with me to the Casbah”
promised in my Letter to the Editor,
following are some of my most cherished memories of two years
as a dancer at the Casbah in
After 3 years
of belly dance training by several teachers in the Bay Area,
I went on a "class field trip" to North
Beach to observe the professional dancers at the clubs.
I became instantly enthralled with the live music and atmosphere
in the North Beach clubs and restaurants, but it took several
more visits to the Casbah before I got up enough courage to
audition for Fadil
Shahin, the Casbah's owner.
short 15-minute audition, Fadil hired me as a regular dancer
for one night a week, letting me know to bring enough costume
changes for the three shows I would be performing, and to be
on time. I nodded yes to everything and went home in a daze,
totally thrilled to be a regular working dancer at the Casbah!
In those days, those shows were at least 35 minutes long; a
marathon! However, soon, I built up stamina. The music was
fabulous and personally, I liked the nightclub ambiance better
than restaurants, where a dancer must dodge waiters and compete
with the dinner service in order to get the audience's attention.
Even the fact that the club closed at 2:00 a.m., and I had
to be at my full-time day job at 8:30 a.m. didn't deter me
one bit. I was so jazzed up on the live Arabic music after
those three long shows, I didn't even feel like sleeping right
away when I got home anyway!
I think being
that the Casbah was a nightclub and not a restaurant was one
reason why it attracted a lot of people for its size. The turnover
in the audience was faster because there was no food being
became an informal meeting place for many dancers, musicians,
students and teachers, out of town visitors; a lively
social mix that helped keep us in touch with what was
happening in the belly dance world. Remember, we didn't
have internet access then. Even now that we do, I don't
think it can compare to the experience of physically
being there, with the music, with the people!
But, I promised
some cherished memories, so here goes:
show: Okay, let's get this one over with. I, against
all good advice, wore a new beaded costume without practicing
in it first. I know! I know. So of course the bra just had
to open, in front, right in the middle of my show. Every
dancer has had a similar experience, but what made mine particularly
embarrassing was that I didn't even notice it for a couple
of minutes! I kept dancing until I noticed a cold draft and
glanced down to see, in horror, that my bra had opened in
front a good 6 inches. Oh, cringe! I do remember thinking
that the guy in the front row seemed a little too wildly
enthused during my taxim section... Anyway, I spun around
with my arms crossed over my chest to some very surprised
expressions on the musicians' faces, and then raced offstage
to the dressing room to effect immediate repairs. I, of course,
had plenty of the big safety pins we dancers always had,
securing the bra that had betrayed me, (well, that's
how I felt about it at the time) got right back onstage
to hearty applause and finished my show.
learned the hard way! I always "stress tested" my
costumes and checked them very, very carefully after that.
show: My all-time favorite show was the time an entire
Middle Eastern bachelor party came in to celebrate with the
groom before the wedding the next day. They kept asking the
musicians for special songs, getting up and dancing in the
audience and on stage, throwing money chains all over the
musicians and me, and in general having a whale of a great
time! The rest of the audience really got into the spirit
of it, too. I knew my show was a little longer than usual,
but when I got offstage, one of the dancers asked, "Are
you okay; do you know you danced onstage for a solid hour
before even leaving for tips?" Well, I guess time goes
quickly when you're having fun! Not having the personal experience
of dancing in the Middle East , I viewed this a valuable
dance experience, completely relevant to the culture of the
music I loved so much and still do.
The musicians: I
got along fine with the musicians. They were professionals
and obviously in direct control of the music to which I was
dancing. This being said, I did occasionally ask for specific
songs or rhythms, but I didn't get too adamant about it, because
I could see a lot depended on how the night was going for them,
who was on break, was there a "guest musician" and
so forth. Frequently, they did oblige me, but just as frequently
they surprised me but always the music was wonderful, and the
general pattern of the shows was the same. I don't know if
others will agree with me, but I just don't think you can expect
live music be consistently the same each show, unless you hire
your own band. It was very clear that the musicians were not
the dancer's personal band employees. I also personally felt
that a dancer who had to have complete precision for the choreography
needed to perform to taped music.
tapes did not provide the same kind of spontaneity and
rapport that happens with a live band, and I was trained
to improvise within the patterns of the music; so it
was just not a problem. The only time I ever felt it
was at all difficult was when there were "guest
musicians" because it was a real challenge to adjust
immediately to a new drummer, for instance, because the
shows were long. A good dancer should be able to handle
anything for 15 minutes, but 35-45 minutes is a long
show! So, what could we dancers do, but relax, be as
centered as possible to respond at the best level we
could and smile? A lot.
dancers: The camaraderie and fun of working with other
dancers also meant a lot to me. We took turns rotating the
order of our performances, tipped each other off if there
was a rowdy person in the audience, shared the latest "dance
news" and in general looked out for each other, supplying
safety pins, needles and thread, cookies, and support. I
think many dancers miss this supportiveness, and it's one
of the reasons why troupe performing is popular again, and
there are plenty of nightclub style troupes around.
