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Bert's famous fire eating photo

Gilded Serpent presents...
Amina's North Beach Memories, Chapter Six:

by Amina Goodyear
Previous chapters linked at bottom of page

In the middle 1960's not all the clubs on and around Broadway (in San Francisco's North Beach) were Topless/Bottomless or Strip Clubs.

There was also City Lights and Discovery Books (for the mind), Caffe Trieste (for espresso), Enrico's Sidewalk Café, (for late night and after hours coffee, drinks and snacks), the El Matador and The Jazz Workshop (for drinks and jazz), Specs Twelve Adler Place and  Vesuvio's Café (for drinks and conversation), Caffe Tosca's (for drinks and opera), The Hungry Eye (for drinks and comedy) and The Spaghetti Factory and The Casa Madrid (for Flamenco - The Casa Madrid later became The Stone, for "rockers" and is now Showgirls, for "single" men).

The Casa Madrid was a Flamenco Club owned by Cruz Luna's family. Cruz, San Francisco's favorite Flamenco dancer, was a good friend of Bert Balladine, and Bert was a close friend with Yousef Koyoumjian, the owner of the Bagdad, where I worked.  Cruz used to hang out at the Bagdad and sometimes he and his sister would put a wooden board on the Bagdad stage and treat us to a Flamenco show. It was always a treat for us and the customers who came for dance entertainment that included keeping the clothes on.

At the time, I was working at the Bagdad six nights a week and had Mondays off. The Casa Madrid was slow on Mondays so Cruz decided to try "Monday Night is Arabian Night" at his club. Bert suggested they try me out, as I was the new face in the scene.

On my first Monday at the Casa Madrid, Bert came to support the place and me. Well, what he saw was equivalent to a San Francisco earthquake.

I had not yet learned to turn or spin, so I ended each section of my show with an earth-and stage-shaking standing full body tremor, face looking up and arms overhead calling to the heavens. I can't remember whether Bert died from laughter or was mortified at having recommended me to his friends. But I do remember that he approached me after my show and told me very kindly that I needed help. He gently suggested that rather than standing and furiously jiggling, I could slowly turn in one place - one turn only - and when that felt comfortable, I could try two turns for awhile, and then three, and then four and so on until I would one day find myself spinning. His on-the-spot suggestion really turned my fear of spinning to something positive and downright do-able so I would eventually be able to spin like "the big guys."

Amina's kids

I asked for his phone number secretly hoping for yet another mentor. A week or so later I called him and discovered that he lived quite close to me (actually walking distance) and that he taught belly dance in a little garden apartment type dance studio. And so, one sunny morning, I made an appointment for a private lesson and packed up my three kids and went off to take my first real lesson in months.

Bert told me I could let my kids play on the grass in his lovely, manicured garden while I took class.  That was a major mistake! He had chickens and a duck pond and even though we could see the yard from the studio, as a safeguard, I had left my two daughters Cathy and Susu (both preschoolers) in charge of watching their younger brother, Vinny. Need I say more? Yes, they watched him, but did Bert still have a Duck Pond? This private lesson is a lesson Bert remembers to this day. (He still reminds me of the little glass floating balls that became new sculpture for his lawn.) For me, though, it was a wonderful and a priceless lesson. He had spent one entire hour teaching me to enter the stage gracefully, graciously and with regal style. A lesson every dancer should take to heart.

It built my confidence and it also taught me that the spaces between the dance steps  (the breath, the gaze, the pause,) are often more important than the steps themselves.

With this ammunition, I felt ready to tackle the stage at the Bagdad.

Fortunately for me, Yousef had adopted me as the "house" dancer and allowed me to experiment with my shows. I especially liked the "floorwork" section of my shows. This was the only part of the dance wherein I felt really in.I can't lose my balance and fall down since I'm already down on the floor.

Back when I studied with Bettina, who was my first teacher, dancing on the floor was our special treat.

Bettina's studio - "Harems Unlimited", which was really her home, a Victorian flat - was a fairly large dining room with hardwood floors and no furniture that adjoined a small living room with a little sofa that looked onto our dance space. Bettina would invite her Greek "boyfriends" to come and have Metaxa and Ouzo and sit in the living room and enjoy "the show." We, the students (me, my mother, my aunt and my mother's friend), were "the show!" Bettina, having just paste waxed the hardwood floor, would tell us to put our veils on the floor, deposit our bodies on the veils and proceed to buff the entire floor space with our butts. Learning to dance, or, should I say, swim on the hardwood floor was kind of fun - funny? - especially with an audience of delighted Greek men.

At the Bagdad, the music, singing and drums took me places I did not know. I found myself "swimming" and also using dance movements that included a lot of writhing and head flailing and hair tossing. Much of it my body had learned in my previous African dance training.  In the dressing room I would often ask Egyptian dancer Fatma Akef, my first mentor, if the "African" dance movements I did were OK to do, since I hadn't learned them in "belly dance class." She would always reply. "Egypt is in Africa." Yousef's sister, Arousiac told me that my "hair dancing" reminded her of the hair trance dancing from her home (Iraq). The floor dancing section in my show really became my favorite part of my dance. It was the only section that I could be completely free and express myself. I did not need to remember "dance steps." I only needed to be open and let the music invite and embrace me and transport me to my trance world. I could forget about everything - just dance for myself. 

