Amina poses with Magana in Magana’s doorway
San Francisco Dance Pioneer
by Amina Goodyear and Lynette Harris
posted February 16, 2011
Magana welcomed us into her home studio in San Francisco–a home that seems quite large and spacious for San Francisco. It is a not a stereotypical San Francisco house, which might be a colorful painted lady, a peak-roofed, attached Victorian row house. This San Francisco home is somewhat newer and is quite a nice house in a rather quiet, up-scale neighborhood where all the houses are mostly painted white and are surrounded on all four sides by greenery. However, upon entering her house, it feels as if we are no longer in San Francisco as we are greeted by figures of Buddhas and other Asian figures with candles and incense both lighting and warming the air. Although it is daytime, the rooms are dark and the windows are veiled keeping the sun from the antiques, rugs and fabrics adorning the floors and walls.
With her dark, almost shoulder-length hair gently dancing as she walked, Magana, a quite attractive, youthful woman of 88, invited us to have something to drink and gestured to a table filled with a large assortment of nuts, sweets and fruit. (–and to think: we were worried that she might have forgotten our appointment!)
After filling our glasses and our stomachs, we went into another room, Magana’s studio, and sat across the room from her. She sat casually in a richly textured altar-type space surrounded by candles, crystals, Buddhas, musical instruments, and photos of Walt, her dearly departed husband. Magana continued to add details from a previous interview concerning Walt, her life, her dance career and friends, her successes, her dreams and her future plans.
Magana – Dance Pioneer and Visionary Oriental Dancer
Magana was born in El Salvador but actually grew up in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco. Of course times were different then. The houses were large and grand and there were no hippies. Hippies didn’t come into existence until the early sixties, about the time of the Vietnam War.
At the age of six, Magana started to study dance with Miss Daisy Upham and was soon performing for society recitals.
This was in the 1920s and 1930s and at that time there was no TV and barely radio. For entertainment, Magana’s family asked her to don her tap shoes and perform for the family and for company.
She remembers family friends – aristocrats and diplomats – visiting from Spain; cousins who had consorted with past presidents, and she would be the sole entertainment with her tap shoes, playing the piano, and even performing the Tango.
Being a respectable young lady of the times, Magana went to drama school to fulfill her desires and to business college to fulfill her family’s honor. Upon her graduation from business college, Magana’s family found her a job in a bank as a bilingual English and Spanish secretary. She hated the office work, earning $15 a week, so she would spend her lunch hours looking for other work. Eventually she quit and an employment agency found her a job with an oil company earning a grand $200 a month as a receptionist.
In the early 1940s she interviewed with the Arthur Murray Dance Studio and soon she trained to become a ballroom dance teacher. One of her colleagues invited her to a party in North Beach, and at that party, she met Walt Baptiste. Little did she realize that just a short three months later (1944) she would marry this man who was into physical fitness, yoga, nutrition and good diets. At the time, all of this was considered either odd or a fad.
Walt taught Magana about nutrition, bodybuilding, and yoga. He also taught the stars in Hollywood who were eager to embrace inner peace and outer beauty. This so-called "fad" was a big deal then, and it continued until it was no longer a fad–but a lifestyle–for many. For Walt and Magana, it was not just a lifestyle; it was their life.
Magana recalled the various studios that Walt and she owned.
1944-1946 – 567 Sutter St.: In the late 40s (1946-1949) she started teaching in her downtown studio the Golden Gate Studio by the Golden Gate Theater. It was here that Indian Yogi President of Yoga Society of America, Sri Deva Ram Sukul, came. He brought yoga to Walt and Magana.The big stars (such as Robert Mitchum) frequented their studio when they would come to the Golden Gate Theater for openings, premieres, and sneak previews. They would drop in to have their photos taken with Walt.
Walt was a big name back then; he was Mr. America. He was known for his body building, and his health and fitness studio was not just the first in San Francisco; it was one of the first in America! He was here at the same time with Jack LaLanne. Jack, Magana, and Walt, produced and starred in shows together, and Magana was the Oriental Dancer.
Walt was also very well known for his "muscle control dance” because he could do total isolations. It was sensationally phenomenal: he could flex and isolate every muscle in his body! Also, Walt Baptiste sometimes worked with snakes. In fact, one of his gyms was like a zoo because of his snakes, parrots, and monkeys. (255 Powell St.)
In the 1940s their’s was the only dance and fitness studio. Since they were friends with Jack Lalanne, they would – all three – participate in educational shows, concerts at universities and at Army bases. Jack and Walt would do the body stuff and Magana would do the dance. She performed Oriental Dance with union musicians who used sheet music such as "In a Persian Market" and “Miserlou". Frequently, she was asked to perform with the Shriners in their parties in California and Nevada and appeared in plays such as "Desert Song" and "Kismet".
