Gilded Serpent presents...
and the North Beach of Yore
interview with Gayle
Discovers the Bagdad
1967. I had a roommate named Pat and we took ourselves
down to Broadway one night for a wee bit of fun and adventure.
We were walking along Broadway and we saw one particular barker,
dressed in a sheik's costume, standing in front of the Bagdad.
He enticed us inside.
and were totally stunned by the music, the dancing, and the way
the cabaret was decorated. I'd had no experience with belly dance
at all before this. The stage was all beautifully decorated, and
it was so mysterious! There we were, two exceptionally straight-laced
was the daughter of a Baptist minister, and I was just out of
navy. We both had short hair, and were wearing conservative miniskirts;
neither of us were into sixties drug scene, so for us to walk
into this den of iniquity (laughs)
Manny, Yousef and Gili Gili (Fatma's husband)
was dancing that night. Her specialty at that time was dancing
on the floor displaying her long dark hair; it was fabulous! Two
other dancers who worked there were Aida (not Aida Al-Adawai)
who was Mexican - and a bombshell named Zoraida Torres.
She was from Puertro Rico - short, dynamic, powerful, a real bombshell!
There was not a lot of variation in her moves, but what she had
was so powerful. At the time Fadil
Shahin was working for Yusef
Kouyoumjian, who was a musician there. Along with Yousef
and Fadil there were various drummers and a Greek guy named Manny
Petro who played the guitar.
Fadil came and
introduced himself. We were so entranced that we kept coming back,
two to three times a week. We lived in Burlingame and had to take
bus. We picked up guys who'd take us home. For instance, Kamal
Ayub, a friend of Fadil's, who hung out at Bagdad. I met him
there. Later he opened the Casbah
with Fadil. I had dinner with him a couple times, and Pat went out
with his friend, Mike.
was all very mysterious and provocative to us. I was twenty-one;
I had studied ballet and modern dance. At first I just liked coming
to watch, and then, after two or three months of watching and
after we had met a lot of people, Fadil (who was very friendly)
gave us Jamila's
phone number. That's when I started taking lessons.
Lessons with Jamila
know how long Jamila had been teaching when I showed up. She'd come
to the Bagdad originally around 1960 (this was 1967). She might
not have been teaching that long at this time. I know she danced
on Broadway until she was 40. Interviewer's note: Amina, who was
present during the interview, adds, "She was dancing until
just before I started, and I started in 1966."
I first saw her, she was in full makeup. She had huge sausage
curls, and her hair was raven black. She had these huge,
mesmerizing eyes that just looked through your backbone,
and I thought she was very strange. It's like seeing a cobra
coming towards you: you're fascinated and you can't possibly
When I first
started, I was very stiff and awkward, but I was a fanatic. We
went out and bought finger cymbals right away. The next week I
could do the basic patterns because I was just sitting in that
chair day after day playing right left right, right left right.
The way Jamila taught, drilling us on the basic moves each week
and just embellishing the moves, you'd have had to be blind and
deaf not to progress. She's still the best dancer I've ever seen.
ran two hours or until she got tired. She was the person who most
inspired me when I was young. She was the only person who ever
believed in me. She was the most influential person in the course
of my life in a positive way and though I haven't seen her in
years, I still love her dearly. When she saw how serious I was,
I really got a lot of support and attention from her.
the only person who ever believed in me; she was the most influential
person in the course of my life.
I worked all
night in a hospital so I could take my lessons. I took the night
shift so I could be free on Saturdays. When I came home, I would
dance for two hours before I'd let myself sleep. I was a fanatic.
For my first
performance, Jamila made me the most beautiful red costume with
silver dots in it. She handmade the bra and the silver girdle
out of silver coins. I still have two original Jamila costumes,
but my performance bombed at my first student night at the Bagdad.
My veil fell off, and I stepped on it and tripped. The second
student night, after six or seven months of studying, my dance
was a big hit.
that time, Fadil opened the Casbah
- which really pissed off Yousef Kouyoumsian. So when Yousef saw
me dance, but didn't offer me a job, I went and auditioned at the
Casbah. Fadil offered me a job. It was six nights a week, ten dollars
a night, plus all the tips I could get away from the musicians.
