Gilded Serpent presents...
Working at the Bagdad
Working in a club on Broadway in San Francisco in the 1960s was quite an adventure!
The topless craze was just starting, as were the first thoughts of the
hippie movement and miniskirts. I lived in Concord, about a 45 minute drive
from San Francisco, with my husband and young son, Adam,
so I wasn't involved in the social scene around the clubs in the City.
The drive to work and back was always interesting. At that time, traffic
went both ways on one level of the Bay Bridge, and there were some close
calls, especially when it had been raining. There was one particular toll-taker
whose booth I often went through on the way home, who was always working
cross-word puzzles (in those days of far less traffic), and who would ask
me for help on the words.
We could usually find parking
on Broadway, a block or two down from the club, or there was
a man whose stand was in the alley near work, (an alley that
is long since filled in by a building), who would park your car
and then move it back close when he went home, and leave your
keys with the bartender. It wasn't such a scary situation as
it later became. If a girl worked frequently, she would generally
leave her skirts and veils and such hanging in the dressing room,
and only have to carry her bra and girdle sets and makeup back
The Bagdad was
a long, narrow club, mostly decorated in red, with a small, raised
stage on the left, mirrors on the wall across from it above the
banquette seating, and a slightly raised seating area at the
back. The bar was on the right as one entered. There were two
entrances right together at the front, with a heavy red curtain
across them to keep out winds and casual eyes. There were a couple
of display windows in the indented entrance, and they generally
had some inaccurate photos of who was dancing, or, later, a record
cover from one of Yousef's
records. Besides the banquettes, there were chairs and a lot
of small iron tables, each with a brass tray for a top with a
red candle in the middle. The stage was probably about 6 or 7
feet wide and about 5 feet deep. The ceiling over it was low
enough that I, at 5'9", had to be careful about how I threw
my arms in the air. The musicians sat across the back of the
stage on a bench, and one worked the lights and, later, the rhythm
machine, with his foot. The stairs up onto the stage ware small,
steep, and narrow. Those adjectives also applied to the stairs
to the dressing room! When I first worked at the Bagdad, the
dancers came discreetly down the stairs and were standing at
the bottom when the spotlight was turned on them and they were
announced (always as "the beautiful lovely So and So" ).
Later, Yousef decided that it was more dramatic to light the
staircase as the dancer made her entrance precariously down it.
I was about a third of the way down in my well-lit entrance,
when I slipped, and covered the rest of the descent quite
quickly on my rear end! I was, of course, mortified, and
I went right back up the stairs to the dressing room. Rhea was
up there, and she scolded me for having a faint heart,
and sent me right back out to make my entrance again, this
Later, when I was no longer
working there, a lattice was added to shield the dancer's progress
to the bottom of the stairs.
There was a variety of
lights for the stage, including, at one period, a light that
rotated and gave very psychedelic effects. A black light was
a fixture for a long time - when it first was installed, Yousef
told us, in his typically charming manner, that if we didn't
buy some costumes that fluoresced, we were fired. Gigi's also
had a black light, and the reason I know this is because of a
story about what happened to one of the dancers there. Her name
was Tabura Najim, and, I have been told, she
had "a belly that smiled" - I don't know.what that
Anyway, one night
when she was dancing at Gigi's, her bra broke, and the
kleenex with which she had stuffed it fell out on stage! "Turn
out the light!" she hissed. However, when the light
was off, the black light made that kleenex glow in the
dark, and it was just as bad!
Any-way... The black light
did some interesting things. If a girl had some teeth capped,
they would glow in the black, and a pearl costume frequently
would have some pearls
that glowed and some that didn't. Any stitching with white thread would really
show up, and if you had on white underpants, yow! It was always interesting.
routinely told us that if we didn't do something or other, we
were fired. No asking nicely, first. Maybe it was mostly me that
he used this tactic with, but I don't think so. For instance,
when I was first dancing there, I had only one costume for some
time. I finally got the ultimatum, so I used some blue chiffon
I had and made a veil and a matching Turkish runthrough - you
know, the kind of skirt that is basically shaped like a diaper,
drooping down to the ground. I put silver trim on it, but now
that I think about it, it must have been a pretty naked number!
Anyway, Yousef was happy about it. Another time, he decided that
it wasn't acceptable for me to do two standing taqsims - one
with veil, one without, and that I must do floorwork. Now, as Jamila was
pregnant and had a bad back when I studied with her, I had never
formally learned floorwork, but I had studied how the other dancers
did it, so I was able to comply, though I was never very delighted
with what I could achieve.
When I was first dancing
- for the first year or so, I wore all-over body makeup, to try
to turn my pale skin into something more exotic. It was a real
pain to deal with, and it was hard on costumes, so I was happy
when I decided to stop wearing it.
We also, in the
early days, had to have accents when we talked to the customers,
to carry out the non-girl-next-door thing. After a while,
I developed a back story, to account for my obviously non-Arab
appearance. It seems that I was from Casablanca, in Morocco,
born to an Irish mother and a Berber father, and I did
quite a bit of studying to be able to talk with ease about
Casablanca and Morocco.
Anything around the city
that I was unfamiliar with, I attributed to my sheltered upbringing.
I thought I was really in trouble once, when I was dancing at
Vandenberg Air Base and a man who had been stationed in North
Africa wanted to talk about "my" fondly-remembered
city! Luckily, however, he really did want to talk about it,
himself, and mostly just wanted someone who would listen, who
knew what he was talking about. One of the best things about
the development of more dancers was that it became okay to be
If we weren' t getting
ready to dance or just ended a dance, we weren't allowed to stay
in the dressing room. (Well, if we were picking broken beads
out of the calluses on our feet, we could stay a few more minutes.)
Yousef wanted us downstairs, either on stage or talking to the
customers. We had to sit on stage in our long, elegant gowns
and play tambourine or zils between dancers. And then, when mini
skirts became popular, we had to wear minis while we sat up there.
Oooh, Yousef loved that! If we sat with customers, we were expected
to have drinks bought for us. I quit or was fired several times
(it usually lasted for about one day) because I wouldn't have
my friends pay several dollars for a watery coke. I remember
that one might, no waitress showed up, so we dancers waited on
tables in between our shows. People were so struck by this, and
so nice, that we made more tips that way than we did dancing!
If we didn't show up downstairs very soon after finishing a show,
Yousef's sister, Arousiak, would be up the stairs
right away, to see why not. We resented what we thought of as
her officiousness, but now I realize that she was only doing
what Yousef told her to do. As did the dancers. Mostly...
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More by Aziza!
Music and Musicians
I was very lucky to have danced to live music almost exclusively throughout
7-1-00 Jamila and Yousef
Even though we
were recognizably taught by Jamila, we were not the cookie-cutter
girls she turned out later.