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Never on Sunday (1960)
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Starring: Melina Mercouri, et al. Director: Jules Dassin

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Zorba the Greek (1964)
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The Gilded Serpent presents...
An Interview of
of Athens, Greece
by Phaedra Ameerah
(This interview has been edited and reprinted with permission.)

Phaedra Ameerah- My first encounter with the legendary Rhea came In October 1995 while traveling in Athens, Greece. Rhea was gracious enough to take me and my
traveling companions around the city to all the hot spots for music and dancing. Meeting her was the highlight of our trip. I asked her to tell us about her dance career in California and about her decision to move to Greece. She told of her life and adventures at length, as follows:

Rhea- I decided to move to Athens after a vacation for my thirty-fifth birthday in December of 1976. I had had surgery and was unable to dance or teach for two months. I had wiped out the small amount of savings I had and was left with no source of income.

I became obsessed with the idea that I must go to Greece. I had no money, but began making plans to go anyway. Two things helped me to accrue the financial means to expedite the trip.

First I came into some money from an unexpected source that enabled me to go not only to Greece, but to Egypt as well. That source was a Saudi Arabian prince, Musaab Ibn Al Saud. Musaab was regular customer of the Casbah, owned at that time by Fadil Shahin who played both oud and violin, in addition to vocals, joined by Jallalladin Takesh, now owner of the Pasha Restaurant in San Francisco, California. Prince Musaab was always generous with his tips.

We dancers shared our tips with the band, all of whom had microscopic vision. So when Musaab wanted to impress new dance students of mine who came to see me and the other dancers who were dancing on Broadway at that time, he would wrap up a hundred dollar bill in a "fiver" and give it to the girl to give to me as a tip.

He was trying to impress one young lovely at a fish restaurant in Sausalito where we had gone for lunch. Upon hearing me explain to her that I would go to Greece he was appalled. "What? You will go to Greece, and you will not visit Egypt?" Upon explaining my limited financial resources, he made an expansive gesture of pulling a roll of hundreds out of his pocket and peeling off ten of them. The young lovely's eyes popped out! "Take this, but you must go to Egypt." He said. Which I duly and dutifully did.

The second lucky push was meeting Marliza Pons at the Belly Dancer of the Year Pageant, sponsored by the late Sula, where we were both judges. It turned out that my student, Selene, won that year, and Marliza got a chance to see my troupe, Nara Nata, in action. That led her to invite me and my dance troupe to Las Vegas to teach a seminar and perform in one of the clubs. We also brought Fadil Shahin as we wanted to be sure of quality of musicianship. Naji Aziz attended that seminar and decided to bring me to Salt Lake City to teach. The city was a hotbed of passionate Belly Dance aficionados who even today are avid proponents, such as Jason and Yasmina, who mostly enjoy the "old style." Those chance seminars and shows provided the money for the ticket to Greece.

Some would ask me to explain why I didn't choose Cairo over Athens. That is a long story, fit for another time. Suffice it to say that I had a dream that I was dancing in the Greek theater, after seeing Melina Mercouri there, addressing us students with passion to save Greece from the then existing junta. I had also studied Greek mythology and had read the Odyssey and the Aenead. This was a prerequisite for my major, psychology, and also for my minor, English literature. But I always loved fairy stories and had checked out every fairy story from the library when I was a child. Archetypes have always fascinated me, although at a level that I had not been previously able to identify. Greek mythology, however, captured my imagination as no Grimm's fairy tale ever did.

I wanted to breathe the rarified air that Socrates, Homer, and Plato breathed. Now I have been living here ever since Easter of 1977, under the shade of the Parthenon and Acropolis.

But no matter what my romantic inclinations were, I probably wouldn't have left San Francisco at all if things were still as they were in their heyday. San Francisco teamed with exotic night life and after hours clubs. People went from one club to another: Casbah, Bagdad, Greek Taverna, Minerva Taverna, and Plaka Taverna. If they could still stand, they crossed the San Francisco Bay Bridge to go the Jack London Square and take in the Taverna Athena, where the Farfisa player kept a gun under his electric organ in case any irate, cuckolded husbands wanted to get even.