This was for three 45 minute shows a night, and you didn't know
what music you were going to get. In between each show, we hustled
drinks for customers. My stage name was "Yasmeen". Zahra
danced there. She was going out with Fadil's brother Walid.
She hated me. I was a newer, younger dancer and I was working for
much less money than established dancers (they were getting $25
a night). They didn't like that; they felt it was a slap in the
face of the professionals.
might have been 50 dancers in the city at that time and everyone
had more work than they knew what to do with. No one would have
been caught dead dancing to a tape. We had the best musicians;
some came up from Los Angeles. I danced at all the San Francisco
joints and worked private parties too, with live music, and mostly
for Middle Easterners. I wasn't even soliciting, but I was still
getting more gigs than I knew how to handle.
I'd take a weekend off and go down to Fresno. The Arabian Knights
was down there. Fresno was little Armenia. Arabian Knights was
run by woman named Becky Hooritarian. She had a dancer
named Wedad Khan, also known as Bedawia, an Arab
girl from Jordan, who wasn't much of a dancer at the time, but
was beautiful and had a great figure.
I danced at Casbah
for a year. Amina parted ways with the Bagdad and came over to Casbah.
I also danced with Zahra Anise and a Turkish girl named Princess
Aisha. Middle Easterners would sometimes put on airs for being
from the Middle East, but they also received a lot of social
The Princess' husband, Hoshang, was the nicest man and
so good to her, and took a lot of flak from other musicians and
Middle Easterners for letting his wife dance. She used to come
out with a little tiara and high heels; she was very ladylike
and had a pretty show but I thought it was a little boring. She
sang too. She and Zahra were always looking down their noses at
was always very friendly.
For the year I was there, we were mostly the main dancers. I was
the only dancer who was at the Casbah, Bagdad, and Greek Taverna.
After a while the other dancers at Casbah accepted me, but it
took them a long time. Once I accidentally used Zahra's hairbrush
and she had a fit in the dressing room, screaming and cursing.
There was a lot of jealousy and stupidity among us back then.
I was too naive to understand the politics that was going on,
so I just stayed out of it. Between the dancers, there was a lot
of backbiting, but I wasn't aware of it. When I was dancing, everyone
thought I was stoned (which I wasn't) because I got so high from
day, while I was dancing at Greek Taverna, I had a car accident,
and broke my arm. I sprayed the cast gold and went to work
the next day. That's how much of a fanatic I was.
It was such
a wonderful time to be involved in dance. I had plane tickets
being sent to me through the mail, sight (of me) unseen. I got
a ticket from a Greek club in Vancouver called the Aster Restaurant
and also received one from the Acropolis Restaurant in
Baltimore. I didn't even need to send them a picture. A lot of
the time, if they heard you'd studied with Jamila Salimpour, you
got the job. That was Jamila's reputation.
a while, Fadil was getting complaints that people were seeing
the same dancers. He fired Amina and me and kept Zahra - apparently
people still found her exciting, and they were getting tired of
seeing me and Amina. Amina adds, " Fadil knew you were depending
on this for your income. When he wanted to get rid of someone
he would say, I'm going to cut your nights because the Arabs are
getting tired of you because you're overexposed." Yousef
at the Baghdad had a larger variety of clients, which included
more Americans, but he still had quite a stream of dancers coming
in and out.
I wanted to travel,
and I'd heard of other places. After a car accident on the way to
the Greek Taverna, my car was totaled, and I didn't have a way to
get to work. This call came from Baltimore, and so I was back there
in Baltimore and Boston for about a year. My mother was back there.
I had hospital bills to pay. In Baltimore, I was paid $200 a week,
which was considered "fabulous money". Eventually I danced
in Los Angeles, San Diego, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Salt Lake
City, Boston, Vancouver, B.C., Nairobi, and Mumbasa, Kenya. In all
the places to which I traveled, I had fabulous musicians: Richard
Hagopian; Fred Elias; and Richard Barham, just to name
roommates during the North Beach period were Pat who was
very thin, and Princess Scheherezade. Princess used to
screech as she went across the stage at the Bagdad, and was more
voluptuous, so they made a nice pair. They would pal around to
parties. They weren't very responsible. I always wound up having
to pay the rent. They wound up going to Texas and there was a
scout looking for dancers that came up to the Bay Area.
the good George
Elias and the bad George Elias. The bad George
was a jerk from Los Angeles.
had long hair and huge eyes and she danced with a bird. She stood
on glasses, and the bird would be on her shoulder and say, "Awk,
awk!" and then he would defecate on the stage. She had a golden
heart. Gilly Gilly, her husband, would come out and imitate
a belly dancer and he was funnier than hell. He was a musician too.
