The Gilded Serpent presents...
Dancers I Have Known
by Aziza!

Over the course of my approximately thirty-year professional career, I have known and worked with some of the most interesting dancers in the business. As with any line of work dedicated to being in the public eye for entertainment, belly dancing attracts some very offbeat and interesting characters. Herewith, some from my days at the Bagdad:

As I have stated elsewhere, the first dancer I worked with at the Bagdad was Fatma Akef. Fatma was born into a circus family ("The Circus of Gilli Gilli") in Egypt, and began at the age of three as an acrobat, moving on to belly dancing when she was seven. She and her husband, Ismail Khlifa,(she was seventeen years his junior, and he had been married fourteen times), toured in Europe, performing, until they wound up in America with their son, Hamdi. Her sister was the famous dancer Naima Akef. In 1967 Ismail was deported because of a long-expired visa (when his story appeared in the newspapers and it was revealed that he was a Jewish sympathizer, Yousef received bomb threats against the Bagdad and promptly fired him), though Fatma and Hamdi stayed. The last I heard was that Fatma had fairly recently moved to Southern California to be near her son.

Fatma and Ismail (who played dumbek for the dancers and worked the lights, and was better known as "Gilli -Gilli" for the phrase he repeated when he did his magic act) had a specific routine that they did most nights at the Bagdad. Fatma would make an entrance with a long and fancy cape on, her Amazon parrot, Lara, sitting on her shoulder. The two (Fatma and Lara) would have quite a dialogue, with singing, talking, and "crying". Then Fatma would dispose of both Lara and the cloak and get down to dancing. She often wore a long dress and support hose, though no shoes.

After dancing for a while, Fatma would get up on three drinking glasses to dance, while balancing a vase on her head. (It's lucky she was short, or she wouldn't have fit in that short space!) Then she would get down and do the splits (and she was no spring chicken!), still with the vase on her head.

Then she would sit back on her heels while she and Ismail did a silly routine, with his asking her if she spoke various languages, and her answering in most of them. Her answer in English was "Yeeees-no," and her answer in Arabic went on and on until he stopped her. When he asked "Fatma, do you speak Chinese?" she would answer "Oh, yes! Huku-muku-nuku coca cola!" I must admit that I learned that routine pretty much by heart! I learned a lot of the dance, too, from working with Fatma, without really realizing it. Some years later I took some of my students to see Fatma dance, and they were very excited to point out how much I danced like her. (No splits, though!)

Another woman I worked with early on was a Turkish woman named Aisha Gul. She had short red hair and used to wear big flat bows on the back of her head. (This was the mid 1960s, after all!)

One of her most distinctive moves was to lie on her back and hiss, as she slowly raised one leg after another into the air, rather like a very slow-motion bicycle riding. (This was one of Gilli-Gilli's favorite moves, on the slow nights when he would put on a woman's costume and a wig and become the beautiful Cleopatra - very nice with his moustache - and dance, imitating all the other dancers.)

Aisha would get a little bit drunk most nights, and would get up on stage and tell dirty jokes, but would always either forget the punch line or blow it. She said that it was because English was her second language, but we knew! She was also fond of goosing people, though it was hard to retaliate effectively, as she always wore a very tight and firm elastic girdle when she wasn't in costume. (This was before panty hose had been invented.)

Najma Saline was a small woman with boundless energy. She used to sing and to do a drum solo that was partly a zil solo - she had to come in and practice with the musicians to get it right.

When she came into the club, she always had a turban on until she put on her wig for dancing. No one ever saw her home-grown hair.

It was from her that I bought my second bra and belt - the beauty with the gold coins and the red jewels - on which, more later). She had a tough row to hoe - she was the single mother of two very young girls, one of whom had diabetes and needed frequent insulin shots. The last I heard, she had taken her girls and moved to Hawaii.

Another notable character with whom I worked was Samia Nasser. She was from Bagdad, Iraq, like Yousef, and she had red hair, slightly crossed eyes and a spectacular nose, and the boys all thought she was sexy as hell. (She did profess to be a virgin.) She always wore support hose and heels when she danced, and didn't play her zils much. She had a pearl costume that we all coveted, that would light up very oddly under the black light.

She would dance for a while and then stop, taking up a microphone and cooing into it in her little-girl voice, "And now, I need a maaan - a BIG maaan."

She would get some poor sucker up there on stage, seat him on a pillow, and proceed to dance around in front of him til his eyes were popping. Once a guy crossed his legs behind her as she shimmied in front of him, and, when she tried to move, she almost fell off the stage. The sex kitten disappeared, to be replaced by a very angry and nasty cat, who had a number of things to say to the poor guy, who slunk off the stage in a hurry! At first Samia didn't like me much, and used to call me the Amazon (I think I have mentioned that I was a lot taller than most dancers.) Eventually, however, she changed her mind (I was always polite, didn't try to usurp her spot at the dressing table nor her men, etc.) and became quite protective of me.

Then there was Carla Lopez, an American girl known at that time as Zaida, and later as Khadija al Nakhla. Carla had a sardonic sense of humor that was very entertaining.

She wore some of the lowest-cut bras I have ever seen, and used to glue herself into them along the edge so that her nipples wouldn't slide into view. Sometimes when things were slow, she would take on stage a jew's-harp, hidden in her costume, and would whip it out and play along with the musicians.

