Rhea in Athens

Rhea in Athens

A Dream Comes True

By Barbara Grant

“I knew that I would be coming to Athens,” Rhea recalls, reminiscing on events nearly seventeen years in the past. Recovering from surgery that left her unable to dance for two months, in need of money to support herself and two daughters, and surveying a Bay Area dance scene which had gone from ten Greek nightclubs and four Arabic cabarets to only a very few dance establishments, Rhea knew some action had to be taken.

“I had a dream,” she remembers, “in which I saw myself dancing at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, where Melina Mercouri had come to address the University of California students on the evils of the Greek junta in the early ‘70’s. But the theater seemed oddly different. It wasn’t until I arrived in Athens that I realized what the diference was. In my dream, I had seen the original Greek Theatre, which is located to the side of the Acropolis. I knew then that I was meant to go to Greece, Turkey, and Egypt to see the ‘real’ belly dancers.”

Rhea, Athens, 1976

Remember, this was 1976 and there were no video cameras and no magic tours to Egypt or Morocco. At that time, artists did not even travel out of state to give workshops. Only a handful of American dance artists, including Aisha Ali and Bobby Farrah, had braved the rigors of foreign countries that were considered ‘primitive,’ so it was pretty brave of Rhea to strike out on her own. The lack of sufficient funding was still an issue; however, this obstacle was soon to be surmounted. As though a cosmic voice was reaching out to her in her time of deepest trouble, saying, ‘Be not afraid, go,’ she met a Saudi prince who gave her $1,000 for her journey. She also gave her first out-of-state workshops, in Las Vegas for Marliza Pons and in Salt Lake City for Naji Aziz. Gratefully taking the money and running, she set out to see these ancient lands.

“I was thrilled by the Sphinx and the Pyramids, and was taken to see Nagua Fouad at the Sheraton, and Sohair Zaki at El Leil Nightclub. I performed at the ‘Good Shot’ Restaurant in a district called Ma’adi, went to the souk, rode on a camel, and bargained for beads and musical instruments. I was taken to the only existing television station in Cairo and met famous stars. I saw mummies that are no longer on public display, and was offerred $5,000 (then a more substantial amount of money) to marry a bedouin prince. I was also asked to marry a man with a wife and four children. (“Well,” he said, “you have two children who are girls. That is bad. But you are an American citizen. That is good.”)

“Needless to say, I enjoyed my stay in Egypt. But when I arrived in Greece and saw the Acropolis, I felt that I had lived in Athens in another life. I had come home.”

For many Oriental dancers, our art is something we practice only after a day spent in other pursuits. For a very few, the dance is a full-time career. To make money doing it and to be able to raise a family on its proceeds is an accomplishment that only a handful of dancers can point to. Rhea is one of those few. During a career that has spanned nearly twenty-five years, she has danced in every nightclub on San Francisco’s Broadway, and at most Bay Area clubs at which the dance is featured. As a teacher of Oriental dance, she has led several troupes, and has trained many dancers who currently perform, such as the Bay Area duo Zuleika and Adah. She has taught her two daughters, Piper and Melinda, who are both accomplished professionals.

Through the years, Rhea has attempted to increase her knowledge of the dance and to make that knowledge available to others. She has researched the history of Oriental dance and has given seminars on public television. She brought Aisha Ali to the Bay Area for a series of seminars on the dances of the Ghawazee and the Ouled Nail. These efforts added to the repertoire of many dancers, and served to increase our understanding of the dance.

Before Rakassah or the Desert Dance Festival existed, Rhea perceived the need for a belly dance event that would bring together diverse practicioners of the art under one roof. With Najia, she formulated the “Gathering of the Tribes,” a mid-1970’s belly dance “happenning” that brought artists together in a series of spectacular performances. Getting the necessary publicity for the event was not easy, Rhea recalls. An Oakland Tribune columnist with no exposure to the dance wrote a sarcastic piece a few days before the event. Determined to enlighten him, Rhea and Najia marched, in costume, into the columnist’s office and gave an impromptu performance. Their skill and grace opened his mind, and the next day a retraction of the offensive article was printed. The Gathering was a resounding success.

In the mid-1970’s, enthusiasm for belly dancing in American nightclubs began to fade. When Athenian nightclub owners saw Rhea perform on the trip to Athens she knew she would take, they were so impressed that they asked her to stay. Rhea knew she could succeed both artistically and financially in Greece, and decided to accept the offer. At that time, Greece had no professional belly dancers, and Rhea soon began dancing at Greek tavernas and Arabic cabarets throughout Athens. Her schedule was often demanding: in addition to teaching classes, she has danced in as many as five clubs a night, seven nights a week during tourist season. While residing in Greece, she journeyed to Khartoum in the Sudan to dance with the Whirling Dervishes at the Khartoum Hilton. When Rhea tells her students that a particular styling is Algerian, or Turkish, or Egyptian, she is speaking from a wealth of firsthand experience.

