Bert's famous fire eating photo
North Beach Memories, Chapter
chapters linked at bottom of page
In the middle
not all the clubs on and around Broadway (in San Francisco's
North Beach) were Topless/Bottomless or Strip Clubs.
was also City Lights and Discovery Books (for
the mind), Caffe Trieste (for espresso), Enrico's
Sidewalk Café, (for late night and after hours coffee, drinks
and snacks), the El Matador and The Jazz Workshop
(for drinks and jazz), Specs
Twelve Adler Place and Vesuvio's Café (for drinks
and conversation), Caffe Tosca's (for drinks and opera),
The Hungry Eye (for drinks and comedy) and The Spaghetti
Factory and The
Casa Madrid (for Flamenco - The Casa Madrid later became The
Stone, for "rockers" and is now Showgirls, for "single"
Casa Madrid was a Flamenco Club owned by Cruz
Luna's family. Cruz, San Francisco's favorite Flamenco
dancer, was a good friend of Bert
Balladine, and Bert was a close friend with Yousef
Koyoumjian, the owner of the
Bagdad, where I worked. Cruz used to hang out at the Bagdad
and sometimes he and his sister would put a wooden board on the
Bagdad stage and treat us to a Flamenco show. It was always a
treat for us and the customers who came for dance entertainment
that included keeping the clothes on.
the time, I was working at the Bagdad six nights a week and had
Mondays off. The Casa Madrid was slow on Mondays so Cruz decided
to try "Monday Night is Arabian Night" at his club. Bert suggested
they try me out, as I was the new face in the scene.
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
had not yet learned to turn or spin, so I ended each section of
my show with an earth-and stage-shaking standing full body tremor,
face looking up and arms overhead calling to the heavens. I can't
remember whether Bert died
from laughter or was mortified at having recommended me to his
friends. But I do remember that he approached me after my show
and told me very kindly that I needed help. He gently suggested
that rather than standing and furiously jiggling, I could slowly
turn in one place - one turn only - and when that felt comfortable,
I could try two turns for awhile, and then three, and then four
and so on until I would one day find myself spinning. His on-the-spot
suggestion really turned my fear of spinning to something positive
and downright do-able so I would eventually be able to spin like
"the big guys."
asked for his phone number secretly hoping for yet another mentor.
A week or so later I called him and discovered that he lived quite
close to me (actually walking distance) and that he taught belly
dance in a little garden apartment type dance studio. And so,
one sunny morning, I made an appointment for a private lesson
and packed up my three kids and went off to take my first real
lesson in months.
told me I could let my kids play on the grass in his lovely, manicured
garden while I took class. That was a major mistake! He had chickens
and a duck pond and even though we could see the yard from the
studio, as a safeguard, I had left my two daughters Cathy
and Susu (both preschoolers) in charge of watching
their younger brother, Vinny. Need I say more?
Yes, they watched him, but did Bert still have a Duck Pond? This
private lesson is a lesson Bert remembers to this day. (He still
reminds me of the little glass floating balls that became new
sculpture for his lawn.) For me, though, it was a wonderful and
a priceless lesson. He had spent one entire hour teaching me to
walk.to enter the stage gracefully, graciously and with regal
style. A lesson every dancer should take to heart.
built my confidence and it also taught me that the spaces between
the dance steps (the breath, the gaze, the pause,) are often
more important than the steps themselves.
this ammunition, I felt ready to tackle the stage at the Bagdad.
for me, Yousef had adopted me as the "house" dancer and allowed
me to experiment with my shows. I especially liked the "floorwork"
section of my shows. This was the only part of the dance wherein
I felt really confident.as in.I can't lose my balance and fall
down since I'm already down on the floor.
when I studied with Bettina,
who was my first teacher, dancing on the floor was our special
studio - "Harems Unlimited", which was really her
home, a Victorian flat - was a fairly large dining room with hardwood
floors and no furniture that adjoined a small living room with
a little sofa that looked onto our dance space. Bettina would
invite her Greek "boyfriends" to come and have Metaxa and Ouzo
and sit in the living room and enjoy "the show." We, the students
(me, my mother, my aunt and my mother's friend), were "the show!"
Bettina, having just paste waxed the hardwood floor, would tell
us to put our veils on the floor, deposit our bodies on the veils
and proceed to buff the entire floor space with our butts. Learning
to dance, or, should I say, swim on the hardwood floor was kind
of fun - funny? - especially with an audience of delighted Greek
the Bagdad, the music, singing and drums took me places I did
not know. I found myself "swimming" and also using dance movements
that included a lot of writhing and head flailing and hair tossing.
Much of it my body had learned in my previous African dance training.
In the dressing room I would often ask Egyptian dancer Fatma
Akef, my first mentor, if the "African" dance movements
I did were OK to do, since I hadn't learned them in "belly dance
class." She would always reply. "Egypt is in Africa." Yousef's
sister, Arousiac told me that my "hair dancing"
reminded her of the hair trance dancing from her home (Iraq).
The floor dancing section in my show really became my favorite
part of my dance. It was the only section that I could be completely
free and express myself. I did not need to remember "dance steps."
I only needed to be open and let the music invite and embrace
me and transport me to my trance world. I could forget about everything
- just dance for myself.
