by Morocco (Carolina Varga Dinicu) © 2001
In late 1960, I got my first job as an Oriental dancer. How? I was a Flamenco dancer with the Ballet Espanol Ximenez-Vargas & we were rehearsing at a Manhattan studio, owned by a Greek Orthodox priest, who was a friend.
There was no pay for rehearsals & I was getting skinny. He told me he knew of a good dance job paying $125 a week, starting at nine thirty in the evening, so I could still rehearse with the company from noon to eight, get made up, work that job from 9:30pm 4:00 am, go home, sleep, get up & go to rehearsal
… & have money to eat.
Went with my guitarist to the Arabian Nights (unfortunately no longer in existence.) The owner looked at me, looked at my guitarist & asked Who is this guy? My guitarist. She says Well, we have a guitarist.
Thinking in terms of Flamenco, I ask: Does he know all the rhythms?
Can he sing?
When I change tempo will he change tempo?
Yes. Go change into your costume & well give you an audition.
I change into my costume, called bata de cola in Spanish. Its the dress with the long, ruffled train, that all these very intense ladies kick around. I come upstairs & the owner asks, Whats that? Im thinking well, this is a restaurant. Maybe they dont like the costume because it would raise dust. I tell her that I have a short dress with polka dots or the riding habit.
She says Honey we dont want Spanish dancers. We want a belly dancer! I said Whats that? Never seen it…. Never heard of it
. Knew from nothing… She sits me down (on all the ruffles & frills & starch of the bata that you cant sit on) & says, Watch.
Out comes this creature… Ive been in the business over 42 years now & only twice have I seen anybody as bad as that woman. I looked at her & said, If I cant do better than that, Ill hand in my feet! A case of having more guts than brains.
Another dancer, who overheard me said, Oh yeah?!? Lets get you into a costume & see what you can do. She lent me her costume I went out & slunk around from one end of the dance floor to the other. I thought I was hot stuff because I didnt fall on my behind. Nobody ran out. No one threw rotten eggs. They even threw money, which came as an extreme shock. Id never seen that before either. The owner said All right. You are a dancer. Not a Mideastern dancer, but you are a dancer. You have the job. For 2 weeks. You learn, you stay. You dont learn, thank you very much & good bye.
The 1960s were a special time in New York: 8th Avenue, from 27th to 29th Streets, had 10 restaurant/ night clubs with continual live, nightly Mideastern music, 3 dancers 6 nights a week, & a 4th on the 3 days the others were off. Thats 40 dancers needed in a city that had maybe 10, who knew what they were doing. The hit movie Never On Sunday, starring Melina Mercouri as a happy hooker, set in the port of Piraeus, in Athens, Greece, was the main reason there were so many successful, crowded Mideastern clubs in New York at that time & so much work for dancers of whatever degree of skill or lack thereof: in that film, Americans discovered bouzoukia & were flocking to the ones here in droves.
In proportion to the economy, dancers pay was much better then than it is today & there were so many job openings, that if Godzilla had a costume, she could have gotten a well-paying & steady gig. There was a whole category of dancers we called the Wonderful Walkers – & they were. Thats all they did: get out there & strut around the dance floor & twirl their veils, but, oh, how they did it! There weresome truly charismatic & artistic dancers, there were the smoldering sexpots, there were the novices, learning on the job & a few truly bad, awkward performers.
This new audience of civilians came for the music, dance & excitement they saw in the film & went away having gotten even more than theyd hoped including discovering & being fascinated with the Oriental dancers they saw there. There were none in the movie Never on Sunday.
The first club I worked in was called the Arabian Nights, because while the bouzoukee, clarinet & guitar players were Greek, the kanun, oud & accordion players were Arabic-speaking. In the other NYC clubs they were all Greek, Turkish, Sephardic & Armenian. Mohamed el Akkad, our kanun player, had just arrived from Cairo & many years of playing in Om Kolsums orchestra. By playing together nightly, they learned each others songs & rhythms. It was a wonderful time of sharing, where knowledge & friendship were freely given. It is where & how I got my stage name, the name that has become who I am:
Morocco because the Lebanese/ Greek owner, Marianthe Stevens, insisted I looked Moroccan. My first night there, they taught me Semai a 10/8, so I could play it on the dumbek: not difficult for me, since Seguiriya is the same thing in reverse. Fell totally in love with the music & rhythms my first night an affair thats still going strong.
The Arabian Nights had 3 female singers: Lebanese, Greek & Turkish, all of whom danced during the taxims between the verses, in their formal dresses. From 9:30 pm to 4:00 am, when not changing into costume or doing one of our 2 shows each a night, we sat on stage, in our fancy, party-dress civvies, with the musicians.
In those days, they didnt want to hire drummers, so the dancers & singers played for each other. Most of them hated it.
