Friday, June 6, 2014

Mid 1990s - In with the In Crowd - the beginnings of "The Flowers of the Desert"

So I was now a mom of a toddler. I was working at US Air in Air Freight at LAX, operating forklifts, hauling large boxes, transporting dead bodies in caskets, driving trucks down the airfield alongside the mighty 747s. It was a bad ass man's job & I was straddling two worlds - the masculine & the supreme feminine. I still had weekly dance jobs & for the first time I regularly took Bellydance classes when Suhaila Salimpour was teaching in Hollywood. Suhaila's best friend was in the class, Laura Crawford, & word was she was the new "It" girl in the Arab clubs.

Perhaps a year later I got a phone call from Shira (Jane Padgett from the Hajji Baba's days in the '70s) asking if I would be interested in joining a dance troupe that was forming. The idea for the troupe was to join together LA's most popular working dancers. After Arabesque Dance Co I wasn't exactly chomping at the bit to get myself into that kind of commitment again, but I had just been laid off from USAir so I had some free time. When I heard Laura Crawford was starting the troupe I perked up a bit. She was working the hot nightclub at the time Al Andalus, & they were interested in a weekly troupe show with live music. I showed up for the rehearsal & was greeted by a friendly Laura, a young dancer named Miriam, Shira, Veena (one half of Bellytwins fame) & a Turkish girl named Zeyno. Laura was excited about doing a retro show with coin costumes & finger cymbals which in all truth was not something I was even remotely interested in. I wanted the hot Egyptian show with beads & crystals, & the Amcab look was something I had years before left behind with a good riddance. To make matters worse, Laura handed me a fluffy lace skirt to go home & add sequins to. I was rather huffy about this & as I glued one sequin on at a time for hours on end, I cursed myself for being talked into what felt like another troupe debacle. Hallah Mustapha who now has a successful costume business in Cairo made the costumes & she said we looked like flowers when we did what was to be our opening dance with several measures of fast spinning. Laura added "of the Desert" for a bit of a Mid East flare & voila The "Flowers of the Desert" were born. The whole thing sounded a bit too American to me & again I was having flashbacks of Arabesque hokeyness.

Advert for Al Andalus nightclub

So we did the whole enchilada - swords, veils, chamadon, finger cymbals & it turned out Laura was right about her audience. Unlike the Arab audiences in the past, these patrons seemed to get a bang out of the whole thing. A new girl was added to the weekly lineup - a tall elegant woman named Laura Kali who was somehow dubbed "Tall Laura" to differentiate the two. We pared up for the sword number & in rehearsal Laura Kali proved to be an excellent dancer, but it didn't prepare me for the dynamo she became in performance. I quickly realized I had to ratchet my performance value up a few notches to match her intensity. This was going to be fun. And we had live music to boot, & really good live music with none other than Issam Houshan on tabla, who later became probably the most famous Bellydance drummer in the world after his stint with the Bellydance Superstars.

Early Flowers in our retro coin costumes. Veena, Laura, Miriam, Kamala, Neena

Truth was, nearing 40, I was the old lady in the group. I was pretty fortunate that Laura even accepted me into the company, but it didn't change the fact that I didn't do as many paid gigs as the younger girls were doing. A hard pill to swallow, but I had to accept it. My prime time had come & gone. I was really happy to be at an Arab club again, with the hospitality (& great food) that came along with it. Laura & I would drag our young daughters with us to practice. They would hold court in a booth as the owner, musicians & waiters would come by to talk to them & offer Shirley Temples & the likes. My 4 year old daughter was loving every minute of it, & unbeknownst to me was soaking the dancing in, mentally & probably unconsciously taking notes.

                            Early promo video including Rose Parade Al Andalus, Fountain Theater & Arab American TV

Not much later a few more ladies were added. Najwa was a dancer I had worked at Ali Baba's with. Veena brought her sister Neena & they added some Indian Punjabi & Filmy to the mix. Farhana was brought in to do some balancing & was soon integrated into the troupe full time. Of course Farhana eventually became Princess Farhana & the rest is history.

Clockwise from bottom right: Laura kali, Princess Farhana, Neena, Veena, Laura, Najwa, Kamala

We were immediately tapped to produce a show at a snooty theater reserved for more esoteric dance forms. The owner of the Fountain Theater in Hollywood came to Al Andalus & was impressed enough to let us create a theater production. "Dances of the Orient" was a success - filling two nights with enthusiastic audiences. It was really unusual at the time to have a full length Bellydance production & we were even favorably reviewed in the LA Times. The owner thought we were too commercial & was very sour throughout, but we WERE commercial - we were working clubs & parties.

Clockwise from bottom right: Zeyno, Veena, Najwa, Laura, Laura Kali, Kamala,  Farhana. Center Miriam

The Flowers became the toast of the town. I felt very fortunate at my age & at that point in my dance career to be a part of the current "In Crowd"in the LA Bellydance scene. Looking back I really wasn't that old, was I? But to put away my steel toed work boots & take off my suburban mom kit to be a part of a popular working dance troupe was a bonus I really hadn't anticipated. And things were about to get even better...