The Gilded Serpent

The Gilded Serpent presents...
Charismatic Sultana Changes North Beach
by Sadira

In the early '80s, a few years before the whole club scene died on North Beach, a strange phenomenon took place. It was like a hot sirocco wind from the desert, appearing mysteriosly one night and mesmerizing to us, changing the Broadway scene during the few years. It was the appearance of a new dancer at the Bagdad Cabaret. No one from the San Francisco Bay Area knew anything about her, but she was an incredible dancer beyond equal. One night she appeared on the Bagdad stage and this charismatic desert mirage began to draw in customers and dancers alike to see her performances. Never, in all my years at the Casbah and Bagdad, had I seen anyone with the dance style, fascinating stage presence and command of the audience as Sultana! The first night I saw her dance, I don't believe I even blinked my eyes once from the moment she stepped onto the stage. She was a beautiful, raven haired, almond eyed beauty, with the most voluptuous body I had ever seen. She seemed to me to be a cross between Sophia Loren and Raquel Welch in body shape. She had dance moves the likes of which we had rarely seen in this area such as hip shimmies combined with rolling hip drops, debke hops interspersed joyfully within the context of the rhythym, 3/4 shimmies to die for, and showmanship.

When she came onto the stage, no one talked at the tables. No one's eye's left the stage. The musicians at the Bagdad starting playing lively songs that were new to us.

We thought that she had the body of a goddess and the soul in dance of a siren. There were many stories about her origins and all the typical gossip, but I was able to become close to her and found her to be an intriguing and mysterious woman. She would get the women in the audience up to dance, during her tipping time, a practice which was unusual in our area, and she always had a gracious comment towards anyone who danced or performed their moment of beledi.

She commanded the musicians and the stage, beyond anything I had seen before. I felt that I was almost in the presence of a tempermental queen!

If she did not like the music, or the attitude of the crowd, she would impetiously leave the performance in the middle of her set, not to return! Before long, a phenomenon began... dancers from the Casbah who had never set foot in the Bagdad (due to local dance politics), were coming over to the Bagdad especially to watch all of Sultana's sets.

Her dance style was so different from what was standard cabaret dance in our area for so long, it seemed like we were being awakened from a deep sleep. Sultana's costumes were unique, and one always wondered how her ample attributes were able to stay ensconced in her bra. It became almost an obsession for many of us, to go see her as much as possible. I saw men become infatuated with her the minute she began to dance. The Arabs loved her, because she interpreted and knew the songs and movements of their music. The musicians were rewarded with money being thrown at them, and often she would have long necklace loops of taped-together dollarbills, wound around her shoulders like a veil by her fans.

The most shocking thing that happened with her advent on the North Beach scene, was admiration from the ever-present Aida. Aida was the most dedicated Jamilla Salimpour student, sergeant-at-arms, teacher at the Salimpour School and a "fixture" at the Casbah.

Aida's dance style never deviated from what she learned from Jamilla, and of all the dancers I have known, I would say that she faithfully represented and promoted the Jamilla Salimpour style of dance.

Aida was also the only dancer at the Casbah whom Fadil allowed to wear pantaloons under skirts and dance with the "ethnic look" in costuming. I believe his respect for Aida, her devotion to Jamilla's dance style, and her excellence in performance allowed Aida to stay true to that style.

Aida became enthralled with Sultana's dance, unlike anything I have ever seen! (Remember that Aida carried the "bloodline" for the succession of students and lineage of the Salimpour style of dance.) There were few dancers with whom Aida would have been impressed. Sultana was the exception, even though their dance styles were like night and day. Aida would come to the Bagdad as often as possible to watch Sultana and they became good friends. Aida adapted some of Sultana's moves into her own, somewhat regimented, format. It was wonderful to see the inspiration generated in Aida and all the other dancers who crowded into the Bagdad to see Sultana.

Malika was a well known dancer at Zorba's in San Jose, and she taught for many years in Danville, California. She remembered Sultana from a time in the San Francisco Bay Area many years previously, when they danced together. Based on that connection, Malieka sponsored a few dance workshops with Sultana, that were fully booked.

Sultana could hold the audience in the palm of her hand, and she had innovative costuming and makeup techniques that also became a highlight of her workshops. Robaire Nakashian, well known drummer in the Bay Area, became friends with her and sponsored her in a few large workshops also (along with Habibi magazine when it had its original owners, Bob and Lynn Zalot). When Sultana hit the scene, I felt that everything about the local dance world changed. The concepts and ideas of movements and interpretation in cabaret dancing were mobilized to a new level. Her signature pieces of music were a delight to hear and were heard requested time and time again. A couple examples of the most popular ones that Chad always played for her were, "Zagarut El Helwa, and "Salamet Om Hasan."

The Bagdad, which had been perceived of by dancers to be in the Casbah's shadow as far as audience draw, was now overcrowded!

Customers flowed out the doors every night that Sultana performed. People stayed through the entire evening to see all her sets. If you were to go into the Casbah during this period, it was in sharp contrast with the past, when the Casbah had the larger clientele, and where now only a few patrons would be seated.

Many dancers began incorporating Sultana-like moves into their dance repertoire. She had a shimmy that was incredible to watch and very hard to duplicate. She did seem to prefer Middle Eastern audiences and when they came into the club, she gravitated towards them and became even more lively. I knew of quite a few well-known, professional dancers on the scene who were just as infatuated as I was with her performances and stage personality. She never seemed competitive and was gracious to all the dancers around her. Yet one could tell she dominated the Bagdad, and as I've said already, she was the only dancer I have ever seen walk off in the beginning, or middle of her set , not to return, because the music or audience did not please her.

Sultana's reign also coincided with the arrival of a professional five-piece Egyptian band at the Bagdad.

The place was jammed-packed from then on. It was amazing to see the transformation on Broadway. Everyone wanted a chance to dance to the Egyptian band, and everyone wanted to hear their incredible music. Jad Elias beamed from the stage....everything had turned around and the Bagdad was the "happening" place!

Unfortunately, Fadil (owner of the Casbah) started firing any dancers from his club nearby, who were found to be patronizing the Bagdad, and many were trying to obtain jobs there rather than the Casbah.

This created strange tension....everything seemed to move in slow motion after a while into a downhill slide, and eventually, to the closing of both clubs.

Sultana was like the Phoenix who woke the dying embers of the North Beach scene into a new life...but when she unexpectedly left to return to the Los Angeles scene to dance, the fire died down. The Egyptian musicians went to the Casbah for a while and then left due to their visa restrictions. That was the last time I felt or saw the magic of North Beach in the clubs, before their decline into closure.

A few years later, I contacted Sultana in Los Angeles and went to see her dance. Nothing had changed, except her hair seemed to be a lot more "beehive" style, her rounded hips seemed to have lost their natural proportional curve and her legs were too thin compared to the predominance of her breasts. I began to notice this phenomena of body imaging throughout the southern California scene. But her dancing.....the old fire, the live music and clubs in southern California made me long for the old days on Broadway, and I wanted to transplant myself to Los Angeles and become her student. I will never forget Sultana, her incredible dancing, her regal attitude and looks, respect from the musicians, and her friendship to me. She was a performer that inspired, delighted and entranced. Sultana was, unwittingly, the epitome of the last days of North Beach.

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