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Gilded Serpent presents...
North Beach Memories
Casbah Cabaret, Part I
Circa 1973
by Rebaba

“He said Tuesdays and Thursdays, $15.00 a night for three shows, wow, it was my dream come true!”  “Now if my Mom will let me do it…you see, I’m only sixteen, going on seventeen mind you, and still in high school.”  “But, I’m graduating this month and I won’t start school in Switzerland until September…”

These were my concerns the night Fadil Shahin asked me how old I was after I did a solo at Jamila’s Moon Celebration.  Of course, I answered “21”, in my very mature adult voice (sorry Fadil!) because I was hoping that the next thing out of his mouth was a job offer, and it was, Tuesdays and Thursdays, a dream come true!

Bellydancing, who would’ve thought??  I had pictured myself a professional dancer since I was a little girl watching the Jackie Gleason Show and pretending I was a “June Taylor Dancer”!  Well, Bellydancing was going to do just fine.  For once in my life I was in the right place at the right time to become a professional bellydancer, or Oriental Dancer should you prefer that name.  I truly believed that God created Bellydancing just for me (now remember, I was 14 years old when I first walked into Jamila’s studio), as a more perfect dance form did not exist for my body and soul.  I began classes on Presidio Avenue with Jamila Salimpour in November of 1969, and exactly one year later I was dancing at the Novato Renaissance Pleasure Faire, in Bal-Anat, Jamila’s tribal dance company.  I alternated shows with Aida, performing the first Pot Dance featured in Bal-Anat.  I was fifteen and didn’t have my driver’s license yet, and I had to have a chaperone at the Renaissance Faire, humiliation of humiliations!  Fortunately for me, my chaperone transportation couldn’t have been a more perfect choice, the fabulous Nakish!  She picked me up every Saturday and Sunday for the run of Faire and brought me home to “Mommy”, safe and sound after a fantastical day dancing in the original Bal-Anat.

Writing this I am realizing this is a pretty good story unto itself; therefore, I will stop now and jump forward a couple of years to my debut at the Casbah on Broadway. 

Broadway in 1973 was still an amazing street show, with nightly bumper to bumper traffic and nightclubs that offered cabaret entertainment stretching the gamut from Topless to Flamenco music and dance.  It was a fury of neon lights, barkers, hippies, sailors and tourists packed along the sidewalks seven nights a week.  There I began my cabaret career, with Fadil on oud, Jalaladine playing kanoon, and a wide variety of other wonderful musicians. 

We performed what I have dubbed “conveyer belt dancing”, that is three dancers doing three shows each, starting promptly at 8:30 p.m. without stopping until 2:00 a.m., whether we had an audience or not.  The dancers were incredibly beautiful women, and then me, a sixteen year old kid trying my darnedest to be all grown-up. 

I danced with Selwah, Reyna, Rhea, Aida, Zahra Anise, and Saida and so many more…colorful, unique and wonderful dancers all.  The Casbah was my music classroom, where I started to grow-up and mature as a dancer, an entertainer and also a woman.  Fadil was the best music teacher and guardian I could have asked for.  He became a father figure to me, helping me understand the music, encouraging me to “smile”, constantly staying on my case to loose weight, and generally watching out for me.  As I look back, I think he guessed how young I really was, or at least he knew how immature and naive I really was, even though I thought I was so suave and definitely fooling everyone!  Without a doubt he did recognize a talent in me that I didn’t even know was there, lucky for me. Namely, it was my ability to emotionally interpret his homeland music and dance without the knowledge of his language.  It wasn’t for many more years that I began to recognized and understand this talent of mine.  When I finally matured enough, and was comfortable enough in my own skin, I learned how to control and capitalize on my ability to express gut emotion through my dance.  I was extremely fortunate that Fadil Shahin nurtured my talent, my gift of presence that enabled me to dance this “soul dance” like a native even back when I was barely more than a child myself.

My mother also recognized a talent and a drive in me at a very early age (5 years) and enrolled me in ballet and modern dance classes where I flourished.  Prior to studying Bellydance, along with ballet and modern dance, I studied Hawaiian, Afro-Haitian, Jazz, Tap and Flamenco.  From a very young age I was naturally drawn to ethnic dance like an insect to light. I couldn’t get enough dance in me, it was, is, and always will be an obsession.  To this day I don’t know how my mother made ends meet paying for all the dance classes I took.  I tried to get scholarships when I could. I knew even then what a financial burden my dancing must have been. My mom supported me 100% as she always has. She recognized my absolute need to dance, and how important this was to my wellbeing.

Being hired to dance Tuesdays and Thursdays, on Broadway at the Casbah was as close to my fantasy job as I could imagine at that time in my life (except for being a June Taylor Dancer!). 

I was just starting to become a woman. Sensuality was still something foreign that I didn’t truly understand, although it was apparent in my dancing. Dancing was all I lived for, and being paid to dance was an incredible way to begin my working life.

I worked at the Casbah for a little under a year before I was shipped off to Switzerland to go to school. 

It was a whirlwind of excitement and a fantastic learning environment culturally and musically. The club was packed with Arabic people seven nights a week, starved for their homeland music and company. 

We danced to whatever Fadil and the other musicians played. I became a consummate improviser and started to learn about Arabic music and timing. I learned how to anticipate rhythms and melody.  The Casbah is where I absorbed and memorized a large majority of the music I have used over and over again during my thirty plus year career as a soloist, and then for the last 16 years with Hahbi’Ru.  I also learned quite a bit about politics, and I’m not talking about the government kind!  The dancers at this time were a strange combination of competitors and comrades.  It was us against them, and also us against us…There were those that completely took me under their wings being the baby and all, helping me with make-up and costuming.  There were others that saw me as a threat to their jobs because I was so young…But, all and all I can’t complain as for the most part, the other dancers were my sisters, and I made some of my best and closest friends while working at the Casbah.

Hahbi'Ru performs at this years Dicken's Faire in San Francisco starting November 28, 2008

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Ready for more?
12-12-99 North Beach Memories!
Please join us as we travel back in time to the North Beach district of San Francisco between the years 1957 through 1985.   We'll read about a vibrant period of Middle Eastern Dance and Music Performance as presented in our interviews with musicians, dancers, and club owners who created this exciting history.
, Saida Asmar, Aziza, Dahlena, Fadil, Najia, Shamira, Taka, Vince

1-4-00 Rhea reminisces
We weren't the Beat Generation, we were the Belly Generation

3-8-07 Nakish- An inteview with "The Lady with the Eyes" by Sausan
I worked hardest for the dancers in San Francisco to wipe out the discrimination factor and to make sure that all cultures were included in the performance of this dance.

9-17-08 Belly Dance in Japan Reaches New Heights of Popularity by Ranya Renee Fleysher
Japanese audiences are extremely receptive, supportive and interested in this form of entertainment.”Conservative elder Japanese may still disapprove of the sensual aspect of belly dance, but among the younger generation it is seen as cool and trendy.

9-1-08 The Broken Vessel by Paola
We, too, must believe in our movements, believe in their purpose and message, and we must deploy them with the array of human faculties that begin to evolve when the Art of the Dance is taken up.

8-29-08 The Hippie Connection: Robert Altman’s 1969 In Utero Belly Dance Portrait of ME by Melina of Daughters of Rhea
There it was, the second of a series of black and white hippy portraits --people raving, a woman blissfully breastfeeding, couples hugging, dogs leaping –THE SEMINAL PHOTO OF MY LIFE –only, I was cut out!

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