The Gilded Serpent presents...
On the Road
by Aziza!

As I have mentioned before, I worked a lot with the oudist/comedian Guy Chookoorian.  We enjoyed working together not only because our personalities meshed well, but also because we were both professional and dependable – no misrepresentations or flaking out.  We had some great adventures on the road together!

In April, 1968, I went with Guy and his band and a second dancer to Lompoc, California, to perform for several days at the officers’ club at Vandenburg Air Base.  It was while we were there that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and we all gathered in one motel room and watched the events in stunned and horrified silence. 

The other dancer for that gig was Tahia Sirhan, one of the dancers I saw at the Bagdad the very first time I saw bellydancing.  She was the fiery “Bedouin” who argued with the band in apparent Arabic and seemed so real and dramatic.  Well – it turned out that she was a nice Mexican girl who didn’t even speak Arabic!  The whole act was, of course, a put-on!  She and Guy also “fought” in “Arabic” – though he didn’t speak it, either.  One show, Tahia wound up rolling on the floor in helpless laughter because the seemingly horrible things Guy was saying to her were actually a list of Middle Eastern foods, with “hummos” in there about every third word!  Be careful when you perform with a comedian!

Starting in 1968 I went on road tours with Guy, his musicians – usually Pete Peterson on drums and Joe Dabney or Bert Pellish on piano – and another girl – a singer or dancer.  Our first stop was always Albuquerque, where we appeared at the Tiki Kai Supper Club (which has since burned down).  Despite its Polynesian name, the Tiki Kai booked many big name acts from across the spectrum of entertainment, and bellydancing had never before come to New Mexico.  It was a very nice restaurant with an adequate stage, but the women’s dressing room had a good-sized hole in the floor, covered insecurely by a rug – a trap for the unwary – I don’t know why they didn’t fix it.

The first time we went there we took a fairly new dancer who had studied with Masha Archer – a young blond named Dhyana.  I had worked with her and found her to be a nice girl and a promising dancer, so Guy gave her a try.  She and I stayed in a very strange and funky old hotel, which we thought was charming, while the musicians stayed in a considerably more prosaic – but cleaner – motel.  We ate lots of green chili and sopaipillas (heaven!) at the Coney Island Café, which was run by a Greek.  We also spent a lot of time shopping and sight-seeing in Old Albuquerque.  All went well until the night Dhyana – to my horror – gave a couple of joints to some guys in the audience after the show!  Yes, it was the time of hippies, free love, flower power and all, but Albuquerque was not Berkeley or San Francisco, and her act of “love” could have had disastrous consequences for the whole troupe!  Guy fired her immediately, and she was replaced by an old pro, Yasmina  (BJ Kunkel).  The rest of our stay there was uneventful. 

The next time we went to Albuquerque we took a very good cabaret singer, Anna Marie Mavros, who also appeared with us later in Canada .  We stayed in an upscale hotel and there was no funny stuff (nor good stories).

Once we went from Albuquerque to Tucson, where our show was featured at the Spanish Trail Motel, following the DeCastro Sisters and followed by Count Basie’s band.  We had performed for six days at the Tiki Kai, drove for a day to Tucson, and then performed for seven days straight there.  We were tired!  We had with us at that time a real bombshell, a short, sweet and flashy Mexican girl named Gabriella.  She sang well and bellydanced after a fashion.  (Guy said that to watch her dance and then mine was like seeing a mouse followed by a lion!)  She was a good addition to the troupe.

Our first night at the Spanish Trail was not our best showing ever.  We did the show as we had been doing it elsewhere, with us girls mostly backstage, just coming out to do our numbers in between songs and Guy’s comedy routines.  Mr. Adler, the manager, who was a bad dude (we heard Mafia rumors) told us that if we didn’t fix the show by the next night, we were outta there!  We hastily retooled things so that we girls were on stage most of the time, playing tambourines and singing along to some songs like “Hava Nagila”.  The man was pacified, and we finished our stay.  We also kept the new format from then on, as it really was better.  The audiences in Tucson were, however, the hardest to please we ever met.  They had a tendency to look at us as though we were some kind of spider they had never before seen – yes, bellydancing was something new in Arizona, but their reaction was ridiculous!

