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Gilded Serpent presents...
Zaharr's Memoir, Part 9 & 10
A Visit to my Teacher's Teacher, More Street Performing

by Zaharr Hayatti

Zaharr shares her struggles and her triumphs as a dancer from 1966 to the present. “For many of us, it was a hard road that led to North Beach and beyond.” she writes. Return to read her story as it unfolds here in the Gilded Serpent.

It was time to take a look at how to begin my professional career!

My teacher and I had located a black lace bra from Frederick's of Hollywood, as a first step toward costuming me for my “professional debut”. Along with the strip of Assiut, I carried this with me everywhere, in an old hand-made tote bag along with my patchouli oil and the black eyeliner.

Kathy and I had contrived a belt from a two-inch strip of black velvet, and attached to it the coin chain my teacher had given me. This went into the bag as well, and I carried it faithfully to all my street performances, hoping one day for the chance to actually wear it.

Thrift stores were like Aladdin's cave for us! We found old jewelry we could take apart and add together in creative ways to form additions to the bra and belt. At one store, we found an old broken belt with large strong, gold colored rosettes. We sewed some on along the edge of the velvet to give it some strength. I pulled a gold shoe buckle off an old pair of shoes, and combined it with a pair of broken earrings. This was the “fancy” front part of the belt. For the first fifteen years of my dancing career, this was the basic part of my costume. I would add to it often, over the years, as little by little, I could afford a piece of gold trim here, a few small bells there, another row of coins, rhinestones from a broken necklace…

One might be tempted to call this period “The Dark Ages of Costume-making”. If there was a Madame Abla somewhere in Egypt, no one I ever saw had discovered her!

There were virtually no ready-made costumes available for years yet; dancers always made their own.

It was very easy to tell a professional from an amateur, and the level of success of a professional, by the beauty and artistry of her costumes. Basically, the longer and thicker the fringe, the fuller the skirt and the finer the fabric, the better the dancer.

(I recall my first visit to Rakkasah, after years of dancing in Europe and Asia, being totally out of the loop of the dancing scene in San Francisco. How shocked I was to see beginning dancers decked out in pricey glory from Turkey and Egypt. I nearly wept!)

While street performing with Don and Chris in “The City”, we discovered that one of the best spots for performers pitches was around Fisherman's Wharf. The tourists had little to do while they queued up for the Cable Cars, or wandered around, bedazzled by the fresh seafood cocktails, so we pretty much had a captive audience and virtually no competition. It was rare to find anyone street-performing around there in those days, before the Cannery and Ghirardelli Square had built their outdoor stages and began scheduling performers. We were pretty much gone by the time that happened. We DID run into Ray Jason sometimes, who had a real act---as opposed to ours, which was just an “act” act. He was wonderful to watch as he juggled dangerous looking objects, including fire, and did lots of terrific patter with the crowd. (We never ever got into patter ourselves, as it's pretty hard to talk over the lyrical voice of a Scottish bagpipe!)

Fisherman's Wharf was the home of one of the very first Cost Plus stores, and after the fog rolled in and it was too cold to stay out on the street, we would wander through the aisles searching out the rare and the wonderful. I remembered the “Made in India” jewelry section from my previous hunt for finger cymbals.

My teacher also took me to visit her own teacher's class. (Maybe she wanted to see if I had the “it” required for a professional career, or just an expert point of view.) At the time, all I knew was that I would be a sort of non-paying, visitor to the class. Most of the students were already professional quality, even though most of them were not dancing full time. Even then, there were people studying dance just for the joy it gave them. Reasons students gave for beginning to learn to dance were: to move their bodies in a beautiful way, to tone muscles, to trim down after giving birth, and many of the other usual reasons why people study dance today.

I was nervous about going to the class, simply because I had never seen any other Belly dance students, and was wondering how I would fare. Would I embarrass my teacher if I couldn't follow the moves?

Would the other students laugh at me in my long cotton skirt, and bikini top? There seemed to be many reasons to be nervous, but I knew that if I were to perform one day, there were always going to be people in the audience that I didn't know. A roomful of students and a famous teacher became less of a worry then, and more like an opportunity for inspiration, as my teacher and I set out on the bus from Berkeley to Oakland for the afternoon class.

My teacher introduced me to Roman Balladine, as we called him then, and he seemed genuinely enthusiastic and happy to meet me. “I've been hearing about you and how hard you are working. I'm glad you could come to my class.” He relaxed me immediately with his warmth and natural manner. I guess I had expected him to be far more aloof and perhaps somewhat condescending like my sister's Russian Ballet teacher had been when I was a little girl visiting her class.

I tried to hide in the back of Bert's studio where no one could see me, but he would have none of it. “Come up here to the front with your talented teacher and all my lovely professional dancers,” he called to me
My embarrassment quickly disappeared as we all worked hard together, focusing on Bert's moves. He led us through a very thorough set of isolations for every part of the body. Then we went through them again in different combinations, adding increasingly complex footwork. The class was so invigorating and inspiring that all my worries before the class now seemed silly. He was a supportive teacher for everyone, singling various dancers out to demonstrate the moves to the rest of us when they had achieved what he was attempting to convey at the time. I was still unable to pay for lessons, so it was to be the one and only class I ever had with Roman “Bert” Balladine.

Some years later, in Salt Lake City in 1975, Bert joined me spontaneously on-stage at Athens West. It was the sort of dance, and he was the sort of partner, that made you feel as if you had danced together for your whole life.

Now from time to time, I see him at the Rakkasah West Festival, and he always has a warm smile and a greeting for me, though I am certain he does not remember me and the two occasions on which we made magic together. I believe it is the signature of a gentleman to make a woman feel as if she is the center of his universe, even if it is only for five minutes.

When I danced with him in perfect harmony that night in Salt Lake, the timid little “Baby-Belly” (as some of us earlier North Beach Dancers referred to ourselves at that beginning stage of our careers) had long since disappeared. In her place was a dancer of confidence and grace.

The time we spent together that day will always be one of my happiest memories!

If it had not been for his highly talented and generous student, who had taught me into my professional career for no payment, we never would have had that magic moment, which I carry next to my heart like a precious jewel.

Thank you Roman “Bert” Balladine.
Thank you Sharlyn!

I owe you both so much more than I can ever, ever, say…

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Ready for more?
more from Zaharr

3-25-04 Zaharr's Memoir, Part 8-
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Zaharr's Memoir, Part 7 Putting it together
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6-25-04 Romancing the Road (The Bousada Troupe Tours) by Yasmela
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6-24-04 Saving Grace, Belly Dance Comics by Alexandria
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