Monday, February 18, 2013

1978-1979 The "It" Girl

Stox II nightclub Kamala with Yaya Jassim & John Belezikjian
  There is that time in a professional belly dancer's life that she becomes the "It" Girl. You can be a big fish in a little pond or a big fish in a big pond, but you feel invincible and pretty damned sure of yourself. You know you're going to get hired, you know everyone wants you. It's that moment when all forces come together - you are young, have the right look, you know how to put on a show & you have supreme confidence. 
  In the late 1970s this required no business acumen on the dancer's part - the work was plentiful, you made a name for yourself by your performances alone. The nightclubs, restaurants & tour promoters set everything up. You just showed up and voila - the band, the stage and the audience were waiting for you to show your stuff. 
   I continued to work at Hajji Baba's Supper Club and The Gypsy, as well as The Darvish in Pasadena. Both The Gypsy and The Darvish had afternoon shows so I was busy dancing both afternoons and evenings. Private parties filled in the rest of the time. Stacks of money were being rubber banded in hundreds and placed in a dresser drawer.
  Now I was going back on the road with Guy Chookoorian, but the tables had turned. The two dancers, Shadia and Shalimar who had intimidated me my first tour had respect for me now, and I did my best to be the audience's favorite dancer. We danced on stage in many Hotel/Casino type venues in the USA. Guy and son Arshag Chookoorian provided the vaudeville style banter, and educated the audiences a bit about the oud, the dumbek and Oriental dance. I must say that Guy did the most gorgeous Chiftatelli on oud - this mysterious, deep spellbinding sound that I've never experienced since, and I so wish there were videos of those performances. Shadia and I were the main dancers, and the third rotated between different women who would join us at different times on the road. The reality was 3 grueling hour long shows per night, 6 or 7 nights a week. We would rotate between other acts - hokey comedy routines, Osmond style family shows, country western bands and everything in between. 
  Living and working together, the dancers became very close, and we shared so many laughs and good times. We would stay at a place for weeks at a time, and would have our regular fans - men who would stare at us up on the stage with transfixed smiles and dreamy eyes - we were the Oriental fantasy in coins and flowing chiffon. 
  One of the acts we worked along side with was a country band, and I honestly can't remember the name of the leader, who took a real shine to me. He wined and dined me and obviously was looking for more than a dinner partner, but somehow I was able to evade his advances, since he wasn't exactly my type. He was close friends with Willie Nelson and decided he wanted to hire two of us to perform for Willie's birthday. I went back to LA for a while, and this man whose name I don't remember hired myself and another dancer whose name I don't remember either, except she was one of Aisha Ali's dancers and was the first girl I met who wore the garish (in my mind) Egyptian costumes of the time - bright orange and pink, when the rest of us were all coins and black lace and animal print. We flew up with Rick Nelson's (of Ozzie & Harriet fame, later a country rock singer) band and had a rough ride into Reno Nevada. The guys in the band were all jittery as the plane was bashed about by turbulence and bad weather. Turns out a year later they would all die in a tragic plane crash. 
  So upon landing we were whisked into a waiting limo and housed in a beautiful hotel suite. We watched Willie's show from backstage (he was in his Outlaw heyday back then), and proceeded to the apres show party, where we were to perform in Willie's grand suite. Of course there was a big dark brick of hashish, and various beautiful young girls had been brought in to lounge around and look alluring. We brought our cassette tapes with us, but for some reason ended up dancing to Willie's honkey tonk pianist and drummer. Probably the weirdest show I've ever done. Willie and band looked at us like lions admiring their prey before the kill. 
  Now the trick was to get the hell out without having to "put out" so to speak. The unmemorable guy who hired us was getting frustrated that he wasn't getting any action, and when he brought us to Willie's bedroom, Willie was on the bed with several young women. I remember him saying "why don't you come roll around with us". I guess it was supposed to be an orgy, but I was just out of my teens and these were old farts and an orgy was just beyond what I was willing to do, even in those free love hippy days. Somehow my fellow dancer and I said "no thanks" and got the hell out. The man who hired us was livid. Thank God we had our plane tickets, and left the next day.