To the delight of the other dancers in the clubs in which I performed, I saw it as a marvelous opportunity to learn all the tempos & countertempos & hogged the drum most of the night, banging away & bouncing around in my seat. We drank countless cups of Turkish coffee &, those who smoked, did – like chimneys. There were no anti-smoking laws for restaurants & night clubs then.
Whole families came, from the great grandmas down to the newest baby, who usually slept under the table in a basket. Once, one family forgot the baby & had to come back! They came to listen to their music, eat their food & do their own dances. The homesick, who might never have gone to such places in their own countries, paid for special songs & cried when they danced to them. Men actually danced!: alone, with another man, in lines & circles for their own pleasure. Something your typical American male would never do! (Ask me to tell you the hilarious story about my reaction the first time I saw a young Greek man do a solozembekiko!) **
I watched it all & sponged it up. When a movement one of the customers did caught my eye, Id wait till the (usually older) woman went to the ladies room, follow, & convince her to teach it to me then & there. At home, I tried all the moves I saw the dancers do often with hysterical results. Fortunately, the Mambo, Merengue & Cha-cha arrived during my early teen years, so at least I knew I had hips & that they could be moved, but this was something else entirely! Thank heaven there are no videos of what I was able to get away with calling Oriental dance in those days, while I learned on the job!
Elderly musicians (many were in their 60s & older) & female customers, seeing that I was a “family girl” (meaning they never saw me smoke, drink alcohol or speak/go out with any of the male customers the very strict, NYC Cabaret Laws** notwithstanding), extended their protection, advice, encouragement & continual, invaluable instruction & information about music, dance, lore, social custom, as it existed when they were young men & women & what theyd been told by their teachers, parents, grandparents, etc. These were people who took their ethnic heritage very seriously & with the greatest respect. Of course, some younger musicians made passes & when I refused, did some really interesting things to my music in revenge which is why I can now dance to anything, in any tempo when necessary. I also figured out how to get back at them in a way that got their attention & respect.**
Our Oriental dances were improvised to live music for at least half an hour, often more, using what was considered the expected format at that time: fast opener/ magensi, slow/ rhumba-like tempo, heavychifte telli or wahada kebira, drum solo & fast ending or fast Karsilama. Later, another upbeat section was added between the rhumba & the wahada or heavy Chifte Telli. We all used what wed seen, learned & felt inspired to try. We learned to think on our dancing feet, since there was no guarantee as to who would play what nor when. My Flamenco & Latin dance gave me a love for & skill in executing complicated rhythms, countertempos, improvisation & soul.
What I lacked then in technique, I made up for with warmth & enthusiasm lots of enthusiasm!, so audiences took to me. I had a new career! No such thing as courses in Oriental dance, so it was on the job training. In spades. Of course, I made mistakes: most of them innocent, because I didnt yet know that some things, considered valid, beautiful dance steps by Western standards, were considered very vulgar & quite unesthetic by Eastern standards (ask me about my slooow Arabesque during the wahada& what Garabad the Oud player told me not to do & why!).**
One thing really bothered me: what the music was saying to me & most other dancers & what I was seeing certain dancers do, were very different things. While most of the dancers were totally suitable for family viewing, one of the many styles in the clubs at the time was what I would come to call Turkish whorehouse.
I asked the musicians about this. They explained that some of these women really had come out of the Turkish pavillions or brothels, some had learned here by imitating them, but that I was to ignore those who did that style, as there will always be some who cater to the lowest common denominator. They told me to observe how the audience reacted to the different dancers. Trashy dancing got a loud, coarse reponse, while classy dancers were rewarded with attention, respect & admiration. Rote or bored looking dancers were ignored. They told me that I was definitely on the right track & theyd let me know if I did anything that didnt fit. They did, but always gently & with love. There were also truly marvelous & inspiring dancers to watch: to this day, I have never seen anyone do heavy Chifte Telli likeMinee Coskun, or equal Saliha Teknecis attitude. The Algerian dancer, Badia, inspired the beginnings of my hipwork. I learned, bit by bit.
I was thoroughly enamoured & fascinated with the music & rhythms, the variety within one dance performance that was possible; more so, even than in Flamenco. I switched allegiances, but was subsequently to find out, through logic, linguistics, knowledge of history & in-person observation, that I had unknowingly gone back to the roots, the origins of Flamenco, which came from the Moors the Moroccans, who ruled Andalucia for about 900 years – the very word flamenco came from Arabic: fella al mengu. The heelwork/ zapateo originated with the MoroccanHouara & the Rekza part of the Schikhatt. We wont even talk about the Zambra Mora right here!
