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Aziza! and Ginny

Beata & Horacio with others perform
with a very large veil
Gilded Serpent presents...
Rakkasah From
a Vendor's Viewpoint
by Aziza!

#23 in a series - a history of bellydancing in (and out of) the San Francisco area, as told by Aziza!

Ah, Rakkasah!  For many years the highlight of my vending year!  A wonderful idea that has gradually faded over time..

I started selling my costumes at Rakkasah Festival from the very first time Shukriya put it on.   It was an exciting event at a small place in Richmond - Ginny and I had a booth up on a balcony, which gave us a good view of the performances.  The most memorable that first year was Sharlyn, who spun up and down the stairs of the musicians' platform as she danced.  A most Fred Astaire-like move!  That first time, in 1981, I cleared about $300 in sales (not bad for the time), and I was a happy woman!

Sharlyn in '91 after she switched to Persian dance

We continued to join the vendors every year at Rakkasah, as it moved here and there (including to the beautiful Scottish Rite Temple in Oakland for several years) and finally settled in the Richmond Civic Auditorium.  It was always so interesting to see all the different dancers and troupes and what they did for their performances at one of the most important and scariest venues around.  My troupe, Zelzeleh, appeared one year, and once my dance partner, Lara, and I put on our Ghawazi Suite, but mostly I was a vendor and an onlooker.  I always shared space with Ginny (Kattoura) - until she quit the business.   By the time we moved to the Richmond location, Ginny was importing scarves and such and selling them across the country as Evening Star, so she always had a lot of inventory at shows!  A lot of inventory meant a big display, and she had built a very large rack out of mostly PVC pipe - add to this my racks, and we took up a number of spaces!  Shukriya offered us a special rate if we would be willing to use the space in the curve of the wall in the auditorium, so we did that. 

After a couple of years the discount disappeared, and when we asked about it (it was still the same space, after all), she said, "Oh, did you think you'd get that forever?"  Well, yes, since nothing else had changed!  But never mind -  We noticed, too, that our space was gradually eroded by other vendors' tables that were just sort of fitted in at the end of our space - once again, we just adjusted and lived with it, since when we asked or objected, we were brushed off.
One of the great attractions of Rakkasah has been the excitement of seeing dancers from all over the world perform!  Now that there is a Rakkasah East, to serve the dancers of the eastern US, and similar events on other continents, we don't get quite as many performers from far away - but there have been some stellar performances!  One of my favorites in memory was when Beata and Horacio danced together and he wound her up in a many-yards-long white veil and then spun her out of it again.  Their theatrical shows are always so individual and exciting.  The first time I saw Katherine Ferguson (from Arizona) dance was a high point for me, too.  Her artistic spirit and technical expertise were both so evident.  Some of the most entertaining performances over the years have been given by Amina's troupe, the Aswan Dancers.  They have done ancient Egyptian myth stories, modern Cairo street dances, and, most wonderful of all, the story dance that included songs like "Leader of the Pack" and "Going to the Chapel"!  The combination of doo-wop music, odd costumes and real belly dance moves was just irresistible!   John Compton and his tray dance were somehow involved in that, too, if I remember correctly.

Kathy Ferguson performing
at the Scottish Rite Temple in Oakland

Shukriya was always good about having security available, but that gradually changed shape.  The problems started in the year that Rakkasah was at the San Rafael Civic Center, the year when a new guy took over the security force.  I heard from several people that he had spent some time in prison, which didn't matter to me except that he treated us vendors as though we were offenders who were in there under his direction!  Since then, the security situation has been sort of iffy - I imagine they are good at what they are doing, and some of the guys are very pleasant, but some of them treat us quite disagreeably.  About that time, too, the management began to treat vendors as though we were criminals, warning us to behave and saying that we are the worst offenders in security - making it clear that we were there on sufferance.

I know that rules are necessary, but I have never sold at another show that made the vendors feel like really bad children!

Another thing that is small but irritating - at the beginning, each vendor was given a free program, so that we could tell what was going on.  A few years ago, they started charging vendors for a program - I pay $550 for my booth and I have to pay another dollar for a program?!  Shukriya said, when questioned, that it was because vendors weren't careful, and sometimes took another program to replace a lost one.  I suggested that maybe we could each be given one, as it started out, and then we could pay for more or replacements, but that was not an acceptable suggestion.   This is symptomatic of our treatment. Every year, a few more vendors are crammed into side halls and the upstairs of the auditorium.  I'm sure that the shoppers are delighted that they have so much to choose from (though a few have said to me that there are so many booths and so much to look at that they reached "tilt" and couldn't buy anything!), but it has been a bad deal for the vendors.  There are only so many dollars to go around, and the more ways there are to share those out, the fewer there are for everyone.  The small dealers have trouble making enough to stay in business, and I'll bet that there are more than I who persist in returning even though they don't make money, just to keep their names in the public view.

