A Return to the Roots in the ‘60s

By Rhea

On one of my periodic visits and returns to the San Francisco Bay area where I was born, I was being driven to some now long-forgotten gig by a friend of my salad years, Robaire. Robaire was, and is, among other things I’ll go into later, a dumbec player. We knew each other when we were young and idealistic, both children of that infamous and much-studied decade, the sixties.

Right across from San Francisco, over the Bay Bridge, lays Berkeley, home of the first student revolution in 1964: the shot heard round the world which inspired many other student revolutions that changed much of American opinion and thought (ie., Kent State), inspired the French student revolution, and eventually spread to far-away Greece where the student revolution at the University of Athens was instrumental in bringing down the Junta. It was also the hotbed of other revolutionary cultural ideas which were later accepted by greater America, and even commercialized upon.

Rhea and daughters dancing at Human Be-in, San Francisco, mid-sixties.

Together, San Francisco and Berkeley were the vanguard of what was “happening:” hippies, rock groups, the human “Be-In” (one of the many precursors to Woodstock), LSD a la Timothy Leary, etc. Manifold events occurred, filled with zest, verve and flair. Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) was caught in a real police car chase outside of Candlestick Park (not to be equalled until O.J. Simpson). President Kennedy had been murdered and conspiracy theories abounded. I was living with Phil Marsh, a rock and roll musician (then leader of the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band, later to play with Country Joe and the Fish).

Robaire lived in a belly dance commune, one of the many communes that proliferated in Berkeley at that time. I had broken into belly dancing before it became a fad, and was beginning to ride the crest of what was to become a tidal wave of popularity for this ancient artistic and liturgical art form. I had formed a dance troupe based on the model formed by my teacher, Jamila Salimpour, and was anxious to promote and display good, technically competent and soulful dancers.

Robaire and I ran into each other at performances at various sit-ins, be-ins, love-ins, happenings and stop-the-war demonstrations that were the hallmarks of that era. Robaire had long hair and a beard. I had only recently begun shaving my legs and underarms to dance in nightclubs and only wore a bra on stage. Our audiences were joyous and stoned, ecstatically communicating with the higher gods which we, with our temple bodies invoked and called forth. We didn’t just dance. We communicated. We communed. We danced for love, not money. “Make love, not war.”

Here Robaire and I began to part company (but not spiritual communication). He, being a gardener in the daytime, could afford to love it up at performances. Being the divorced mother of two small children (exuent rock and roller, enter first Greek), I preferred to stay home in the day, work at night. Even we belly dancers who danced for higher spirit, joy and love hoped and dreamed of working as a “professional dancer” at one of the then myriad night clubs that existed in the greater San Francisco Bay area. We would edify the general public by showing that our dance was on a higher plane than just sex and eroticism.

We were also going to knock the socks off the Middle Easterners: “But I cannot beleeve you dance like thees and are not from our country!” We would show that we American girls could go the Arabian girls one better, thus spawning “Ameraba” music and dance, enabling Eddy Kochak and others to buy houses in the upper echelons of New York property values.

I started at the Bagdad on Broadway for $5.00 a night in 1969, and gradually worked my way up to being one of the top-earning dancers in the area. San Francisco was then coming out of the “beat” era, but still retained that seedy but European quality, mixed with an exotic Oriental feeling. Tourists were coming from all over the country to see the hippies in-situ (Haight-Ashbury), the first topless dancers ever in America, and, of course, a show, a jazz club, a famous comedian (e.g. Mort Sahl), a play, the biggest Fillipino club outside of Manila, Alcatraz Prison, the cable cars, Golden Gate Bridge. But to cap off the night — Broadway, North Beach (Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”) and the belly dancers. Many clubs closed their doors at regular closing time, but inside things went on until dawn.

One of my chief regrets in life is that such times die. You can make a movie, you can write a documentary, but you can never re-capture the feeling of such times. Even as I write, my heart constricts to think of the revelling innocents we were, naturally believing such a life could continue, now lost to each other and the selves we used to be, cruelly separated by changing times and tastes.

Rather than elaborate on the decline of Broadway and “legitimate” entertainment in all major American cities (by the encroachment of television and later, video), let me now leave America and arrive in Greece in 1976, broken-hearted, broken-dreamed, but with those same two children to support.