There are no words to describe those days. All that was missing was Al Capone and bathtub gin. My goodness, we had fun in those days of wine and roses. And money! The dancers wore furs (before that became a social taboo, although people still wear leather shoes), had salon hairdos, wore designer dresses, and bought Parisienne perfume. We took pride in making our own costumes. We went out for breakfast with the high rollers after the show and got together for two-martini lunches to discuss any gossip we might have missed in the preceding eight hours. Would I leave San Francisco then? No way!

However, things change, as things have a habit of doing. As the old poem goes, "Love is rare, and life is strange, and nothing lasts, and people change."

People at that time blamed it on the recession. "People don't have money." "Times are tough." It's almost always societal changes and changing tastes. What was so wildly flamboyantly "in" began to die slowly. No one else saw her, but mythic Cassandra spoke in my ear, beckoning me with her bony fateful finger. I heeded her call. I got out while the getting was good.

I think courage and bravery are, in many instances, a denial of, or a reaction to, fear. Yellow is both the color of courage and fear, just as the yellow sun represents courage and yellow bellied is a noted term for fear and cowardice. And to say that I felt no fear would be wrong.

But I'm one of those funny people who would rather die on my feet that live on my knees, and I couldn't live knowing that I really wanted to do something and that I was afraid to do it. Better to do it and die that to want to and pine away.

The old guard dies but never surrenders.

As Nikos Kazantzakis says in his prologue to "Report to Greco," addressing his mythological grandfather, El Greco, who was also from Iraklion, Crete, "Grandfather, when I have completed the ascent (his allegory for life) and they examine my body, know you well that there shall be no wounds in my back." Both El Greco and Kazantzakis hailed from Crete, an island famous for defiance of tyranny. He also said that there are three kinds of prayers:
(1) "Lord, I am a bow. Draw me lest I rot."
(2) "Lord, I am a bow. Draw me lest I rot, but don't draw me too tight, lest I break.
(3) "Lord, I am a bow. Draw me as you wish and who cares if I break."
I guess that you have gathered which prayer that this Sagittarian archer lives by.

As the Greeks say when they are in their cups, "Spas ta olla!" (Break everything! Who cares about tomorrow? We live for today!)

So while other belly dancers can say that they got their first exposure to Oriental Dance of "haflas" and the like, this belly dancer didn't have such exposure. It was from my teacher, Jamila Salimpour, taking us innocent initiates to the clubs to see the dancers that gave me my first taste of Mediterranean culture, and led me to a life of travel and adventure.

As the oldest child of five, I used to take my brothers and sisters in a wagon ride far from our neighborhood. We had sandwiches for provisions and they had to first swear to secrecy, on pain of death and no future trips.

My parents would have had a heart attack if they knew! We always encountered hostile boys who would challenge us to our right to be in "their" territory.

They would ask, "Where are you going, little girl?"
"Yeah, around to your own block."
"Because we say so."
"We don't want to."
"Well, you have to."
"Well, you and what army is going to make us?"

This was when the proverbial commodity always hit the fan. At that point we turned the wagon sideways, where I made the little ones crouch behind it and I had it out with them. It was usually hand to hand, because I could never throw straight. I knew those boys could throw a rock straight, but not if they were physically disabled. Although I never started one, I never lost a physical fight, and I felt as though I must have come from a race of amazons. But when I became fourteen years old, the boys got seriously bigger than the girls and our fights stopped.

I have always believed in names, and my given name is Deanna. Which is Latin for Artemis, Queen of the Amazons, Archer Supreme, and fearless protectoress of women in childbirth, small children, and the helpless. It was thought before I was born that I would be a boy (from various signs that people were able to glean in 1941), my parents were ready to name me David. Even if I had been a boy, I would have grown up to slay Goliath. Maybe courage was "bred in the bone," and proclaimed to be my destiny. I was also very much like the myth of Atalantis, who was thrown away by her father (who wanted a boy) and who was left to die on the hillside and was raised by wolves. She went on to become a fast runner and sure archer. Her fame spread, and her father took her back, but insisted that she marry. She didn't want to marry and said that whoever would become her husband would have to win her in a race. If he won, all well and good, but if he lost, she would kill him.

