The Gilded Serpent presents...

by Sadira

I began studying Belly Dance in 1972, right in the beginnings of its brightest light of existence here in the San Francisco Bay Area. There was only one group that was considered "The Only" dance troupe, dancers, or instructor that had any validity in the Middle Eastern dance scene. If you did not belong to that one group, it was like being an outcast! It was like an actual war at times. For me, it was a strange scene. As a 17 year old. I had come up with the "Peace and Love Generation", where everyone was supposed to work together.

I had no experience with the political intrigues of the art world and the cruelties that opposing artists would justify committing in the name of "The Dance"!

Many dancers feel, as do I, that Jamila Salimpour and her Troupe "Bal Anat" deserve a great deal of respect and homage for the tremendous influence they had on dancers and styles of dance in the San Francisco Bay Area during that time. Yet, there was a very dark side to that dance scene. If you did not dance and study with Jamila, or one of her designated dance teachers, you were considered a pariah and, many times, purposely snubbed and sometimes, efforts were made to sabotage your dancing or gigs.

Jamila was considered by many locals as the grand matriarch of dance. She reminded me of the High Priestess card in the Tarot; except that she seemed a dark, sinister Kali version. This, of course, was because I was not a member of her group, but was connected with "The Others". I was never privileged to meet or see the benevolent side of her presence; nor was anyone I knew at that time. Jamila always appeared larger than life, whether on the Renaissance Faire stage or on the stage at the Casbah, presiding over her student nights or "moon festivals". She seemed a towering presence, with the plumes of dark ostrich feathers adorning her headdress. All one could see would be her beautiful, white face with its dark kohl-rimmed eyes and her faux tattoos. Yet, there were her eyes....piercing, commanding, condemning and exuding energy. You knew you just had to be in the presence of a Goddess, for that energy, for many dancers, was all consuming.

Most of the dancers at the Casbah were from her retinue, and they were the most incredible dancers I had ever seen. The Renaissance Faire....when the sounds of the mizmars and zornas wailed throughout the fairgrounds, one was pulled, mesmerized, to the performance unfolding.

Though Jamila now has admitted publicly that it was mostly made up, and only in part, real, but this was not acknowledged in the early days of Bay Area Belly Dance.

This was the only...true...way to dance, to costume oneself, otherwise your work was considered trashy, or "in-authentic".

Seeing everything from the perspective of almost thirty years of dance, I now see the irony that many dancers have begun to reinvent the " Tribal Style" into "American Tribal Style", and I remember those days back in the '70s when ethnic stylizing was the only "true" way to dance. Now, Assiut cloth dresses with coin jewelry are back in style, vs. beads, bangles, and shiny see-though cloths. Many of the new dancers of today have no idea of the origins of the dance from the '70s , when that look was the only "accepted" dance fashion. History does repeat itself.. I mourn the death of true individuality and creativity that took so long to develop among American dancers. There are still many who do stand out, for example, Suhaila Salimpour, Jamila's daughter, who are paving new directions and dancing their own dance.

I had the unfortunate experience (in the eyes of the Salimpours' dynasty), of taking dance lessons from a teacher, Atash, who was banned from the Bal Anat Troupe for daring to teach without Jamila's approval. Jamila had to give her approval to any teacher that had been affiliated with her instruction.

If she did not announce that you could teach under her guidance, and you stepped out on your own... you became one of "the others"!

Atash had been a sword dancer with the Bal Anat Troupe. She had started teaching before Jamila gave her the blessing to teach. Thus, she and all of us who came after her, were heavily scrutinized in the dance community and were led to believe that we were ignored. Unfortunately, all the political back-stabbing became too much for my teacher, and she retired after only a few years of teaching on her own.

Ethnicity was the style and anything else was unheard of! Coin bras and belts. striped heavy weight skirts and veils, two pairs of circular skirts, and pantaloons, along with various scarves and authentic Afghani and Turkoman jewelry; was the only proper way to dress for dancing. I believed that if you wore anything different than this type of costuming, you were not a "real dancer".

This disparity between ethnic styling and the cabaret styling went on for many years, until the videos and music from Egypt showing Nagua Fuoad and Sohair Zaki for instance, showed a very cabaret styled format.

I have studied with many teachers, mostly those who have been extraordinary for their own talent and the authenticity with the various styles of dance among Egypt, North Africa, Saudi Arabia, Persia or Armenia. My next and most influential teacher, was Rhea. I first saw her perform with her troupe on the Naji Baba Television Show. After watching Rhea on television, I yearned to duplicate that sinewy, and energetic dance style. I met her, became a long time student, friend and member of her troupe "Nara Nata".

Broadway, San Francisco, was the highlight of the time; The Casbah and the Bagdad. The Casbah, always lured the more "traditional" styled dancers. It was like being inside a Bedouin tent with the highlighted stage and the ambience of a secretive, treasure. For the most part the dancers there, at least in the beginning, were from Jamila's group. They included some extraordinary dancers. Two of the major stars of the stage at that time, were Selwa and Aida. Their presence on that small stage seemed to me to be breathtaking. The live music of Fadil Shahin singing and playing oud, Jalal Takesh on kanoun and Salah Takesh on dumbek (tabla) was incredible. My favorite thing was seeing Selwa dance. She danced out with her coal black hair, and beautiful almond shaped eyes, wrapped in her veil like an unfolding flower. She had the most incredible 3/4 shimmies I have yet to see to this date. Of course, the shows were almost an hour in length and constituted the five-part dance which was becoming standard : Entrance, veil/taqsim, middle section with more exuberance, floor work (complete with Turkish drop), tip music, drum solo and finale.

One night when I was at the Casbah Cabaret, I had a dollar bill with which I was planning to tip Selwa. To illustrate to you how deep and disturbing the chasm between the Salimpour dancers and "The Others" were;

when Selwa danced near me, and I reached out with my dollar offering, the dancer I admired so much purposely pivoted away from me and would not accept it.

It was quite common to have other dancers who knew you were a performer or student, snub you in the clubs and refuse to take your tips.
(More to follow soon….)

[ed. comment: It was my perception that some friendly dancers also refused to accept tips from other dancers they recognized in order to keep the cost of going to the clubs repeatedly affordable. Some dancers were honored by the same practice that was considered a snub between the two factions.]

Ready for more?
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