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The Gilded Serpent presents...
What's in a Name
by Sadira

If you were a dancer in the late '60s thru the '80s, it was an important part of your professionalism to adopt a "dance name" that needed to be an exotic, preferably Arabic, Turkish or Persian name to use when you danced. No one used her own Western name! A dance name was given, and from thence forward, you were known as such. It was especially important because when they introduced you at the Casbah or the Bagdad Cabaret, it always was the same introduction: "…And now we have the beautiful/lovely/radiant (fill in name) dancing next." In all the years that these clubs were open, I rarely heard a different introduction. It became an ongoing joke among dancers whenever we talked among ourselves."Oh yes, here is the bee-uu-tee-ful Kashmira". So as you see, having the name Ann wouldn't quite cut it in that context!

When I was first dancing, the allure and excitement of receiving your dance name was a celebration, almost an initiation to anticipate.

During the early '70s, there was a whole protocol for dancers to follow: what you wore, who you "took from", what clubs you "danced at", etc. There were a few dancers whom I remember who never fit into Jamilla vs. "the others" syndrome and they were Bert Balladine, Najia, Amina and several out of town dancers. By and large, whether you liked it or not, it appeared to me that most of the teaching and dancing that began in the Bay Area was from Jamilla Salimpour and her students...good or bad.

When I arrived on the scene in 1972, most of Jamilla's performing dancers were employed at the Casbah, and everyone else was at the Bagdad or assorted Greek clubs. In the early '70s it seemed an important rite of passage to have a dance name, but receiving one's name also became an initiation ceremony that proclaimed your destiny, your new birth, into the future of Belly dance. There was a feeling of rebirth or re-identification involved with becoming a Belly Dancer.

Until you had changed your name, and until you actually had "become" your dance personae, you would never be taken seriously by other dancers, audiences, or club owners.

Many times, Fadil Shaheen owner of the Casbah Cabaret, reinvented or totally changed dancers names to whatever name he felt was more appropriate to use in his nightclub. An alchemical process occurred within the dance field, as one shed her "ordinary", Anglo name for the rich, exotic, and mysterious Middle Eastern flair, the whole emergence of new identity took over one's life. It was expected to merge and meld into a complete separate identity as a dancer that eventually consumed one's whole life and identity.

This acceptance of a new identity was liberating to a lot of women who took this opportunity to shed the cultureless backgrounds of their own lives and develop a strong self-esteem and rich life. It also became a crafty illusion, causing tunnel vision for some dancers.

This tunnel vision caused them to become so immersed in the dance, the Arabic culture and life, that there was no room left for anything else in their lives except their new identity. It could be as addictive and insidious as an opium smoker's dream. We lived and breathed the dance and its ethnic beauty.

(I knew dancers who always wore the heavy black kohl-rimmed eyes, whether in clubs or shopping. It became a world within a world.) There is so much beauty and richness in cultures outside the American experience that we grasped onto these exotic realms as the reality of our own lives. Ethnic jewelry, clothing from the Silk Road, homes transfixed into Bedouin indulgence, foods such as hummus, tabouli, and babaganoosh, and spices such as cumin and coriander, became regular, everyday things for us. I admit I still love the food, decor, music and all the richness that these ancient worlds bring into our lives. It truly was a Renaissance of creating and living a world separate from conformity to the "American Dream". It was common that once you received your dance name and you became well known in the world of Belly dance, all else fell away. Many of the greatest dancers are still known by their dance names only.... and very few others would actually recognize their birth names. Among them are: Jamilla Salilmpour, Aida Al-Adawi, Galya, Rhea, Najia, Shukriya, Hoda, Rababa, Mish-Mish., Mashuqua… also there was, Charisma, Saida, Karma, Meta, Samira, Selwa, etc. It was an honor to be known only by your dance name and established you in the ranks of known people in the community.

