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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Dancing in Salt Lake City in the '70s
The Athenian
by Kalifa

Bert Balladine called me one morning. "Kalifa, want to dance in Salt Lake City for a five week gig?"

"Of course," I said.  "I'd love the opportunity to dance at the Athenian." The Athenian was a Greek restaurant owned by two brothers, Mike and Steve Katsanevas.

So the next day I was on a plane, flying over the Rockies and landed on the great salt plain.  Mike Katsanevas met me at the airport and took me to the Zee Hotel just down the street from the club.  He told me a little about his restaurant and that Salt Lake City had about three thousand Greeks who had immigrated from the isle of Crete.  My gig was in 1971.  His mother, Mama Katsanevas, cooked for the restaurant and she was famous locally for her baklava and stuffed grape leaves. 

I settled into my room, unpacked my costumes, and got ready to go to the club that evening to watch the New York dancer do her last performance.  I would start the next evening so it was important for me to see the club, stage, and hear the musicians.  Mike said that I could have a practice session with the musicians an hour before the club opened the next evening. 

I was very excited because I'd never danced "out-of-town" before.  I'd worked in several San Francisco clubs, the Parthenon in Walnut Creek, and Zorba's in Sacramento, but this was the Big Time for me.  My money was to be Big Time too.

I went to the restaurant when it opened and was invited into the dressing room to meet the dancer, Zillinda.  Her expertise was playing the zils (finger cymbals) with incredible speed and variations of patterns.  She was very beautiful, with long dark hair and a voluptuous figure, beautiful costumes and a nice personality.  We talked and traded show business gossip about dancers on both coasts. Then I left her to get ready for the first show.  I went back out to the restaurant and Mike showed me to a table in the back of the club.  He then pulled me into the kitchen to meet his mother!

She was a short and stout, dark-haired and dark-skinned woman with a great big smile.   

"Oh my dear, you need some meat on those bones!  Don't worry, I'll fatten you up while you're here."

I gulped, and wondered when I should tell her I was a vegetarian and therefore didn't eat meat.  I went back out to sit at my table as the show started and Zillinda came on with a great swirling of veils and skirt, twirling on stage as the musicians began her set.  Greek musicians play music that is often faster and more up-beat than Arabic music.  Even the taxim is played, and danced at a faster pace. I watched in wonderment as Zillinda danced.  She danced in high heels, and I was terribly impressed.  The dancers on the West Coast mostly performed barefoot or wore Hermes sandles.  By the end of her first set, I was thinking, I could do that.  However, I realized that I would need practice dancing in high heels before trying it on-stage.

My first night, I was nervous, but the rehearsal session went well.  The musicians were very nice and helped me recognize when they would change tempo.  The Atheninan club was packed because it was Saturday night and many of the customers hadn't realized that Zillinda had left that morning and a new dancer who had been shipped in from California. My technique was done more in the ethnic style than Zillinda's. She was definitely a night club entertainer! 

Fortunately, Bert had put a lot of finishing touches on my skills, teaching me to dance to and for the audience (instead of staying inside myself) as many ethnic style dancers do.  He prepared me for dancing in a nightclub, rather than doing a performance at the Renaissance Fair, or a dance concert.  The dancer must play to the audience and show them that she is really enjoying herself, then they will enjoy themselves too.

By the end of my first set, I was feeling comfortable and at ease with my musicians and our surroundings, as well as our audience.  When I rushed into the dressing room to get out of my damp costume and into my caftan, Mama Katsanevas came in the door with a huge plate of food...

"Eat, my Little One," she said, plopping down the plate and sashaying back to the kitchen.  I didn't have the time or the inclination to tell her that I could never eat between dance sets.  It would be disastrous.  I would probably vomit on stage, not to mention, that I would not being able to do belly rolls.  So, I wrapped the aluminum foil tightly round the food and tucked it behind my make-up case. 

After the last set, Mama came into the dressing room with another plate of food!

"Here, dear, take this home and eat it before climbing into bed.  It will put pounds on you while you sleep."

I thanked her and packed the plate, along with the hidden one, into my case.  Thank God, she put foil around them.  I realized that she thought I was too skinny to be a belly dancer.  Actually, I had a nice figure, but alas! I was more slender than voluptuous.  I think that all belly dancers wish that they looked like a combination of Sophia Loren and Mae West. We all know that the more flesh one has, the more graceful the body rolls. 

This feeding ritual went on every night.  She always brought two plates of food:  one between sets and one to take home.  I'm sure the rats in Salt Lake City were the best fed in the state because most of the food ended up in the hotel garbage.  I could not eat the lamb or beef dishes and the time to tell her I was a vegetarian was long gone. She was very sweet and never mentioned that I didn't seem to be gaining a pound, although, at times, I would catch her scanning my figure.

I met a lot of friendly Greek people, especially when I led the Greek dancing between sets.  One of the waitresses, Priscilla, was a member of the LDS church (Mormon). She took a liking to me and invited me to her home on a couple of occasions where I met her husband and children.  One Saturday afternoon, she picked me up and told me she had a very special guest she wanted me to meet. The guest was her uncle.  His wife had passed away a few months before, and he was looking for a new wife.   I told her I wasn't looking for a husband, but she wanted me to meet him anyway, so I did.

Mr. Lathrop was about 60 years old and bald.  He was quite stout and not my type of man.  We had an interesting conversation, and he invited me to come to his home to visit.  I invited him to the club to watch my performance, but he declined, saying it was not something he could do.  I let it go at that, thankful that I got out of visiting him at his home.  Priscilla kept pushing us together.  Whenever I was at her house, so was Uncle Lathrop. 

When I was nearing the end of my 5 week gig, Priscilla confided to me that her uncle was very rich and wanted to marry me. I explained in a tactful manner that I could NOT do that. 

After my last show, I thanked Mama Katsanevas for all her delicious food, and she never said a word about my weight.  Mike invited me back to dance another time.

When I picked up my saved money from Mike's vault at the club, I mentioned that Priscilla had nearly married me off to her uncle, Mr. Lathrop. "Boy are you lucky!" he said.  "He's been trying to marry every belly dancer I have had here.  One day he may succeed.  Of course, you'd have to share him with his other four wives."

 Priscilla had never mentioned that little fact!  "But I thought having more than one wife in the United States was against the law!" I exclaimed.

"It is, but some Mormons do it anyway, sort of undercover," Mike confided.

 As I made arrangements for the airport, my hotel room phone rang.

"Hello, Kalifa?  I have my car here to drive you to the airport," Mr. Lathrop's voice came over the phone.

I felt uneasy. I had no idea how he found out when my flight was leaving.  "No thank you, I've made other arrangements."  I said good-bye and hung up quickly, grabbed my bags, and went down the back stairway to the alley, hurrying to the street where a taxi was waiting.  As I raced for my cab, I saw Mr. Lathrop get out of his car and head toward me. 

"Quick!" I said to the driver.  "Take me to the airport."  He saw the man coming up on the sidewalk and roared away from the curb. "Looks like a disgruntled boyfriend to me," he mumbled.

"That couldn't be farther from the truth." I told him.  In my wild imagination I thought I'd probably just escaped from being kidnapped.  Saved from a life of sewing, cleaning, cooking, and sharing.  Imagine, never again hearing the lovely sound of finger cymbals or feeling the softness of a silk veil against my cheek...  Of course, Mr. Lathrop probably only wanted to say goodbye to me, but I didn't wait to find out.

This is one of the vivid memories of my early days of belly dancing.  I have others to tell you...

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