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Gilded Serpent presents...
Chapter Three:
A Marriage Made in North Beach
by Amina Goodyear
Chapter 1 here- One Ad Changed My Life
Chapter 2 here-
"I'd Rather Stay Home with my Kids"

.So, on the very next night, I showed up as a real live Belly dancer at the Bagdad Cabaret (on Broadway, in San Francisco). It felt exciting, but very scary at the same time, to be dancing on the same stage as professional dancers! With the exception of my new dance friend, Aziza!, who hailed from Walnut Creek, the other two dancers with whom I worked were from the Middle East. Aisha Ghul was from Turkey, and Fatma Akef was from Egypt; it almost felt as if I were in a foreign country.

Never before had I met anyone like Aisha. She had short, blondish-red hair, was friendly, outspoken, and a class unto herself. When she was in the dressing room, she would eat and spit out watermelon and pumpkin seeds non-stop while she told me stories of the times she worked in clubs on Eighth Avenue in New York.

She told me that the New York customers would give her presents such as perfumes, pieces of jewelry, and even a fur coat once. Aisha told me that there was a fur coat factory above the club in which she worked, and she advised me that if we dancers sat with the customers between dance sets, we should make them give us presents, or maybe. even. money!

Rhea does a similiar "sultan" routine

She played her cymbals with a different pattern from the rest of the dancers that sounded like: tink-a-tink, tink, tink, tink-a-tink, tink, tink, and her performances were wild with a Karsilama rhythm finale which she danced with abundant kicking, twisting, belly-rolling, and, of course, skirt and hair tossing. I was amazed that Aisha danced, wearing high-heeled shoes and skimpier costumes than the other dancers. She always finished her show with a "Sultan Act" and I had never seen anything like that before. In Aisha's "Sultan Act," she would invite a man up on the elevated stage that had a little ledge on the perimeter for sitting drinks down for a while-kind  of like a piano bar.  We dancers would surround the stage and look up at her as she proceeded to roll up the man's pant cuffs, pull his shirt up (to expose his belly) and wrap her veil, turban-style, around his head. Having completed her preparations, she would ask her victim questions that embarrassed him, and then pretend to teach him how to dance. "Grind the coffee," she'd demand. "Pick the apples - Shake the tree!" Of course, it was all quite comical and amusing, but more amusing to her audience than to her would-be student.

Fatma was very different from Aisha.  She did not speak much English and was rather quiet, preferring to sit in the dressing room and sew. She made all her costumes by hand-sewing because she didn't have a sewing machine. This included the seams of all her thobes (dresses) and the yards and yards and yards of trim on the bottoms of the dance skirts. She told me that our skirts needed to have a half circle in the front and a full circle in the back and we needed to use two inch satin blanket binding on the bottoms of the large circular skirts to make sure they were long enough to "drag" the floor. She did not think it was proper to let one's feet show.  I watched her bead costumes, make belts, and construct bras, and I promised myself that, someday, I would make my own costumes

Fatma's show was the most entertaining (and oddest) show I had ever seen in my entire life! It brought the fantasy of the Middle East right to the stage of the Bagdad in San Francisco. Yousef (Kouyoumjian) announced "Fatma Akef from Cairo, Egypt" and the stage lights went off! The only illuminations in the club were the little red tips of the customers' cigarettes and the golden flames of candlelight glowing red through the glass bowls on each of the cocktail tables. With the room lit thusly, one's senses became very aware of the incense that permeated the room and this added to the magical wonder of what was to happen on the stage.  

Fatma's husband, Ishmael, (also billed as Gillli Gilli) played a drum roll; his drumming then accompanied the oud and violin's haunting and mysterious medium tempo song with Gilli Gilli's hypnotic repetitious chanting. Fatma walked royally onto the stage, lighting her way with a golden candelabrum balanced precariously on her head. (This candelabrum was not the helmet type that we have now become accustomed to seeing; this one had a small concave base, which sat neatly upon her head.)

The stage 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 light". 