When I was still young, every boy who was desirous of becoming my boyfriend had to beat me in a fight. None ever did, until I became fourteen.

I think that one of the things nowadays that confounds people is the quest for the "good life." This tends to be true particularly for people living in a western industrialized and computerized society. It is often thought that education, and particularly higher education will provide an instant key to the "good life" which will be rendered unto us by obtaining a "good job." Presumably a "good job" is a well paying job, and one that is respected by society in general.

In the words of Thoreau, "Where is Walden Pond?" "Where is the contemplative life? " "Where is the road less traveled?"

I could go on, but my main point is that being an Oriental Dancer is an exemplary life choice. It gives one an excellent chance to study life as it is, not as we would wish to re-write it to live in a sanitized world. Once you've taken on the dragon of entertainment and "show-biz", academia is rendered more accessible by having lived, much like Miss Gootch said in the play "Auntie Mame."

Phaedra- I told Rhea her name was very beautiful and unique, and asked from where she obtained it.

- Jamila Salimpour, my dance teacher, gave me the name "Rhea" in 1968. At that time, she was placing particular emphasis on the fact that Oriental Dance evolved from pre-historic, matriarchal times. She explained that goddesses were worshiped in those times. Rhea was the name of an ancient mother goddess. Rhea was the wife of Chronos (father time) and the mother of Zeus. It is instructive to understand that in more ancient times, time itself was not looked at linearly but circularly. Along with patriarchal religion came an understanding of linear time and death. The main reason I have kept the name is that when Jamila gave the name, I immediately became pregnant after seven years of barrenness. I assumed that it was Kismet. In the '60s we were all into living our dreams, and my dance name and the dance itself opened up new dreams for me that previously I had not dared to dream!

My daughters, Piper, (the eldest) and Melinda, (the youngest) have danced since Piper was seven years old (when I first started taking lessons) and Melinda was only two. They were in various performing companies I have directed, and they have traveled with me from the age of seven and fourteen. Melinda's father was with a family circus as well as the San Francisco Mime Troupe and Melinda learned acrobatics, juggling, balancing on the shoulders of people, and other circus acts. She was a regular performer with the circus from an early age and still performs with her step-mother in a travelling circus as a Belly Dancer who is reviled by the early puritans who tried to chase away the "Hootchy-Kootchy" dancers at the Chicago World's Fair. Melinda began dancing with me in my troupe at the age of two and used to dance with me every night at my jobs in family tavernas and tourist tavernas in Athens since the age of nine, under the benign and watchful eyes of the spirits who also watch over the Acropolis. Piper went on long Pullman rides to perform in luxury hotels outside Athens from the age of fifteen. We were always respected and treated very properly.

We were the only trained Oriental Dancers in all of Greece.

The American Belly Dance style has a high emphasis on entertainment and a display of technical virtuosity. The dance is universally well-received and a popular dance anywhere in the world. We were seen by literally millions of tourists. I've had people send me my picture in Russian and Chinese magazines, and African trade journals. I've met people in Montreal that saw me in Khartoum, and people in Barcelona who saw me in Athens.

My children have also danced Greek folk dances in costume with a local performing group, dancing for the tourists in Plaka. They also formed a duet when Melinda, the youngest, was fifteen, and danced in all the Arabic Middle Eastern night clubs that proliferated at that time due to the unfortunate situation in Lebanon and other war-torn countries. It was a time during which many people were forced to leave their homeland, and many of them came to Greece. Of course, they wanted to hear their music and dance their dances, and always it was difficult to bring a dancer from their country. So my daughters were a perfect act, being two, being professional and having many costume changes. Their special act was seen by many and incorporated into the repertoire of a popular Middle Eastern comedian who put them in his night club act. Big money rolled in, as well as television contracts and movie parts.