I went to work on the “Athens by Night” circuit which proliferated around Acropolis in Athens, Greece. My dance was well-received by the tourists and I continued to grow and change. Robaire, who had by this time formed his own troupe, inherited some of my dancers, and formed a lovely synthesis. And synthesis was to be the key word now. To shore up the dwindling dance student supply, producers of dance seminars now had to co-operate more if their seminars were to be a success. This spawned week-long workshops with many teachers teaching. My old friend, Robaire, went on to co-produce the mother of all belly dance workshops, Rakkasah, where people travel from all over the world to meet with each other, dance for each other, and sell and buy things from each other.

Meanwhile, poor old Rhea, the performance addict, continued to dance in various cities in Europe simply because night clubs presenting belly dancers which paid decent living wages still existed there.

Now let us go back to the night Robaire and I are in his panel truck on the way to some long-forgotten gig. As is the custom when we are together, we were verbally sparring in a jovial and affectionate way. I was talking about my oldest daughter, Piper, and some of the places where she danced in Athens.

“Now Piper,” says I, “in her act…”

Robaire, with his customary panache, cut me short. “Act?” says he. “I thought it was a dance!”

Well, that started us on a merry verbal chase that passed the time quickly. Although the gig I danced at and who the contest winner was, are erased from my memory, that conversation still stands out. My opinion at that time, which is still my opinion today, is that to be a successful performer and to be able to find and keep work as a dancer, one has to be able to do more than just dance. A moderately good-looking face and body, dynamite stage make-up, and effective costuming are all part of the “act.” Familiarity with Egyptian, Turkish, and Greek music, not to mention Armenian, Lebanese, and other Middle Eastern countries’ music, and the ability to emotionally interpret that music, are also important ingredients for success.

Rhea in Greece, 1994

My “act” has expanded over the years (at 52 I am still fully booked, thank God!!) to include not only the traditional cabaret dance, but also what I call “Art-Interpretive” dance. One example: Rhea and company at an “in” coffee/wine bar under the Acropolis presenting a performance with Antonis Kazantzoglou on recorder playing “O Glikee Mou Aer” and “Saranda Palikaria” (originally danced with veils by Irene Pappas in a monastary in one of her movies). All musicians sing “Hava Nagila,” first as a dirge in minor key, and slowly building to a joyous crescendo in major key with audience participation. Antonis Kazantzoglou on flute plays a “taxim” while I do a snake-inspired floor dance. Antonis plays “Ave Maria” on the electric organ as I explain to the audience that this dance is a celebration of womanhood from matriarchal times, and Maria is the mother of Christ whom we would like to honor with our more ancient dance. The audience has no problem with this. We finish our show with Aikis, the eleven-year old son of Lazarus (the meanest Zembekiko dancer in all of Athens) playing the Bouzoukee. Aikis plays a pure Tsif T’Tele and “Glike Mou Tyrane” (My Sweet Tyrant) after I explain that our aim is to incorporate this ancient, traditional instrument into our repetoire, played by an eleven-year-old future palikari (strong man), once more linking past with present with future. Throughout the show, we are accompanied by Evy and Yiorgos on Darboukah and Ivan Fainmel, retired flamenco dancer, on castanets. This performance was repeated at a seminar for the Dora Stratou Theater with the inclusion of an Indian Tabla player accompanying me as I did a Katak-inspired dance, bells on ankles and pelvic area. Slides were later introduced by Anna Lazou, showing the connection between ancient Greek dance and Oriental dance. Anna has now asked me to participate with the Dora Stratou study group as it delves into Eros and Dimitra (Demeter)…and so it evolves.

What is “art-interpretive dance?” It is the stuff you love to do but don’t get paid for.

Perhaps this is a criteria for judging whether it is a dance or an act: do we “dance” for ourselves, for the love of the activity itself, or are we “acting” for others to produce an effect. Webster’s treats the verb “to act” this way: a. to represent or perform by action especially on the stage, b. to feign, simulate, c. impersonate. As a noun, one of the definitions is “a display of affected, insincere behavior.” Few of us would admit to such unworthy motives. Much of dance throughout history was done for others, as an “act” of some form or other.

