San Francisco, You're History! :
A Chronicle of the Politicians, Proselytizers, Paramours, and Performers Who
Helped Create California's
Wildest City

J. Kingston Pierce

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Paperback - 304 pages (June 1995)
Sasquatch Books; ISBN: 157061007X ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.60 x 5.98 x 9.06

other comments on Lisa's murder


The Gilded Serpent Presents...
The North Beach Memories of


My own experience in the Middle Eastern Dance scene began in the late 70's. Although I made many lasting friendships during those years and established a reputation as a good dancer, I was always on the fringe of things due in part to the time I arrived, and where, from economic necessity, I danced.

I had been teaching and performing in Europe. When I returned to the U.S, my first move was to call
Bert Balladine, to ask for advice on where were the good places to work, and what he knew about them .

I remember Bert telling me that the scene was on some levels pretty bad. There was often a lot of turn over since club owners felt new faces were good for business. However, as now, some people remained in the same clubs for long periods of time. The pay was generally low-roughly enough to pay a parking ticket, which we all got plenty of, since parking in and around North Beach, while not as tight as it is now, was difficult even then. Tips were the main source of your income. Some nights they could be substantial, depending on who was there and the energy in the club. Other nights, they were next to nothing. It was always a gamble.

Then he told me about Powell Station. I remember him saying "My problem with Powell Station is that it is a hard drinking bar. Don't get me wrong. I'm no prude. But if your going to be a good B-Girl, be a good B-Girl. And if you're a dancer, be a dancer."

I had no clear idea what he meant. But, since I was just returning from Europe without much of a financial cushion, I realized that I needed something a little more stable economically than North Beach could provide. So I decided that I would like to do some dancing in the North Beach Clubs, but use Powell Station to back me up.

Bert called the owner for me to let the owner know I would be coming in for an audition and that he was he was recomending me.When I went for the first time, I experienced a good deal of culture shock. In Europe, as a "cabaret artist", I was accustomed to being "protected" from audiences by bar tenders and waiters and club owners, so when I noticed that the dancers between sets were drinking with and involved in conversation with mostly American customers, detracting at times from the performer, it was perplexing.

The pay, however, was actually enough to live on, and could be depended upon. Along with the higher pay went the rule that we were not allowed to go for tips since we were encouraged to get customers to spend money on drinks instead--hence, the conversation. If we were successful at pushing drinks, the owner would often reward us with a bonus to our weekly pay.

One stormy night night at Powell Station we were convinced that no one would come in because the weather was too miserable. Things were really slow, when suddenly, the place filled up with about 100 Saudis -- all on a tour of the U.S. They sang the songs and filled the place with laughter and celebration. At one point during my show, the song "Digi, Digi, Digi, Ya Rebaba"came on. I started getting the audience to clap and sing and it suddenly turned into a full blown party with Saudi guys dancing everywhere-on the stage, at the tables etc. some using umbrellas as sticks. Ty, the owner/bar tender whom I always thought of as somewhat jaded, said, "Wow, I almost cried when they all started singing and dancing."

With a little trepidation and some amusement, I gave it a go. Actually, I met a lot of fine dancers, since almost everyone performing in San Francisco at that time passed through there. There was, however, a level of secrecy/hipocracy around the Powell Station scene. If you worked in North Beach, it was understood that you didn't broadcast the fact that you also danced at Powell Station. After all, the music was taped and you were valued mostly for how well you pushed drinks. The fact that, as mentioned in another srticle, you were also encouraged to drink with some customers in North Beach, as well as being paid next to nothing, wasn't a consideration.

Since the Powell Station focus could become conversation, especially if there was a big spender in the place with all the dancers clustering around him, I remember looking at the stage as a place to rehearse at times when attention wasn't riveted in my direction. However, even in that setting, some great dancing happened.

Another ongoing issue was, believe it or not, police harassment of dancers on our way home. Numerous incidents happened to me and other dancers of bogus stops after 2 A.M., being followed etc. for no reason. One we actually reported to the Berkeley P.D. and the officer was suspended without pay.

As for the taped music -some was good-some was not what I would choose. But as with live music, we lived the improvisation since we didn't know what tapes would be next.. In fact, alI dancers from that era were strong improvisors-much less dependent on choreography and knowing what would be played.

One Halloween at Powell Station, I was dancing in an orange and black costume (of course) when a man in a gorilla suit dashed in off the street and up on the stage. He picked me up King Kong style and began to bellow. Being one of Powell Station's improve queens, I began obligingly kicking my legs and doing the eek scream. I noticed that he felt a little unsteady. He told me when he rushed in that he thought I was taller than I am so he had used more strength than he needed to lift me and that is what had thrown him off balance. Scary!

Some evenings I worked at the
Bagdad where several dancers from Powell Station also worked. Some nights the energy was high, the tips were good. Other nights, it was dead, and trying to dance or keep going could be difficult. But there was always at least one other dancer from Powell Station in the club to talk to.

I also danced at a North Beach restaurant, The Greek Taverna, for a period of time.
Shamira, who had been working there, suggested that I audition. She told the owner I would be coming in. We danced with a Greek band that played Egyptian tunes for the dancers. Between sets, we did Greek dances with the customers. The atmosphere was generally lively, the audience enthusiastic, and the tips were good.

As dancers, we lived on the opposite side of the clock from most people. The upside was that we formed many lasting friendships with each other. However, I remember a sense of isolation from other friends with "day jobs". Afternoons were spent beading bras and belts and working on costumes. Around 7 PM, rain or shine, most of us prepared and headed for the clubs.

One night at the Bagdad during the time when Mabuhay Gardens, a total punk hang out, was next door, I had considered myself lucky earlier in the evening to find a parking spot right in front of the Bagdad. However, when I came out a little after 2 A.M., there were punks sitting all over my car. I saw Amina leaving with her husband down the street and shouted at her--hoping she would hear, stop and help me with a suggestion, but they were out of ear shot. I went back into the Bagdad and enlisted the help of Shamira and Craig. We came back out together. They got into the car with me, and I proceeded to slowly drive away --punks and all--without further incident as they tried to maintain a cool attitude jumping off my car-one by one.

When many of the clubs and restaurants featuring Middle Eastern music and dance began to close and be sold, there was some mourning on the death of an era. The energy had been, at times, heady and electrifying. I remember one friend who worked at Powell Station and the
Casbah saying simply in a tone filled with resignation, "It's over." And for the most part it was.

When I reflect upon the differences between then and now, the continual excitment seems to have been replaced by a more studied, professional, and constant involvement with the dance for itself--separate from a scene, which although it pushed one to develop oneself professionally, was, at times, a distraction from the art itself.

What seemed to determine one's status as a dancer during that time was where you worked, and how many nights you had. In short, we frequently let people outside our profession, like club owners, determine our worth as dancers/performers.

In that sense, it seems that the development of our conciousness as dancers has paralleled the development of our conciousness as women. We've taken over perpetuating our art and honoring each other for our specialties and contributions to the dance and the community. We mirror our times in that the locus of control rests within ourselves rather than outside.


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