Also learned Greek, a bit of Lebanese Arabic & some Turkish by asking the singers what their songs meant, & my co-workers got a charge out of helping me acquire an even more interesting & useful vocabulary
. On my night off, I went to other clubs to see the other dancers, hear more music & dance for my own enjoyment, since as a customer, I could join in the line & circle folk dances & learn them, something forbidden to me where/ when I was working by NYCs Cabaret Laws of the time. I loved it & was totally bewildered when non-Mideasterners & other Flamenco dancer friends gave me major attitude, when I told them what I was doing/ where I worked. Thanks to the American misnomer, the misconceptions that arose from it & those who chose to cater to the harem fantasy & lowest common denominator, it seems they thought I had gotten aboard that handcart that was going straight to hell. Nothing I could say about how much fun it was, how great the music was or that it was family entertainment, a folk dance, fer chrissakes!, would change their minds. As a former academic, I realized that at the very least, it would take cultural & historical fact to begin to make a dent in their kneejerk misconceptions & change their negative attitudes.
The older musicians & grandparents, who came to the club, were the ones with the cultural knowledge I sought & they complained that their own grandchildren were so busy becoming Americans, they had no time for them & their stories about the old country. I had the time & wanted those stories, so I made friends with a few of the grandmothers (lets hear it for the Ladies room!) & was invited to their homes & family celebrations. I saw the culture from the inside over countless cups of Turkish/ Arabic/ Greek coffee, in the kitchens & parlors, while the menfolk were at work, & at frequent haflas, maharajans,kefs, glendis, church socials, engagement parties & weddings for which I was hired to dance. My obvious love & respect for them, their music, dance & stories, plus my (to them) Mideastern looks made me a welcome guest & gave entree to the womens culture, something no male, even from the culture, had. On the other hand, since I wasnt really “bint al balad“, fortunately most sex – based restrictions didnt apply: I had almost honorary male status. Sadly, that wonderful world & best of schools is gone: those children & grandchildren I mentioned did become American, moving away from the old neighborhood & the music & dances of their old – country parents.
Then the end came in the late 1960s, when the Fashion Institute of Technology tore all the buildings down along one block to build a student center. Four clubs gone in one night, the center of that wonderful world. The rest didnt last much longer.
If you had worked in New Yorks vanished Greektown & were liked, you had a fabulous extended family, there & wherever there were Mideastern & Mediterranean clubs in the US & Canada. If anybody in that family needed help, everyone: waiters, musicians, singers, dancers, owners gave what was needed, without question or expectation of payback. If you had an argument with a husband, wife, lover, everybody took a side, had an opinion & gave it. Three minutes after anything happened, everyone knew it. The stories I could tell
. like the time Inglesos & Kezban had a screaming fight at the Egyptian Gardens, & she reached into his mouth, pulled out his upper plate & skedaddled off to their hotel room, locking herself inside for 3 days, while he slept, minus his uppers, in his club.
While almost everyone insisted that Raks Sharki/Oryantal Tansi, by whatever name, from whatever country was a true folk dance & an integral part of their culture, when done in proper/family settings, I was made aware that there were varying degrees of opposition/ reputation damage for a female that went along with doing the same very dances, but in costume, for money, in a public that contained men not in the immediate family.
I also found it extremely interesting & frustrating that, depending on the country of origin, there was a different name & variation as to the origins & meaning of Raks Sharki, Raks Farrah, Raks, Raks Turkos, Turkos, Oryantal Tansi, Raks-e-Arabi, Anatoliko Horo, Chifte Telli. One thing was certain, no one from the cultures to which it belonged called it by anything that translated as Sol Blooms 1893 American misnomer “belly” dance.
Turks told me that there was, indeed a Gobek Tansi a belly dance, but it was a different dance: a comic folk dance that was done at weddings, where 2 men drew faces on their abdomens a mans & a womans pulled their shirts up over their faces & pretended the guy was chasing the girl & trying to kiss her. They roll their abs a lot in this one. Ive seen it several times over the ensuing years: its great fun, but it sure as heck is not Raks Sharki/ Oryantal Tansi. Most, especially Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians & Saudis, mentioned that some of the movements had a link to easing childbirth. (See “Bellydancing &Childbirth“, Habibi:Vol 3 #2, 1976, Sexology, April, 1965 or my website http://live-casbahdanceorg.gotpantheon.com – under Articles) Id learn more about this in Morocco in person in 1967. So: who/ which story was the correct one? Was there more than one answer? How could I find out? That door would begin to open in 1963, again thanks to serendipity.
Meanwhile, in addition to my total immersion in the cultural milieu, I sought every possible source of information. Carrying my library card, checkbook, eyes & ears wherever a printed or provable fact could be found, bought, read, that would aid in my research, notebook carefully concealed in pocket or purse, small change at the ready for every passing xerox machine, fingers permanently smeared with dust from rooting through thousands of old magazines for pictures, buying prints, learning to distinguish which of the Orientalist painters had really been there in person & which had only been there in their overly-fevered racist/ erotic imaginations; which of the writers were accurately describing what they saw & whose opinions were greatly colored by colonialist assumptions or religious fanaticism & hatred of any form of dance; which were colored by Victorian hypocrisies & ignorance. Which of these mostly foreign men got to see anything in a normal households womens quarters? None.
