Antoinette Awayshak and “La Belle Epoch”
by Jamila Salimpour
When Antoinette Awayshak appeared on the Los Angeles dance scene, she became the Diva of Danse Orientale for over a decade. She danced from “La Belle Epoch” in Belly Dance into the era of over-saturation, when she was still preferred over others in spite of heavy competition. She represented a figure, face, aura and talent that was truly unique, and would have been considered a world beauty in any generation. She was the female physical ideal that many women strived to emulate.
Antoinette was raised in the Arabian culture. By the time she was eighteen, she knew she wanted to become a professional dancer. Whenever there was a gathering, party, or festival, she was coaxed center stage to solo, regaling everyone with her charm and sense of humor.
I first met Antoinette at the Los Angeles Supper Club’s annual Arab/American re-union sometime around the late 1950’s. This affair was held in Griffith Park and was attended by Arabs from across America, Canada, and Mexico. The parking lot was full of cars with colorful license plates from every state of the union. It was exotic chaos! Long lost relatives sometimes discovered each other at functions such as these. There was food, booths, politics, and of course, entertainment. Most of it was imported, and locals were hired to fill out the show. Usually the Hanna brothers, mechanics by day, musicians by night, were the standard back-up musicians for any singers and dancers who came to town. They weren’t Abdel Wahab, but they made it work. This was the era before there were any nightclubs in Los Angeles (not counting the Greek Village, which up until then only had Greek music and audience participation, mostly male, doing solos and line dancing. Belly Dancing was soon to explode there in the form of Helena Kalionotes.)
Antoinette was pushing a baby carriage accompanied by her mother, who approached me enthusiastically about giving her daughter dance lessons. I was wearing a costume by Bob Mackie, who was my escort for the day, and since I had not performed yet I could only guess that they assumed I could dance simply because I was wearing a costume. Bob and I pushed our way toward the stage as I heard my name announced and my entrance music being played, and I lost Antoinette in the shuffle. After our first meeting, she pursued her interest to learn more about dance, seeking out an Oriental dancer by the name of Delila Mur. The next time I saw her was perhaps a year or so later when she was appearing at the Fez, the first Arabic night club, which had recently opened on Vermont near Sunset Boulevard. When I first saw her perform there, I knew she was becoming a talent to reckon with.
This was truly an age of discovery in Los Angeles, with numerous artists and thinkers inspiring each other. In that beautiful era, an as yet unknown Ravi Shankar came for the first time to Los Angeles, and was recorded by Richard Bock of World Pacific. Christopher Isherwood was lecturing at UCLA. Poets and intellectuals were experimenting with a new mind-altering substance called L.S.D. A bazooki player by the name of Yordani opened at the Greek Village (later developing a mutually enriching artistic relationship with dancer, Helena.) Transcendental Meditation was fast becoming the catch-phrase as America headed for the sixties. The economy was on the up-swing when Antoinette was on the first rung of her career.
Until the opening of the Fez, Los Angeles had never heard authentic Arabian music or seen the Danse Orientale. Ruth St. Denis, who disastrously interpreted the Danse du Ventre, was considered the expert dance consultant for the biblical biographical block busters of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. De Mille. Years later, it didn’t get much better with the campy antics of Jack Cole, who choreographed a series of petulant posturings for Rita Hayworth as Salome. Where did those movements come from? The movements were ungraceful and suggestive, and not even close to the real thing. America was xenophobic, which, according to Webster means, “dislike, hatred, fear of strangers or aliens.” The movements were Western, with a bit of strip tease thrown in, and not strange enough to possibly be offensive to European sensibilities. What attracted Americans to the Fez, and later to other Arabic and Greek clubs that opened in profusion, was not so much the culture, food, or music, but the “dancing girls.”
The Fez featured an Egyptian group called the Alexandria Trio, consisting of Khamis Elfino on oud, Mohammed on tar, and Siham on tambourine. Lou Shelby, the owner of the Fez, would occasionally join in, playing violin. Siham also sang and danced. Mohammed and Siham were supposedly married, but there were rumors and hassles with the I.N.S., and they were gone before they could be truly appreciated. For the brief time they were at the Fez, they had gathered a large and loyal audience.