I started working professionally as a belly dancer, it was
unthinkable for a dancer not to play zills, and play them well
and at the appropriate times (not during the drum solo, please!).
Off-rhythm zill playing throws the musicians off and is not
pleasant for the audience to hear, either. Many dancers subsequently
gave up playing or even learning to play the zills when the
Modern Egyptian style of music and belly dance became popular.
I was and remain, an "American" style dancer
and still play zills. I should get a T-shirt that says
just that: "I Still Zill!"
My only mishap
with zills was the time one flew off my finger and sailed clear
across the room and hit the mirrors on the wall loudly! Fortunately,
no one was hit, and no one mentioned it to me later either.
That was another lesson that I learned the hard way! Always
check your zill elastics carefully before a show.
out for tips was a requirement in the clubs. Period. So, I
did it as quickly as I could and kept as much distance as possible.
An over-enthusiastic tipper always got immediate direction
by my taking their hands firmly in mine and remember, those
zills are a lot of brass on the hands! Of course, you could
easily make a hasty but graceful retreat by playing a different
rhythm and shimmying away! So, I never had a problem at the
Casbah with tipping. Actually, my only really negative experience
of tipping happened at a restaurant loaded up with the passangers
of a cruise ship from Hawaii. There were 400 of them, wearing
aloha shirts and muu-muus, and getting up onstage and trying
to hula to the live Arabic music. Even the musicians looked
a little stunned at this!
was half-way through the audience going out for tips
when a sweet-looking little old lady grabbed the back
of my costume bra (which fortunately was very sturdy),
swung me around with surprising strength, and flung me
right into her husband's lap, yelling, "Kiss her
Henry, it's your birthday!".
of the restaurant had started to walk over, because she was
way out of control, but fortunately, poor Henry was in so much
shock, I was able to immediately jump off his lap, blew him
a kiss and shimmy the heck out of the room! Although the owners
apologized to me for the incident, it was a long, long, long,
long time before I consented to dance for another "cruise
ship party" again at that restaurant!
at Nightclubs: The costumes were of course very glitzy
and feminine, and nothing ethnic was acceptable to any club
owners. I personally preferred then and still do, the look
of the beaded costumes, but I sometimes wore two or three
layers of skirts, depending on the weight of the fabric.
I wanted an air of "mystery" about the costume;
I liked the idea that no one could see how hard your legs
and knees were actually working to produce those syncopated
hip shimmies that seemed to "float" above the skirt.
Besides, I'd always been trained that a dancer needed to
entertain everyone in the audience, including women and children,
otherwise you really were limiting yourself. I actually got
very nice comments from women of the audience about my costumes.
In particular, I appreciated the Middle Eastern woman who
paid me the compliment of telling me "You are a nice
girl; your costumes are beautiful but also more modest".
Well, the bras and belts weren't all that "modest",
but in comparison to some others, I guess they were. The
fact of the matter is, we were performing on a raised stage
at close quarters; so as a practical matter, I wore skirts
that I didn't have to worry about revealing more than I wanted
to reveal during a spin. I'd seen that happen with dancers
occasionally, and it's a jarring note in a performance; no
matter how beautiful a dancer is. The musicians appreciated
elegant costuming as well and didn't like anything they considered
too revealing. Remember, they had to observe it a close range
on stage! So, all things considered, as a professional courtesy,
dancers with whom I worked always let each other know if
there was a problem with a costume.
my Casbah memories, let me just say that when that club closed,
the dancers I worked with and I cried for a week; we were inconsolable
because we knew it was the end of a era in belly dancing. Recently,
when I saw the photos of the
Casbah building's interiors being gutted to be rebuilt as something
else, I experienced a sharp pang of sadness! Then, a second
later, I realized that the ambiance I loved at the Casbah was
created by the people, not the building, and that camaraderie,
that feeling between dancers, audiences and musicians can never
be destroyed; it is too powerful to just disappear and I firmly
believe that power has resurfaced into other venues. Thank
you all for coming with me to the Casbah!
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Art of Tempest
first image, "Dance," is inspired by the Minoan priestesses
and is a monotype/mixed media
announced! Belly Dancer of the Year 2002
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