Why did the ancient, archetypal, nomadic, prehistoric, tribal, matriarchal, cave-dwelling woman dance? For whom did she dance? Gina Shephard threw some light on this issue through the ages in an article published in a paper originating out of Berkeley (Express, May 28, 1993):

“Dance, of course, originated as a holy art. Most of it was done in groups, with simple hypnotic steps used to induce altered states of consciousness. Later, religious dance evolved into folk dancing, which was more social and still mainly done in groups. This, in turn, split into two separate strands of dance: dance as a solo art form which was to be observed rather than participated in, and dancing as a court-ship ritual.”

The first human activity recorded on cave walls was not hunting or war, but dance. The first dances done by humans were of a ritualistic nature, imitating an event seen in nature either to provoke or to forestall its occurence. The first dances, then, were like prayers, invoking unknown forces which could not be explained. People danced for rain, for a successful hunting foray, for fruitfullness of crops, and certainly for the continuation of humanity, which ancient people assumed to be the sole role of women, not knowing how babies originated. It is safe to assume that belly dancing, or some form of belly dancing, was the first dance, done either as a ritualistic celebration of the creation and delivery of a new life, or as a precautionary talismanic invocation against the untimely termination of that life. It is likely that it was done by women who were invested by the matrilineal society with a special power to invoke the gods; thus, the delegated practitioners were regarded as priestesses. This was a dance both hierarchic and hieratic.

Was it an act? Although the pejorative implication of “act” as being insincere probably was not present, it certainly was an imitative ritual performed for others (society, the powers of nature, the goddess, etc.), to produce an effect. It was a liturgical act. Just as in modern liturgies where the priest’s true feelings are unimportant, the dancer had to go on no matter how she felt.

People gradually gained a less superstitious approach to life, and dance was eventually relegated more to a purely diversionary or celebratory function. Although dance lost its holy aspects, and was practised for other reasons, the ritualistic movements of the ancients are still found in modern belly dance.

As dance moved into and through the stages of being an art form on the one hand, and a courtship ritual on the other, it became more of an individualized dance, a direction which was completed in the sixties:

“The age of couple dancing ended with the coming of the beat era, and later the hippie years. Dancing stopped being something you did with someone else. Dance was now self-expression. It was the era of free-form, acid, the Grateful Dead, the barefoot boogie, the granola shuffle. Like so many things during those years, dance was both democratized (anyone could do it) and vulgarized (the art taken out of it).” (Gina Shepherd)

Those of us who learned belly dancing in the sixties are familiar with how this attitude prevailed in the “hippie” belly dance scene of the era.

In short, popular dance (the cultural expression of youth in our society) has now moved more toward the personal end of the continuum, dance for the dancer rather than for other (ie., society, a god, a mate, or an audience). But how many of us as professional Oriental dancers have been able to hang on to the “purist,” internal approach espoused in the sixties. It has gradually faded with the passage of that era, and the greater technical proficiency and professionalism achieved by those who have stayed with the dance all these years. We are on the stage, we do “perform,” it is an “act” for others… no matter how much we enjoy it, no matter how much of a “personal” expression it is. Yet, how many of us would continue the dance if it were purely an “act,” a profession done for a living, without a heavy dose of the personal enjoyment, the “dance for the dancer,” as a strong motivator to keep us going.

I remember a rallying statement which my teacher, Jamila Salimpour, said in 1968: “When I get old, I will be proud to say, ‘I was a belly dancer.’” At that time I thought, “Meee, too!” I didn’t realize then that I would last so long. Now I have to modify that statement slightly: I am proud to say that “I am a belly dancer!”

Rhea began her belly dance career in San Francisco under the expert guidance of Jamila Salimpour in 1967, where she taught and danced in Bay Area during the early seventies. After a soul-changing visit to Greece and Egypt in 1976, Rhea moved with her two daughters to Athens, where she still teaches, choreographs for her troupe, and performs throughout Greece. Rhea currently speaks, performs, and conducts seminars throughout Europe and the United States. Under the profound influence of Athens neighbor, Nelly Mazloum, Rhea’s understanding and thinking about belly dance has deepened as she explores its more metaphysical and spiritual aspects in both theory and practice. www.daughtersofrhea.com

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