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Vasili Glimidakis & Kirokies dance together in the late 1980s
at Taverna Athena which Vasilli co-owned with Spiros Avlonitas.

Gilded Serpent presents...

Zaharr's Memoir, Part 11:

The Minerva Cafe: My Beginning

by Zaharr Hayatti

Zaharr shares her struggles and her triumphs as a dancer from 1966 to the present. “For many of us, it was a hard road that led to North Beach and beyond.” she writes. Return to read her story as it unfolds here in the Gilded Serpent.

Don Brown, along with the members of “The Golden Toad” and a lot of the musicians from the huge Colby Street house, took off every year for a music camp in the Sierras called “Sweet's Mill”. I had never gone there, and didn't know much about it, but the guys would disappear for several weeks every year in late summer, returning to Berkeley refreshed and invigorated.

So it was now just Chris and I working different “pitches” all around San Francisco. (Pitch” is a street musicians slang for the area in which they set up and perform.) We made amazing tips in our hat sometimes, and at the end of the day, when the freezing fog rolled in, we would go out to explore a new restaurant and often a different ethnic cuisine.

San Francisco was filled with restaurants that served food from Ethiopia to Tibet and everywhere in between. Some places knew us as regulars, and we would perform for our dinner. This was terrific and we had a lot of fun trying out a wide variety of new kinds of ethnic foods this way.

One day after a “good hat”, ---slang for having made a good amount of money---Chris told me about an Egyptian restaurant that he knew on Eddy Street. It was in a funky neighborhood known as the “Tenderloin”, but in those days it wasn't particularly seedy or dangerous, just sort of run-down looking. We arrived at the place where the Egyptian restaurant was supposed to be, and discovered that it had become a parking lot! I was really disappointed, and nearly faint with hunger by this time. We had been searching the neighborhood on foot for quite a while trying to locate the restaurant.

Chris looked around one last time before we got ready to go to one of the other places we knew, when he spied a sign that said “Café Minerva”. “Ahh, a Greek place!” he said excitedly. By this time I was so famished I could have eaten anything and there it was, right across the street from us and next to Montano’s Greek Bookstore. “Let's go there to eat.” said Chris, and headed across the street. I was cranky and insulting by this time and said “ But I wanted to try the Egyptian food, and find out if they had Belly Dancers… What do Greeks know about Belly Dancing anyway?” He just grabbed my hand and we headed toward the door. Grumbling, I followed him inside and I was startled to see a big stage with a large wooden dance floor right in front of it.

A cheerful Greek man came up to us and said “Welcome, welcome! Where do you want to sit, over here between the bar and the stage? Perfect!” And he led us to a cozy table. He was so charming and friendly that I started to feel better immediately. “What's that you've got sticking up out of your back-pack there?” he said, seeing the tips of Chris's bagpipes. Chris explained that we were street performers and had just finished for the day and were very hungry. “Tell you what”, said the kind man, “You get up there on the dance floor and show us your act. If we like it, everything is on the house: dinner, wine, anything you want.”

How could anyone NOT have loved our show! We were pretty good at it by now. We had been performing for weeks by this time, all day long and into the evening from the early morning. So, confidently I picked up my pretty tambourine with the long, flowing ribbons, and spun and stomped out accents to the rhythms with my boots.

I swirled and twirled as the heavy woolen skirt flared, rippling out around my calves. The sleeves of my blouse billowed out as I tossed the tambourine into the air and caught it again. I had learned a lot of tricks with the tambourine. I played rhythms all around and inside out of Chris's bagpipe tunes, hitting it with both hands as I tossed it back and forth between them, tapping it on my knees, ankles, or shoulders, and laughing from the pure silly joy of it all. My hunger temporarily forgotten, we had the crowded restaurant on their feet as Chris played his final flourish and I finished with a fast tambourine routine.

