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This shot was taken in Salt Lake City for The Athenian!

Gilded Serpent presents...
I Loved the Old Days at the Bagdad!
Habiba Nawal

Last night my yoga group had a holiday party at the Marrakech Moroccan restaurant in Sacramento.  We had a group of about fifty fun-loving students.  We loved the atmosphere, eating with our hands, and most of all, the dancer and the music.  I had taken finger cymbals and some tambourines to play.  When I got home, I was really thinking about Bert and my dancing career, so I googled Bert and in the process, found your wonderful nostalgic website.  It brought back so many good memories that I wanted to write to you about them.

I danced at the Bagdad Cabaret and the Casbah during the late 1960s.  Encouraged by my mother, I had always been into dancing, and had studied many kinds of dance, such as jazz, ballet, hula, tap and acrobatics, but I had no real passion for dance until I began to study Middle Eastern dance.  I found a flyer advertising belly dance lessons from Bert Balladine at a studio on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, and for the first time I tried something by myself!   (I was very young – only nineteen!)

I drove to the ballet studio and went up the stairs to find a room full of beautiful women in long, flowing skirts, dancing and playing their finger cymbals.  There was even a guy in class, a tall, dark-haired hippie who reminded me of Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin.  The class was very crowded, but Bert paid attention to each of us. 

Bert had on sexy jeans and a brown leather belt, and his shirt was pulled up to show his belly – when he wanted to really show us undulations, he would pull his shirt up even farther!

The students looked on him in awe!  Here was this hot-looking guy with hard abs undulating for us!  He danced around, sometimes with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and he was the sexiest individual there.  Oh, if my mom had known where I really was!  (I finally did tell her.)  Everything about the dance inspired me, and I knew that I had found something that I could be good at!  I loved the music, the movements, and the costumes.  We moved around the room in a big circle – Bert would jump around and yell out, “Good, Donna!!  That’s it!  You’ve got it!”  I did?  I guess I did…  We were taught all the parts of the dance:  Undulations. Hip shakes.  Floor work.  Veil work.  Drum solos.  Stomach flutters.  Arm movements.  Eye contact.  Bert had a theory that a small movement was much more effective than a huge one.  I loved it when he leaned back and “framed his hips”.  He would give so much to each of us.  He was teaching us to present ourselves as beautiful women, each with her own style.  Bert’s style was very flashy!  He loved the sexy beaded costumes and colorful veils.  I remember learning the finger cymbal pattern for kashlama – I thought at the time that it was so difficult, but once I got it, it was a real turn-on. 

I witnessed body and confidence changes in the students in class; a soft-bodied woman would put on her costume and become a Dancer!  I have always had an athletic body type and I actually wished I had more of a belly!

Bert teaches in 1994 at Snake's Kin Studio

I sometimes heard about other teachers, such as Jamila and Jodette.  I got the feeling that it was us against them!  Their styles were very different from Bert’s.  He was all about flash, being sexy and expressing yourself, and I think he was probably a lot more fun than the others.  Jamila’s style was more tribal and became more so as time went on.  I never did take any classes from her, but I saw her students dancing at the clubs on Broadway in North Beach in San Francisco.  They were good dancers – just a different style.

I took classes very regularly, and after a couple of years I got good enough to dance at an audition night at the Bagdad.  About ten of us went there with Bert, and the club seemed so mysterious to us. Yousef greeted us, and, as a young woman from the suburbs, what could I be but scared of him?   We went on early, before there were many regular customers there.  I felt I was in a “big person’s world”, and I was scared.  After we watched one of the house dancers, some of us danced.  I went up the stairs to the dressing room and got into my costume (I had bought one from Mimi), then I heard my name and the music started – I was shaking, but I began playing my cymbals and somehow got down the stairs and onto the stage.  I really don’t remember much about my time on stage, but it went by very quickly.  I think I was hyperventilating, but I did it!  I was young, I had the basics of the dance, enthusiasm and a nice body.  I do remember that toward the end of my show I went through the audience and got tips, mostly from my fellow students.  When we were all through dancing, Yousef asked Bert if I and another student would be interested in dancing a couple of nights a week.  I said YES!  I had no boyfriend, husband, kids or anything else that would stop me from working there or try to change my mind about it.

My dancing name started out as Habiba, but once I started dancing at the Greek Taverna on Columbus, I changed it to Nawal, and that is what it remained.  I was attending the College of San Mateo and was a hippie when I began my career, and Yousef said I had to shave my legs and armpits if I wanted to work for him, so I reluctantly did.  At that time, Manny worked there, playing the guitar and stepping outside to smoke on his breaks.  Yousef’s sister, Arousiak, worked as hostess, usually wearing a caftan.  When I started, I had only one costume, a coin costume that I wore so much that the real coins it was made of turned green under my armpits.  Yuck.  I loved that costume – it made me feel so sexy and I loved the noise the coins made when I would shake or do a “freeze”.  I eventually bought more costumes, one from Fatma Akef, who danced with a parrot on her shoulder and standing on glasses, and some from other dancers at the club.  The costume I bought from Fatma was very nice; it was totally beaded and cost about fifty dollars.  I thought that was a lot of money!

Fatma Akef from
Amina's photo collection

Some nights I would walk into the club and a new dancer would be in the dressing room.  The New York girls would usually just take a spot in front of the mirror.  Nobody messed with them.  They would set up shop and oh, well – so much for my spot!  I think I ended up using a small corner on the floor.