Because her experience has been so extensive, Rhea is in a unique position to offer students a thorough grounding in many Oriental dance forms. Dancers from any country may travel to Athens to study with Rhea in her studio, and, if circumstances permit, may have the opportunity to perform in a local club. She is continuing to refine her teaching techniques by incorporating philosophies of body movement and body awareness into her classes, taking the dance beyond a mere sequence of steps. Her current study of flamenco is also likely to influence her presentation in the future.

A typical day with Rhea begins with a cup of coffee and several phone calls to arrange the day’s events. Then it’s on to flamenco lessons (she studies flamenco for at least three hours daily). Because Athens has instituted a plan allowing drivers to drive only on alternate days, the commute to the dance school may be made on the Athens Metro. This experience is always exciting for California girls, particluarly since Rhea, with her flamenco skirt and impassioned conversation, readily attracts attention.

After flamenco, there are classes to teach and more phone calls to make. If there is time, Rhea may spend a few hours sewing a new costume or rearranging an old one. Unlike dancers in the United States, who often leave their costuming to professionals, Rhea must create her own outfits. An afternoon respite may follow at the Plaka’s Kostis Taverna, “the best taverna in Athens,” Rhea says. While dining on salads, soups, and spinach pies, Rhea manages to meet and chat with patrons at every table on the patio. At a nearby table are a Dutch-Greek woman and a Greek man, returning from the Netherlands to live on the island of Samos; at another, a Yugoslavian emigré who owns several businesses in the Plaka. “What I like about Athens,” explains Rhea to her American and Greek-Ethiopian listeners, “is that people of all cultures, all nationalities can come here and speak a common language – Greek – to one another. And they can get along.”

Back in her studio, Rhea prepares for the evening’s activities. After two plates of pasta (Rhea credits her complex-carbohydrate diet for her abundance of energy) she applies the stage makeup that will transform her into a glamorous dancer. She chooses this evening’s costume – a stunning silver and blue creation – from her wardrobe rack, and heads out.

Two shows are on the schedule for this evening. The first, at the “Athens by Night” Taverna, attracts an international crowd who watch attentively as Rhea dances her introduction and sword takaseem. Then, in the third portion of the program, men from the audience are invited to come on stage for a belly dance lesson. After some good-natured coaxing by members of the audience, Rhea manages to teach the gentlemen shimmies and belly rolls. Many who leave the performance are likely to remember the night in Athens when their friends and fellow tourists were taken on stage to dance with a glamorous performer. Amid a roar of applause, Rhea bids the crowd goodbye as she heads for her next engagement.

The Sahara Club is the location of Rhea’s second show. It is an Arabic cabaret attracting a predominantly Middle Eastern clientele. Most patrons have seen many dancers, yet all are transfixed by Rhea’s style and impressed with her performance, as her tips prove. “We’re so happy you’re here,” remarks one patron, as Rhea exits after her 40-minute show.

The evening’s performances complete, Rhea steps back into her car for the drive home and one final activity. Rocky, her faithful dog, has waited patiently in the back seat throughout the evening. At 2:00 a.m., it is now Rocky’s turn to get some exercise. As she rounds a corner past Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Rhea lets Rocky out of the car and a merry chase through the streets of Athens ensues, Rhea driving ahead with Rocky following, barking loudly. Puzzled bystanders, thinking perhaps that this is some form of animal abuse, shout to Rhea in Greek to let the dog into the car. “A good thing about this society,” notes Rhea as she drives on, “is that people here care. That’s why they’re saying something.” Around another corner, the Acropolis looms into view, and the Parthenon is bathed in pearly moonlight. Home is within meters. Rhea pulls the car to a halt, and Rocky, grateful for the opportunity to run after being enclosed for several hours, jumps excitedly into his master’s arms. As the key clicks in the lock of the front door, another day has ended. For a visitor familiar with set schedules and timetables, the day has been punctuated with surprises; but with Rhea at the helm, tomorrow is likely to be just as unique.

Barbara Grant has studied Oriental dance for six years, and has performed in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Greece. She is a graduate of the University of Arizona and resides in Cupertino, California, where she is employed as a researcher into the environmental applications of electro-optical technology. barbara_dance@att.net

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