Sometimes Yousef would have to remind me to stay in the present and remember that there was an audience out there.

And what an audience it was!

Many of the people (non-Arab) who wandered in off the street, enraptured with the music and general ambience of the Bagdad, would join the Arabic customers and become regulars. The Bagdad really was an oasis, a meeting place, where lost souls and nomads of the desert would come to quench their thirst and become family in a very bonding atmosphere. As I mentioned in a previous article, Yousef wanted us to sit with customers and encourage them to buy us drinks. The regulars knew this and complied, knowing that the rum and cokes or whatever, were really only coke with a cherry on top. We would usually just nurse our drinks and not drink more than one. One regular customer, an older, retired man named Louie, spent every single night at the Bagdad. We enjoyed sitting with him because he left us alone and only talked about how much he enjoyed himself listening to the music and watching all the dancers. In the daytime he must have painted because he gave some of us paintings of ourselves. (He gave me two of myself - two oil paintings about 2 1/2' x 3 1/2' which I still have. I later hung them in my first dance studio which I had in the 70's.) He told me that when he died he wanted a funeral with lots of dancers and Arabic music. I kind of wish that we could have done that for him. One day he just stopped coming. No one knew anything about him other than his name was Louie.

Samia Nasser

Two Arabic regulars were so regular that they didn't even bother to buy drinks. They were just part of the family. One was Mohamad, the Moroccan, who was a film student at the SF Art Institute and the other was Naji Alash, from Iraq, (aka Naji Baba). Mohamad would sometimes do odd jobs for Yousef, but mainly he just hung out and provided friendship and a buffer from obnoxious customers. One of his friends, Naji, (who had been the owner of the very first Arabic night club - 12 Adler Place - prior to the Bagdad opening) was a self-proclaimed (impresario? and) drummer and "remodeler". If our drummer was late or sick or wanted a break, Naji always complied and graciously sat on stage. One unique thing about his drumming was that he did not balance the drum on his lap - he played it between his legs (like you would play an African djembe'). Naji and Mohamad were friends and often would help Yousef repair and remodel the Bagdad. Naji (who liked to think of himself as a North Beach Italian) also helped Enrico Banducci (of Enrico's Café across the street from the Bagdad) remodel and recarpet his place. Many of the people on the street lived by the barter system and so Mohamad and Naji, while not getting paid money for their labors were paid in kind (drinks, food, etc.) by the people they had helped - such as Yousef at the Bagdad and Enrico at Enrico's. Many nights Naji would take us to Enrico's for breakfast after work at the Bagdad as this was his payback. Naji would become on of my best friends. He always called me "little sister."

Naji liked to cook and would often invite us to his place for Iraqi food. I especially remember his stuffed iceberg lettuce. He would say if you can stuff zucchini, grape leaves, and cabbage, why not lettuce, it's less expensive.

Another customer who frequented the Bagdad was Samia Nasser. She, like Yousef and Naji, was also from Iraq. She was a dancer (looking for a job?) and would come into the Bagdad night after night as a customer. She had medium length, very teased, bright auburn red hair. She was the first person I noticed who used dark brown eyebrow pencil as a lip liner and probably two sets of very long false eyelashes. Her clothes were very provocative and low cut - almost to the waist - and her breasts popped out at you like melons. She spoke in a very high-pitched voice -"Ya Salaam!"- and usually would come in every night and always with a different American "gentleman". ("I am a virgin") They would sit and enjoy the show and drink from the bottles of champagne she would always order. This champagne would be shared with the house and would loosen up the other customers, musicians and dancers, but she would never be drunk because we discovered that she always managed to pour the contents of her glass into a little synthetic potted palm by the bar. (As I said before, the Bagdad was an oasis and it really promoted a close knit family atmosphere, so customers (American and Arab) often felt free to be part of the show and dance, drum, sing, or even play a musical instrument on stage.) Sometimes she would be convinced to come on the stage and dance.

When Samia danced it was magic. Samia was the dancer I dreamed of becoming. Her hips did not belong to her body and her cleavage was outrageous. Yousef would never have to tell her to pad her bras! I hoped one day to be able to dance like Samia. She was the epitome of sex, virginity, naughtiness, innocence, glamour and trash all rolled up into one hot Arabic dancing, entertaining babe who claimed she was a virgin!

Samia and I became close friends because she eventually came to work at the Bagdad - but that is another story

Chapter 1 here- One Ad Changed My Life
Chapter 2 here-
"I'd Rather Stay Home with my Kids"

Chapter 3 here "A Marriage Made in North Beach"
Chapter 4 here- "Smokin'"
Chapter 5- here "Listen to the Music"

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
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2-21-07 Veiled Visions: A Trip Down Memory Lane CD review by Amina Goodyear
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8-10-07 Dance of Power by Kathreen Saab
The sensual is from the realm of the magical, the psyche, rather than the physical.

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