This money went towards financing education at universities for them. They began by paying themselves and later were able to apply for scholarships, proving that beauty, brains, good character, and Oriental Dance can go very well together. Melinda now has a Doctorate Degree in Medieval French Literature and Piper is about to take her Doctorate Degree in Human Genetics from John Hopkins University.

The pursuit of higher education forced them to abandon their dance careers for awhile, but they are now beginning to perform again and to teach. I am proud to say that they are much better than I am or was, although for my time, I certainly was among the front runners. One good thing that both my daughters believe that they have received from their unusual careers, is the ability to deal with just about any situation and some of the more rarified creatures one encounters in the academic world.

Phaedra- I found Rhea's dance career fascinating and asked her when she began to dance.

Rhea- My dance background started unfolding at an early age but developed very slowly. I used to try to walk on my toes and consistently fell on my nose. As I am the oldest child of five children, brought up without a large cash flow, there was no extra money for dance lessons! However, I was able to participate in community dance programs where we children did "creative dance." I always wanted to play the role of the snake, which I discovered is my Chinese horoscope (1941). I used to organize circuses in which I made all the games, tickets, drinks, etc. and dance for the neighborhood children. When we had family gatherings, we children were always trotted out to recite poems, sing, dance and perform small plays. I was always chosen to do whatever dance there was at school plays, and when we studied American Indians in the second grade, I was the only child who could do step-hop, step-hop, throw my head up and down, while covering my mouth with my hand to give what was considered in those politically incorrect times, an "Indian War Whoop," all at the same time. Although I always won rock and roll contests, and generally enjoy any kind of dance, if I hadn't met Jamila, I never would have considered a professional dance career, let alone a professional Belly Dance career!

I learned about Jamila through the student newspaper at the University of California, Berkeley campus where I was a secretary, trying to save money to continue my education.

At that time Jamila was calling this dance, belly dancing, with particular emphasis on the fact that the belly movements symbolize childbirth (and I defy anyone to deny this or to prove otherwise). That's what I also call it, although as far as I'm concerned, you can call it whatever you like as long as you dance.

"Dah rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Gertrude Stein.

Of course, if you dance it well, so much the better. In my more mature age, I have learned not to care so much about this, and to let life take of itself, and for me to take care of myself. If some dancers are rewarded by life or society whom I don't consider the very best proponents, well, God is great, as the Muslims and the Greeks say, and who am I to say anything contrary?

I should point out that I had planned for myself a career as a psychologist, or something in the field of psychology or psychotherapy. When we were students during the sixties, we used to participate in anti-war demonstrations, sit-ins and general societal insurrection. My second ex-husband's band, the "Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band," used to be the warm up band for Joan Baez concerts, and any other anti-war performer. Before he went on to be back-up guitar player in Joe Macdonald's group, "Country Joe and the Fish," I used to dance with them as a pregnant belly dancer, and was delighted that I chose to do this at that time.

Suffice it to say that I was arrested and put in jail for on offence that today would not be considered a felony. However, in those troubled times was viewed as very frightening to society in general, and I was prohibited from ever becoming a teacher, a psychologist, etc.

Today, this judicial record has been expunged, but I have always been grateful that this unfortunate thing happened, even though it meant the loss of my oldest child for two years, and many other things whose pain has fortunately been ameliorated with the years. I have also come to believe that God is great and has a plan for everyone, and that we must try to realize by the outcome of things how to look at the whole and to not moan and groan about what might have been.

So my main introduction to the dance and major inspiration, one might even say mentor, was Jamila. I have often said that if I had first been introduced to the dance by anyone else, even my own self, I would have not have been drawn to it. She had that quality that made you want to emulate and follow her. I had never met anyone like her before or since. That she lived her life as she did, and had born a child after the age of forty, was unheard about and something that I had never encountered.

I started dancing professionally in San Francisco in 1969, three weeks after Melinda was born, and one month short of closing one year of lessons. Jamila told me that I had talent and introduced me to night clubs. As hippies, we did a lot of "be-ins" and "sit-ins" and social gatherings, but these were usually day time activities. I had never been in a night club in my life, except when we went after high school graduation to the requisite night club and sat in the special seats where you don't drink alcohol. There was a circuit of clubs on Broadway and every dancer tried to perform as many nights as possible in one or another of them.

