Gilded Serpent presents...
Dancing on the Edge
Conceived between a dirty
movie house, a strip joint and a massage parlor, the group called
"Aswan Dancers" was born in 1975 at the Bagdad Cabaret
in San Francisco. My favorite memory of the Bagdad goes back to
1965. It was the first time I had worked with Fatma Akef,
and an Egyptian dancer, and Fatma's husband, Ishmael, also known as "Gilli Gilli." They
were all that represents Egypt, but they were here in America! Every
night before the show began, the dancers, clad in beledy dresses,
would dance together on the stage while the musicians warmed up.
Fatma (sister and dance partner to the great Egyptian dance legend
was making up little routines and I chased her around the stage
trying to figure out what she was doing.
I soon learned that
her dances were not only not tightly choreographed but they
were not even slightly choreographed.
However, if I really listened
to the music, I could second-guess her mind and body and the two
of us appeared to be dancing a well-rehearsed routine. The best
part of these warm-ups was that they were made up on the spot and
the many opportunities this method offered for change, playfulness,
and humor kept them alive, fresh, and exciting. Likewise, her costumes
were magical and authentic, not because they were brought from Egypt,
but because they were made by an Egyptian in the Egyptian style.
No "furniture group" color and coordination here! If the
costumes were too "together" fashion-wise, they would
not leave room for the change, playfulness and humor, which I mentioned
before. The dance and costuming were so much a part of Fatma's life
that improvisation was the only natural way to dance. Therefore,
in order to keep the fabrics and colors from looking too prepared,
she would add the odd piece of ribbon or clashing underskirt to
keep the ensemble realistic.
had to be amiss to be right. Arabs believe that only Allah is
perfect! I learned from the first evening chasing Fatma around
the stage that in order to have a serious dance company in the
Egyptian style, I had to seriously play with the appearance
Working on Broadway in San Francisco in the '60s was
a true cultural dichotomy! Inside the Bagdad, strange, short, dark
men who were homesick for their Middle Eastern homelands gathered
to speak their language and listen to their music. The belly dancers
were welcomed, but they were mostly ignored. We dancers
were there for ambience and decoration. In the world outside our
cabaret doors, respectable American businessmen could buy more than
a dance. Money talked and women of the street answered. In the Bagdad
these men thought their money talked the same talk and bought the
same walk as it did outside on Broadway, but to those lured by the
wafts of music and incense into passing through our beaded curtains,
we appeared as glittering jewels they could only admire but not
touch. We spoke a different language, and we would not "take
it off " like the girls in the non-Middle Eastern cabarets.
However, our bellies were bare, and in 1975, after ten years of
baring my own belly while dancing six nights a week, three shows
a night (roughly 9,360 times), when the City of San Francisco asked
me to present a Middle Eastern dance performance, I made a personal
and artistic decision. I would establish a dance company that would
not only not "take it off", but not even bare its belly!
night at the Bagdad between the dirty movie house, the strip
joint and the massage parlor, for uninformed Americans who thought
a bare belly equaled the promise of a bare bottom, put me on
a personal soap box preaching "Belly dancers are prudes!
We keep it all on!" After all, if Arab men accepted fully
clothed belly dancers, I could educate American men to do the
On March 18, 1975 at the Noe Valley Library, the troupe, "Aswan
Dancers" was given its first opportunity to entertain and educate
the general public about the culture of the Middle East through
its culture and dance. We were a standing-room-only hit, the talk
of the town, AND we kept it all on.
North Beach in San
Francisco was once a happenin' place. It was a "Fun City"
People would stroll along
the streets of colorful Chinatown, bohemian Grant Avenue, Columbus
or Broadway and have dinner, go for coffee, and then search out
some late night entertainment. There were coffeehouses where friends
met each other, coffee houses with music, outdoor cafes for eople-watching,
plenty of shops in which to browse, and then there were the clubs:
comedy clubs, supper clubs, jazz clubs, dance clubs, blues clubs-you
name it-folk music clubs, flamenco clubs, improvisational music
and theatre clubs, plus opera bars and legitimate burlesque houses
complete featuring vaudeville comedians. Next in its time came the
topless craze and North
"took off" (so to speak) until finally, off came, not
only the tops, but also the bottoms! Soon there were breakfast shows,
underwear fashion shows, complete venues of topless/bottomless dancers
doing something aside from dancing. Some went "legit"
and had costumes and routines, singing and real dancing. However,
some performers went the other way and did "tricks," some
of which were rumored to have been performed before only south of
the U.S. border.
