing sound of country/desert music. Her first dance was a Tunisian dance

No one had ever seen this style of dances, the music, nor the costuming before this. It was like watching a piece of history transform itself in front of your eyes.

She also gave a little speech about each dance, the culture, their customs and style. Hanan showed pictures from the National Geographic Magazine from around the 1918s to the 1920s that first showed Ouled Nail women and North African women as they looked then. Trish St. John looked as if she had stepped right from the pages of the magazine! Personally, I got a strong chill up my spine watching these "new" reproductions of ancient tribal dances and subsequently, my life in dance changed forever. After her performance, she was engulfed by 100's of otherdancers asking her questions.

click for enlargement
Sadira background left,
Hanan and Yolanda Baltz dancing
Photo by Ken Keep
Trish had been living in Los Angeles and while she was there, she found a dancer by the name of Aisha Ali. Aisha was a pioneer in going to Egypt and North Africa to study, transcribe and preserve the ethnic dances of those regions. She became an expert on the replication of these dance forms in their true styles. She also became acquainted with the now well-known "Banat Mazain Ghawazee Dancers" and was accepted as one of the Mazain family. At this time, Aisha Ali had just produced a vinyl recording from her travels and studies in Egypt, along with musical notation backgrounds, pictures of the Ghawazee dancers, and historical/cultural documentation included in the album. In collaboration with her, was the infamous Leona Wood, who in the early years of the Bagdad Cabaret, danced on the stage along with Jamilla Salimpour. The first Bagdad recording with Yousef Koumdjian, had a turquoise blue cover with a beautiful drawing of Jamila in a 19th century Ghawazee costume drawn by Leona Wood. The name of Aisha Ali's first album was simply, "Music of the Ghawazee". It was like a fever had descended on the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California. No one had heard of researched dances such as we were now seeing, and a fervor arose to understand and see more of these dances.

Robaire Nakashian, a well-known Middle Eastern drummer in the Bay Area, called Rhea to tell her about this incredible new album that had come out. Rhea, being a dancer who not only had her own unique way of dancing and working around the dance politics at the time, was a true rebel who loved to discover new things to break up the logjams surrounding any current difficult situation. Rhea decided to produce a seminar with Aisha Ali, which was held at the Ramalah Hall in San Francisco.

It was a sold out house, and also carried the threat of boycotts and non-attendance by those who felt that this was all nonsense or very disrespectful to one of the prevailing powers of the community at the time. Anxiously, we all waited to learn about this revival of the art of dance.

Aisha Ali is a beautiful, petite woman, with jet-black hair and dark almond shaped eyes, who did everything with a dynamic, whirlwind presence. She began by talking about her travels, and studies and research in Egypt and North Africa. She said she was quite perplexed when she arrived in the Bay Area to hear stories that the origins of the dance were based on "birth rituals". She proclaimed that never in her research and travels had she ever heard such a thing, and she said that she believed it was some made up urban-myth here in the Bay Area.

Aisha Ali demonstrated the dances from Tunisia, showed slides of the women, the people, their culture…also the Ouled Nail, and their incredible plumed regal visages. Here was the very first unveiling that there was credible study, historically authentic reproduction of ancient dance forms that still existed today.

This was the turning point not only of dancers stepping outside of the norm. It became apparent that there was a huge wealth of study and knowledge out there to be tapped.

Banait Mazain Ghawazee Dancers
All of this was so foreign and rich to the senses, that it was almost overwhelming. The last dance of the seminar was the Ghawazee dance. Everyone was at a fevered pitch to actually see this dance, since they had only seen pictures of it in the album sleeve of "Music of the Ghawazee". Aisha Ali explained the costuming, the long history of the Banat Mazain and then returned to the stage in full modern Ghawazee regalia.

As with anything extremely different or new, a hush fell over the hall, then the whispering began. " This could not possibly be a dance to take seriously", people whispered and appeared uncomfortable at this strange spectacle unfolding in front of our eyes.

Aisha Ali dressed in a modern day Ghawazee costume was dressed and dancing in a turtleneck sweater that was topped with a bright sparkling palette fringed vest, a skirt with rows and rows diagonally of fringe and beads and palettes, topped with panels that carried more palettes, on top of this she wore high-heeled shoes and nylons. Atop her head was a gaudy, jeweled bedecked fabric looking tiara (later we learned is called a Taj). The movements consisted of huge hip swings, with the skirt jumping up at the edges to expose more leg. Her finger cymbal pattern was a straight forward singles rhythm, and she would use foot stomping during part of the hip swings that carried the skirt almost over the front row. People were really whispering loudly now...(remember this was a time of wearing full pantaloons under skirts, dancing barefoot, and mostly costumed using coins).

Some people even walked out with a disgusted expression, and many others just whispered that they thought it was a strange dance. I remember leaving there in a numbed but very excited state... At first, I couldn't relate to the gaudy and earthy dance of the Ghawazee, but something had grabbed hold of me that I couldn't quite shake.

Of course this was the talk of the area for months. Dancers were at odds debating whether this was a credible dance or something to be quietly pushed under the rug. However, it was too late, a revolution was starting. Dancers wanted more information, more challenges to what they were taught, more expression, and wanted the delight of actually knowing the origins of a dance's particular style. I was one of them and fell helplessly in love with trying to learn the authentic reproductions of dances of Egypt and North Africa from the best teachers throughout my career. It was and still is to me an exhillirating love.

Aisha Ali was instrumental in introducing our naive dance world to the larger geography of the people whose dances we were trying to copy. Other major contributors to this whole reproducing stylizing and ethnocultural study were Leona Wood, from the Bay Area, Trish St. John, Malea, Katerina Bourda and Alexandria Parafina. They all made sacrifices to go to take classes diligently from Aisha Ali, travel to Egypt and Tunisia/Morocco to learn from the dancers themselves and unselflessly passed it along to others who were entranced with "The Birth of the Ghawazee". I take pride in the fact that I always studied riguoursly the origins and traditions of this new type of dancing and for many years carried forth with my dance troupe and my own dancing to continue the reproduction as authentically as possible.

Unfortunatley a little knowledge can go a long way, (the wrong way...) and we became over saturated with dancers who did not take the time to distinguish between the music, stylizing, or traditions of each dance they tried to replicate.

Instead we began to also see a form of bastardization and a "mish-mash", in which people would learn a few steps from any of these traditions, put on caftans, 19th century Ghawazee/Ottoman Turkish coats and dance a mixture of Beledi, Bay Area Stylizing and whatever else they could think of and mix it together. It was creative, not factual. It was like dancing with Armenian 6/8 rhythm, dressed in an Ottoman Turkmen coat, with movements befitting Egyptian Beledi. But there were the purists, and so today we are lucky to have the actual knowledge of these dance forms, costumes, tribal cultures and music, which is now disappearing from its source.

California is known for her earthquakes, but this was a "dance-quake" that woke up a generation of dancers from being satisfied with cookie-cutter performances to a new era for the dance world.

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