Galya Copas her greatest achievement because she was a
fabulous dancer and they got along; they were close. Even John
Compton will tell you that she was a fabulous dancer.
When she danced at the Bagdad she'd only do two shows because
that was all the energy she had. She was paid the same as dancers
doing three shows a night.
was dancing at the Bagdad with Samia Nasser, from Iraq.
I also thought that Samia had "a heart of gold". She
used to come out with this little tiny voice - Squeaky! Squeaky!
but she was so talented! She had high teased red hair that just
stuck out everywhere, and always wore these low cut dresses, like
a Middle Eastern Elvira. Amina adds, "She was my inspiration."
She used to make
incredible facial expressions. She would open her mouth and try
to be sexy. The first time I saw her, I thought she was horrible,
but she grew on me. She was always so nice to me. She always felt
that she was a queen. There
was a Greek dancer at the Casbah for a while, named Zeina.
She was an acrobatic dancer. She was short, very slender, and had
a straight up-and-down figure. She used to do flips in front of
Fadil. She was so fast it made your head spin to watch her. She'd
incorporate the acrobatic moves, and it was phenomenal. She was
married to George
Elias next door. He used to come over and they would have fights
and yell expletives at each other. Amina adds, "I saw her chasing
him down Broadway with a knife. Later he rang the door bell and
asked if he could hang out until sunrise." They did marry,
but later on, he married Arousiac.
I went out
with a guy named Gazi once or twice. He started shouting
at me while I was dancing. He was awful; they had to take him
out of there. Fauzia danced at Casbah. She was Jewish and
her husband's name was John Caplanis; he played down at
the Greek Taverna.
carried over. About musicians and dancers, even now we have Turks,
Greeks, Jews and Arabs from every part of the world, and we're
there because of the love of music and dance. We're completely
apolitical. It only became political if somebody was Jewish and
somebody was Arab and they wanted to get married to each other,
that was more of an issue between families.
had warned us not to get involved with the guys in the clubs. That
was good advice! I was involved with Rocky Aayoke (owner
of the Benihana chain)'s for two years, and I met him while
However, from my observations, once you got involved with an Arab,
you couldn't dance anymore. I never dated any musicians or club
owners. I had a lot of offers but I really just stayed away from
them. Dancing was a lot more important to me than going out with
any of them. Initially, everyone
dance because they loved dancing. Then they would meet men and
before you knew, it they weren't dancing anymore. Zahra was
going out with Fadil's brother Walid, and he wouldn't marry
her because she was a Jew. He went out with her for years, and
finally moved back to the Middle East. Selwa ended up marrying
her Arab boyfriend. She went back there and adopted the whole
Arabic lifestyle, living in a village, etc. Zahra converted to
Judaism, ended up marrying a Jew, quit dancing, and had an Islamic/Judaic
Style of the Times
What we were
doing at the time was Turkish Oriental styled dance. The Turks had
had an empire for 500 years, and their influence in music, dance,
and culture affected the whole scene. It seemed to me that everybody
did Kashlima, Shef Tetelli and the different songs played all over
the Middle East. We wore sheer, sexy costumes. We had very high
energy, used clean, big movements, danced to live music,
and did lots of floor work . Back then, a very strong, earthy style
was in vogue. Not everyone danced the exactly the same style, because
a lot of dancers were dancing from Back East. We were using traditional
instruments: oud, kanoon, violin, and dumbek. This probably started
changing in the late '70s, when the Egyptian blitz came in vogue
with its synthesizer music. It was not a good change for me. In
modern Egyptian style everything became very orchestrated, with
a lot of synthesized music. It seemed to me that it did away with
oud, violin. It sounded to me like everything was accordian. I called
it the "la la music."
so much worried about if what we were doing was authentic; we
just danced. I believe now that Jamila was teaching us a traditional
Egyptian Beledi style. What she taught was big strong movements.
I don't remember her ever mentioning it, but now I've done research
and seen so many dancers and spent time in Egypt, that is my conclusion.
