Of Hips and Hippies:
Rhea Recounts
The "Good Old Days" in San Francisco

Part I
by Rhea of Athens

Since there has been a resurgence of interest in the "good old days" surrounding our goings on circa 1968 - 1977 on Broadway in North Beach in San Francisco, I thought it only fitting and proper to add my own two drachmas worth. The first club I danced at was the Bagdad on Broadway, as Jamila Salimpour, my teacher, used to have student nights there, having been the previous owner and a very well reported and renowned dancer there. Actually, the first belly dancing I ever saw was at the Bagdad.

You see, we (my second husband, our friends and I) were what was known as then as "hippies" and didn't usually frequent bars, but went to coffee houses and the prevailing outdoor demonstration or be-in, love-in, etc. And we usually didn't partake of alcoholic beverages, choosing instead to ingest mind-altering substances of another nature. So our days were usually spent in parks, communing with nature and such spirits that were conjured up with the ingesting of said substances.

Nights were usually spent in one another's houses, or "pads" as they were known amongst ourselves. My then husband was in a rock and roll band, and when we weren't going to see him perform in the Freight and Salvage coffee house in Berkeley or the Filmore Auditorium or the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco, we were seeing our friends perform in these venues. I missed seeing him perform at Woodstock because my daughter, Melinda, was born August 1969 and pregnant women weren't allowed in airplanes in those days. So I cooled my heels at home, forcing myself to be content with news of all the goings-on when the famous rocker returned.

So it was in the Daily Californian, the University of California's newspaper, that I read the ad for belly dance lessons and decided to look into them. Once hooked on both Jamila and the dance lessons, it wasn't long before I was in my first nightclub seeing the dancers ply their trade. I actually danced at one of Jamila's student nights pregnant -- I still have the photo --wearing an Asiute dress borrowed from Jamila. Still, most of my performing experiences were in my husband's rock group at stop-the-war demonstrations, where we were the featured group, or at more prestigious demonstrations such as the warm-up group for Joan Baez, or some other artist who had associated themselves with the anti-Vietnam war effort. I used to come out in a simple costume dancing to a rendition of the Coasters' "Little Egypt" dancing barefoot and pregnant.

After sending me down to Fresno, California, to fill in for an absent dancer (another good story to be left for another time), Jamila suggested that I apply for the Tuesday night job at the Taverna Athena in Jack London Square in Oakland, across the bridge from San Francisco. This was the night that Anna Efstathiou taught Greek folk dancing, and I used it as an opportunity to learn some of the traditional dances. In those days, people used to go out every night, not just Friday and Saturday, so there was usually quite a crowd. Still, Jamila regarded the Greek clubs as not quite "real" insofar as the music we danced to was concerned, and I will have to say that the steps and moves we had learned from her didn't translate so well to Greek music. (When I was dancing at the Parthenon Restaurant in Walnut Creek some years later, Jamila came out to critique me and said "It looks like you are in a race with the musicians and the musicians are winning"). Besides, the clubs on Broadway were more well thought of and there was a bigger opportunity to develop your dance, as the musicians usually helped you with criticism and suggestions, whereas in contrast the Greek musicians usually just yelled "OPA!" if they liked you whether you could dance well or not.

So it was arranged that Jamila twisted Yousef Kouyoumjian's arm (the then owner of the Bagdad) and I ended up dancing Friday and Saturday nights for $5.00 a night and half the tips. The Greek Taverna on Columbus and Broadway paid more money in base salary but kept half the tips, while the Taverna Athena let you keep all your tips. Still, I was a "serious" belly dancer, and I listened to my teacher insofar as my dance development was concerned. Besides, as a hippie, I wasn't in it for the money, anyway, but for the experience and the "vibes." Innocents that we were at the time, we were unaware that we would become near icons at some later time. That certainly wasn't what we were in it for at the time. Belly dancing still wasn't "accepted" in America and people used to ask me "what is a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" I was a natural born rebel and being a belly dancer was still looked upon as a non-mainstream activity.

Part II --Of Belly Dancers, Bullets & The Men in Blue, or A Change of Scene:
Rhea moves to Greece


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