Which writers deliberately took the whorehouse tour of the Middle East, such as Flaubert & Curtis? Which photographers paid poor peasants or prostitutes what seemed like tremendous sums to pose for whichever of their fantasies they sought to depict or thought their readers wanted to see?
Which photos had captions that reflected the condescending racism of the times or were downright wrongly labelled? Where were the kernels of truth in the muck of sensationalism? What is Ethnic dance anyway? How can we tell if we are doing the “correct” thing? Is there such a thing as “correct”? Does it change? How? Why? How far can we go & still be “ethnic”? How much room is there for creativity, or must it be rote imitation? What kind of leeway is there in music? Dress? How can I tell if what Im being told or shown is correct? Who are the authorities? Are they always correct? What are the criteria by which we judge all this? Can we sit in judgement? Must one be a native? Can we believe what we read? How much do personal tastes, morals & opinions color so-called “historical accounts”?
I have a book, published in 1894, consisting entirely of photos of the pavillions & personnel of theChicago Worlds Fair of 1893: the Columbian Trade Fair & Exhibition that was supposed to have opened in 1892, but was
. a bit late. Some of the photos are incorrectly captioned, some of those captions insulting to the subjects depicted.
I have National Geographics dating back to 1906, but bear in mind that although nowadays many consider it a prestigious magazine, with decently accurate, albeit superficial reportage, it was the “Penthouse” & Playboy of the early years of this century, purposely showing brown-skinned “native” women & girls in their supposedly natural state.
Because they were brown-skinned & there was some sort of text with pretensions of educating, it got by the censors & into homes. The main thrust of the magazine was & still is the promotion of First World civilization & its White Mans Burden, its bare-breasted maidens & fierce warriors deliberately depicting non-Western cultures as backwards, childlike, impulsive, lascivious. I suggest getting & reading Veils & Daggers by Linda Steet & The Colonial Harem by Malek Alloula: they say what I have been trying to get across for over 42 years & provide pictures & foot-noted references. Just one example: the January 1914 National Geographic has Lehnert & Landrock photos of the Ouled Nail taken at the close of the last century, more than fifteen years before they were printed. In 1917 some of these were reprinted, with different captions & hand-colored with incorrect colors. Imagine a poor, innocent, novice researcher coming upon the 1917 version! Some photos in the 1914 issue are obviously contrived poses: Pp 11,15,40,41, just to mention a few.
I understood that knowledge of clothing styles worn at various times, materials used, etc., could be very valuable in determining how one moved within or in spite of the garments worn. Were they the real garments of the area or were they imposed by religious fanatics or filthy-minded colonialists & missionaries? Were they ornamental or utilitarian? An indication of status, religion, ethnicity? A form of competition? Were there tattoos? For what, on whom, when & where? If there were any, what kind & where were they placed? What were the socially acceptable methods of flirting or was one supposed to look shy? Haughty? How far could one go in a particular dance? Did one acknowledge the audience or ignore it? The list is endless as were the answers, which depended on era & area. . . .
I also realized that politics and religion plays a far larger part over there than most here realize:
- Was any form of dance banned? Why? When? How long?
- Has it been forgotten?
- What dances were done then that arent done now? Vice-versa? Why? Where?
- Did men do Raks Sharki/ Oryantal Tansi? When? Where? Why? Under what circumstances? What is tribal dancing? Is there really such a thing over there or is it totally a western invention?(I believe that it is ours. It has been totally made up and is great theater! Im not the Ethnic Police. If a dance isnt culturally offensive, if its presented as theater, a personal interpretation, inspired byand is done with taste and talent, I can accept and enjoy it as such. However, if its presented asreal or authentic and is just malarkey.)
- What about the Veil Work we all did in our U.S. nightclub dances in the 60s and 70s? We thought that it was de rigeur. Was Veil Work authentic? (Nope: Veil Work was another American invention, but Ive seen Veil Work so beautiful, it made me tear up.) What does one wear for an ethnic dance? Can I do it in a bedlah? In a thobe beladi? One must get the facts, since misrepresenting dances, costuming, and cultures can create inadvertently serious problems and insult the people to whom they belong. Claims of innocence would be a poor defense in a country where so much knowledge is available. Also, we can read and write. (Dont take that for granted!) Trying to get it right, leads to friendships and accesses further information and more help than I ever dreamed possible.
