Wednesday, December 5, 2012

1977 - My Inauspicious Beginnings

   Bellydance was the dance du jour for American women for a short time in the '70s. It was the Macarena, Zumba, Lambada & Gagnam style rolled into one. It appealed to the hippie, express yourself & do your own thing ethos of the time. In a way it resembled the Tribal Dance movement of today, in the sense that we considered it an American thing to do. I didn't have an interest in impressing a people from a distant land. It just seemed like this groovy, earthy movement to get involved in. I know there were American Bellydancers who did begin with an interest & passion for the culture & music, but for me it was about the motion, costuming & showing off.

  Yes, I am sad to say that I started my Bellydance career for vain & shallow reasons. I wanted to sleep late, & I wanted attention.  I've had enough therapy to know I needed to be seen, admired & validated after a childhood of feeling invisible. Plus I was having limited success getting jazz dance jobs, often because I was told I didn't look like the girl next door, a little too exotic looking. My best luck was working for Disney, dancing in 50 pound animal costumes (try echappe's in an Ostrich suit)! I figured in Bellydance no one would accuse me of looking too exotic!

   I found a second class to attend at the YWCA in Pasadena, CA. Marta Schill was the teacher & she seemed to be more in tune to the Middle Eastern side of the dance. She worked at the Seventh Veil on Hollywood Blvd., & when I went to see her, she did this electrifying booty shimmy thing that totally confounded & amazed me. I don't think she taught that move, or maybe I just didn't stick around long enough to learn it. I did start to take class a little more seriously when another student & I had a kind of healthy competition going on between us, pushing me to learn new steps & make up a few of my own, including a variety of head rolls. I had no idea at the time there was a thing called khalleegy, & thought myself clever.

  My first private party job was a psychic & tarot party. I made a whopping $10. A psychic stopped me after my dance & said "You will be very successful & have a long dance career. Just remain a solo dancer. Avoid dancing in a group". Her predication was true, & her advice sage.

   Guy Chookoorian came into my life at this point. Guy is a lovely person & a good musician. An oud player who had a long running road show, he was a good family man, very humble & kind. Guy was on the lookout for new dancers, & he sent a statuesque dancer named Jennifer to Marta's class to scout new talent. I guess I fit some criteria, so she spoke with me after class about traveling with Guy, & about starting a new dance job at Hajji Baba's Supper Club in Inglewood, CA. where Guy's band played. 

   This was the catalyst for chucking my radio job, throwing caution to the wind & starting a career in Bellydance. I still had my Friday night gig at the Gypsy, & now I was at Hajji Baba's several weeknights. I was working with live music & we all did improvisation. There were three dancers a night at Hajji Baba's, & two per night at the Gypsy. Hajji's was a three ring circus - the main room housed the band & the stage, & two smaller dining rooms created a circle in which the three dancers rotated. 

   The American Cabaret style was a five part format. With the opening (fast) music the dancer, wrapped up in various creative ways with a veil, entered & began spinning, followed by fast footwork & more turns. Then the musicians would play a bolero & we would do "veil work" (my least favorite because I was terrible at it). Then a fast tune & run around the tables before the dancer spun & went splat on her back in a Turkish drop. The Chiftitelli rhythm was then played while the dancer did "floor work", sometimes with a sword, candelabra (small, not the Egyptian Chamadon variety) or often balancing a glass taken from someone's table, to their delight. Last but not least the drum solo. The drummers at Hajji Baba's played the Dumbek either on a stand or between the legs, and there was often a trap drummer as well. So whichever of the five parts you landed in the main room of Hajji's, you did on stage, while the girls in the other rooms mostly ran around collecting loads of money. The dancer always kept her finger cymbals (zills) on.

   I was nervous my first night of work, not knowing how good or experienced the other dancers were. We enjoyed a large dressing room upstairs with its own shower & wall to wall mirrors.  I do remember one of the dancers that night, this glamorous blond walked in with bedroom eyes, & in a deep voice proclaiming "I am Shadia". I was impressed and intimidated. She had worked at The Fez, one of Hollywood's most famous clubs & had been on many tours. I was the new kid on the block.

   Diane Weber, LA's most popular teacher's advanced class was the feeder for dancers at Hajji Baba's. They were well disciplined & had a specific technique. They were good & I tried to learn from imitating their moves. I took one class from Diane who blasted me, saying I looked like "a little girl dressed in her mother's clothes". It was my first & last class. Stupid, because I needed direction & training.

   There was Shira, a young fair skinned blond with hot floor moves. There was Mahara a hard working & driven dancer. There was Danielle who was the oldest, but looked the youngest. She was great at balancing, but her dancing was so-so. Never-the-less she was always the favorite, to the chagrin of the rest of us. Getting tips was always a contest. When we went up to the dressing room & removed the dollars that bulged out of our costumes, we would eye the others' catch. Donna would have $50 & $100 dollar bills more regularly than any of us, & there were a lot of big bills floating around.

   While Hajji Baba's had American & American/Armenian patrons, & Turkish or Armenian music, The Gypsy was all Arabic or Armenian patrons, & though the band played the five part show for the American Cabaret style performance, the music was mostly Arabic, with some Armenian thrown in. 