They weren’t bitchy, but just had that attitude:  I am here, I am from New York, so move over.

I danced with a beautiful Jewish girl who lived in Oakland, though she was originally from the East Coast.  Her name was Mimi (later it was Fadwa).  She made her own costumes and I bought my first bra and belt from her.  She had been a school teacher, but eventually stopped teaching and became a full-time dancer at the Bagdad.  She was very feminine and was one of my idols.  Later she went to Salt Lake City to dance in a job which was arranged by Bert.  At that time, the Athenian was the only place in Salt Lake that had belly dancing.  The job paid $250 a week plus tips, and included the use of an apartment and food.  I went out there and worked after Mimi did.  This was my first experience with Greek food.  There was an old guy who ate lunch there every week day.  He was a good tipper and bought me my first lobster.  (Now I am a vegetarian.)

There were so many beautiful dancers at the Bagdad, and we worked very hard but we loved every minute of it!  Most people then and now do not realize the work that goes into being a great dancer and performer.  The beautiful Amina worked at the Bagdad and later at the Casbah.  She was petite, with beautiful auburn hair and a husband named David, who would come in to watch her dance.  He always wore a hat and reminded me of David Crosby at the time.  Amina did killer floor work and had a great following.  She danced barefoot, and so did I.  I danced so much that my feet would get raw.  I had little slits in them from the seams on the floor!  I tried wearing heels, but I could not get the same feel for the dance in heels.  There was one beautiful girl named Bahia who did wear heels.  She looked like a high fashion model and wore heels like a jazz dancer would wear; she came into the club wearing furs in the winter.  The men were in love with her!  I hated to follow her in the dancer rotation.  Talk about an ego let-down!  There was another dancer from the UK, whose name was Patty.  She was a very slender blonde who did not look like a belly dancer (but then, neither did I).  Zoraida, a Puerto Rican girl from New York, told me that her husband was a professional gambler.  I thought, “Wow!  That’s hot!  Like in the Mafia!”

The Bagdad in 1975
from Amina's photo collection

Starting about the same time I did, a dancer by the name of Rayna worked at the Bagdad.  She had long, brown, shiny, waist-length hair.  She was very beautiful and a great dancer, too.  I remember when Aziza! danced there.  I thought she was very pretty and a very good dancer – not really emotional, but solid.  She had a child.  I met Hoda there; she was also a dancer from New York, but she had moved to San Francisco.  She lived with a roommate in the Haight.  She had a  boyfriend named Gordon who had a parrot – he lived in Half Moon Bay on a ranch, and she was on the cover of a book he wrote on massage.  Hoda and I once took a road trip to Portland.  I think she had danced there before, but she wanted to dance there again.  We drove up in her blue Volkswagen station wagon that her parents had bought for her after she called them and cried about how they didn’t understand that things were far from each other in California and she needed to drive! 

For about two years I worked at the Bagdad. I wasn’t a star there, but a solid house dancer. The musicians were right behind us on the stage, and I loved it when they would honor me with a drum solo.  I ended up being able to hold my own among the stars at the Bagdad. 

I think I was making about fifteen or twenty dollars a night plus tips.  It was all about the tips!  The girls from New York made twenty-five, if I remember right.  Bert sometimes got me shows for about thirty or seventy-five dollars for what he called “The Furry Animal Clubs”, like the Lions, the Elk and the Kiwanis. 

I worked in a club in Sacramento called Zorba’s (what else?) and at the Greek Taverna on Columbus in San Francisco.  I went to Canada and danced with a rented snake named Sarah in Edmonton. The customers, however, complained about the snake; once when we were dancing, she tightened up on me, and Hans, one of the waiters, had to untangle us. I did two shows a night for two or three weeks, but I had trouble with the owner of the club, who was not a very nice guy and was always coming on to me. 

I missed North Beach, so I returned to the Bagdad.  North Beach was fun! We were young and hot, and it was so cool to be seen walking into the club with your bags.  I was actually able to find a parking place every night in the neighborhood.  Nothing was ever stolen from me in the clubs or from my car.  Men wore suits a lot, and women also would come in to watch us.  It was a joyous place to be, though Yousef seemed worried a lot, like most business owners.  The Greek night club owners walked around with worry beads rolling in their hands, but I had a wonderful, magical time.  I left the club at night wearing hot pants and boots, to go to Zim’s to get a tuna sandwich.  How funny is that?

After I quit dancing I went on to become a flight attendant for ten years, and the airline published in their monthly newsletter that one of their recent graduates was a former belly dancer!  Since then I have been a jazzercise instructor, a perfume sales rep, a marathon runner, tennis instructor and a winner of body building contests.  Today my specialty is yoga.  My instructor trained with the Baptiste Group, among others!  I will never forget my wonderful times dancing, making costumes and getting tips, and most of all the people – the beautiful, talented dancers.  I can still dance and play the cymbals, and I still love the music and watching the dance!  When I read that Bert is in ill health now, I cried.  He was a big part of my life – more than he realizes.  If I could turn back time, I certainly would.  Thank you, Bert, for putting up that advertising flyer!  Peace to you all.  Namaste, as we say in yoga.

Love, Habiba/Nawal/Donna Sagor

P.S. I danced on the Gong Show under the name of Marina. I came in second (with 29 out of 30 points) to a country western band. Go figure!

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