By 1962, Id already been featured in two totally forgettable (and forgotten) movies and done a couple of live television interviews. I have made no videotape as yet, thank God, since I have continued learning and making errors in public view! I danced as part of that wonderful, extended music and dance family in New York, Washington, DC & Montreal, Canada, until July 3, 1963, when I was hired, on a two week contract with option, at the Roundtable, a New York club that would reign for five years as the best place for Oriental Dance in the U.S. The music was great! Every Oriental dancer of that day in America dreamed of dancing at The Roundtable! I headlined there till March 2, 1968, except when I took temporary leave so I could work in Off-Broadway and Broadway shows, travel for my subsequent research trips or dance at overseas galas and occasional weekend club dates.
Some critics began to recognize the art inherent in this dance and the first of many rave revues to come was printed shortly after I opened at the Roundtable, titled: “Moroccos Belly Dance is High Art” (Daily Mirror, July 7, 1963, Jack Thompson).
When it appeared, my mom called and said, There is another woman using the name Morocco, who has just gotten this great revue! So shouldnt your change your stage name? Isnt it time you got married already, stop this dancing foolishness, and find a real 9 to 5 job?
Her plans for my life definitely did not include this lifelong obsessive career. The good news is that she finally did come around. I wont tell you how many years that evolution took!
I met and worked with many wonderful Egyptian, American and Canadian dancers of that era, including the Gamal Twins (known asLyn and Lys in Cairo), who, though they were adults and long married, were always accompanied by both parents. The parents sat in the dressing room with the twins between shows. I worked with some wonderful musicians and one truly insane but musically inspired/inspiring band leader, who was an education in himself.
The 60s were much more overtly sexist: the media thought it was extremely unusual for a female to have a brain, let alone college degrees, be a member of Mensa and not look like Godzilla, let alone be on stage dancing like that!
In their book, it was incomprehensible, which lead to a lot of publicity. If they hadnt seen me dance, some of it was snide and condescending, assuming I was some kind of hotsy-totsy harem cutie wanna-be, while others were very kind and complimentary if theyd seen me or another quality dancer perform. The end result was that it brought lots of the curious to see the weird female genius, who did what for a living? They came to scoff and went away mostly praising. Some saw the hard work and the art, the marriage of music and movement. The disgruntled were those who came for sleazy T and A and didnt get it. Unfortunately, most didnt think to question the Orientalist erotic fantasy that this was a dance women did for men. Books and records titled How to Make Your Husband a Sultan were the norm until relatively recently. Looking back at some of the usual newspaper and magazine write-ups on Oriental dance then and now, I can assure you that we have come a long way, baby! (Doesn’t mean that there isnt still a very long way to go )
In mid 1963, while dancing at the Roundtable, something occurred that would have a tremendous effect on my life to date: I was told that thered be a Moroccan Pavillion at the 1964 Worlds Fair in New York. It required dozens of research phone calls plus oodles of charm to get the necessary information. I reached one of the men in charge. Having more nerve than good sense, I jumped right in with both feet: “Hi. You dont know me yet, but my name is Morocco. Im a well known Oriental dancer in New York. Wouldnt it be great publicity for you if you had a dancer at the Moroccan Pavillion named Morocco?”
He laughed so hard he dropped the phone. I could hear it clunk on the floor while he related what I said, in French, to someone else, who also reacted with raucous laughter.
He picked up the receiver, bless his heart, and invited me to come to see the real Moroccan dancers rehearse before their opening: Schikhatt, Ahouache, Gnaoua, Danse du Plateau/ Raks al Seniyya, Houara. They probably wanted to see what somebody with so much nerve looked like! All of those dances were wonderful, most totally unlike Raks Sharki, but it was the special magic and mystery of the Guedra that was overwhelming from the first glimpse. I had to see more! I had to know more!The 2 men in charge were the then Vice Minister of Culture of Morocco and a favored cousin of His Majesty, the late King Hassan II (No, I have never met the King.), who opened research doors for me that no official credentials or amount of money could have opened.
I resolved to take that fated next step: Id go to Morocco myself, to the Sahara, do on-site research and see for myself. Borrowing plane-fare from mom (That was an amazing feat in itself.) with lots of advice, addresses and letters of introduction from my new Moroccan friends, telling nobody (in case of failure), I flew to Morocco during one of my vacations from the Roundtable in late1963.
Guess what: to Moroccans, I really do look Moroccan! I bought a djellaba, walked behind a few women to copy how they walk, so I could fit in and get around unnoticed.
Emboldened by the amazing stroke of luck that lead me straight toBShara, queen of the Guedra, having survived and enjoyed the first of my wonderful experiences with her and Guedra in Goulmime, which I wont detail now, I took off again in 1964. This time I went to Egypt, earning the money for that trip from several gala shows for wealthy Moroccans in New York, Morocco and Paris, arranged by the same aforementioned Pavillion directors. Terminal curiosity and a real thirst for knowledge would bring me back to both countries repeatedly and to Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Greece as well as several republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus to research and perform in the ensuing years.