And then Maya Medwar appeared on the scene. She credited her talent to Ali Reda, older brother of Mahmoud Reda. Maya was Syrian, raised in Egypt. She had an exquisite and stately appearance, combined with snake-like, unexpected movements which to this day have never been equaled.
Maya was the feature at the Fez when Antoinette began dancing there. After studying with Delila Mur for a short time, during one of her visits to the Fez Antoinette had been persuaded by Lou Shelby to dance there full time. They weren’t about to let this beauty get away. A makeshift costume was thrown together since they wanted her to open immediately. Those were the days when imports and costumes for sale were rare. Although Maya and Antoinette performed in the same show, their styles remained individual. Antoinette played finger cymbals, Maya did not; Antoinette was lively, Maya was svelte. Antoinette’s dance kept changing as she added variations to her taqsim, entrance, and drum solo. Maya seemed to appeal more to the Arab audiences. Antoinette bridged the two worlds of traditional Arabic culture, and the new age of discovery in Los Angeles. Once the Fez became the place to go for the stars of Hollywood, people also came to the Fez to see the stars.
The Fez preferred to use ethnic talent in the beginning, eventually being forced to hire American belly dancers as dancers left for one reason or another. Siham, Maya, and Zenouba were from Egypt, and now Antoinette, who was Syrian/American, rounded out a show that took Hollywood by storm.
Throughout her career, Antoinette was sought out by Hollywood to act, model, and dance in films. She was featured in two films, “The Green Bottle” and “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home.” When Antoinette was in Los Angeles, she shared her talent with many girls who went on to perform.
When Antoinette met her husband-to-be, Najeeb Khoury, they created an exciting show. Najeeb played oud, taking the lead in musicals which were popular, melodic, and complicated. Like the selections which Sohair Zeki chooses, their music was geared to sing-along with the Arabic audience. Of course, Americans in the audience enjoyed the performance all the more, feeling the exuberance between the dancer and the musicians. Since Antoinette spoke and sang Arabic fluently, her reaction to the music made her dancing natural and spontaneous. Her music changed constantly, making it a new experience every time you saw her dance. Sometimes as the musicians were singing, she would interrupt her dance, pick up the microphone, and join in the song. Her voice was so pleasant, I urged her to consider singing as a profession. She never took it seriously, but as singers go, I do believe she had one of the best voices I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard a number of them in my lifetime!).
Najeeb and Antoinette married and had a son, Andre. They traveled as a team and performed across America and Mexico while Najeeb was studying to become a medical doctor. I think being a wife, mother, and working dancer created a pressure which made it difficult to concentrate on one specific career. Najeeb did become a doctor, and Andre followed in his father’s footsteps and is now also a doctor.
There are no films of Antoinette’s complete performances, but there is an archive in my brain where I have stored many copies of her performances. I was fortunate enough to be in on the beginning of her career, and to watch her grow until she retired. We remain friends to this day, although we are miles apart geographically.
The Fez has been leveled to add an extension to the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital. Norm’s, where we all used to go after the show for breakfast, is now just another high-rise nightmare.
Antoinette has much to be happy about, and I am sure in looking back she would have done it the same all over again. It was indeed “La Belle Epoch,” a time that may some day come back, but I don’t think there will ever be another Antoinette Awayshak.
Jamila Salimpour began her performing career at the age of sixteen in Ringling Brothers Circus as an acrobatic dancer. She studied Middle Eastern music and dance, and in 1947 began appearing at cultural events and ethnic clubs in Los Angeles, and later in San Francisco where she owned the Bagdad Cabaret. She began teaching in 1952, developing a unique method of verbal breakdown and terminology for her movements. She has trained innumerable teachers and performers from all over the world, and produced weeklong seminars and festivals, often co-teaching with her daughter, Suhaila. In 1969, she created Bal Anat, performing and touring with the forty-member troupe. Jamila Salimpour’s complex finger cymbal patterns were published in a “Finger Cymbal Manual.” She also published a history of Middle Eastern Dance, From Cave to Cult to Cabaret, as well as a photographic collection of Middle Eastern dancers at the Chicago World’s Faire, and the “Dance Format” manual. From 1974 to 1990, Ms. Salimpour was the Contributing Editor for Habibi. www.suhailainternational.com