At the time we were just studying and
Bert vs. Jamila
dancing and learning and trying to form our own styles. However,
we were doing Turkish Oriental. You have to take into account
the kind of music, costumes, dance steps, and instrumentation
to decide what type you're doing. There is a lot of cross-over.
Steps done in Morocco are also done in Tunisia and Egypt. At the
time I was dancing, I never saw Moroccan and Tunisian dance. This
is something I became much more knowledgeable about in the last
five years. Now Egyptian Cabaret is the type that most people
are learning. I never got into it so much because I wasn't inspired
by the music. The main thing that propelled me into dance, even
before I met Jamila, was hearing Fadil Shahin. He's the greatest
musician I've ever heard, and I've heard everybody. I still hate
taped music; I have my own band now.
were only two other people, aside from Jamila, teaching at the time:
Magana Baptiste and Bert
Balladine. Jamila didn't have any particularly glowing reports
about either one of them. She said Magana had never been a professional
dancer, defined by Jamila as someone who'd performed to live music.
I don't know if that's true or not; I'm just repeating what she
told us. (ed-it's not!)
didn't like Bert for several reasons. She didn't like the way
he moved, and she felt that what he taught his students was limited.
When I watched them dance, I concluded that she was right. I went
to one class of Bert's. Jamila was so methodical about the way
she taught, you did so much of this, and so much of this. It was
military style, but you learned it. However, with Bert, everyone
was "doing their own thing" and moving their own way.
I do not say he wasn't a talented dancer, but he wasn't teaching
in a way conducive to me. Jamila would say, "If you're going
to study with me, study with me; if you're going to study with
Bert, study with Bert."
taught a lot of showmanship but Jamila didn't. Bert would
say things like "You might only dance only four steps,
but it's more important the way you present those four."
I think that
there's some validity to that. He's a very dynamic dancer, he's
about the same age as Jamila but he's still teaching. He teaches
verbally, but I believe that his teaching always was based on
the power of his personality, because his dance technique was
fairly limited, in my opinion.
more into teaching technique, choreography, costuming, and finger
cymbals. Many of her dancers were much stronger on the finger
cymbals than Bert's. She had very strong ideas about costuming;
she didn't like beads. She felt that when you danced, you provide
a lady-like image: your feet are together, your legs are together.
She felt beaded costumes were reminiscent of strippers so she
wanted you to wear coins. Most of Bert's students wore beads.
She didn't like spangles or anything like that. It was very serious
to us. Her style of dance was a very holy thing that she was giving
to people. She was trying to turn it into a serious dance form
and gain respect, and she felt that the glitzy costumes undermined
what she was trying to do. When she did Bal Anat, it was
a totally folkloric styled presentation. Everyone was covered
and they danced with pots, swords, and snakes. She was so marvelous
at the Renaissance Faire. Bal Anat was the biggest attraction
at that Renaissance fair. I danced with the troupe as a soloist
at that time.
I wish I had
spent more time studying with her. She said, "You're going
to dance six nights a week and then you're going to drag yourself
into my class?" Once I got a professional job, she wanted
to push me forward and into the professional scene. I could have
gone a lot further than I did.
me through school. I have met most of my best friends through
dancing. It's how I met my husband; Phil Wayne. Phil is
my lead musician; he plays everything from the violin to the oud
to mizmar to Tunisian bagpipes. Currently, I'm teaching; I have
called Aladdin's Lads and Lasses; I have a band. I sponsor
my own event at Ardenwood Historic Farm. We do most of
the Middle Eastern festivals like Rakkasah, Festival
Fantasia, and Desert Dance. We're going on our third
year at The Camel Races in Benicia.
dance has been the most influential thing in my life. It never
occurred to me back then that, "Gee, I could go to school
and study dance ethnology." However, I'm doing what I want
to do with dance now.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
Thrills in the '70s, Memories from another Viewpoint
My Adventure Begins!
last, another North Beach Memory! "I was creating my life
as an adventure, I was making my own destiny; this was Kismet!"
Dancing in North
Beach by Sausan
the occasions when the door was still locked, I was often invited
to drink coffee next door, where young girls made their money
North Beach and Mark
Bell from an interview with Lynette
lot of my getting the jobs was because I was there available when
the opportunity arose.