Access to those latter two areas, which were in the former USSR (1976-79) was possible, thanks to one of the more interesting mistakes of my life: I was marriage to a Russian, whose brother-in-law was the Chief Government Prosecutor of the Kazan Republic. He opened lots of usually closed doors. While in those places, I was thrilled to find Oryantal Tansi in some homes, but saddened that it was done almost exclusively by grandmothers, whod learned it from their mothers, whod learned it as children. It was actively discouraged by the Soviet governments racism and Victorian attitudes towards the body (in general) and hip/torso movement, in particular.
One of the most important things I learned was that all of those different stories the grannies and the musicians told me about how it was with the dance in their particular countries were true. There was no one answer. There was no one truth. There was no one dance. There were many, many answers, truths, dances!
Each region had its own thing; let alone each country and different groups within a region had their own special things. I was given an unbelievably wonderful opportunity in 196, again thanks to those marvelous Moroccans, to be present at a birthing ceremony in a small village in Morocco (It required my pretending to be deaf and dumb for an entire week, so as not to give away the fact that I wasnt really Moroccan!), where the women really danced the baby into the world. Incredibly beautiful! You can access those articles on my website: Roots and Giving to Light.
So much great stuff; so little time to see and learn it all. So much of it disappears down the oasis daily. What could I do? I filmed as much as I could, but only where and when I could unobtrusively get in with my movie camera. More often than not, the very appearance of a camera would bring on either paranoia or it would totally change the formerly relaxed and natural dynamic as the participants played to the camera. So what I couldnt film, I committed to memory and brought back within myself, to transmit to others. It wouldnt be lost or remain unseen by the outside world. I could show my films. I could show and teach the steps. I could write. Maybe I could lecture in places like museums, libraries and schools.
I’d taught privately in the 60s, training many dancers. Jobs were still plentiful and well-paying. In 1968, Rosetta Le Noire, with whom Id worked in the Broadway musical, I Had a Ball, made a proposal I couldnt refuse: “Teach a weekly class at my school or Ill never speak to you again!” OK. I did. For 7 years. I started teaching master classes for other schools in 1972. In the mid 1970s, I was invited to teach a 3-credit course in Mideastern Dance and Culture for the State University of New York, with a concert by myself and the students at the end of each year. ‘Loved it, but it ended after 3 years, when the Dance Division had severe cutbacks and all the ethnic dance courses were cut. So I bit the bullet and opened my own school, in my small apartment, in 1976. Moved to a loft in 79, so I could have a bigger studio, and when harrassed out of there (some things havent changed enough yet!), to West 15th Street and now on West 20th Street and so it goes . . .
Credit goes to Dr. Paul Monty for coming up with a wonderful concept in the early 70s. One that I firmly believe set us on the path that brought this Art to its current status and international popularity: he was the first to envision and take the professional and financial risks involved in producing large-scale Mideastern dance seminars/ conventions with evening concerts all over the US,
presenting and making master teachers of Ibrahim Farrah, Dahlena, Serena, Jamila, myself and several others. Many followed his lead in their local areas, producing seminars featuring the stars Dr Monty created and/or teaching themselves. This was to become became my favorite teaching arena and a great opportunity to share my hard won knowledge on a wider scale, first all over the U.S.and Canada and now most of the world: from Casablanca, Morocco and Cairo, Egypt to England, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Finland, Italy, Australia, Israel, Brazil and all over Germany, meeting so many wonderful people, who share my love of this field.
I worked long and hard to try and come up with a teaching method that would make the dances more easily learned and remembered. Serendipity again presented the solution: Lucy Smith/ Scheherezade and theWomen of Selket invited me to teach in Richmond, Virginia. That seminar would be held in a very large Masons hall, great for the large crowd that would be there, but the sound system was waaaaaay over there on the other side of the 80 long room: how to work it so that I wasnt running the 2 minute mile every 3 minutes or so? What to do about rewinding?
After wracking my brain, I came up with the idea of recording the music for the dance I would be teaching by musical phrases, for the requisite amount of repetitions, so Id only need the tape turned on and off for each section, with no rewinding. Takes forever to do that sort of teaching tape, but its well worth it and it worked.
If it werent for the problem, I might never have found that method/ solution! While I wasnt the first to come up with the weeklong concept, the joy of teaching these seminars lead to my scheduling and teaching my own weeklong intensives, at which even more can be shared.
I was frustrated, in those early days, because most seminar attendees insisted on nurturing the mass of mythical malarkey abounding at the time and wouldnt believe me, when Id tell the real story of the real dances. I started showing the research films Id made on some of my trips and organizing dance-packed tours (again, the first to do so) to prove that the reality was, indeed, far better and more varied than the fantasy.
