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“Come with me to the Casbah” 

By Nisima

As promised in my Letter to the Editor, following are some of my most cherished memories of two years as a dancer at the Casbah in San Francisco.

After 3 years of belly dance training by several teachers in the Bay Area, I went on a "class field trip" to North Beach to observe the professional dancers at the clubs. I became instantly enthralled with the live music and atmosphere in the North Beach clubs and restaurants, but it took several more visits to the Casbah before I got up enough courage to audition for Fadil Shahin, the Casbah's owner.

After my short 15-minute audition, Fadil hired me as a regular dancer for one night a week, letting me know to bring enough costume changes for the three shows I would be performing, and to be on time. I nodded yes to everything and went home in a daze, totally thrilled to be a regular working dancer at the Casbah! In those days, those shows were at least 35 minutes long; a marathon! However, soon, I built up stamina. The music was fabulous and personally, I liked the nightclub ambiance better than restaurants, where a dancer must dodge waiters and compete with the dinner service in order to get the audience's attention. Even the fact that the club closed at 2:00 a.m., and I had to be at my full-time day job at 8:30 a.m. didn't deter me one bit. I was so jazzed up on the live Arabic music after those three long shows, I didn't even feel like sleeping right away when I got home anyway!

I think being that the Casbah was a nightclub and not a restaurant was one reason why it attracted a lot of people for its size. The turnover in the audience was faster because there was no food being served.

It became an informal meeting place for many dancers, musicians, students and teachers, out of town visitors; a lively social mix that helped keep us in touch with what was happening in the belly dance world. Remember, we didn't have internet access then. Even now that we do, I don't think it can compare to the experience of physically being there, with the music, with the people!

But, I promised some cherished memories, so here goes:

My worst show: Okay, let's get this one over with. I, against all good advice, wore a new beaded costume without practicing in it first. I know! I know. So of course the bra just had to open, in front, right in the middle of my show. Every dancer has had a similar experience, but what made mine particularly embarrassing was that I didn't even notice it for a couple of minutes! I kept dancing until I noticed a cold draft and glanced down to see, in horror, that my bra had opened in front a good 6 inches. Oh, cringe! I do remember thinking that the guy in the front row seemed a little too wildly enthused during my taxim section... Anyway, I spun around with my arms crossed over my chest to some very surprised expressions on the musicians' faces, and then raced offstage to the dressing room to effect immediate repairs. I, of course, had plenty of the big safety pins we dancers always had, and

after securing the bra that had betrayed me, (well, that's how I felt about it at the time) got right back onstage to hearty applause and finished my show.

Okay, lesson learned the hard way! I always "stress tested" my costumes and checked them very, very carefully after that.

My best show: My all-time favorite show was the time an entire Middle Eastern bachelor party came in to celebrate with the groom before the wedding the next day. They kept asking the musicians for special songs, getting up and dancing in the audience and on stage, throwing money chains all over the musicians and me, and in general having a whale of a great time! The rest of the audience really got into the spirit of it, too. I knew my show was a little longer than usual, but when I got offstage, one of the dancers asked, "Are you okay; do you know you danced onstage for a solid hour before even leaving for tips?" Well, I guess time goes quickly when you're having fun! Not having the personal experience of dancing in the Middle East , I viewed this a valuable dance experience, completely relevant to the culture of the music I loved so much and still do.

The musicians: I got along fine with the musicians. They were professionals and obviously in direct control of the music to which I was dancing. This being said, I did occasionally ask for specific songs or rhythms, but I didn't get too adamant about it, because I could see a lot depended on how the night was going for them, who was on break, was there a "guest musician" and so forth. Frequently, they did oblige me, but just as frequently they surprised me but always the music was wonderful, and the general pattern of the shows was the same. I don't know if others will agree with me, but I just don't think you can expect live music be consistently the same each show, unless you hire your own band. It was very clear that the musicians were not the dancer's personal band employees. I also personally felt that a dancer who had to have complete precision for the choreography needed to perform to taped music.

However, tapes did not provide the same kind of spontaneity and rapport that happens with a live band, and I was trained to improvise within the patterns of the music; so it was just not a problem. The only time I ever felt it was at all difficult was when there were "guest musicians" because it was a real challenge to adjust immediately to a new drummer, for instance, because the shows were long. A good dancer should be able to handle anything for 15 minutes, but 35-45 minutes is a long show! So, what could we dancers do, but relax, be as centered as possible to respond at the best level we could and smile? A lot.

