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Najia performs in the window of her studio

Suleman of Sirocco

Gilded Serpent presents...
Defiant Dancer:
How I became a Dance Pioneer
In a small 1970s California Community Festival

by Najia Marlyz

Imagine traveling back in a time machine to approximately 1974 or ‘75:
The first Solano Stroll Festival ever held in Albany, California, had begun to take form.  The biggest and most festive events at that time were the Grateful Dead concerts held in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and a raucous gatherings at what became known as “People’s Park” in Berkeley or artisan sales on Telegraph Avenue.  I had located my dance studio, which was named at that time, “The Dancing Girl,” on Solano Avenue in Albany near the University town of Berkeley and the San Francisco Bay. 

We dancers, even representing a licensed and bona fide local business on Solano Avenue, were denied permission to dance in the very first Solano Stroll Festival as official participants because Belly dancing was considered by the Stroll organizers to be too risqué for family entertainment!

 I should have known this would be their attitude because on the day that I first moved my belongings into the studio I overheard two locate Albany citizens making the observation that this was to become a Belly dance studio and it meant that their property values would soon begin to plummet downward…

Regardless of citizens’ fears, I was sorely offended at the attitude of the organizers and their apparent lack of foresight!  I decided to perform in the large storefront windows of my dance studio in defiance of their ban on my participation, reasoning that they could not limit the activities that were held within my own place of business.  My students, also, became enraged and demanded to become part of the plan to participate from within the dance studio. 

The first photo shown above was at the start of the day, and I was not a happy camper!  It is difficult for me, even now,  to look back and remember how stultifying the atmosphere was in those days.  I was justly angry about the denial of permission to participate in the festival with my students thereby gaining much needed publicity within the community to show that the belly dance could be a fun and beneficial activity for the local women. 

My attitude turned from community spirit to outright defiance.

 By the middle of the day, we had completely stopped traffic in the street with people gawking at our window, standing on the sidewalk, and overflowing onto the street, and cars slowing to a crawl to get a peek at us.  (The first year of the Solano Stroll, automobile traffic on the street was not prohibited like it is now.)

Armando of Sirocco
The Albany police were called get traffic moving again.  The policemen stood outside and watched our display with their arms crossed over their chests for an extended period; then they politely asked us if we would wrap it up so traffic could get moving again.

I believe they had been watching us to see if we were doing anything lewd so they could cite me and close my studio. 

Fortunately, I had made my point with the producers of the Stroll.  I had become an inadvertent Belly dance pioneer of sorts and something of a local folk hero!

The following year, I was allowed to hire the band Sirocco from Santa Cruz, California, (at my own expense) to come and play for our group, and we were assigned a special location at the beginning of  Key Route Boulevard because there was more open space for onlookers to gather without blocking automobile traffic.  It was away from my actual dance studio, where both Bert Balladine and I normally held our dance classes during the day and evenings.

In this same dance studio, Vince Delgado taught Middle Eastern drum classes, and Maryellen Donald taught finger cymbal rhythms, and I met many dancers and musicians all of whom were well known, at least locally and some nationally, at the time. 

It appeared that the Stroll organizers were forced to recognize that Belly dance was a popular spectacle in the event.  It remains a popular and “sanctioned” attraction today and employs dancers for some of the Solano businesses, such as Oriental carpet sales.  Groups of Belly dancers are actually hired and paid (however paltry a sum) to enhance the festive and diversified atmosphere.

Fortunately, a passer-by snapped the photos of me actually performing in the window and sent them to my studio.  This one shows the reflection in the glass window of the street with parked cars and people before the day had barely begun to form an audience on the sidewalk. 

In this photo, I was drumming for a student dancer. How I wish I had had the foresight to have my own photographer on hand so that my students’ photos could be shown here also!  However, I hope you can appreciate how delighted I was just to run across these few photos of me in my self-appointed role as the defiant dancer.


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