Memoir, Part 9 & 10
A Visit to my Teacher's Teacher, More Street Performing
shares her struggles and her triumphs as a dancer from 1966 to
the present. “For many of us, it was a hard road that led
to North Beach and beyond.” she writes. Return to read her
story as it unfolds here in the Gilded Serpent.
It was time
to take a look at how to begin my professional career!
teacher and I had located a black lace bra from Frederick's
of Hollywood, as a first step toward costuming me for my “professional
debut”. Along with the strip of Assiut, I carried this
with me everywhere, in an old hand-made tote bag along with
my patchouli oil and the black eyeliner.
and I had contrived a belt from a two-inch strip of black velvet,
and attached to it the coin chain my teacher had given me. This
went into the bag as well, and I carried it faithfully to all
my street performances, hoping one day for the chance to actually
were like Aladdin's cave for us! We found old jewelry we could
take apart and add together in creative ways to form additions
to the bra and belt. At one store, we found an old broken belt
with large strong, gold colored rosettes. We sewed some on along
the edge of the velvet to give it some strength. I pulled a gold
shoe buckle off an old pair of shoes, and combined it with a pair
of broken earrings. This was the “fancy” front part
of the belt. For the first fifteen years of my dancing career,
this was the basic part of my costume. I would add to it often,
over the years, as little by little, I could afford a piece of
gold trim here, a few small bells there, another row of coins,
rhinestones from a broken necklace…
might be tempted to call this period “The Dark Ages of Costume-making”.
If there was a Madame Abla somewhere in Egypt, no one I ever saw
had discovered her!
were virtually no ready-made costumes available for years yet;
dancers always made their own.
It was very
easy to tell a professional from an amateur, and the level of
success of a professional, by the beauty and artistry of her costumes.
Basically, the longer and thicker the fringe, the fuller the skirt
and the finer the fabric, the better the dancer.
my first visit to Rakkasah, after years of dancing in Europe and
Asia, being totally out of the loop of the dancing scene in San
Francisco. How shocked I was to see beginning dancers decked out
in pricey glory from Turkey and Egypt. I nearly wept!)
street performing with Don and Chris in “The City”,
we discovered that one of the best spots for performers pitches
was around Fisherman's Wharf. The tourists had little to do while
they queued up for the Cable Cars, or wandered around, bedazzled
by the fresh seafood cocktails, so we pretty much had a captive
audience and virtually no competition. It was rare to find anyone
street-performing around there in those days, before the Cannery
and Ghirardelli Square had built their outdoor stages and began
scheduling performers. We were pretty much gone by the time that
happened. We DID run into Ray Jason sometimes,
who had a real act---as opposed to ours, which was just an “act”
act. He was wonderful to watch as he juggled dangerous looking
objects, including fire, and did lots of terrific patter with
the crowd. (We never ever got into patter ourselves, as it's pretty
hard to talk over the lyrical voice of a Scottish bagpipe!)
Wharf was the home of one of the very first Cost Plus stores,
and after the fog rolled in and it was too cold to stay out on
the street, we would wander through the aisles searching out the
rare and the wonderful. I remembered the “Made in India”
jewelry section from my previous hunt for finger cymbals.
also took me to visit her own teacher's class. (Maybe she wanted
to see if I had the “it” required for a professional
career, or just an expert point of view.) At the time, all I knew
was that I would be a sort of non-paying, visitor to the class.
Most of the students were already professional quality, even though
most of them were not dancing full time. Even then, there were
people studying dance just for the joy it gave them. Reasons students
gave for beginning to learn to dance were: to move their bodies
in a beautiful way, to tone muscles, to trim down after giving
birth, and many of the other usual reasons why people study dance
I was nervous about going to the class, simply because I had never
seen any other Belly dance students, and was wondering how I would
fare. Would I embarrass my teacher if I couldn't follow the moves?
other students laugh at me in my long cotton skirt, and bikini
top? There seemed to be many reasons to be nervous, but I knew
that if I were to perform one day, there were always going to
be people in the audience that I didn't know. A roomful of students
and a famous teacher became less of a worry then, and more like
an opportunity for inspiration, as my teacher and I set out on
the bus from Berkeley to Oakland for the afternoon class.
introduced me to Roman
Balladine, as we called him then, and he seemed genuinely
enthusiastic and happy to meet me. “I've been hearing about
you and how hard you are working. I'm glad you could come to my
class.” He relaxed me immediately with his warmth and natural
manner. I guess I had expected him to be far more aloof and perhaps
somewhat condescending like my sister's Russian Ballet teacher
had been when I was a little girl visiting her class.
I tried to hide in the back of Bert's studio where no
one could see me, but he would have none of it. “Come up
here to the front with your talented teacher and all my lovely
professional dancers,” he called to me
quickly disappeared as we all worked hard together, focusing on
Bert's moves. He led us through a very thorough set of isolations
for every part of the body. Then we went through them again in
different combinations, adding increasingly complex footwork.
The class was so invigorating and inspiring that all my worries
before the class now seemed silly. He was a supportive teacher
for everyone, singling various dancers out to demonstrate the
moves to the rest of us when they had achieved what he was attempting
to convey at the time. I was still unable to pay for lessons,
so it was to be the one and only class I ever had with Roman “Bert”
years later, in Salt Lake City in 1975, Bert joined me spontaneously
on-stage at Athens West. It was the sort of dance, and he was
the sort of partner, that made you feel as if you had danced
together for your whole life.
Now from time
to time, I see him at the Rakkasah West Festival, and he always
has a warm smile and a greeting for me, though I am certain he
does not remember me and the two occasions on which we made magic
together. I believe it is the signature of a gentleman to make
a woman feel as if she is the center of his universe, even if
it is only for five minutes.
When I danced
with him in perfect harmony that night in Salt Lake, the timid
little “Baby-Belly” (as some of us earlier North Beach
Dancers referred to ourselves at that beginning stage of our careers)
had long since disappeared. In her place was a dancer of confidence
we spent together that day will always be one of my happiest memories!
it had not been for his highly talented and generous student,
who had taught me into my professional career for no payment,
we never would have had that magic moment, which I carry next
to my heart like a precious jewel.
Roman “Bert” Balladine.
Thank you Sharlyn!
I owe you
both so much more than I can ever, ever, say…
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
more from Zaharr
3-25-04 Zaharr's Memoir,
Part 8- Early
actually threw money in our hat!
Memoir, Part 7 Putting it together
I planned a little treat for you today,” she confided, “let’s
see how this works.”
Romancing the Road (The Bousada
Troupe Tours) by Yasmela
carved our own niche, created our own style, scandalized, delighted,
educated and entertained everyone around us, including ourselves.
We were “Bou-Saada”.
Saving Grace, Belly Dance
Comics by Alexandria
I sit here for a few moments?"
Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival Photo
12-27 2004 Palace of Fine Arts photos
by Susie Poulelis
last night, you can still see this show tonight and tomorrow and
see more next weekend!