The Mexican

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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Flying Saucers
by Rhea

On those magical Tuesday nights when I was first dancing professionally, I observed many diverse phenomena heretofore unknown to me. One of them was the smashing of plates as a celebratory gesture for friends who performed Greek dances on stage when a particular piece of music moved them—and  after having consumed the requisite amount of retsina or ouzo. The first time I witnessed flying perambulations of pottery, I absconded to the bathroom, believing it to be the beginning of a fight that would only escalate later. It took all the imprecations of the waiters to get me to come out. “It’s O.K. It’s O.K. Happy, happy,” they yelled through the door. “Fun, fun.” Village Greeks tend to say the same thing twice, and most of the waiters were from villages where the only chance for a better life was to become a sailor and jump ship in an American port, preferably where one had relatives.

So I gingerly stepped out of my safe alcove to see that, indeed, much laughing, tossing of dollars in the air and plates on the floor happened simultaneously. “What a people!” I mused to myself, determined to find out more. And, with the determination of the amateur anthropologist and sociologist that I was, I set about to do exactly that.

There was Lolos, the Farfisa (electric organ) player who kept a gun under his instrument because of threats from a cuckolded husband seeking revenge. By that time I wasn’t afraid of anything anymore because I knew that the Greeks were dramatic, but probably not violent. They tended to talk more than to act and, by this time, I was hooked on the street theater of it all.

The scene for Oriental dancers was reflective of society as a whole then, just as it is now, but now the society is different. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s were the days of wine and roses—“Those were the days my friends; we thought they’d never end.” People wanted to try out different life style choices and to experience life to the fullest. Most people believed The Bomb was going to drop at any moment, (“The Russians are Coming; The Russians are Coming!”) and it caused them to act in dramatically opposed ways. Or they built bomb shelters or they lived life as though there were no tomorrow. I guess you can figure out where I stood—and still stand—on this question.

People went out all the time to provide their own entertainment and didn’t want to miss out on anything. There were no videos or computers to keep people ensconced in their safe homes. The “dumbing down” of America had not happened yet and people were idealistic and sought to improve themselves and the world (John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”) People were ready to throw themselves into a cause, and Jamila caught us at the high tide of this. We were in the heady throes of Idealism. The blacks of America were going to be liberated further and we were going to do it. Selma. Martin Luther King. Rosa Parks. Solidarity. The Black Panthers. (Did you know that clubs wouldn’t hire a black dancer because she didn’t look either Greek, Turkish, or Arabian? However, to be fair, they wouldn’t hire blondes, either. Of course, it was easier to wear a wig or dye your hair than to change the color of your skin.) We believed that the war in Vietnam was wrong and we were going to oppose it. We staged sit-ins, anti-war demonstrations, but then, in 1968, there was the shooting of unarmed students at Kent State. My second ex-husband, Phil Marsh, was lead singer and guitarist of the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band; he had me bare foot and pregnant with Melinda, dancing with the band to an old song of the Coasters, “Little Egypt” when they were the warm-up band for Joan Baez concerts. We were going to change the world!

So it was with Oriental dance. It seemed that it was a “life-style choice” and a way to “make a difference.” Jamila gave us our clarion cry: “Ladies, this dance is being dragged through the mud. You have to save it!” It took me a long time and a lot of living to realize that out of the mud grows the lotus.

We sought to save the dance, not realizing that while this ancient primitive art form needed rescuing, it rescued us. We did not save it. It saved us.

So we didn’t dance for money, although the lucky ones of us made plenty of it in those early days. We danced for the principle of it. To become a virtuoso dancer was the Ideal and I bruised and battered myself to accomplish this goal because there were many around me trying to accomplish this selfsame aim. To be deemed worthy by Jamila, the high priestess and presiding guru(ess) of the day, was the ultimate accolade. “Ask not what Oriental dance can do for you. Ask what you can do for Oriental dance.” Jamila raised the level so high that our whole lives were taken up with just trying to “measure up.” We didn’t only dance: we believed that we had to inspire others to dance, just as Jamila had inspired us. Our mission was to “pass on the Sacred Flame.” There was so much information abounding that one couldn’t capture a “corner on the market.”

There wasn’t only boring old modern Egyptian dance anymore (another diatribe). America, the great melting pot, gave us the chance to mix and match!

The Middle Eastern clubs gave us a great opportunity to further our education. We danced for patrons and musicians from Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt, and Palestine. (Fadil Shahin, a Palestinian from Bethlehem was the owner of the Casbah on Broadway, a boss without equal.) Arabic people were in greater or lesser abundance if a particular regime or war forced many populations out of their indigenous homelands.  We had a chance to see them dance on stage as they danced in their various countries, both men and women, and sometimes children. The musicians in the Middle Eastern clubs shared our tips, so they were full of all kinds of advice and ideas to get the patrons to part with the contents of their pockets. We dancers wanted not only their money; we also wanted their admiration and respect. So we listened avidly to the musicians’ advice on how to express the music and on the various stratagems for appealing to their various national and ethnic peculiarities.

We slavishly pored over their nationalistic proclivities, facial expressions, gestures and vocal uttering, to not only appeal to our ethnic audiences but (hopefully) convince them that we were from “over there.”

