Sunday, August 25, 2013

London Calling

London was where it was at in the late '70s early '80s if you were a fan of Middle Eastern entertainment. Club after club, restaurant after restaurant, like LA, but these clubs were classy. Their proximity to the Middle East, and the money from the Gulf Countries guaranteed that the best music and dancers would be performing, the best champagne would be flowing (and sometimes not into mouths - a bit on that later) and the spending would be on overdrive.

My love of London at the time was more the theatre in the streets, courtesy of the Brits themselves - the clothes, the music. Trendy trendy trendy, changing season to season. LA was a deserted wasteland at the time, and so I loved seeing people in the streets in their creative get-ups. I was an observer, a little out of place, but like any Bellydancer at the time, walking into an Arab nightclub was like coming home. The music, the food, the smells, the ambience was familiar. We were all outcasts in this country.

The Arab clubs were an entity all their own - starting late in the evening and going until the wee hours of the morning. Lebanese of wealth and elegance (at least they appeared that way), and Gulf gentlemen arriving by cab or sometimes limo. The doorman always made sure no riffraff were allowed inside.  I worked at El Nile on New Bond Street, a nice address to be sure, but by the time I was there it was a bit of a faded shadow of its former grandeur. Our publicity photos were outside on the street. I was told mine was billed (in Arabic) as "The Star from Hollywood". I could have sworn I snapped a photo of me in front of that display case, but maybe it was taken by the boyfriend I had at the time, and lord knows where he (or the photo) ended up.

El Nile Entrance Pass

As the new kid in town I was the first dancer of the evening, which was the most lowly slot. The dancers got better and the musicians multiplied as the night went on, but I was more than thrilled to be done early. Other dancers might have been offended, but I felt this was the perfect spot for me to get my bearings. All the dancers were of the new and popular Egyptian style, from the dancing to the costumes. I had a few fancy Egyptian costumes, but not enough. My homemade costumes that I could get by with at home weren't good enough, but there were no places to buy costumes. Occasionally a woman I knew would come in from the Middle East with a bounty of bedazzled costumes at close to $1000 a pop. I did spring for a few of them. Many of the dancers I met at the club didn't speak English, were aggressive and not too interested in making my acquaintance. This wasn't the "we're all dance sisters" atmosphere of today. This was work. My MO was to be so easy going, nice and naive so that I would be left alone. This was very calculated on my part, but I was going for the wide eyed innocent American ploy which for some reason worked and I kept my reputation as the "good girl". The musicians and the owner took me under their wing like the protected little sister.

I found a little one room flat in Pimlico and would take a cab to and from work. One cabby asked why in God's name was I going to a place like this.  Must have thought I was a prostitute all tarted up in wig and eyelashes, naively going to a place full of swarthy foreigners. For my call time (I believe around 11pm - it's honestly all a blur) I would arrive at a fairly empty place. There were more people on stage than in the audience. A few B-girls getting ready for the long night of "drinking" bucket loads of champagne (more like secretly pouring it out and then ordering another bottle which a johnny-on-the-spot waiter would gladly produce with a flourish). At the end of the night I can only imagine the tabs that were wracked up, not that these wealthy patrons cared.

Aside from the few hours I spent at the club, I lead a life of solitude. I didn't want to hang out at El Nile all night so I rarely saw the other acts. To go to another club was an expensive ordeal and usually required an invite from a fellow dancer to get out of being sat at a table and receiving a suspiciously bloated tab. I once went to see Mona Saiid dance since word was she was the toast of the town, and I believe it was at a swanky club called L'Auberge. Or was it The Empress? I know I saw my LA co-worker Lorena at Empress. Boy was she in her element - no qualms about drinking champagne with the wealthy patrons. I later heard she claimed to have married a Greek prince and was now Greek royalty. Anyway, impressive place with amazing music -  I think Aboud Abdel Al was playing there, but maybe that's just wishful thinking. Back to Mona - I remember her swishing in, all statuesque with fur and jewels - just totally Miss Thing. I didn't dare approach her. Nothing like a true diva to make a girl feel like Miss Frump USA. What a performer. A jaw dropping drum solo I'll never forget. There was a current of sexiness in that woman that could electrify a room.

Back to the solitude - being horribly shy, I didn't take London by storm. I really struggled with what I now recognize as depression and low self esteem. So as wonderful as it all was in retrospect, the reality was not all that glittered was gold.

 The big dancers were having their music written for them. Since I was not an A-lister I would get the generic music in the repertoire including great songs like Hani, Mahrajan and Sahara City. There was always an intoxicating taxim with the various instruments,  topped off with a drum solo. Because people were just starting to drift in, I was more a part of the ambience. But there were those nights where champagne or gifts were brought to the stage, along with piles of pound notes. I have no photos of the time. I don't think we were allowed to take photos, I don't know. It would have been awkward to ask someone to snap a picture. Throughout my '70s and early '80s career - when I should have been taking lots of snapshots, it just didn't seem to cross my mind! As the decades went on there were more and more photos to share and now people document their every move. I had no phone so all correspondence was done by letter, and the frequent visits to the public phone.

So I settled in to British life by day, Arab life by night, and one day blurred into another. As usual, being on the road to me meant counting down the days on the calendar. I admire dancers who stay with contracts for years. I suffered from a "my hat don't hang on the same nail too long" syndrome. As Merle Haggard poetically articulated my plight "Every front door found me hopin' I would find the backdoor open..." And so it was a fabulous dream come true job, but I was anxious to move on and head over to the continent to do some traveling and meet up with some friends. Then I would head home and come back to England. I thought it would all never end, that the clubs would always be there, that I would always be young and employable and could come and go as I pleased, but naturally that was not to be. It seems as quickly as the clubs proliferated, they also began to close down. Now the dancers left their beautiful Arabic music behind to start dancing a hundred miles an hour in the Greek, Turkish and Armenian restaurants. I think the era of the grand Arabic nightclubs was finally over in maybe 1982 or 1983. Now one can only find this wonderful experience on the stages of Egypt. But for that brief moment in Bellydance history, I was very fortunate to be a dancer in the right time and place. I would say these years were definitely a peak. But what goes up must eventually go down, and my days as an "It Girl" were numbered.

Next Up - Viva Las Vegas?