Yousef would have to remind me to stay in the present and remember
that there was an audience out there.
what an audience it was!
of the people (non-Arab) who wandered in off the street, enraptured
with the music and general ambience of the Bagdad, would join
the Arabic customers and become regulars. The Bagdad really
was an oasis, a meeting place, where lost souls and nomads
of the desert would come to quench their thirst and become family
in a very bonding atmosphere. As I mentioned in a previous article,
Yousef wanted us to sit with customers and encourage them
to buy us drinks. The regulars knew this and complied,
knowing that the rum and cokes or whatever, were really only coke
with a cherry on top. We would usually just nurse our drinks
and not drink more than one. One regular customer, an older,
retired man named Louie, spent every single night
at the Bagdad. We enjoyed sitting with him because he left us
alone and only talked about how much he enjoyed himself listening
to the music and watching all the dancers. In the daytime he must
have painted because he gave some of us paintings of ourselves.
(He gave me two of myself - two oil paintings about 2 1/2' x 3
1/2' which I still have. I later hung them in my first dance studio
which I had in the 70's.) He told me that when he died he wanted
a funeral with lots of dancers and Arabic music. I kind of
wish that we could have done that for him. One day he just
stopped coming. No one knew anything about him other than his
name was Louie.
Arabic regulars were so regular that they didn't
even bother to buy drinks. They were just part of the family.
One was Mohamad, the Moroccan, who was a film
student at the SF Art Institute and the other was Naji
Alash, from Iraq, (aka Naji
Baba). Mohamad would sometimes do odd jobs for Yousef,
but mainly he just hung out and provided friendship and a buffer
from obnoxious customers. One of his friends, Naji, (who had been
the owner of the very first Arabic night club - 12
Adler Place - prior to the Bagdad opening) was a self-proclaimed
(impresario? and) drummer and "remodeler". If our drummer was
late or sick or wanted a break, Naji always complied and graciously
sat on stage. One unique thing about his drumming was that he
did not balance the drum on his lap - he played it between his
legs (like you would play an African djembe'). Naji and
Mohamad were friends and often would help Yousef repair and remodel
the Bagdad. Naji (who liked to think of himself as a North Beach
Italian) also helped Enrico Banducci (of Enrico's
Café across the street from the Bagdad) remodel and recarpet his
place. Many of the people on the street lived by the barter system
and so Mohamad and Naji, while not getting paid money for their
labors were paid in kind (drinks, food, etc.) by the people they
had helped - such as Yousef at the Bagdad and Enrico at Enrico's.
Many nights Naji would take us to Enrico's for breakfast after
work at the Bagdad as this was his payback. Naji would become
on of my best friends. He always called me "little sister."
liked to cook and would often invite us to his place for Iraqi
food. I especially remember his stuffed iceberg lettuce. He
would say if you can stuff zucchini, grape leaves, and cabbage,
why not lettuce, it's less expensive.
customer who frequented the Bagdad was Samia Nasser.
She, like Yousef and Naji, was also from Iraq. She was a dancer
(looking for a job?) and would come into the Bagdad night after
night as a customer. She had medium length, very teased, bright
auburn red hair. She was the first person I noticed who used dark
brown eyebrow pencil as a lip liner and probably two sets of very
long false eyelashes. Her clothes were very provocative and low
cut - almost to the waist - and her breasts popped out at you
like melons. She spoke in a very high-pitched voice -"Ya Salaam!"-
and usually would come in every night and always with a different
American "gentleman". ("I am a virgin") They would sit
and enjoy the show and drink from the bottles of champagne she
would always order. This champagne would be shared with the house
and would loosen up the other customers, musicians and dancers,
but she would never be drunk because we discovered that she always
managed to pour the contents of her glass into a little synthetic
potted palm by the bar. (As I said before, the Bagdad was an oasis
and it really promoted a close knit family atmosphere, so customers
(American and Arab) often felt free to be part of the show and
dance, drum, sing, or even play a musical instrument on stage.)
Sometimes she would be convinced to come on the stage and dance.
Samia danced it was magic. Samia was the dancer I dreamed
of becoming. Her hips did not belong to her body and her cleavage
was outrageous. Yousef would never have to tell her to pad
her bras! I hoped one day to be able to dance like Samia.
She was the epitome of sex, virginity, naughtiness, innocence,
glamour and trash all rolled up into one hot Arabic dancing, entertaining
babe who claimed she was a virgin!
and I became close friends because she eventually came to work
at the Bagdad - but that is another story
Chapter 1 here- One Ad Changed My Life
2 here- "I'd
Rather Stay Home with my Kids"
3 here "A Marriage Made in North Beach"
4 here- "Smokin'"
5- here "Listen to
The Zar, Trance Music for Women,
CD Review by Amina Goodyear
by Yasmin of Serpentine.org. “Once a spirit is called, it
must be appeased. Then it will always be there.” And it
will have to be periodically dealt with.
at long last
Bert begins his North Beach Memories!
Zil Thrills in the '70s, Memories
from another Viewpoint by Najia Marlyz
experience with Bert was the opposite, however; the cymbals were
hardly a secret.
Veiled Visions: A Trip
Down Memory Lane CD review by Amina Goodyear
CD titled “Veiled Visions” is a re-release of music
that was formerly produced on vinyl.
North Beach Memories- Searching for the Goddess
Dance in a Rhode Island Summer, June
22, 2007, Performance in Tiverton by Anajim
picturesque small harbor view was the perfect venue for this family
event! The performers comprised an eclectic group that presented
varied types of dance. With only one of each of the different
styles, the show moved along swiftly.
40 Days and 1001 Nights by Tamalyn
it as a book in which I would travel to five Islamic countries
and live for 40 days in each, writing about my experiences. When
I was traveling in Indonesia, one of my friends wrote back "You
need to be filming this!" I did, and a musical documentary
film was born
Dance of Power by Kathreen Saab
The sensual is from the realm of the magical, the psyche, rather
than the physical.