The goal was to be one of the weekend dancers, as the best dancers had the weekends and the most week nights as well. Some girls consistently prowled the extended circuit, going to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and Canada. Other dancers remained loyal to one club or another. Since I had kids, I tried to be a weekend dancer and teach during the week.

My teacher had a large and faithful following and was a major presence in the existing dance community. I saw that it was the only way to create and practice dance, while remaining economically viable. A following meant that when the boss wanted to replace me with a young luscious curvy cutie, people would complain and threaten not to come anymore. I had eight years of constant growth and change. I was constantly trying to be innovative and stay ahead of the main herd.

What exhilaration! What fun! Oh, never-to-be-seen-again days!

Part II: Rhea, American Expatriate in Greece

Sadly, clubs featuring dance closed, and life changed. Off I went to Europe and the Middle East. I've danced a good lot in my day. I've seen Nagua Fouad at the Sheraton and Zohair Zaki at El Leil Night Club, after and before which she and her extended orchestra ran, in four old vintage cars, from place to place. I danced at the Hilton Hotel in Khartoum, by which the White Nile flows into the Blue Nile under the bridge from Khartoum to Onderman. This is the first leg of a journey that can take you to see the whirling Dervishes arriving from the desert. I've danced in Casablanca, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, and countless Greek Islands, (including my favorite), Crete.

To explain why I'm here in Greece is a book in itself. To a small extent, I was introduced to exotic music, dance and culture through the places I've worked. There's something about Greek society that allows me to express myself on a basic and archetypal level: the duality of life, the changing emotions, the exuberant spirit. Greek society gave me the feeling that all things are possible, and that nothing is possible. "Who you know" counts for a lot, and "who you say you are" plays a major role.

One can re-invent oneself here, for better or for worse, because the society in general is forgiving and forgetting and believes in love and forgiveness rather than punishment. Naturally, this results in a lot of chaos in society, and I say the more the merrier.

Does this tell you a little bit about why no other dancer has been able to survive here? You have to take the rhythm of life into account and nobody wants to do this anymore. No one believes in God anymore, only insurance companies and trying to make one's life safe. Please, merciful God, spare me! There are no real laws. The people are the law, and the people always change, although some things remain stable at their base. Greece has the least amount of crime and violence in all of Europe. There's a lot of shouting and letting off of steam. There are challenges, and brinkmanship, but nothing serious.

Phaedra- Talk to us about your view of the Greek style of Belly Dance.

Rhea- There is a Greek style of belly dance that resembles the Turkish and Lebanese styles, in that it is exuberant, celebratory and exciting rather than soothing, lulling, hypnotic, and languorous.

The Greeks live a fast paced life and they like lively music.

When I went to Cairo in 1977, I went everywhere and danced to enthusiastic audiences who "sagareeted" their hearts out and who came up to me afterwards and told me to slow down, that I was wearing them out. I asked them, "Then why did you sagareet for me?" They replied, "Because that is what your energy calls for. But we would prefer to be more relaxed when we see a dancer."

Naturally, I prefer the place where my audiences and I are more naturally in sync. But the Greek style, although fast paced and exuberant, should still be danced smoothly with no apparent effort, gliding through a number of tricky bodily movements and turns. The Greeks call Oriental Dance "Tsif t'telli" after the Turkish rhythm, chif tetelli, as Greek has no "ch" in the alphabet. It is one of the most common rhythms played in the music to which they like to dance. However, their popular "Tsif t'telli" is a low form of dance, sometimes deliberately vulgar in its presentation. That is because it has remained from ancient times as a dance from early matriarchy where sexual expression was not denied a woman and was viewed as vulgar with the advent of patriarchy. (It would be worthy to note that in societies that are at present matriarchal, nudity or semi-nudity if taken for granted and rape does not exist.) When I first came to Greece twenty-two years ago, there was no "nefos" (smog) because people had very few cars and hardly any industry. People bought and sold any number of things from each other in the streets.