The belly dance clubs had survived all this. However, one by one,
the clubs, and even the burlesque houses, were replaced by the topless/bottomless
joints. Even the rock shows and the punks came and went, but the
belly dance clubs remained constant. Soon enough, though, due to
what I don't know, one by one the belly dance clubs closed
as well. Maybe it was video movies that started the habit of not
going out and staying home instead, or maybe the discos where people
could "do" rather than "view," or maybe just
that the homesick Arabs tired of their nostalgia. In fact, they
were marrying (generally Arabs, and usually the Arabic women they
brought here themselves) and moving from the inner city to the outer
suburbs. There wasn't any reason to go to the clubs to hear Arabic
when they were speaking it with their families at home, and Arabic
music and dancing could be viewed at their homes as well on videos
bought, rented or bootlegged. So the Middle Eastern clubs disappeared,
the last one, in the middle '80s, being my beloved Bagdad, now renamed
"The Bamboo Hut Chinese Restaurant."
The musicians left
to open grocery stores, pizza parlors, and other money-making,
rather than music-making, ventures. The dancers looked around
and found no place to dance, at least nowhere featuring live
Middle Eastern music.
The Aswan Dancers, always a self-supporting group accustomed to
regularly producing shows, decided to fill the cultural void by
producing bi-monthly live music/dance shows
featuring guest dancers and musicians. Each show presented dances
that were inspired by both The Aswan Dancers' and my visits to the
dance clubs of Cairo. This was also a time when choreographed dance
from Egypt, mostly Cairo, began appearing en masse on videos. We
called the shows "Cairo Cabaret by Bagdad By the Bay,"
in honor of the clubs in Cairo and my now-defunct place of employment.
Every show that featured dance had at least one set of three, or
up to ten, musicians, and sometimes another band was showcased just
for listening. Each Cairo Cabaret had a theme. Our favorites were
Christopher Columbus comes to "Bagdad by the Bay", "Sahara
City", and "As the Carpet Flies" (an Arabic soap
opera). These shows were improvised dance theatre with the musicians
sometimes choosing songs on the spot. The challenge was to have
the ensemble pieces done in unison, often without more than a "talking"
rehearsal. It was an experiment in listening to the music and "tuning
into one another," and it worked. The trick was to over-rehearse
to canned music and trust our ears. Sometimes we'd rehearse three
or four times a week, two to four hours at a time, and instinctively
do the same steps or family of steps without realizing we had never
actually pre-choreographed a piece of music.
It's like a religious
experience to be able to perform to "choreographed"
ensemble pieces when there is no set choreography.
Because we had worked so much together either in rehearsal or performance,
we found our ears tuned to the same steps and we would "magically"
produce "choreographed" ensemble pieces. With this freedom
of expression, nurtured by creating group dances, and accompanied
by musicians, who'd had minimum rehearsal, we were able to collectively
focus our energies into the dance. We succeeded in making them really
look alive rather than robotic as some choreographed video dances
appear. We could interact with our audience and with the music with
anticipation and humor but without compromising our dance.
I believe in taking
risks and in living and dancing on the edge.
I think it is better to
serve up a superb and memorable dance inspired by the anxiety of
the unknown and spurred on by the vitality of spontaneous creation
than to grind out a mediocre piece which demonstrates only technique
and the talent of memorization. Let go of the barriers and expose
a part of yourself! Of course, this way you can always goof up,
but that's the chance you take when you perform on the edge!
3: A Marriage Made in North Beach
was alight with the flames of the candelabrum’s candles and the eerie glow
of her costume. Fatma’s costumes were always comprised of material that
glowed in the dark as her show began with no light—except for “black