Amina and the Aswan dancers perfroming in the San Rafael Civic Center. Robaire is on the left with the big drum.

Another thing that has changed is either some rules themselves or their enforcement.  For instance, there was a rule against tall racks in the booths that are not against the walls - that way, everyone could see the stage.  Well, that rule has obviously gone by the wayside.  Also, there was a rule that people couldn't sit in the lower seats behind the booths, as a matter of security - we store stuff back there, and we can't always keep an eye on it.  The doors to that area used to be locked or something, so that people didn't just come in.  Well, that is no longer the case!  We have had some problems with it for the last few years, but last year was the worst!  The family or group that had the booth in the corridor outside the room decided that they wanted to be able to watch the dancing, so they kept leaving the door wide open!  I wouldn't have objected if a vendor like that wanted to slip in and sit in the back seats for a while to watch, but with that door open, all kinds of people came in, and we were constantly having to ask someone to leave!  We talked to the vendors about it several times, but they didn't care what we said - they kept opening the doors!  We finally talked to security about it, and one man went and told them about its being a rule, so the door stayed closed for a few hours before it was once again propped open, but the next security guy we talked to went back there and then returned and said that there was nothing he could do about it.  So, what?  Security only enforces some rules?  Or are the rules all gone except for the ones to control the other bad, bad behaviors of the vendors?

There have been plenty of other little problems, mostly pinpricks - but a lot of pinpricks can add up to a big jab!  The final one was this year when new people moved in next to us.  We had had an arrangement with Alia, who was our neighbor for a few years, that we shared our dressing room with her and in exchange, the dressing room straddled the booth lines.  When I asked the new people if they were up for that, they said, "Certainly not!", and the next thing I knew, they had Shukriya over there with a tape measure, and she was moving us in about six inches.  Well, while I realize and acknowledge that we should, indeed, be within our booth space, it is difficult to tell, sometimes, just what that line is - and besides, is there no courtesy nor slack given to a vendor who has been faithful to Rakkasah from the beginning? 

The madwoman and her son.
I guess not!  The attitude with which it was done just felt like an uncaring slap in the face.

So - combine the pinpricks with an ever-rising cost and ever-falling income - well, I'm afraid that I will no longer be vending at Rakkasah.  Also, while of course this isn't happening to you - I am growing older, and even with all Adam's help it is growing progressively harder and more tiring to set up my booth, man it, and break it down.  I know that there are people out there who will think that I have died, if I am no longer there, but NO!  I am still very much alive!  I will miss seeing my friends among both vendors and customers, but Rakkasah has become no longer monetarily nor emotionally viable for me.  I am still making my one-of-a-kind costumes as well as taking orders, so you can contact me at or call me at 530-622-7566.  And I hope to see you all at another show..

Rakkasah Festival happens this weekend at the Richmond Civic Auditorium in Richmond, California.

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
Previous Episodes in Aziza!'s series of columns-
1-17-05 The Traveling Costumer #22
More customers! New horizons! Travel! That’s what we needed!

9-4-04 My Costuming Roots #21
Soon, however, it became obvious that I couldn’t do three shows a night, on and on, with only one costume! And Yousef, owner of the Bagdad, supported this realization by telling me that if I didn’t get some more costumes, I was fired.

6-6-04 The Sunday Photos from Rakkasah West Fesitval 2004- Page 1, Page 2
Thanks to all the photographers and volunteers whol help make this happen. We still need a few names to go with faces!

3-9-05 Tatseena's Fantasy Festival October 16-17, 2004, photos and text by Amy Luna Manderino
The Festival lived up to it's name, with two days of creative and innovative dance that broke the mold and showed the versatility of American Bellydance.

3-6-05 The Folk Tours Dance & Music Camp Review by Piper (and baby pics too!) Photos by Carl Miller, May 2004
Once upon a time, in far away lands, I performed five shows a night, seven nights a week to great live music. I don’t miss the wily club owners, late nights, or cigarette smoke, but I do miss the music.

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