The Gilded Serpent Presents...
The North Beach Memories of
I started dancing professionally in 1966. I was a student of Jamila Salimpour, who was pregnant at the time. I worked in a lot of places in the San Francisco Bay Area- Bagdad, Casbah in San Francisco, Greek Taverna, Casa Madrid, Francisco's, 1001 Nights in San Francisco, Casbah in Alameda, The Raven in Hayward, Taverna Athena in Oakland, Zorba's in Walnut Creek (later the Parthenon), a Greek club near the San Francisco Airport, etc. I did club dates and one-nights at a lot of other places like the Minerva, the Lions Club, etc. The first place I worked for any length of time out of town was at the Athens West in Portland, Oregon. I also danced in Calgary, Alberta, at the Egyptian Gardens, and in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, at the Bessborough Hotel. I was the first belly dancer ever to appear in either of those provinces. I also went on the road, taking a band and a singer, and worked in places like the Tiki Kai in Albuquerque, Spanish Trail Inn in Tucson (which, we discovered, was reputed to be a Mafia front), the Flamingo Restaurant in Omaha, and the Esquire Club in Lincoln, Nebraska. I was also the first belly dancer seen in most of those states. I also worked at the Seventh Veil in Hollywood, and, several times, the Arabian Nights in Fresno. When I was working in San Francisco, the audience was made up of not just tourists, but also a large number of Arabs. The music was wonderful-we had excellent musicians, and when the Arabs came in, the musicians played whatever the customers liked, no matter what it did to the dancer and her dance.
Gigi's Port Said was on Broadway near the Bagdad, but I never danced there. It closed about six months after I started working. Across the street from us was Chi Chi's, an old-time burlesque house. We heard that a girl was belly dancing there, and she finished her show by going topless, or stripping, or something. We all disapproved!
friend of mine, Fadwa,
eventually worked at Chi Chi's for quite a while, but I do not think
that she stripped.
My first husband was around when I started dancing professionally. He thought it was cool. My second husband, several years later, was from Greece. He seemed fine with my dancing at first, (I met him while I was working at the Taverna Athena), but then it became harder and harder, as he was less and less happy that I was dancing in public. Still, I was married to him for almost twenty years, and I stuck with it. My present husband, for the last ten years, encourages me to remain in the dance scene. It turns out that he studied drum with Rhea many years before I met him. Synchronicity!
Fatma Akef was the first dancer with whom I ever worked. I worked with her for a long time. Fatma was wonderful and even my students could see how much I danced like her! She was the real thing. Her sister was the famous dancer, Naima Akef. Fatma came from a circus family of acrobats in Egypt. Her husband worked at the Bagdad, too.His name was Ismail Khlifa, and he played the dumbek, did a comedy routine with Fatma, worked the stage lights, and when business was slow, did a magic act or a dance. When he did magic, he would say "Gilly Gilly!" so he was also called GillyGilly. When he danced, he would wear a woman's costume and a wig, and be announced as the Beautiful Cleopatra! He would imitate all of us dancers, especially a Turkish woman, Aisha Gul, who used to wear big bows in her short red hair. She would lie on her back, raise her legs one at a time and hiss. GillyGilly was pretty funny! He was eventually deported to Egypt because he was in the United States illegally. Fatma did a bunch of specialty numbers. Sometimes she danced on heavy drinking glasses, with a tray and a vase on her head. She brought her parrot, Lora, to the club, and would sometimes take Lora on stage. She always wore a long cape then, so that any "birdie accidents" would land on the cape. Lora said things, sang, and cried when she was cued. Although Fatma was an older woman even then, she could still get down on the stage in the splits. She usually wore a long sequined dress and support hose, though no shoes. She and Ismail did a routine where she would sit back on her heels, jug on her head, and he would ask her if she spoke various languages. "Fatma", he would ask, "do you speak English?" "Yes-No" She would answer in what was sometimes the actual language, sometimes not. "Fatma, do you speak Chinese?" "Oh, yes," she answered. "Huku muku nuku coca cola!" She was such a sweet woman! She could not read English, so Amina and I taught her by using the Dick and Jane Readers from our childhood days. For years I could have said the language routine from the stage in my sleep, and I'll bet Amina could also.
When I was working at the Bagdad with Zaida, later known as Khadija al Nakhla, she used to throw matchbooks at guys when she saw them playing with themselves. She also, occasionally, would take a mouth harp on stage in her bra, and was known to play it during her performance. Her bras were cut so low that she would glue herself into them so that she wouldn't accidently give the customers more then their money's worth! I also worked a lot with Zahra Anise, who had no navel - it was the result of an operation, but it was quite odd to look at. She always glued something on her stomach where it would have been - a coin or a jewel, as it made some people feel nauseated to look at - like Jamila. Zahra was the first dancer I ever saw dance in high heels. she had quite a love affair with Fadil's brother, Walid. She followed him home to the old country, when he went home to marry a wife chosen by his family, and was scorned when she got there, so she had to come back. This was the version of things I heard.
Aziza will also soon be a Gilded Serpent columnist and continue her stories of North Beach there!