Other dancers: The camaraderie and fun of working with other dancers also meant a lot to me. We took turns rotating the order of our performances, tipped each other off if there was a rowdy person in the audience, shared the latest "dance news" and in general looked out for each other, supplying safety pins, needles and thread, cookies, and support. I think many dancers miss this supportiveness, and it's one of the reasons why troupe performing is popular again, and there are plenty of nightclub style troupes around.

Zills: When I started working professionally as a belly dancer, it was unthinkable for a dancer not to play zills, and play them well and at the appropriate times (not during the drum solo, please!). Off-rhythm zill playing throws the musicians off and is not pleasant for the audience to hear, either. Many dancers subsequently gave up playing or even learning to play the zills when the Modern Egyptian style of music and belly dance became popular.

However, I was and remain, an "American" style dancer and still play zills. I should get a T-shirt that says just that: "I Still Zill!"

My only mishap with zills was the time one flew off my finger and sailed clear across the room and hit the mirrors on the wall loudly! Fortunately, no one was hit, and no one mentioned it to me later either. That was another lesson that I learned the hard way! Always check your zill elastics carefully before a show.

Tips: Going out for tips was a requirement in the clubs. Period. So, I did it as quickly as I could and kept as much distance as possible. An over-enthusiastic tipper always got immediate direction by my taking their hands firmly in mine and remember, those zills are a lot of brass on the hands! Of course, you could easily make a hasty but graceful retreat by playing a different rhythm and shimmying away! So, I never had a problem at the Casbah with tipping. Actually, my only really negative experience of tipping happened at a restaurant loaded up with the passangers of a cruise ship from Hawaii. There were 400 of them, wearing aloha shirts and muu-muus, and getting up onstage and trying to hula to the live Arabic music. Even the musicians looked a little stunned at this!

I was half-way through the audience going out for tips when a sweet-looking little old lady grabbed the back of my costume bra (which fortunately was very sturdy), swung me around with surprising strength, and flung me right into her husband's lap, yelling, "Kiss her Henry, it's your birthday!".

The owners of the restaurant had started to walk over, because she was way out of control, but fortunately, poor Henry was in so much shock, I was able to immediately jump off his lap, blew him a kiss and shimmy the heck out of the room! Although the owners apologized to me for the incident, it was a long, long, long, long time before I consented to dance for another "cruise ship party" again at that restaurant!

Costuming at Nightclubs: The costumes were of course very glitzy and feminine, and nothing ethnic was acceptable to any club owners. I personally preferred then and still do, the look of the beaded costumes, but I sometimes wore two or three layers of skirts, depending on the weight of the fabric. I wanted an air of "mystery" about the costume; I liked the idea that no one could see how hard your legs and knees were actually working to produce those syncopated hip shimmies that seemed to "float" above the skirt. Besides, I'd always been trained that a dancer needed to entertain everyone in the audience, including women and children, otherwise you really were limiting yourself. I actually got very nice comments from women of the audience about my costumes. In particular, I appreciated the Middle Eastern woman who paid me the compliment of telling me "You are a nice girl; your costumes are beautiful but also more modest". Well, the bras and belts weren't all that "modest", but in comparison to some others, I guess they were. The fact of the matter is, we were performing on a raised stage at close quarters; so as a practical matter, I wore skirts that I didn't have to worry about revealing more than I wanted to reveal during a spin. I'd seen that happen with dancers occasionally, and it's a jarring note in a performance; no matter how beautiful a dancer is. The musicians appreciated elegant costuming as well and didn't like anything they considered too revealing. Remember, they had to observe it a close range on stage! So, all things considered, as a professional courtesy, dancers with whom I worked always let each other know if there was a problem with a costume.

To conclude my Casbah memories, let me just say that when that club closed, the dancers I worked with and I cried for a week; we were inconsolable because we knew it was the end of a era in belly dancing. Recently, when I saw the photos of the Casbah building's interiors being gutted to be rebuilt as something else, I experienced a sharp pang of sadness! Then, a second later, I realized that the ambiance I loved at the Casbah was created by the people, not the building, and that camaraderie, that feeling between dancers, audiences and musicians can never be destroyed; it is too powerful to just disappear and I firmly believe that power has resurfaced into other venues. Thank you all for coming with me to the Casbah!

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