The North Beach Project

by Najia El Mouzayen
November 19, 1999

When Editor Lynette started talking about reconstructing the North Beach experience of the 1960's, '70's and 80's, I thought it would be fun-something like watching the television mini-series called Maupin's "Tales of the City" (Meaning, of course, the city of San Francisco, California in the 1960's). I watched that series once again when it was re-broadcast last year and was instantly transported to those truculent times of pot and flower-children; I was absolutely none of the above, but was a victim of intrigue, seduction and beguilement of the new "sexual and intellectual freedom revolution." Well, what can I say? I was both magnetized and repelled by it.

North Beach experienced a radical change while I was in college. While I was studying at the University of California in Berkeley, it supported such renowned places as the Hungry I and the Purple Onion where talents (such as Lenny Bruce, Barbara Streisand, Smothers Brothers, and the late Cruz Luna) began their definitive careers. It was a time of "Beatnik" poets, comic satirists, and opera singers earning bread money.

We sat in darkened cafes, enjoying them and the scene, without realization of the changes just around the corner.

While I was away from California finishing my degree at the University of Washington in Seattle, I thought nothing of the scene I had left behind and settled into my new life as a respectable married woman and public school teacher. However, radical changes happened in less than a decade. By the time I returned to Berkeley to work on my Master's degree, it was 1964. President Kennedy, whom I had seen in person, smiling his wide toothy smile at me, at commencement at U.W., had been assassinated. Camelot was gone for the American people, and Berkeley had become a bastion of radicalism of all sorts: political, sexual, and feminist. We did not know where any of this was headed, but we fastened our mental seat belts, (real seat belts existed only on airplanes at the time), and prepared-no, hoped-for a bumpy ride.

After receiving my degree, I began teaching women's "Dancercise" classes and taking dance lessons so that I could choreograph the exercises better. I ran headlong into the sub-culture of belly dance in this quest and was never the same again. I returned to North Beach San Francisco to find it radically changed into something vastly more sleazy than when I had attended coffee houses there while in college. It was already starting to become a "topless" showplace and was soon to become bottomless as well, much to my dismay.

I was amazed to find many ethnic Arabic and Greek clubs there on Broadway and the surrounding area and they were the magnet that pulled me past all of the tawdry clubs nearby. I was enthralled with the live music of the Arabs with its many subtleties and the loud and joyous music of the Greeks who definitely loved their music and dance-though not the belly dance!

The Greek clubs included belly dancers as a lure for the tourists, who abounded in San Francisco, the "Baghdad by the Bay" as it was called by the famous columnist of the day, Herb Caen.

After I became a dancer in the East Bay, dancing in many Greek restaurants and folk dance tavernas for six years or more, I thought I would try my hand at Arabic music for a change. That, of course, led me to the live Arabic music on Broadway North Beach. Though I loved the music far more than I understood it at the time, I was enthralled enough to take a Thursday night job dancing there and presenting occasional "student nights". I found the job on Broadway to be difficult, fraught with dangers, and confining artistically speaking.

The hours were impossible, the cigarette smoke permeated my hair, clothing, and lungs, and I was exposed to an element of the population that most people only read about in their newspapers.

I realized that if I were to continue to pursue this venue of dance I would most certainly loose my zeal for creative uniqueness within the form of Belly Dance and would begin to "stamp them out like animal crackers". In order to preserve my right and ability to interpret my impression of the native dancer of the Middle East, I took leave before I was invited to leave. I was glad I did because it was only then that I began to travel and see the Belly Dance on its own turf. What a revelation it was to me! I saw that my original pursuit of dance was exactly what the gorgeous dancers and top stars of Egypt were already attaining, creative interpretations of music, costuming, and staging.

I would not trade my short stint at North Beach for anything, because, having been there and experienced the trade of dance there, I have always felt that I did not miss anything.

I am totally satisfied with my own dance career having worked largely for my two agents and myself. I hope that this commentary helps transport you by time machine backward so that you can get some perspective on the development of dance on the West Coast of the United States during the colorful '60s and '70s. What we have today did not just appear, fully blown. It evolved in two distinct directions: one emulates the Raks Sharkqi of the Middle East the other became the American Tribal style. One is fanciful fusion, wishful thinking, and an opportunity for many women to dance where there are few opportunities. The other is limited to weak copies of originals when its element of self-expressive emotion and interpretive musical treatment are not promoted and aggressively sought. ("When she is good, she is very, very good, but when she is bad she is horrid"!)
Which is which? You be the judge.


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