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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Dancing on the Edge
by Amina

Conceived between a dirty movie house, a strip joint and a massage parlor, the group called "Aswan Dancers" was born in 1975 at the Bagdad Cabaret in San Francisco. My favorite memory of the Bagdad goes back to 1965. It was the first time I had worked with Fatma Akef, and an Egyptian dancer, and Fatma's husband, Ishmael, also known as "Gilli Gilli." They were all that represents Egypt, but they were here in America! Every night before the show began, the dancers, clad in beledy dresses, would dance together on the stage while the musicians warmed up. Fatma (sister and dance partner to the great Egyptian dance legend Naima Akef) was making up little routines and I chased her around the stage trying to figure out what she was doing.

I soon learned that her dances were not only not tightly choreographed but they were not even slightly choreographed.

However, if I really listened to the music, I could second-guess her mind and body and the two of us appeared to be dancing a well-rehearsed routine. The best part of these warm-ups was that they were made up on the spot and the many opportunities this method offered for change, playfulness, and humor kept them alive, fresh, and exciting. Likewise, her costumes were magical and authentic, not because they were brought from Egypt, but because they were made by an Egyptian in the Egyptian style. No "furniture group" color and coordination here! If the costumes were too "together" fashion-wise, they would not leave room for the change, playfulness and humor, which I mentioned before. The dance and costuming were so much a part of Fatma's life that improvisation was the only natural way to dance. Therefore, in order to keep the fabrics and colors from looking too prepared, she would add the odd piece of ribbon or clashing underskirt to keep the ensemble realistic.

Something always had to be amiss to be right. Arabs believe that only Allah is perfect! I learned from the first evening chasing Fatma around the stage that in order to have a serious dance company in the Egyptian style, I had to seriously play with the appearance of disorder.

Working on
Broadway in San Francisco in the '60s was a true cultural dichotomy! Inside the Bagdad, strange, short, dark men who were homesick for their Middle Eastern homelands gathered to speak their language and listen to their music. The belly dancers were welcomed, but they were mostly ignored. We dancers were there for ambience and decoration. In the world outside our cabaret doors, respectable American businessmen could buy more than a dance. Money talked and women of the street answered. In the Bagdad these men thought their money talked the same talk and bought the same walk as it did outside on Broadway, but to those lured by the wafts of music and incense into passing through our beaded curtains, we appeared as glittering jewels they could only admire but not touch. We spoke a different language, and we would not "take it off " like the girls in the non-Middle Eastern cabarets. However, our bellies were bare, and in 1975, after ten years of baring my own belly while dancing six nights a week, three shows a night (roughly 9,360 times), when the City of San Francisco asked me to present a Middle Eastern dance performance, I made a personal and artistic decision. I would establish a dance company that would not only not "take it off", but not even bare its belly!

Performing every night at the Bagdad between the dirty movie house, the strip joint and the massage parlor, for uninformed Americans who thought a bare belly equaled the promise of a bare bottom, put me on a personal soap box preaching "Belly dancers are prudes! We keep it all on!" After all, if Arab men accepted fully clothed belly dancers, I could educate American men to do the same.

On March 18, 1975 at the Noe Valley Library, the troupe, "Aswan Dancers" was given its first opportunity to entertain and educate the general public about the culture of the Middle East through its culture and dance. We were a standing-room-only hit, the talk of the town, AND we kept it all on.

North Beach in San Francisco was once a happenin' place. It was a "Fun City" every night.

People would stroll along the streets of colorful Chinatown, bohemian Grant Avenue, Columbus or Broadway and have dinner, go for coffee, and then search out some late night entertainment. There were coffeehouses where friends met each other, coffee houses with music, outdoor cafes for eople-watching, plenty of shops in which to browse, and then there were the clubs: comedy clubs, supper clubs, jazz clubs, dance clubs, blues clubs-you name it-folk music clubs, flamenco clubs, improvisational music and theatre clubs, plus opera bars and legitimate burlesque houses complete featuring vaudeville comedians. Next in its time came the topless craze and North Beach really "took off" (so to speak) until finally, off came, not only the tops, but also the bottoms! Soon there were breakfast shows, underwear fashion shows, complete venues of topless/bottomless dancers doing something aside from dancing. Some went "legit" and had costumes and routines, singing and real dancing. However, some performers went the other way and did "tricks," some of which were rumored to have been performed before only south of the U.S. border.