   At the Gypsy, besides myself, there were 3 main dancers. There was a bubbly & popular dancer named Pearl. I admired the ease in which she worked the room, often pulling patrons to the stage, feeding them grapes & doing backbends & floorwork around them. Helena Vlahos did her killer quarter tricks, & then there was my my teacher "Candi".  Because it was the swinging '70s I didn't pay much attention to Candi's provocative behavior, & was oblivious to the fact that she was taking the free-love business a little too seriously. I was told by musicians later that they would join her in the dressing room for "activities". The Lebanese musicians were young, & very willing to take part in this California lifestyle, growing their hair long & embracing the liberal mores. Two of the musicians, brothers John & George are good friends to this day. It's fun to reminisce & hear their side of the story. I was actually pretty clueless.

   I am proud to say I never dated a musician, club owner or patron from a club (with one big exception which I will go into later). To this day when I run into musicians they say "You were the nice girl, the good girl." But this wasn't a case of virtue as much as a case of being more attracted to Rough trade curly long haired Aussies & Brits, & corn fed American looking boys (No Omar Sharifs for me). But it saved me from entanglements that were problematic for many of my dance sisters. Instead the Middle Eastern men became my friends, & they were wonderful friends.

   It wasn't long before I was summoned to Reno, Nevada to do a month long show with the Guy Chookoorian Bellydance Revue at Harvey's Hotel & Casino. The intimidating Shadia would be there to meet me, as well as a certain Shalimar, who I had been warned was a temperamental artist by Jennifer, who taught me the routines the night before I left. Sure enough Shalimar, who looked like a frumpy bookworm in baggy jeans, t-shirt & hair in a bun, wouldn't acknowledge my presence & was peeved that she had to rehearse with me since she had been doing this show for years. I could hear her complain to Guy, who tried in vain to calm her. I was in hostile territory with both dancers.

   So the first night of performance I was nervous, but confident that Shalimar couldn't possibly be very entertaining with her mousy looks, making me feel better about my own inexperience. But when she came on stage she was transformed. Glorious long thick hair, an hourglass figure & a drop dead gorgeous face. She proceeded to do a jaw dropping drum solo & had a few signature moves I haven't seen since & wish I had asked her to teach me. So at that point I was a total fan, & I cowered in her haughty presence. I endured the competition between the two dancers, the temper tantrums & diva attitudes. I was the runt who was criticized for my dowdy coin costumes & flat hippie hair. This was a Vegas style casino & I was supposed to more resemble Priscilla Presley than Janis Joplin, so I was dragged to the local wig store to find something big to plop on my head.

   On my return to LA, I had more confidence coming back to the clubs. The Gypsy started a lunchtime show, & a Persian club in Pasadena, The Darvish, started a lunchtime show as well. (lunch time was recorded music, so we hauled our vinyl around - titles by Eddie Kochak & George Abdo). That added to my busy dance schedule, as I had picked up more nights at Hajji's & was now the Gypsy's featured Friday night dancer. 

   Enter Candi to Hajji Baba's, & a new round of shenanigans. We carpooled the 45 minute drive many nights, & how we lived to tell, I'm not sure. She would seem more focused on lighting joints than keeping an eye on the treacherous winding Pasadena Freeway, & regaled me with stories of sexual conquests including details more explicit than a hard core stag movie. I realized this woman was more of a sexual deviant than any human I had known. So working with her was a challenge. She would often put a thick veil over some guy's head in the audience & spend way too long doing God knows what under that cover. Since we had to rotate rooms, it would often lengthen the show to ridiculous lengths, since we couldn't get her attention to get out from under the veil & get moving to the next room. Then afterwards I waited around while she was with some guy, sometimes the restaurant owner. But there were a lot of laughs in that dressing room. She was comfortable being the butt of many jokes about her sexual proclivities. Actually we all liked her & were amused by her matter of fact attitude about her "interests". 

   But the final straw happened while dancing at a yacht party with Candi. After we docked I waited & waited for her. I returned aboard to look for her & saw a line of men waiting at a door. Sure enough she was in there having the time of her life. I hollered for her to come out so we could leave. I kept hearing giggle giggle giggle, "just a minute" giggle giggle giggle.  I was disgusted, & it finally hit me how sleazy she was, & the guilt by association possibility. I was open minded & figured live & let live, but it was all becoming too much, & I distanced myself from her. Eventually we totally parted ways, though on friendly terms. I didn't want to be associated with her behavior. 
    The club scene in LA was booming. Where I lived in Pasadena there were several clubs nearby - The Gypsy, The Darvish, Sayat Nova, The Grape Stakes, Burger Continental & others I can't remember. All over town were Persian, Greek, Armenian & Arabic restaurants & clubs, & they all included live music & multiple bellydancers. Then there were the storied Hollywood mega nightclubs that I had heard about but never visited. There was a fairly small group of professional Bellydancers who made the rounds of these venues, & we all knew each other. We all made money - it seemed to be flowing from a never ending faucet ... and so there was the cash piling up in a drawer, & yes I did file my taxes!

   Next up: The 1978 "IT" girl...

Kamala on The Main stage at Hajji Baba's Supper Club 1977