Later–while in Hollywood during the 1950s, Magana lived in a house with people of similar interests. It was a studio belonging to Devi Dja who was the most famous dancer to come out of Bali. A lot of stars stayed at her studio. It was an international house, full of international artists, dancers and actors. Magana was staying in the house while doing some movie work. Jamila Salimpour came and stayed there too. At the time, Jamila was married to a body builder, and they all were good friends.
Devi Dja appeared in many famous movies, including "The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) in which she performed a temple dance. She and Ruth St. Denis were friends and performed together at an ethnic dance festival in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Magana appeared there also with her troupe, demonstrating the dances of Egypt. Ruth St. Denis was the mother of the Middle Eastern dance in America. She introduced Magana to a Middle Eastern dancer named Camilla who also lived in this artists’ home in Southern California. Magana took some classes with Camilla and got into the feeling of it. This was before there were any nightclubs, any CDs, –anything.
Besides studying Hindu and Balinese dance with Ruth and Devi Dja, Magana traveled all over the US and Canada with Devi Dja. Later, when Magana moved back to San Francisco, Ruth St. Denis stayed with her because she was teaching in North Beach. Although Miss Ruth worked with a veil, most of her teaching was in the mode of lectures rather than physical demonstrations. She had a very spiritual and Sufi-like approach. Martha Graham also worked with Ruth St. Denis and was influenced by her. Later, Martha went to New York and established her form of Modern Dance.
During the 1950s there were no Indian stores or Middle Eastern shops in San Francisco, but there was an Oriental dancer. Magana, the first Oriental dancer in the area, danced what was termed "casuals". These are what we now call “gigs”. Sometimes her Oriental dances were referenced as “exotic dances” (exotic as in foreign country) and Magana would get paid $75-$100 per show, a great deal of money in those days! Her "casuals" were usually with variety shows that included a singer, an acrobatic act, a comedian, and an "exotic "dancer. Sometimes her dances would be fused with Indonesian and Balinese dance movement (because she had studied with Devi Dja) and also sometimes fused with Afro-Cuban and Afro-Haitian (as she had also studied with Katherine Dunham).
It was also in the 1950s (1955) that she toured with "Incan Princess" Yma Sumac in the U.S and throughout Canada.
In the 1950s, Magana had a studio at Turk and Van Ness streets called “The Academy of the Arts”: Dance, Art, Drama. It was an enormous place! Magana has a picture of Amina in her dance class. It was in the late 1950s and Amina was in high school. Magana presented a play about Nefertiti and Magana played the role of Nefertiti. It was a very ambitious play. She chose Amina to be the court dancer in this play. They needed a dancer to dance before the king. Amina studied with her during that time. Magana notes that Amina did a lovely job.
San Francisco in the 1960s:
Jamila started teaching Belly dance. Magana went a few times to her class to support her friend and later heard that Jamila had told everyone that Magana was her student. This was not accurate as she had already been performing for quite a few years prior.
Magana and Walt liked to perform with snakes. In 1964, a year after her son, Baron, was born, Walt and Magana were performing at Gigi’s Port Said on Broadway in North Beach where the musicians were Vince Delgado on drums and brothers Fadil and Walid Shahin, on oud. They performed there between 1963-65. Walt would come out, be a magician, work with fire, do his muscle control and then charm the snake with his flute. Next, two large baskets would be brought out. King Tut, a large boa constrictor, would dance out of one, and Walt would hand King Tut to Magana so she could dance with the snake. Then Walt would charm another smaller one out of another basket and hold this one. Magana always danced with King Tut. They had many offers to go on the road with their act, but, with three young children they just couldn’t do it. They also did not want to sacrifice their teaching schedule of dance, yoga, and physical fitness at their studio.
Magana and Walt’s other studios:
Sea Cliff on Clement, Above Walgreen’s Drug Store on Clement, across from 450 Sutter Street, Arguello, and Clement (after returning from India). It had a studio upstairs, a shop, boutique, and restaurant downstairs.
Magana ends her interview by remembering other famous Belly Dance people with whom she worked:
- When Magana presented Ibraham Farrah at her “International SF Belly Dance Festival” in 1988, Bobby (Ibrahim) said he had only been to San Francisco once before. His previous performance took place at the Bagdad Cabaret in North Beach in the 1960s, and Bobby had caught Walt and Magana’s act there. He remembered that they were the first performers he ever saw who danced with a snake. At this time, there was also a very famous exotic dancer at Big Al’s. (In this club, “exotic” meant “stripper”.) This exotic dancer asked Magana to teach her to dance with a snake. Magana helped her and helped her get a snake, too. In fact, she helped others find snakes for performing also – including Bert Balladine.