Mr. Adler expected us all to stay at the Spanish Trail, but he charged us for our rooms – and crummy ones they were – unlike most hotel venues where we appeared, where we were given free rooms as a matter of course.  Pete, the drummer, and Gabriella took rooms at a nearby, rustic motel, and the Spanish Trail manager was furious.  When I tried to defect, too,  Guy asked me not to, as the situation was getting really unpleasant.  Pete was forbidden to join us in the Spanish Trail’s swimming pool, though Gabriella, a tourist attraction in her bikini, was still welcome.

During the daytimes at most of the places we worked on the road tours, we would frequently go sightseeing.  Tucson was one of the best places for this.  We went to Old Tucson, which had been built as a movie set originally, and the Sonoran Desert Museum, as well as the mission churches of San Xavier del Bac (gorgeous and spooky, especially against the stormy sky) and Tumacacori (mostly a ruin).  We also went across the border to Nogales (except Gabriella, who didn’t want any problems at the border) and all got sick from eating in a restaurant called The Cave.  Nights on the desert were absolutely amazing – either more stars than you ever imagined existed or a full moon so big and bright that it could make anyone a little loony.  Driving along under the moon, through the saguaro cacti, it was very easy to imagine an Apache sitting his horse on top of every cliff and mesa!

Gabriella was still with us when we went on up to Nebraska, where we appeared for two weeks at the Esquire Club in Lincoln and two weeks at the Flamingo restaurant in Omaha.  Once more, as far as I could find out, I was the first bellydancer to appear in that state!  As much as the Tucson folks were appalled by us, so much the Nebraskans loved us!  It was most gratifying!  One of the things I remember most clearly about Lincoln, besides the shady streets of beautiful old houses just meant for raising families, was the approach as we drove to the city.  There was no gradual easing into the city environs – there were fields and then suddenly city, and the fields near it were filled with wild fuchsia peonies!  What a glorious sight!

Shortly after we reached Nebraska, Gabriella had to return to Mexico in connection with the divorce she was getting.  Guy called his agent in Los Angeles to have him send out another dancer or singer, but there was no one appropriate available.  That agent called one in Nebraska, and he said that he had seen a girl from Jordan fooling around in a dance club – just in her street clothes – and he thought that she might be what we needed.  And so we met the young woman who was to become Badawia, the well-known and beloved dancer and teacher in Oregon!  When she came to us, she only knew the common, folk-dance beladi, and we had one afternoon to whip her into shape as a bellydancer for the stage – as well as to make her a costume!  As you can imagine, Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1969, was not a real good place to find components for a bellydance costume!  After combing the stores, we found some green chiffon for a skirt and cut up a gold dress to make a girdle (some coin-and-chain dress belts hung on it gave it some style and movement) and to cover her bra – we had to cover one of her own soft bras, as she, though thin, had very large breasts, and there was definitely no Frederick’s in Nebraska to help us out!  Although her performance was not very polished, the audience loved her, as her sweet personality shone through.  Taking the name Afrita, she stayed with us for the rest of the tour, and I taught her every day.  Eventually she came out to California to continue her new career, took some lessons from Jamila, and went on from there.

There was a funny thing at the Esquire Club – Guy had continued to use some old publicity photos, as we had never had a chance to have any newer ones taken.  One he used was of him with Diane Webber, with whom he had worked for a while.  (Though she was a dancer then, she and her husband later became well-known nudists in Southern California.)  Diane and I were superficially alike in our faces, hairdos, etc., though I was thinner and about a foot taller.  Some of the patrons of the club decided that I was Diane Weber, even though I, of course, emphatically denied it.   There were large bets laid, and there was a big uproar about it every night!

There was a photographer who came to see us frequently in Omaha and, I think, had a little crush on the show – or at least on the dancers!  He took a lot of pictures of me one evening when I was dancing while suffering with a migraine, and they are surprisingly sultry and effective.  He also made a little movie of Guy, Afrita and me in a wheat field – Guy is playing the oud, and Afrita and I dance solo and together.  It is a great artifact now!  It was a windy day, and, when we were through, our torsos were covered with little red dots from the wheat that was whipped against us by the wind.

Dancing “on the road” was a great adventure, but I was always delighted to return to my own apartment in Berkeley and my sweet little son – until the next time!

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