The Gilded Serpent

GIlded Serpent presents...
My Greek Transformation
A Conservative Engineer meets
the “Instigator of Revolutions”

by Barbara Grant

“Barbara Grant?”
I gazed down the stairway into Rhea’s basement studio, searching for the face behind the voice. As I descended the steps in a jetlagged haze, I began to sense that the two-month stay I’d planned in Athens would, in some way, change my life.

Middle Eastern dancers often emphasize “transformation” in a way that adherents of other dance forms do not. We hear of dances that transform the psyche, and inspirational seminars and retreats that cleanse the soul to produce a life-changing effect. Perhaps it’s possible; but the cleansing I needed when I arrived in Athens late in 1991 was of another sort. I took a long, intermittently hot shower as Rhea chatted with her students before beginning her evening class.

I was starting to worry. Rhea displayed boundless energy, far beyond my own at the best of times. How would I be able to keep up with her?

Walking with Rhea
and her sweet precious dog
in the streets of Athens in 1991

Maybe I didn’t have to. My trip had no set agenda. I skipped the first night’s class and a nightclub outing, and tumbled wearily into bed. I met more of Rhea’s students and friends the next day, including Clive, her flamenco instructor originally from South Africa.

I was flattered when Clive asked me whether I’d come to Athens to live. He‘d perhaps thought of me as another expatriate dancer, an artist willing to forego the comforts of American life for the uncertainties of a foreign culture. Not only had I no such ambition, I couldn’t honestly call myself an artist. I was an engineer who studied belly dance nights and weekends, as often as I could. I’d been taking classes for two years, but I’d never heard of San Francisco’s “good old days” even though I lived and worked in the Bay Area.

Rhea provided the history lesson as we prepared for an evening out. She also related some of her many experiences dancing near the Nile in Cairo and Khartoum. She was pleased to hear that I, too, had been born under the sign of Sagittarius, but I thought we were very different. She exuded energy; I conserved mine. She’d been one of Berkeley’s earliest hippies; I’d worked only at corporate jobs. Her father had once been a socialist; I thought of Democrats as the Left.

Yet travel had been as important for me as it was for Rhea. I hadn’t gone straight through school, working instead as a Silicon Valley Kelly Girl to type and file my way to two foreign trips. I’d visited Athens twice before and Cairo, once. I loved Arabic rhythms and songs, but felt more comfortable in Greece than in Egypt.

I soon discovered that dancing for a Greek audience wasn’t as intimidating as I’d thought. If one danced with passion and heart, Greeks were unlikely to be too critical of technique. Form was, however, very important to Rhea. She’d begun a study of Greek statuary dancing and incorporated its principles into her teaching. She emphasized posture, attitude, and line in a way I’d not experienced before.

By stripping away dogmatic notions about “correct” steps and execution, she brought the dance back to fundamentals. How much richer was this approach, I thought, than endless drill over canned choreographies!

I moved into a small hotel near Rhea’s studio and began to develop a routine. I’d rise early, sometimes scouring the Plaka or Syntagma (Constitution Square) for an American breakfast. I’d often stop by an American library to study or borrow books, and I’d catch up with Rhea before noon for a private lesson or conversation. I’d accompany her to her teaching jobs at dance schools and health clubs. On some evenings I’d perform or watch performances; on many, I’d stay in.

One memorable night, Rhea applied my makeup in the most professional manner I’d ever seen, and loaned me a miniskirt and shiny blouse from her wardrobe. We stopped at several nightclubs before she drove on to her gig, and I took a taxi home. Unthinkingly, I asked the driver to stop about a half-mile from my block, and I had to walk the rest of the way.

Alone on the streets of Athens long past midnight, decked out in my borrowed attire and clattering along the sidewalk in my high-heeled shoes, I felt perfectly at peace.

On my morning jaunts through the city I’d see others, too, neither European nor Middle Eastern. Doing nothing to attract attention, they nevertheless drew mine as they walked purposefully in twos and threes. I thought them to be Filipinas, a judgment that Betsy, my hotel maid who was also from the Philippines, confirmed.

Rhea's class in Athens

Betsy told me that many left her country to work abroad as domestic servants. Some were educated and had worked for a while in banks and hotels back home, but lost their jobs to younger girls when their looks faded. Work in Greece was not bad, Betsy said, but her friends who’d worked in the Middle East and Asia hadn’t fared as well. Many had been beaten by their employers, and some had been raped.

I was saddened by her stories, but not particularly surprised. People were not “the same” all over the world. A young woman from the Philippines, setting out to earn her living in a foreign land, could easily meet with circumstances that Americans would find intolerable. Women like Betsy had few choices, and I was glad she’d found a home in Greece. We got along well, and she twice invited me to her flat for a home-cooked Asian meal.

Two months of experience percolated in my mind as Rhea and I drove through the city to her teaching job. I’d learned a lot in Athens, and not only about dance. I’d re-connected with a long-dormant part of my past, the knowledge that an American woman has tremendous opportunity to create her own life.

I was sure we were going to be late. Class was due to start in five minutes, and I saw no parking spaces on either side of the street. Would I have to take the car around while Rhea taught?

She spied a small space and began to back toward it. I waited for the inevitable scrape--but it didn’t happen. We bounded up the stairs and arrived on time.

Years later, after I’d mustered the courage to forego the comforts of a steady job for the uncertainties of self-employment, Rhea arrived back in the Bay Area for a visit and seminars. She accompanied me to Baraka’s class in San Francisco, and we headed to a club on Valencia Street afterward. The normally difficult parking situation in the Mission looked hopeless at 9:00 pm, yet I managed to maneuver my car into a small space a short walk from the club’s front door.

Rhea complimented me on my find, and I told her I’d learned that art from her. My Greek transformation was complete. Parking, after all, was a lot like living--seeing an opportunity and being willing to go after it.

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