Monday, March 25, 2013

Ali Baba's School of Raqs Sharki Part 1

   It was the early '80s & my life was a blend of excitement and extreme loneliness. I was working nights & sleeping until early afternoon, then I would take a nap in the late afternoon & prepare for the evening's work. A lot of wasted time sleeping for a girl in her prime.

   Koko's International was my main job at the time, but the nightclub world was transient, & there was a buzz about a few new dancers in town. Intuition told me my nights were numbered at Koko's & when Ali Baba's asked me to come in I knew the timing was right to make the transition.

  The buzz was about a dancer named Nabila, & it was clear she was the new "It" girl. I hadn't met or seen Nabila, but it was hard for me to believe someone could live up to the hype. Seeing the writing on the wall, I slipped out of Koko's before they could fire me & headed over to Ali Baba's where the lovely owner George Dabah welcomed me with open arms. Ali Baba's was the real deal. A dark & dank club with Middle Eastern men smoking at booths, a nice raised stage & kick ass music.

  Omar Khayam's was barely breathing, & the musicians were making the exodus to Ali Baba's. We had Adel Asfour on the keyboard - this fabulous sound like a church organ at Notre Dame - just magnificent. Different oud players rotated, but often we had Maroun Sabah. Henri was on the kanoun - a gorgeous sound. I honestly don't remember the violin player's name. There was the smiling Galal singing & playing def. We had an accordion player & of course a tabla player - often Yousef Mustafa who was awesome, but the dancers had a crude joke about him having to do with beating that drum like a jackhammer. I'll say no more. But who could complain? This music was top of the line. The musicians were going back & forth to London - the mecca of Middle Eastern entertainment at the time & Egypt, & we were getting the latest music hot off the charts.

The beautiful Yasmin onstage at Ali Baba's

   Ali Baba's was a tough job. There were two dancers a night - one dancer did 2 shows & the other did 3. Since we were working 5 or 6 nights a week together we usually worked out who did how many shows, but it often got muddled, & some disgruntled dancer got the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Nobody wanted to do 3 shows because each show was 40 - 45 minutes & it could be grueling.

  We had a nice dressing room behind the kitchen, & often the dancers were college students who were studying backstage. When it was showtime you made your way through the kitchen & waited in a hallway for your cue. There is nothing like hearing a magnificent orchestra play the dramatic opening chords of the magenci, or opening song. I never asked for music, but the musicians could tell what I liked dancing to & often played it. There were a trio of songs called Hamouda 1, 2 & 3, & better belly dance music you will never hear. I later heard the songs came from a religious Egyptian movie but I'm not sure that's true. Hamouda 1 was my favorite, but I liked the others too. Songs like Sahara City & Maharajan were also played. this was complex music & it would bring a chill down my spine.

  I was working with Yasmin a lot, & I continued to learn from watching her ethereal style. She was a delight. Then Rebaba came to town after touring the world & I often worked with her. She was amazing - still one of my favorite dancers. With short hair & an exotic face, she was an Arabic crowd favorite. Totally embodied the Egyptian style of dance. Many other dancers rotated through. Maroun Sabah's American blond girlfriend Shahira (aka Lauren) was a character to beat all characters. A ditzy acting young girl with a wicked temper, she could converse in Arabic for hours. As she told me, she ate, slept, dreamed & spoke Arabic. She made all her costumes - beautiful creations dripping with long beads. She spent all day beading.

Kamala, Shirin & Rebaba, Hollywood club dancers at private party

   I could really kick myself that I have no photos from this time in my life. There may be some out there somewhere, who knows, but no one gave me any, & I really didn't seem to care. I thought this lifestyle would go on forever. I thought there would always be a plethora of clubs to choose from.

   So there were clubs all over Hollywood. Dancers & musicians from the various places would meet after work at one of the few all night restaurants. I would stop in the Sahara & watch Jacqueline Lombard do her hot show, or Aladdin, a new club further east in Hollywood to see whoever was there & we would all trek over to some greasy spoon for a 3am breakfast.  The famous 7th Veil was across the street from Ali Baba's & before it closed its doors for good I even ran across the street sometimes to do a show there.

  Now I was really motivated to dance well, but still my education was studying my fellow dancers. I knew no teachers & I was a fairly good mimic, so I stole bits & pieces of the others' repertoire, with varying degrees of success. I knew the music alright, every joyous beat was imprinted in my head.

    I hadn't changed my mind about not being attracted to Middle Eastern men. They still arrived in the clubs in their bell bottoms & polyester shirts, when I was into the new wave looking guys, which made it all the easier not to get involved. But the other dancers sure did. I would bring various rock musicians I was dating in & they were blown away by the music. It was a seedy scene, but I was proud of it - there were real artists in those clubs.

  We all owned a few Egyptian costumes, but a girl needed a lot of costumes for the many shows we did. We found ways to make our costumes on the cheap, so that they still looked good on stage. "Sobo" fabric glue was used to tack big appliques on bras & belts. A simple straight skirt was easy to sew. Egyptian costumes cost upwards of $800 at the time & were hard to come by. That's one price that's gone way down through the years.

  So I settled into Ali Baba's comfortably. I was still working Stox II & a few other jobs. Even the Gypsy I think. Those years are very muddled in my brain so I'm not certain. We drank a lot at the clubs, I'm not going to lie. And substance use was not unheard of. The cigarette smoke would be so thick you had to wash your hair several times before bed & rub your skin almost raw to get rid of the nightly stench. So I think my brain was a little pickled at the time, like most everyone else's in the late '70s, early '80s club scene.
  Next up: Ali Baba's Part 2