Nowadays, more dancers are choosing not to redefine their identity with a dance name or an authentic Arabic dance name for their troupe. It's an interesting turn around. I believe it started when we began to see well-known and respected dancers emerging from Egypt with names like Nellie, Fifi, Lucy and Dina. The song, "Linda, Linda" became a hit, and no longer was finding an Arabic name to replace your own the order of the day. Turning my thoughts back to the '70s: Receiving a name seemed a tradition, and like most Belly dance matters at that time, I believe it started with Jamilla. She would personally give her dancers their dance names. It was a very important time in a student's life, to be initiated with a name personally thought of and picked exclusively for you by your dance teacher. This tradition carried down through my own teacher, Atash, and I eagerly awaited the name she would bestow and bless upon me. It was one of the pivotal rituals involved in becoming a dancer. Most dancers kept the names given to them by their teachers, in reverent homage. My name given to me was Adara. Adara! I asked my Atash what this name meant. From where did it come? She responded that she wasn't sure, but it "came to her and felt like my name". So I was anointed thus. During this time, there was also a lot of background information (attributed to Jamilla) that the origin of Belly dance was an ancient fertility rite, for birthing and done in antiquity by priestesses to the Egyptian Goddess. Thus we have a strong influence of the belief in rituals, initiations, and ceremonies that included community in the realm of dance. Have I mentioned that I hated the name "Adara", but that out of respect for my teacher, I kept it? My teacher left the dance world shortly thereafter, and I began my odyssey with Rhea and being in Rhea's troupe. Handing out names to students, went flying out the window and everyone just picked her own. It was my opportunity, so I changed my name. After much study and reading many books, I picked the name "Ashera", which was an ancient Babylonian creator goddess, who created the Tree of Life. I became a teacher and well-known local snake dancer under this name and even though every one mispronounced it, I thought it was best to stick with it. That is, until one night at the Casbah, while I was being introduced. I overheard snickers and laughter from some of the Arab men. I hadn't started dancing yet, so I knew they couldn't be laughing at my dance! This laughter vaguely puzzled me, but I ran out on stage and danced my best. (No more laughing or snickering.) Later that evening, Fadil Shaheen came over to me and asked me where I had gotten my name. I told him. He told me that in Arabic, the word "ashera" meant the number ten. He advised me to change it. Stubbornly I held on, I was known as Ashera, and Ashera I would stay!

By that time, I was also a regular dancer at the incredibly beautiful Khyber Pass Restaurant in Oakland. It had just switched ownership from the original Afghani owner to a rich Arab. After dancing my last set, the owner came over to me with a very worried look on his face. Now what...? He asked me, "How did you get your name?"

"Here we go again!" I thought to myself, and I began with the usual Tree of Life story. He didn't buy it any more than Fadil had. He said, " I'm sorry but you are using the word for a very important religious Islamic Day-"The Day of Mourning"-- you must not continue to do so, it is very disrespectful". He patted my hand condescendingly and walked away rather stiffly. "O.k., o.k. I've got it.. I have to change the name", I admitted to myself. I wanted a name that no other dancer had adopted. (There were so many repeats of dance names that now dancers were adding Arabic surnames to their dance names to identify themselves as the original owner of that name).

Subsequently, I found a name that I truly loved the minute and saw it. It has brought me much luck, notoriety and has propelled me forward into my destiny as a dancer. That name is Sadira. The book in which I found it said it was from the Persian language and means, " the bud of the lotus flower, denoting a mystic or a dreamer." That's definatley me! So for the third and forever last time, my name is Sadira.

All indigenous, egalitarian societies and mystery schools believe that the power in a name is quite formidable. A child is given a name at birth to protect and identify it to the community; also to fool the evil spirits.

A person's true name is usually given during an initiatory rite, or after that individual has a vision or after an event happens in their life that signifies their "true name". They would also have a separate, "sacred name" that would never be spoken aloud or told to others for to do so you would cause you to lose your power, energy, or life. So a name can be very powerful and create a life of its own. When you choose, choose well and with deep thought and understanding of what significance that name reveals to you.

As a postscript: when I told Persian people my name, "Sadira"...none of them recognized it as a Persian word, let alone a name! Does it matter? No. To me, it is my essence, my dance spirit name, and it fits me well. By the way, my first dance name, "Adara", which was given to me by my first teacher, was later found to be a Hebrew name from the Old Testament of the Bible meaning "virgin". No wonder I couldn't get used to it!

Ready for more?

more by Sadira
9-26-01 "RETRO-TRIEVING" by Sadira
I remember those days back in the '70s when ethnic stylizing was the only "true" way to dance. Latest addition to our North Beach Memories!

10-25-01 Belly Laughs Gives Reviewer Terrific Case of Reader’s Indigestion, Reviewed by Sadira
“Belly Laughs: Adventures with Celebrities & Other Unusual Characters” book written by Rod Long.

12-25-01 Najia's gift -Stage-worthy Names for Dancers
A whole book of names in a PDF file!

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