Fatma wore many layers of costuming. Her outer layer was a rich, metallic-pink fabric shot through with gold threads. It looked like a heavily bejeweled sorcerer's robe, and it dragged the ground with a long train.  She danced in this robe with the candelabrum balanced on her head. (In the dressing room, I tried to balance the candelabrum on my head but found the base to be too little to use as a balance, and additionally, the weight of the object seemed to compress my neck by a couple of inches! This was not the lightweight brass of the helmet-style candle holders now produced in Egypt; this one was comprised of heavy pot-metal.) Sometime, during her entrance dance (with the candelabrum still on her head) the robe came off, and she continued the dance dressed in a "day glow" colored thobe.

At some point, somehow, she exchanged the candelabrum on her head for a balas (water jug) on her head. Then Gilli Gilli handed her three water glasses and she "clink-clink-clinked" them to show that they, indeed, were made of glass. Next, she placed them on the stage and stood on them-two glasses under one foot and one glass under the ball of her other foot. With the water jug still on her head, she "skated" around the floor with the glasses and then began to dance to a drum solo. While dancing to the drum solo with the water jug still on her head, she removed her thobe, revealing a very colorful bedlah.

Fatma continued her drum solo in this bedlah and Laura, a green parrot, appeared on her shoulder! I remember that she and Laura had a funny conversation. After the drum solo was complete, Fatma danced some more and ended her routine posed in the splits with the water jug still on her head.

Later, she was on her knees doing yet another drum solo, and Gilli Gilli started asking her questions in broken English, which she answered likewise:

"Fatma, you speak-English?"
"Yes, No!"
"Fatma, you speak-Chinese?"
"Koo-koo, Roo-koo, Coca-Cola!"

It did not matter if we understood her or not, or if it made any sense; in those days, it was just funny.

That experience was my first lesson in Egyptian dance. .Dance did not have to be serious; it could be silly! It could be humorous. However, it also needed to be good dancing and entertaining at the same time.  Fatma told me that Naima, (her sister) and she used to dance together in a circus-her family's circus.  The two of them used to dance together on top of a table that their grandmother balanced in her mouth! Naima went on to become a movie star and she, Fatma, married a drummer named Ishmael and became his seventeenth wife. (Well, that's what she told me.) Later, they left the circus and performed throughout Europe and South America before ending up in San Francisco's Bagdad Cabaret.

Fatma and Naima were not the only ones in that family who danced, however. Ishmael/Gilli Gilli danced also-when he was not drumming, performing magic tricks (or sticking scissors up his nose). We used to beg him to dance, and of course, he would comply. He danced in a two-piece bedlah, played the best cymbals I had ever heard (Remember: he was a percussionist and musician), and he performed his own brand of "veil work". However, he did not wrap his veil around himself; he revealed it as stuffing in his bra from which he would pull it out-magician style!

I felt very grateful and honored to share the same stage with dancers like the glamorous Aziza!, the very Turkish Aisha and the fabulous Fatma and Ishmael duo. I actually had a job dancing with these great dancers!

I was having fun, I had musicians who were kind, supportive, and protective to everyone, and I was making so much money in tips, I could buy all the groceries we needed, and could help pay our bills also.  I felt so lucky!

Every night, I would ask Yousef when he wanted me to come in again, and he would always answer, "Tomorrow!" Really-I was lucky. The other dancers did not get to work every night, but I did. They all worked a maximum of five nights; some worked only to fill in the nights that were left over, but I felt privileged to work every night. In fact, I worked almost two months straight, without a day off, until one of the other dancers made me realize that I was working so much because I was "undercutting" their wages. I was unaware that all the dancers were supposed to receive regular pay! I had been making so much money in tips the idea of actual wages had not entered my mind. (Remember, my teacher was on the road and was unaware, completely, that I had found a job dancing.)

Well, resulting from my epiphany, I was embarrassed and felt angry. I confronted Yousef and told him that I had to quit because he was using me without pay instead of paying me, as well as an additional dancer, to work.

I left work that night feeling very bad about what I had done to the other dancers unknowingly, and I felt extremely sad that I was not going to be able to dance anymore.  However, the next morning, Yousef called me and told me to return to work-not  "tomorrow" but "tonight" and that he would start paying me.

That is how my career in dance began on Broadway and it continued, through twenty years, six nights a week, three shows a night! It was a marriage made in North Beach, in sickness and in health - we danced!

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Ready for more?
8-12-00 Dancing on the Edge by Amina
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I went to this festival for my two heroes–Aziza and Jillina–and came home with three!


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