First to Morocco — for genuine tribal dance, but certainly not by that name nor bearing any resemblance to the wonderful American invention from 1976-90, when King Hassan II changed the Marrakesh Folk Festival from May/June to September and then dropped it altogether. (They say theyre doing it again: well see!)
Then, from 1978 to 93, Egypt for the many real “Egyptian styles of Oriental dance, the authentic folklore of the Firqa Masr el Samer and the wonderfully creative folk-based theater dances of the Reda and Kawmiyya troupes.
We had private haflas with the real Banat Maazin Ghawazi and their musicians: Mohamed Muradand his group and got up and danced with them (1978-93). This was an interesting contrast against settling for the often anemic fantasies inspired by Orientalist paintings. I insisted on the highest standards of quality and quantity in dance events on my trips and wouldnt settle for less, so these trips were very successful. I stopped because of the current almost total disappearance of the Cairo dance scene due more to lack of regular big spenders from the Gulf and the Levant in the audience, than to any sort of “fundamentalism, though that, too, is a mitigating factor. I wont promote a trip as packed with top quality Egyptian dance, when there isnt enough there now to fill two weeks.
I began writing articles to help dispel the myths about Raks Sharki and other Mideastern dances forinternational medical and feminist magazines way back in 1964. There were no publications specifically for Mideastern dancers/ afficionados until the early mid 70s I wrote for several. Many of my articles have been translated and printed in other countries, in other languages. A few are posted under Articles on my website. Im still threatening to get started on the Opus Magnus everybodys been urging me to write (“How to Evade an Expectorating Camel”©. . .) Waiting for the Statute of Limitations to expire on a few adventures and a few governments to change before I can do that…
I was the first Oriental dancer ever invited to perform at the Brooklyn Museum in the early 60s, but that was a dance at a gala (complete with camels and a baby elephant for atmosphere!) and not a lecture or an officially museum situation. It wasnt until 1970, when, thanks to those research credentials, I was invited to lecture and perform regularly at the Museum of Natural History in New York, where I continued to give 5 and 6 week video lectures bi-yearly for their Education Center. In 1964, I was the major subject of a segment of the documentary “Only One New York”, and, over the years, did innumerable TV shows, among them Ed Sullivan (His censors made me wear a robe under my Oriental costume!), David Frost (You wouldn’t believe what I went through before I got on that show or how it came about!), Johnny Carson (twice), Dr. Joyce Brothers, etc., etc. educating all the way.
While I understand that with living folklore, the one sure thing is that it will change almost daily, Im most interested in finding, preserving and presenting the real stuff
learning and teaching as much of it as I can, before its all gone. So much has already been lost just in the few years since I started going over there, and it is in imminent danger. Realizing early on that the real ethnic going to show the beauty and variety of these disappearing treasures to the Western public, I needed a more ethnic dance company than the ones I’d previously had. It took a while. The Casbah Dance Experience was born in 1978 and debuted officially in Lincoln Centers Damrosch Park Theaterlater that year. It would be the first time Guedra, Schikhatt and Gnaoua were presented in concert to an American public.
My entire reputation was in the balance and I was so scared, the butterflies in my stomach needed beta blockers. Casbah opened with my group Guedra choreography, the wonderful trance ritual that inspired my first overseas research trip, combined with the Tissint Betrothal Dance.
As it ended, there was dead silence. I thought my career was over. A couple of seconds later, the crowd was applauding furiously and cheering: I didnt have to go off and hide in a cave! The rest of the concert went very well, indeed. We also got non-profit, tax-exempt status as an educational institution that same year. Again, the first in our field to do so.
In 1972, I was awarded the first grant ever given to a Mideastern dancer — to teach it to children and, in 1982, a second for choreography (only two-time individual winner!) from the New York State Council on the Arts, 2 Arts Exposure grants to present 16 Mideastern and North African dance shows in NYC public schools, 3 Community Service grants, 3 Summer Program grants, a continuing Materials for the Arts grant, I gave frequent lecture/performances at universities and museums around the US, and, in 1973, had a one hour TV special in Germany (Koln, WDR#1). There were several performances at Lincoln Center: first in 1964, and again in 1970, both solo.
In 1977, the Program Director of the Outdoor Summer Festival hiring me again, for 2 solo shows with a live band – had to put his job on the line to do so because so much misinformation still prevailed. Thanks to rave revues, the director kept his job and, as a result, my dance company, the Casbah Dance Experience, debuted there in 1978 and was invited back in 1982.
