The Gilded Serpent presents...
Jamila and Yousef
was my Teacher. Oh, I took classes and workshops from other people
(once such became available), and I studied for some time under Sonia
Ivanova, of the prestigious Ivanova Belly Dancing Academy
in Cairo, where Tahia Carioca and other famous
dancers polished their craft, but it wasn't the same. Jamila was
my guide, my inspiration, my font of knowledge of all things bellydance,
and my mentor. We were good friends for some years after I studied
with her. I made her maternity clothes, she made coin dance girdles
which I bought. Jamila found the flat in Berkeley into which my
young son and I moved after I left my husband, and it was she who
took care of that flat for me when I went out of town to dance.
When she felt I was stagnating, she pried me out of my rut and started
me off on my first out-of-town gig. When I was on the road, she
wrote to me, letters of encouragement and advice. ("Greeks
always like their women to look like Christmas trees.") Was
there a problem at the Bagdad that
I was too inexperienced to handle? Jamila was available to straighten
it out for me. (I don't know if the talk about her and Yousef's
having once been a couple was true, but she certainly had a lot
of influence with him.) When I had man troubles, Jamila would hold
my hand and counsel me. She would cook for me - she was particularly
interested in having me eat liver, but even her cooking couldn't
make me like it! When her marriage deteriorated, she got from me
the name of the lawyer who had handled my divorce. Even after she
and Suhaila moved from two blocks away from me
in Berkeley all the way to San Pablo, we were still friends. I learned
from her an immense amount about being not only a good belly dancer,
but also a good professional dancer. This was in the time before
she started her more formal school of dance, and those of us whom
she turned out at that time were encouraged to be individualist
in our dancing. Even though we were recognizably taught by Jamila,
we were not the cookie-cutter girls she turned out later. Jamila
always encouraged this individuality. I was lucky to have her friendship
for so many years.
And then, something happened. I don't know, really, what it was.
In 1971, I went to Greece to visit a friend who lived there. I was
gone for about a month, and the day after I got back, I called Jamila
and told her that I was home. She said that she and Suhaila would
be right over to take me and Adam, my son, out
to lunch. She didn't come and didn't answer her phone, and I never
heard from her again, and only ever saw her after that at a distance,
in public. What happened? I certainly don't know, but I do know
that it was a great loss to me.
The other major influence on my early dancing career was Yousef
Koumdjian, proprietor of the Bagdad
Cabaret. Yousef was from Bagdad, Iraq, born of an Armenian
father and a Turkish mother. He was an excellent musician and
a most unhappy person. It was mainly from Yousef that those of
us who worked at the Bagdad got our wide knowledge of a broad
spectrum of Middle Eastern music.
Yousef played the violin, and what a violin it was! Painted
gold, studded with jewels, and electrified, it certainly caught
the eye, and Yousef was quite a showman with it. When he was
in the mood, he would accent a girl's dance, bending over her
floor work as he played, his jewels flashing in the lights,
or dancing around with her, teasing her with fancywork on the
strings. Sometimes, alone on stage, Yousef would do some showy
ethnic dancing of his own, all the while never missing a beat
on his instrument.
I ran into his sister, Arousiak, recently, and
she told me that he is now living in Spain, and he, with his violin,
(though presumably not the gold one), and another man, with a guitar,
are cultural (musical) ambassadors to the world from Spain. It's
not surprising - that man could play!
In other areas of his life,
however, he was not so polished. He was a bully to his employees
and the dancers (we weren't considered employees - just independent
contractors, so that he wouldn't have to deal with the IRS about
us, and, also, so that we didn't have any contracts, any job security,
etc. Once, AGVA (American Guild Of Variety Artist) contacted us
and talked about our joining the union- those of us who continued
this talk were fired. As I have mentioned before, Yousef never asked
us to do something - he told us that if we didn't do it, we would
be fired. When he was in a good mood, working there was wonderful,
everything was fun, the music soared, and the night flew by. But
when Yousef was down, as was often the case, the opposite was definitely
true. One of the things that bedevilled him was the fact that he
was balding, and he hated it! He tried a lot of remedies, once even
shaving his head in the belief that the hair would grow back in
But the thing he hated most, I think, was to see someone
else make a success, especially someone he had treated badly
and thought he had put down into his or her place.
I was told that he was livid about my
successes on the road, especially when I went to Canada and helped
open a club there (that's another story). Also, when he had treated Fadil so shabbily that
he left the Bagdad and opened up the Casbah,
two doors down, to great popularity, Yousef was surprised and furious.
For a while, Cruz Luna had belly dancing on Monday
nights at the Casa
Madrid, a Flamenco club down Broadway a little, and Amina and I both worked
there some - Yousef fired us for that, but had to hire us right
back because there weren't many other dancers to choose from (when
I first started dancing, there were only about half a dozen professional
dancers in the whole Bay Area!) and besides, he liked our dancing!
But in the meantime, it was disagreeable. Yousef was so tight with
money that the change in his pocket screamed every time he put his
hand in there. When I first started dancing at the Bagdad, I made
$15 a night (plus part of my tips). After I had worked out of town
and come back, I made $25. And, I think, that was about the going
rate for local dancers. When a big name or a dancer from back east
would come for a while, Yousef would have to pay her more, and that
was probably one reason why he didn't keep any of them long. I didn't
know of anyone who worked just for cab fare, but then, as I said,
there were so few dancers available that a club owner didn't have
the same, inexhaustable pool that later grew from which to draw
girls who were desperate to get on stage.
There is a story about Yousef that is very telling. He had moved
to Europe (It think that even then he lived in Spain) with his tall,
blonde wife, and he got in a car wreck and broke his back. (He subsequently
recovered.) When people heard about this, I didn't hear anyone express
sorrow or regret. Rather, there was a feeling that Yousef had earned
whatever pain he got because of all the pain he had given to others.
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Ready for more
10-17-00 My Lessons with Jamila
2) by Satrinya/Masalima
... would dance instead, without pay.
8-15-07 Amina's North
Beach Memories Chapter 6: Bert, by Amina Goodyear
On my first Monday at the Casa Madrid, Bert came to support the
place and me. Well, what he saw was equivalent to a San Francisco earthquake.