| The Gilded Serpent presents...
My Mom always blamed herself for my belly dancing career. She felt that if she hadn't taken me to dance lessons (ballet, tap and acrobatic) when I was a child that I would never have known that I loved to dance! She also taught me folk and square dancing and paid for ballroom lessons - and on my own I later took modern dance, Flamenco, Afro-Cuban, Tahitian, clogging, and lots more tapdancing, but she thought it was that first, fateful training that really set me on the path. I am happy to say that when she finally did see me dance, ten years after I began, and saw it was good - and I was still the same person - she changed her mind about needing to be "blamed."
In 1966, I was attending the University of California at Berkeley as a Russian major, intending to be a librarian with a sideline of translating the many Russian materials that were beginning to be available to libraries. The Russian major was just one manifestation of my interest in other cultures - in their languages, their customs and costumes, their music and dance.
Jamila was teaching in her flat on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and from the moment I walked in, I was caught by the magic. There was incense burning by the front door, there were prints of Bakst's exotic designs and photographs of Jamila in costume on the walls, an Indian throw on the couch, and that music - that music - filling the living room. Wow! I happily went for lessons every week, lessons filled not only with drilling on steps and zils (there was a big chart on the wall, showing finger cymbal patterns for us to practice, and I am sure that my total comfort and ease with cymbals was due to all the practice demanded), but also with gossip and stories and the chance to pore over the photographs of other dancers in her Rogues' Gallery of pictures.
We were her second wave of students - the first having included the magnificent Galya - and there were about five of us in the class. One other went on to do some professional dancing for a short while, but I was the only one in that class that found a career.
One of the things that Jamila required was for us to go to San Francisco to see the dancers in the clubs. There were only two Middle Eastern clubs that I knew of at that time, both in North Beach. The first one my husband and I visited was the Bagdad Cabaret, where I saw my first live belly dancers: I saw Karoun Omar and Tahia Sirhan, and what a contrast they were! Karoun was regal, with a beautiful, graceful movement and a haughty air. She had on a heavy white crepe skirt with black trim to match the black bra and girdle she wore with some kind of beaded stuff on it that Jamila referred to a "lampshade trim." (I was later able to take a couple of lessons from Karoun. She moved to New York, and, after a disastrous and tragic stay there, came back to the Bay Area for a short time. Even then, in her diminished state, I enjoyed watching her dance more than most of the other dancers around at the time!)
and I have since been very entertained by the memory of that thought, and have understood the reaction of some women to a dancer.
At Gigi's Port Said we saw Leila Lisa, the dancer who was later to appear in "From Russia with Love" in the gypsy camp scene. (She was not, however, the dancer behind the titles in that movie - that was Tanya Lemani.) Leila wore a lot of skirts and had a number of scarves tucked in at the hips. She was a rather angular dancer, and I remember that she had a habit of pulling her upper lip down over her teeth as though to hide an overbite, though she didn't have one.
After I had taken lessons for about three months (and practiced like mad at home, which was difficult, as the only records I could find were "Port Said" by Mohammed El Bakkar and an album of pirated Turkish music), Jamila told me that I was ready to go on stage! I already had a costume, a black and silver one. I had sold a stove to buy a belt that Jamila had made to sell, and I had made a skirt and veil and covered a bra with coins to match the belt. I quickly made an outfit that was the thing to wear in the club between shows - a long black skirt and an elegant blouse of green satin and black chiffon, and I bought some false eyelashes and had my hair done on the Wednesday of my debut. I wanted it to be in big curls, in an updo like Jamila's, but I had it done at the beauty college, and I looked rather like a wilting chrysanthemum! Never mind! I was ready to go, though with great fear and trembling!
Jamila had assured me that I would only have to do one short show my first time. Antoinette Awayshak and Fatma Akef were working there, so that was fine. However, when I arrived I found that Antoinette was home, sick, which left only me and Fatma, and Yousef weasled me into doing three shows my very first night - ten minutes, twelve minutes, and fifteen minutes! (Now that seems like so little, but then, well, for a first shot, it was pretty exciting!) I had a wonderful time, Yousef was in a good mood, and all went well. The next day he called Jamila and said, "Where'd you get that fireball?!" And so, I began to work at the Bagdad Cabaret, one night a week at first, then, gradually, more often. And so it began…
5-1-00 Chapter 2: Working at the Bagdad