- There was a dancer named Leyla who popularized Belly dance in North Beach. She was the first to dance on Broadway (San Francisco). It was at a club before Gigi’s. She was a sensation and she became very famous; all the newspapers wrote about her. Leyla started with Magana before she became an international star. She was the Belly dancer in the James Bond movie "From Russia with Love" starring Sean Connery. When Magana met her many years later, Leyla told her that if it hadn’t been for Magana, she couldn’t have done all this! She went on to perform for the crown heads of Europe and to have a very successful career. She danced in the many of the largest cabarets of the Middle East and in Europe. The last time Leyla came to San Francisco, Magana presented her in a workshop in her studio on Arguello Street and two of Magana’s star students, Horacio Cifuentes and Sapphira, attended that workshop.
- Magana appeared on the Naji Baba Show many times as did Dahlena and many other dancers and musicians of the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Magana was part of the writing staff of Belly Dancer Magazine owned by Sula Frick of Walnut Creek, California, and she also wrote articles published in other Belly dance and yoga journals.
Magana is presently working on three different books and will continue her story for us at a future date.
Ready for more?
- 12-3-10 Magana Baptiste, Dancing for a Queen by Amina Goodyear
I became a "Princess" from Siam. None of my classmates knew anything about Siam except that it was exotic; so I was accepted because I was "exotic".
- 3-16-05 About my teacher Magana Baptiste by Horacio Cifuentes
At the time when her husband placed second in the Mr. America body building contest, and mind you, these were the days when body builders took no steroids and were true examples of healthy humans, Magana placed first runner up in the Miss USA beauty competition held in Los Angeles in 1951.
- 11-1-00 Magana’s Marathon: the Belly Dancer of the Millenium Contest!
- 8-17-10 And I thought I Knew Him, Horacio Cifuentes: Confessions of a MaleBelly Dancer Book Review by Amina Goodyear
Yes, I thought I knew Horacio Cifuentes, a San Francisco dancer who moved to Berlin to be with and wed Beata Zadou. After reading his book, I realized I really did not know him. The book, “Confessions of a Male Belly Dancer”, is exactly that. It is a self-produced autobiography written in a very sincere, almost shockingly honest way. It is personal and personable.
- 1-25-04 Chapter 1: One Ad Changed My Life r
I was very desperate and determined to get back to my old self.
- 3-24-04 Chapter 2: "I’d Rather Stay Home with my Kids" by Amina Goodyear
I asked her how to take it off, and she told me to figure it out when I was on stage. Then I heard – "Our "guest" dancer, Amina, all the way from upstairs!"
- 4-17-07 Chapter 3: A Marriage Made in North Beach by Amina Goodyear
The stage was alight with the flames of the candelabrum’s candles and the eerie glow of her costume. Fatma’s costumes were always comprised of material that glowed in the dark as her show began with no light—except for “black light”.
- 6-6-07 Chapter 4: Smokin’ by Amina Goodyear
Now that I was legitimately part of the Bagdad family and on the payroll, Yousef told me that all the dancers had to split their tips 50/50 with the band. This meant that I was making less money than when I wasn’t getting paid at all.
- 6-30-07 Chapter 5: Listen to the Music by Amina Goodyear
Yousef wanted us to look exotic, like we were from the Middle East, so he made us stay downstairs, look available and wear sexy, skimpy pantaloon outfits or diaphanous caftans when we were not dancing.
- 8-15-07 Chapter 6: Bert, by Amina Goodyear
On my first Monday at the Casa Madrid, Bert came to support the place and me. Well, what he saw was equivalent to a San Francisco earthquake.
- 2-8-08 Chapter 7: Yousef – Black Lights and Veils by Amina Goodyear
It was kind of hard to compete with this kind of action when we kept our clothes on.
- 9-29-00 More North Beach Memories! My Lessons with Hillary and Aida Al-Adawi
"After only three classes, they would teach belly dancing!"
- 2-17-01 Yasmeen and the North Beach of Yore
Another wonderful addition to our North Beach Memories. Find more names and faces you have known or heard about!
- 12-12-99 AT LONG LAST-HERE IT IS!North Beach Memories!
Please join us as we travel back in time to the North Beach district of San Francisco between the years 1957 through 1985. We’ll read about a vibrant period of Middle Eastern Dance and Music Performance as presented in our interviews with musicians, dancers, and club owners who created this exciting history. Amina, Saida Asmar, Aziza, Dahlena, Fadil, Najia, Shamira, Taka, Vince