Dancing in North Beach
The Bagdad: stale smoke, dirty carpets, dusky ambiance and glitzy costumes. These were some of the golden qualities of a little nightclub tucked away in San Francisco’s North Beach on Broadway strip that contributed to one of the most memorable times in my life.
It was about three years after I came to the San Francisco Bay Area from Sacramento in 1980 that I decided to try my luck dancing in a local nightclub. After talking to my then teacher, Nakish, I ventured down to North Beach one evening by myself, parked on the street and headed to the famous Bagdad nightclub, positive enough in attitude to prove to everyone (including myself) that I was good enough to get hired. I had been dancing for about eight years by then, and I wanted to put my knowledge out there in the belly dance arena.
After a very short interview, owner Jad Elias approved of my request to audition, and so I did. He had said that I would be dancing to only one song, (with live musicians), and that going for tips was out of the question, since it was supposed to be only an audition. I said OK. But after the first song, Jad and the group went on to play a second and then a third song for me. I never did go out for tips; I didn’t really know what to do, but Jad basically hired me that night. And so began the best three years of my life, performing on North Beach in San Francisco.
Every night that I was scheduled to perform at the Bagdad, I would arrive in North Beach at around 7:00 PM, find a place to park on the street, and wait in my car until 9:00 PM. To bide my time, I sewed beads onto costumes that were in the works. Then I’d haul myself out of the car and find my way to my little oasis on Broadway. On the occasions when the door was still locked, I was often invited to drink coffee next door, where young girls made their money stripping. Sitting there watching them reminded me of how out of place the Bagdad and I were.
The upstairs dressing room at the Bagdad felt like home. While the costumes hung one by one - many of them surprisingly in disrepair - on a clothesline behind the three chairs that stood in front of a large mirror, I, in company with another one or two dancers, made myself up and gossiped about all kinds of things while we got dressed. And when my name was announced, I’d put on the last spray of perfume and off I'd go down to the dimly lit yet romantic scene, up three little stairs, and onto the grandest stage I had ever set my dancing feet on. And when the Bagdad closed at 2:00 AM, we all walked each other to our respective cars and headed home.
Nothing really remarkable ever happened to me during the nights I performed at the Bagdad. However, I did go in one Thursday evening to find several people wiping down walls and washing cushion covers. Upon inquiring why, I was told that during the previous night’s activities there had been a murder of sorts. I didn't tell my mother about that night until years later.
Down the street and around the corner from the Bagdad, the Greek Taverna restaurant opened its doors to a dining public, and I found myself auditioning there one evening. Again, I was hired. Dancing to Greek music was very unusual, but having a night to myself where I performed solely for dining customers seemed at the time more rewarding, and so I danced there for a time. The dressing room was downstairs, as was the kitchen.
My first evening at the Greek Taverna is memorable in that the owner, Stavros, or Steve as he was known, told me not to show my face until 15 minutes after the regularly scheduled performance time. I said OK, and went down to change. As I walked up the stairs, the top of my head must have popped up above the guardrail, because the band began to play, and they introduced me at the exactly scheduled time. Imagine my distress when Steve began yelling at me, while wagging his finger and saying how all dancers were the same – nothing but a bunch of stupid women, all alike! I should have quit that night, but I didn’t.
I danced for about a year at the Greek Taverna and then quit there and went back to the Bagdad, where I was introduced to someone who told me about a little restaurant called The Grapeleaf that needed a dancer out in the Richmond District of San Francisco. I went out to audition and was hired on the spot.
The Bagdad soon closed, and I began full time at The Grapeleaf. The rest is history.
Having worked at the Bagdad, as well as at the Greek Taverna, The Grapeleaf, and other well-known places of the time prepared me to open my own restaurant, called Al-Masri, as well as my Egyptian dance academy called Sausan Academy of Egyptian Dance. In my classes I pass along my “North Beach” dance experience to my students, who enjoy hearing about it.
However, if anyone had told me back in 1980 that I would be the future owner of an Egyptian restaurant in San Francisco that featured my own students from my own dance academy, I would have laughed right in his face.
Now I just cook for the customers and my students dance for them. And all because of the thrill that ran through my veins the first night I went to audition at a little Arabic nightclub tucked away in North Beach called the Bagdad!
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