Among too many concerts to mention: Casbah and I were invited to perform at the Statue of Liberty Centennial and for many different cultural events and organizations. There were countless shows for the N.Y.C. Department of Cultural Affairs: solo lecture/ performances, duets, concerts with the entire Casbah Dance Experience, the Delacourt Dance Festival – solo (Anahid Sofian opened that venue to Oriental dance and the quality and class of her performance made it possible for others to follow!), Riverside Dance Festival (only dance company invited to appear there 5 times!). Casbah was the first dance company officially hired by the United Nations to perform in its Dag Hammerskjold Auditorium. They knew my work because Id soloed a few times for the General Assembly, which lead to invitations to perform in the USSR. I wrote the script for and appeared in “Belly Dancing: Midriff Myth” — a half hour video produced by the University of Wisconsin/Madison that won several awards for them, gave 4 annual bi-lingual lecture/ performances (French/ English) for Dar America in Marrakesh, Morocco, was one of the first inducted into the AAMED Mideastern Dance Hall of Fame as “World Class” for “International proliferation of her art, her myriad of talent and for her untiring pioneering in this, her chosen field of ethnic dance”, was named 1997 Instructor of the Year by IAMED (International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance) , was voted Best Dancer and Best Instructor and Casbah Dance Experience was named Best Troupe of the Year 2 years in a row by Mideastern Dancer Magazine, Ethnic Dancer of the Year in 1997, Instructor of the Year in 1998 and Award for Lifetime Achievment in 2001 by Zaghareet Magazine.
A major thrill for me came in July, 1999, when, along with Dr. Barbara Sellers and Shareen al Safy, I was invited to Cairo, as one of the keynote speakers, where I presented the paper I had first given in 1993 at Lincoln Center in New York City for combined conferences of the Congress on Research in Dance and Society of Dance History Scholars on “Dance as Community Identity in Selected Berber Nations of Morocco” and also gave 2 dance workshops, one in Raks Sharki (Oriental Dance) and the other in Moroccan Guedra and Schikhatt and performed, at the international conference of the UNESCO organization ICHPER-SD (International Council on Health, Physical Ed., Recreation – Sport and Dance).
While battery-operated cassette players, VCRs, MTV, mass export of mindless US TV series and fun phobic
phony fundamentalist governments/ mindsets have done more to change/ kill whats left of traditional dances and music in the last 20 years than in the previous 2000, and, on top of that, young people dont realize that they dont have to throw out the old to have the new, those same portable videocams, tapes and CDs have opened many new roads for learning and sharing and many dancers/ teachers/ researchers/ musicians have produced videos and music for us. We can watch dance excerpts from Egyptian films of the 1940s and 50s and see the toned-down and Hollywoodized bits from the great dancers of Egypt. I was privileged to see
Samia Gamal, Tahia Karioca and others dance live many times before they retired. Pity nobody filmed any of their full-length live
shows, so different from anything you see them do in the films, in which their dance had to take a very back seat to the story and the censors mental scissors, but it is far better than nothing, since now all of them are gone. We can see full-length color videos of most of the Egyptian names of the 1970s and 80s and a few of the current Lebanese stars: wonderful! So far, Ive made and released 7 full length videos: 5 in 1984, from my on-site super-8 films of my 1977-82 research, one of my dance companys 1986 award – winning concert at the Riverside Dance Festival and one in 1997 of the concert at the Haft Auditorium, featuring Nadia Hamdi from Cairo and several East Coast dance stars.
Yes, I do have plans to make some teaching tapes hopefully soon.
Non-Mideastern-born Oriental dance fans need for dance-related shiny, beaded items created whole new industries in Egypt and Turkey that didnt exist there before. Ourideas for useful class and costuming items have had an effect on costuming over there (those coin and beaded hip wraps, just to name two!) and we now have several venders, who regularly import from there and vend at our seminars and by mail. There are several excellent American designers and venders of the theater fantasy Tribal and Gypsy outfits, body stockings, skirts and jumpsuits for giving and taking class.
Though many are first drawn to this dance for widely varying reasons some of them having to do with the Orientalist and Hollywood malarkey – most want truth, even those who first came for the fluff and found it was far better and Much more complex than they ever imagined.
Truth gives us the wings that brought us where we are today. Most of my jobs now are in places that wouldnt have thought twice about slamming the door in my face in the 1960s. I know because I tried and they did, but I kept coming back with more and more proof. Havent stopped. Wont. There are still too many fine dancers having shows cut or not getting hired because of ignorance and misinformation, but we have learned to rally and write letters of support for each other.
Little by little, the barriers crumble, because we know that it takes perseverance, valid facts and classy presentations, so we keep coming up with more and more of them. The level of ability and seriousness of the average student and performer are far, far higher than they were when I started. Im thrilled with the progress Raks Sharki and Shabiyya have made in the West over the last 45 years.
Me? I wouldve done what I did anyway, because I am totally insane about this subject, but you have no idea what a joy it is to be able to share it with so many others. How long do I intend to continue? Its stated very clearly on my condensed bio: Till six weeks after Im dead!