She had a good aim with matchbooks, which she would throw at guys who were playing with themselves while she danced. (Without my glasses I'm so blind that I had no idea what people were doing while I danced!) Carla eventually moved back to New York, but she called me a couple of years ago from San Francisco, where she was selling sewing machines. She was an excellent dancer.

There were a lot of girls, mostly from back east, that came for a little while and then moved on. We had Princess Aisha, an elegant woman whose dance consisted largely of spinning. Jamilla Mur was there for a while. Jamilla was her real name, but our Jamila objected to her using it, and so she was always announced as Miss Lebanon. We had another girl who used the "Princess" title to distinguish her from another Tahiya - Princess Tahiyya, who did the most gorgeous Turkish drops I have ever seen - she was
like an autumn leaf, floating gently to the stage. The first dancer I worked with that wore all beaded costumes was a girl form Algeria named Leila, who came out for a week. The main thing I remember about her was that she loved to make trouble, and the club was in a turmoil the whole time she was there.

There were a few girls from Jamila that sooner or later worked at the Bagdad, too. There were two other girls from my class that worked for a while, but one of them couldn't stand the club scene and the other was always dirty and smart-mouthed, so she didn't last long. Galya worked at the Bagdad for quite a while. She was from the class before mine, and she was a magnificent dancer - a dancer's dancer, really, as she was rather cold on stage and didn't relate well to the audience, but we certainly admired her technique. Galya's personal life wasn't very smooth - among other things, she had a daughter with a lot of problems. She eventually stopped dancing, went back to school, and got her nurse's license. I met Rhea when she started dancing at the Bagdad, and immediately recognized a kindred spirit. We have remained good friends ever since - the kind that space and time passing make no difference to - the friendship continues when we see each other as though there had been no separation.

After I had been working at the Bagdad for about six months, Amina came to work there. On her first night, she had a costume she had made from a nightgown, with her veil tied around her hips because she didn't know how to put it on, and no professional name. She had been studying for quite a while with Bettina, whom I never met, but who had a reputation as a real clown on stage, and she was finally ready to go. Gilli-Gilli gave her her name and I showed her how to wear a veil, and she and I have been dear friends ever since, for about 35 years now! Amina is one of the sweetest people I know, and that helped her greatly in her relationship with Yousef. She became the house dancer at the Bagdad, always there when I came back from dancing elsewhere, and always trying out a new trick or routine that Yousef wanted her to do. Jamila pointed out to me more than once that I could also have been a house dancer there, if I had made more of an effort to be always agreeable to Yousef. Oh, well.

Her dancing improved constantly, and today she is one of belly dancing's most respected teachers and impresarias, not to speak of her dancing, which is fantastic!

Soon she had more costumes than the rest of us, as she learned early on the trick of making a simple costume with jewels and metallic fabric that looked like not much in the dressing room, but very flashy on stage. I remember the first time that I and my then-husband went to her house in San Francisco to get together with Amina and her then-husband.

They lived in a three-story Victorian (where Amina still lives), and her front parlor, which was basically painted purple, had been painted all around the walls with a lineup of larger-than-life Egyptian gods, which they had done for a party.

How exotic, I thought, to paint something weird on your walls just for a party! That evening was when I first met her three little kids, one of whom grew up to be that well-known and fabulous drummer, Susu Pampanin!

Later at the Bagdad I worked with Hoda, a girl from New York who studied with Bert Balladine, and who later joined with Amina to produce Isis, the first belly dance convention.

Nawal was a girl-next-door type who used to go to the nude beach, so she never had that bit of untanned skin to peek out from her costume - a little bit of white that guys always seemed to find so devastatingly sexy.

Some years later I saw her and hardly recognized her, as she had changed her nose, though when I mentioned it to her, she absolutely denied it! One of Jamila's students who had moved back to Chicago to work came back to San Francisco for a while - her name was Amira, and every night before the first show she would go in the bathroom and put a fork down her throat, as she felt she could move her belly better if it were empty.

We didn't know about bulimia then, but it looks like that to me now. When she left, she abandoned the fork, which was quite beautiful, and I took it home and still have it Such a souvenir!

Yasmin worked at the Bagdad for a while - I still see her at stuff - she now has her own troupe, Aladdin's Lads and Lasses. We also had Fadwa, an extremely subtle dancer, and a wonderful dancer named Zoraida (Torres) - a Puerto Rican girl married to a Greek gambler - who had such style that even to
watch her put her foot down on the stage (a foot always demurely clad for stage in a tidy pump, though offstage she wore great tart shoes) was a delight and an experience. I bought some skirts from her, though I had to lengthen them with trim, but the best thing I got from Zoraida was my first beaded costume! Her mother, in New York, made beaded fringe for Zoraida's costumes, and she had a lot of them, but the one that made me fall in love was of facetted purple iris beads and green bugle bead fringe. Yow! She wanted $250 for it, which was a lot in the "60s, and I didn't have it, so I took a job out of town in order to raise the money for it. When I got back, it was to find that she had sent it to a dancer in New York! I was crushed! However, it didn't suit the NY girl, who sent it back, so I was able to buy it after all, and I was so happy! I have that costume to this day, and it hasn't lost a bead, in spite of the constant wear it got.

There were, of course, many other girls I worked with - most of us young, many of us still going to college, many of us married, all of us in love with this exotic and surprising dance job we were able to do. I'll talk about more of them later.


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