Our Greek host was all smiles as we returned to the table, breathless and happy. The food appeared almost immediately, followed directly by the wine, and now I had my first taste of many things made with phyllo: spanakotiropita ---which took me forever to learn to pronounce! --- And later, with the thick Turkish coffee he brought us after dinner, my first taste of baklava.

Vasilli in front of his most recent Minera Cafe incarnation. This cafe closed this year in 2005
It turned out that the warm Greek man with the charming smile and gracious gestures was the owner of the restaurant. His name was Vasilios Glimidakis, and he was fated to become the greatest influence of my entire dance career, though I had no idea whatsoever about any of that as I nibbled happily through dish after dish of unknown delights.

There were many musicians on stage, maybe seven, and I had never heard that kind of music before. It was so moving and haunting, sounding somewhat like the Arabic music I practiced with each day, but different, faster. I was charmed by the way everyone in the entire restaurant got up to dance. Old people, young children, and everyone in between, held hands and circled endlessly around the dance floor, looking happy and as if they were having the time of their lives.

I was later to learn no one parties quite like the Greeks do. They dance when they are happy, they dance when they are sad, and they dance for hours and hours.

Something that fascinated me from the very first was the fact that men danced alone. They would stretch their arms out wide and circle and circle like eagles, swooping down sometimes to pantomime throwing dice or just slap the floor and then leap back up again. Other men tossed money at the band and called out “Hopa!” when someone did a really spectacular thing. Sometimes, it was a leap into the air, then they slapped their knees, their shoe tops, spinning and dropping to the floor, sometimes in a back-bend. A man came over and placed a shot glass of clear liquor on the forehead of the man on the floor. I watched, holding my breath, as I saw the man come up from his back-bend, glass still in the same place, never spilling a drop. When he got up to a kneeling position, he drained the glass with one swallow and then sent it skittering off to the side of the dance floor, still upright. Lots of paper money was tossed over and around him by the other guests. Someone took out a roll of bills, and just kept peeling off dollar after dollar, some of it toward the band, some of it over the head of the dancer.

There was much more to come that night that was all so new for me. I just sat mesmerized, trying to take in even a small part of it.

Nikos, Vasilli's son, probably giving away free drinks again!

Someone came to the table and took my hand to lead me out to the dance floor. I had, of course, no idea what I was doing and am certain I looked like a clumsy oaf, trying to follow the intricate steps that the circle of dancers were executing. But I was having such a lot of fun and laughing at myself! Everyone was very kind, and showed me over and over how to step forward, backward, crossing my feet either in front or behind. Soon I learned to concentrate on the person in the front of the semi-circle who would hold up a large dinner napkin, twirling it in the air, and occasionally calling out “Yiassou!”

By the time I returned to the table, Chris and Vasilios looked suspiciously as if they were hatching a plot together. Innocently, I slipped into my chair, reached for my glass of retsina wine, and sat fanning my face with the menu as they both stared at me. Something enormous was about to occur. I could feel it, and yet was completely unprepared when Vasilios said: “Chris here tells me you are a belly dancer!” I blushed and glared under my eyelashes at Chris. “Traitor!” I thought, to tell my secret to a total stranger. But Vasilios went on as if he did not see my embarrassment.

I mean, it WAS true that I had been taking lessons and sort of “practicing” on the street with Don, when he was around. But to call me a “dancer” when I had been taking lessons for less than three months… Wasn't it just a few short weeks ago that my teacher had given me the gift of the wine, enabling me to finally loosen up and actually co-ordinate my steps with my body movements and my finger cymbals all at the same time? I was unprepared to be called a “Belly Dancer” by anyone's standards.) “ Chris also tells me you have your costume with you,” he said, smiling broadly. “Why don't I show you some place where you can change into it and then come out and dance with my musicians?”

I thought about the big dinner I had just finished, looked at the bottle of retsina which had magically become full again, and realized that it was the only honorable way out of the situation.

This man had been so kind to us. He had wined and dined us and shown lots of appreciation for our “Act”. There was only one word possible for me to utter, and that had to be “Yes”.

And that moment was the beginning of the rest of my life.

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