  So back in LA I was still working the clubs, and a new opportunity arose in a club that became a life changer for me. Stox II was an American disco. A Belly Dance fan from Baghdad, Yaya Jassim had the idea that he would start a Tuesday night Middle Eastern show. He would pound away on two drums while Guy Chookoorian played oud, and he would have two glamorous Belly Dancers to be in charge of. It was one show a night. Two dancers had a 45 minute set each on a large disco floor. Lots of room to do your best veil, your Turkish drops and fancy floor work. Yaya rotated several dancers, but somehow I stayed in the mix. One night I met a stunning woman. This club was in Orange County and I was meeting the OC ladies for the first time. She danced before me and as I peeked through a backstage door I was totally blown away by the artistic and entertaining show this gorgeous woman was performing. How the hell could I go on after that? The dancer was Sahra Saeeda (Carolee Kent) who is now an international superstar. I had the pleasure of working there with her a lot. She was always humble, nice and a blast to work with. To watch her dance was a game changer for me. Her creativity inspired me. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and often dance partner. 
  Somehow I kept my job there, as an ever rotating roster of amazing dancers worked in the 2nd spot. Another memorable moment was when Sultana from San Diego was hired. I had never seen a dancer walking in with an entourage - they carried her bags and followed behind like minions serving the queen. And she delivered the goods. What an amazing dancer and brilliant zill player. Like no other I've heard since. She was a voluptuous whole lotta woman & I had been put back in my place. A regular patron put it to me aptly - "you are like a young colt, all arms and legs and immature movement. She dances like a real woman".
  We had great audiences at Stox II, Middle Eastern, American, men, women, and many other dancers would show up to watch as well. At one point Guy transitioned out and John Belezikjian transitioned in. I had the American Cabaret style down, and though I loved the style, there always seemed to be something missing. The drumming was mundane. All the clubs I was dancing in played a mix of popular Arab, Armenian, Turkish and Persian music for the dancers. The music and dance was high energy. Yet deep down I still didn't have the respect for the art form that I did for jazz and ballet dance. I didn't think I'd ever have that deep love and respect. It was frothy, sensual and fun, but not deep and serious. Later I discovered what I had been looking for.
  In the meantime I went with Guy and two of his dancers, Stasha and Nanette to an audition for a movie called "The Man With Bogart's Face", after a book of the same name. A few weeks later I found out I was in and the other two for some reason were not. I showed up on the set and met two more people who would change my life. The other two dancers they hired were out of the Hollywood Arabic Club scene, a scene I had vaguely heard about, but felt intimidated by. Jacqueline Lombard and Mish Mish were well put together, chi chi, sophisticated and womanly. They talked about their Arabic boyfriends and the Hollywood clubs. It all seemed exotic and mysterious. I don't think they even needed hair or makeup done, but as for me, the hair and makeup people fussed, tsk tsked and tried to turn me into a sexy bombshell with ratted up hair. We spent several days on the set, and even though the other two were the true divas, they put me in the middle and had me do extra parts. It was a long scene with a Bogart lookalike and Michelle Phillips of the Mama's and the Papa's as the love interest. They were in an Arabic nightclub with a stereotypically dastardly Arab played by Franco Nero. His girlfriend played by sex kitten Sybil Danning had to strip to bra and panties and was forced to dance awkwardly while we danced around her, taunting her. It turned out to be the longest Belly Dance scene on record in an American movie and attracted some weird fetishistic guys who practically stalked me by phone wanting details of filming, as if we all got working into a passionate frenzy and ended up in a wild sexual orgy. That seemed to be the fantasy they wanted to get off on.
  So the movie gave me even more hubris and I continued in my American Cabaret paradise of restaurants and parties. But I had been invited by Jacqueline and Mish Mish to check out the Hollywood scene, and reluctantly I took them up on it. Little did I know that when I walked into Ali Baba's Nightclub on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood and peered through the dark smoke filled room at the stage, I saw and heard what had been missing for me, and what I was looking for. So I would soon segue into my next incarnation, to be told in my next chapter - The Golden Age of the Arabic Nightclub - early 1980s.
Stox II nightclub. Always packed.
Still Shot of The Man With Bogart's Face
The Cast of Man With Bogart's Face. MishMish, Sybil Danning, Robert Sacchi, Jacqueline Lombard & Kamala
Advertisement for Stox II with Sahra, Guy, Yahya & Kamala