I once saw a man selling a dressed pig with an apple in it's mouth, rolling it along in a baby carriage. Lottery tickets were hawked loudly. You commonly found shoeshine stands next to newspaper stands. A single medium-size supermarket was built, the first encroachment on the "Mom and Pop" stores. People kept chickens in their yard and "Oh!" how you could hear the roosters at dawn, when people were either coming home from a night on the town, grandmother in tow, or getting up to go to work! Time means very little here, although now, with the European Economic Community, many things have changed, (damn it's eyes!).

Families used to go out together to hear music, dance, drink and eat until cock's crow. Many plates were broken as "kefi" (good feeling, fun enthusiasm) erupted here, there, and everywhere. Being close to the sea, it used to be possible to buy lobster and crab, all kinds of fresh fish and all of it cheap! They were served piping hot with lemon and twice pressed virgin olive oil, and washed down by the barrels of wine sold by the weight.

Store hours were more strictly kept, and everyone went home at noon to eat a big meal and sleep until the evening shift. Police strictly controlled store hours and what the stores could sell, although the ubiquitous black market always existed. Many products, which were much sought after by the general populace, were not produced in Greece. Such products which were produced in Greece were perceived as being of inferior quality to the foreign made, whatever. Therefore, a huge "suitcase economy" flourished with many highly prized items being smuggled in valises which people carried home. Pornography was outlawed, so you could bribe the customs inspector with an American Playboy. It was never offered directly but placed visibly on top of everything in the suitcase. Often male amateur "good-will ambassadors," operating at modest costs, would assiduously attach themselves to lone female tourists and graciously offer their "services" producing many a humorous book about the Greek male. Television hours were strictly controlled. There were two stations offering programs, ERT 1 and YENED, the military station, and the hours of these stations were strictly controlled. They stopped at siestas and at 12:30 midnight.

At that time, the population had only recently arrived from some faraway village, whose parents or grandparents might have been Greek refugees from Asia minor or Egypt, Russia, or Albania. People were at once more personally trusting and more generally fearful.

If people accepted you, they took you into their hearts. You became one of the family. To have a friend might involve sacrificing your life, or at least be ready to.

People had fewer consumer goods and recycled everything they had. You hardly ever saw a lot of garbage on the street, every bit was re-used. Whatever people owned was more precious to them due to its scarcity and was much valued and looked after.People cared! Greeks were very quick to speak out against injustice (still), and they come to the aid of someone in distress (not so much anymore). Even now, ordinary people are known to stop bank robberies in progress.

So I've been here nigh onto twenty-three years, with one year falling into the next. In the beginning, I always said that I would go back home. Maybe, as Thomas Mann wrote,
"You can't go home again." I have no plans but a lot of memories. A lot of time has been spent with a glass or two of ouzo and a little meze, listening to some bouzoukie music twanging in my ears.

I can only say that something intangible keeps me here. Is it, perhaps the freedom that exists within chaos? Won't you pass the Retsina and stay a while?

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
more about Rhea
7-18-03 My Greek Transformation A Conservative Engineer meets the “Instigator of Revolutions” by Barbara Grant
Rhea displayed boundless energy, far beyond my own at the best of times. How would I be able to keep up with her?

5-13-03 A Search for the Soul in All Things. Or On Turning 61 and ¼
By continuing to dynamically entertain and stay ahead of the pack, they embolden all women, even of a lesser dynamism, to remain in the fray as long as they desire, instead of being cast to the sidelines as the official baby sitter for grandchildren.

9-18-02 My Belly Dance Baptism, or A Tale of Armpit Hairs
There was a rumor (that was the truth) that I didn’t shave under my arms.

11-03-01 Adventures by the Nile, Part 2, by Rhea
Return to a Changed Sudan

10-15-01 Rhea's Adventures by the Nile, part 1
I guess every belly dancer's dream is to dance in a five star hotel in the Middle East.

5-11-01 Rhea Recounts, Part II, Of Belly Dancers, Bullets & The Men in Blue,
or A Change of Scene: Rhea moves to Greece

Where the bullet went, or how close it came to hitting us, I'll never know...

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