The belly dance clubs had survived all this. However, one by one, the clubs, and even the burlesque houses, were replaced by the topless/bottomless joints. Even the rock shows and the punks came and went, but the belly dance clubs remained constant. Soon enough, though, due to what I don't know, one by one the belly dance clubs closed as well. Maybe it was video movies that started the habit of not going out and staying home instead, or maybe the discos where people could "do" rather than "view," or maybe just that the homesick Arabs tired of their nostalgia. In fact, they were marrying (generally Arabs, and usually the Arabic women they brought here themselves) and moving from the inner city to the outer suburbs. There wasn't any reason to go to the clubs to hear Arabic when they were speaking it with their families at home, and Arabic music and dancing could be viewed at their homes as well on videos bought, rented or bootlegged. So the Middle Eastern clubs disappeared, the last one, in the middle '80s, being my beloved Bagdad, now renamed "The Bamboo Hut Chinese Restaurant."

The musicians left to open grocery stores, pizza parlors, and other money-making, rather than music-making, ventures. The dancers looked around and found no place to dance, at least nowhere featuring live Middle Eastern music.

The Aswan Dancers, always a self-supporting group accustomed to regularly producing shows, decided to fill the cultural void by producing bi-monthly live music/dance shows
featuring guest dancers and musicians. Each show presented dances that were inspired by both The Aswan Dancers' and my visits to the dance clubs of Cairo. This was also a time when choreographed dance from Egypt, mostly Cairo, began appearing en masse on videos. We called the shows "Cairo Cabaret by Bagdad By the Bay," in honor of the clubs in Cairo and my now-defunct place of employment. Every show that featured dance had at least one set of three, or up to ten, musicians, and sometimes another band was showcased just for listening. Each Cairo Cabaret had a theme. Our favorites were Christopher Columbus comes to "Bagdad by the Bay", "Sahara City", and "As the Carpet Flies" (an Arabic soap opera). These shows were improvised dance theatre with the musicians sometimes choosing songs on the spot. The challenge was to have the ensemble pieces done in unison, often without more than a "talking" rehearsal. It was an experiment in listening to the music and "tuning into one another," and it worked. The trick was to over-rehearse to canned music and trust our ears. Sometimes we'd rehearse three or four times a week, two to four hours at a time, and instinctively do the same steps or family of steps without realizing we had never actually pre-choreographed a piece of music.

It's like a religious experience to be able to perform to "choreographed" ensemble pieces when there is no set choreography.

Because we had worked so much together either in rehearsal or performance, we found our ears tuned to the same steps and we would "magically" produce "choreographed" ensemble pieces. With this freedom of expression, nurtured by creating group dances, and accompanied by musicians, who'd had minimum rehearsal, we were able to collectively focus our energies into the dance. We succeeded in making them really look alive rather than robotic as some choreographed video dances appear. We could interact with our audience and with the music with anticipation and humor but without compromising our dance.

I believe in taking risks and in living and dancing on the edge.

I think it is better to serve up a superb and memorable dance inspired by the anxiety of the unknown and spurred on by the vitality of spontaneous creation than to grind out a mediocre piece which demonstrates only technique and the talent of memorization. Let go of the barriers and expose a part of yourself! Of course, this way you can always goof up, but that's the chance you take when you perform on the edge!

Ready for more?
Chapter 3: A Marriage Made in North Beach
The stage was alight with the flames of the candelabrum’s candles and the eerie glow of her costume. Fatma’s costumes were always comprised of material that glowed in the dark as her show began with no light—except for “black light”.



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