I’m not sure if we fooled the Middle Easterners, but many Americans would approach me and ask if I had learned this dance while growing up in A B C country at my mother’s (or grandmother’s) knee (or hip), and some people asked me if I indulged in various exotic practices, like bathing in milk. Some club owners would adjure us to speak English with an accent. If there were predominantly people from one ethnic group or country, the musicians would play their favorite music to further entice them to part with their money. If there were Saudis in the audience, Saudi music, not usually danced as Oriental dance per se, would be played at tipping time because Saudis, at that time, generally had the most disposable wealth.

We learned finger snapping, vocal calls, and hand gestures, in addition to having our technique cleaned up both by our customers and the musicians.

Where have they gone? Where are the clubs of yesteryear? (Perhaps this is another sociological and anthropological treatise to be taken up at another time.) Even in Egypt, Turkey and Greece, the way the “folk” express themselves has changed, and the clubs I danced at in Athens have closed or are limping along.

Everyone there wants to be modern and has no interest in preserving their culture. And wasn’t it ever thus? Even the Bible says that things were better in days of yore. In America, maybe foreigners acclimated into American life. Or maybe, just as Americans became more “politically correct”, so must have Middle Easterners. Everyone seems increasingly anxious to be perceived in a better light by Americans, and “belly dancing” is thoroughly enjoyed but not always considered a respectable vocation or pastime by them. No one wants their mother, sister, daughter or any female relative to be an Oriental dancer.

In the absence of clubs where one can see “real” people dance and get the unique and special instruction that we received, we now have haflas, in-studio parties, theatrical productions and the like, often with only a few token Middle Easterners in attendance.

In the absence of any formal standards, the dance form seems to have become “up for grabs.”

Undoubtedly, this results in some interesting and creative innovations, and I’m a great champion of personal freedom. (Sagittarius. December 10, 1941.) But this black hole has begun to be filled by insecure teachers interested in being the only keeper of the faith and those interested in keeping their students back. The money-hungry ‘80s produced videos and all manner of commercial products never dreamed in our “do it yourself” age. In those days, people were not trying to do it all so much as be it all.

One’s first costume was usually a “hand-me-down” bought from a more senior dancer who wanted to buy more beads to buy a newer, less sweated-in one. There was a famous store in San Francisco called Dance Art, where, in addition to being able to buy stage make-up and anything you needed to make a costume, you could inspect yourself in a mirror surrounded by every stage light and gel in existence to see if that wonderful lilac color would turn to mud on stage. Plus, you got to rub elbows with transvestites, in or out of drag, who worked at Finocchio’s, the longest running transvestite club in the U. S. of A. (and we’re not talking about sex change or gay here, but real honest-to-goodness cross-dressers who may or may not have been gay. The only male, dressed as a male, (albeit in an ethnic costume) ever allowed on the premises was John Compton, with his tray of candles and tea set balanced atop his head. Otherwise, performers had to be dressed as a woman).  Even prima ballerinas with the San Francisco Ballet waited in line to observe them selves in the same mirror, exchanging the most delicious gossip that you could read about tomorrow in the S. F. Chronicle.  For a girl who was born in St. Mary’s hospital in San Francisco, but grew up in the suburbs of San Mateo—admit it, you’ve never heard of San Mateo—it was like I’d died and gone to heaven. Not that excitement and adventure had never entered my life before... My father lost his government job during the McCarthy era due to having been, in his earnest youth, a card-carrying member of the Trotskyite party. (Admit it. You’ve never heard of Leon Trotsky nor do you know that he was assassinated in Mexico. But you know who Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts are (“The Mexican”). The only job open to him at that time was selling Fuller brushes door to door. (I stamped all his brochures and readied the free gift packages that he distributed.) He subsequently ascended to the higher calling of truck driver and delivered bread to supermarkets. But politics is so boring, don’t you think?

So what do we have nowadays? Communication via the Internet (“You’ve Got Mail”), cookie cutter costumes from Egypt costing the price of a Mafia baptism, made by village women in the countryside for Piasters and sold by savvy entrepreneurs for beaucoup bucks. We have self-proclaimed gurus and guru-esses telling us which hip to move or not to move, or if your shimmy should go side to side or up and down. We have culturally-aware dancers who have lived among the blue, green or red people, telling us why they are green, yellow or blue, and why we should learn to dance like them, or at least learn to experience life like them, and if we cannot, or do not want to, well, forget it, because cross-cultural awareness is all, even if we can’t experience it directly. (Although for $5,478.00, airfare included, 14 days total immersion, (and these days the immersion could be in a sea or ocean) you can be led here and there, day and night, and you may buy, buy, buy).

I guess, before I transform into a complete curmudgeon, I would say that in the “good old days”, one became known by word of mouth and generally agreed-upon and deserved acclaim, whereas nowadays, if one has a computer, one can proclaim oneself to be and become anything one wants. But, not to worry—I may be hopelessly mired in the old days and still change the television channels by hand—but my kids know about computers. So there!

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More by Rhea
9-18-02 My Belly Dance Baptism, or A Tale of Armpit Hairs
There was a rumor (that was the truth) that I didn’t shave under my arms.

10-25-02 The Photography of Cynthia F Cushman, Full size photos, smaller photos (and files)
Dramatic choice photos of Leila, Dalia, Momo and Suzanna

10-20-02 Visions of Delight, A History of Belly Dance in the United States Reviewed by Bobbie Giarratana & Susie Poulelis
Photos of MECDA performers & layout by Susie, Third Annual Bay Area MECDA Showcase

10-17-02 Music and Style by Yasmela / Shelley Muzzy
ATS seems to be pushing Middle Eastern dance, at least in the U.S., back into that safe and sexless area, sans the real knowledge of true folk movement

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