The Gilded Serpent

The Gilded Serpent presents...
My Belly Dance Baptism,
or A Tale of Armpit Hairs
by Rhea

My first gig as a dancer happened three weeks after the birth of Melina in September of 1969 at the Taverna Athena in Jack London Square, Oakland, California. This was on a Tuesday night and coincided with the folk dancing night taught by the esteemed Anna Efstathiou, an earthy look-alike of Italian movie actress, Anna Magnani.

As with all my earlier gigs, this one was arranged by Jamila Salimpour, with whom I had been taking dance lessons a little less than a year.  I had started my lessons in October, 1968, after seeing her perform with her troupe at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire at its original venue at Blackpoint. The pay was minimal, but not as abysmal as the $5.00 a night I was to receive from Yousef Kouyoumjian, the owner of the Bagdad Cabaret on Broadway in North Beach, San Francisco.

We “wannabe dancers” hoping to make our mark in the world of Oriental dance as it existed at that time regarded these jobs as plums (particularly, we students of Jamila, feeling as we did—duty-bound to heed her admonition to “raise the level”).

As he was to do on subsequent Tuesday nights, the boss, Manolis Glimidakis, who was from Hania, Crete, would come up close to the stage with arms folded over his chest and watched my show like a hawk, leaning his back against a fake Greek pillar. It was only after years later that I learned the real reason for his intense interest… There was a rumor (that was the truth) that I didn’t shave under my arms. However, because I had such long tresses that would fly this way and that, sticking to various parts of my sweat drenched body, it was hard to distinguish the hair under my arms from all the other stuck-on hair.  I was to find out later, after moving to Greece in 1977, even if a Greek hears something from someone else, they still have to see it for themselves.

And then, three weeks after my first gig, Jamila sent me to another gig in Fresno, California, where the lady boss, an Armenian, was not so reserved as Manolis. After my first show of three of the night, she came to confront me in the dressing room. “Say,” she said, laughing incredulously, “My customers tell me you don’t shave under your arms.” She stood there, obviously waiting for my denial so that we could both laugh together. “I don’t”, I said simply. Incomprehension suffused her face. “But why?” she asked, thunderstruck. You could see her thinking to herself, “Maybe an allergy?”

Her face only became more bewildered as I began to expand on the hippie manifesto of naturalness in all things, unisex, etc.  She cut me short with four words. “I’ll get a razor.”

And that was the beginning of the end of my life as a hippie, and my baptism, as it were, as an Oriental dancer. Jamila hadn’t told us what to wear to the clubs, if we should or shouldn’t wear nail polish, the difference between a Christian-owned or a Muslim-owned club, or virtually any of the protocol that surrounded the social life of the various denizens of any of the existing clubs. She taught us how to dance--and to dance well. If you listened to her many fascinating stories of her life as a traveling belly dancer, maybe you could pick up some ideas, maybe not. We were thrown into the water, and we learned either to sink or swim. A smart girl figured it out for herself. Many dancers were hired or not hired based on their ability to fit in to the life surrounding the clubs, a culture shock for which I, for one, will be eternally grateful. It was a chance to see people from all over the Middle Eastern world at play, living out their customs, and enacting their rituals and celebrations, and it certainly prepared me for my later journeys around the world.

Rhea with sister Marti during a recent visit
to the SF Bay area

So Manolis continued to search for hairs, now in vain, and finally gave up. I thought he had become bored with my dance and I resolved to work harder. Still it was a wonderful feeling to have been so closely scrutinized those first few months and was one of a series of incidents later depicted by Paulo Coehlo (who wrote “The Alchemist”). The Universe conspires to help us by making it easy to start on our destined road in life. The slaps, slings, and arrows come later—after we’ve been seduced and abandoned.

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The Gilded Serpent