John Compton: The Sheik of San Francisco
I first entered Jamila Salimpour’s studio in the early seventies, but like many “baby dancers” of those days, I watched John Compton from afar. In 1990, when the Bal Anat Reunion was organized to surprise Jamila with a “Thank You” performance at a workshop/show sponsored by Tambra in Dallas, I had my first chance to really work with John. I was more than pleased to find him as professional in rehearsal as on stage, with a dry wit and a ready hug. No “star attitude” here! Several years later, I was asked to join his folkloric troupe, Hahbi’Ru, quickly becoming part of that dance family. Perhaps that is the secret of John’s longevity in the dance, which spans 25 years — the love his audiences have for him. He makes each one of us feel a part of that family. A man of great drive, courage and compassion, John’s heart is always open. He treasures every moment, and is 110% alive when he dances.
Let’s go back to the early days. Where did it begin? How did you get into all this? Let’s start at the beginning.
At five years old, at Miss Hollowell’s Dance and Charm School. We wore little white gloves, little suits, and we learned how to be polite and dance. You know, fox trot, that sort of stuff. From there, I went on and studied ballroom dancing, and started competition in ballroom from about twelve years old to about eighteen years old. I did a series of rock ’n roll dance shows from the time I was eighteen until I was about twenty-one. Then I dropped out for a while, and it was at twenty-three years old that I got interested in the belly dance style.
What got you started? What piqued your interest in it?
At the Renaissance Faire (a recreation of Elizabethan country faire)in 1971 and ’72, I had the opportunity to see Bal Anat. I had a booth, where I sold herbs and hanging plants…I saw these people go by, all dressed in black, with what looked like war paint on their faces, and I thought, “Who are they? Where are they from — the moon, Mars?” I had no idea! I’d hear their music in the distance. Once in a while, I’d get someone to watch my booth, and I’d go watch them, and the music! I was just thrilled with it. And something inside me said, “You have to do this. This is where you belong.”
You remember Jamila from the old days. She looked so tall, because of the hair, and the war paint. I was afraid of her, so I couldn’t talk to her. I befriended a couple of the people in the show, and said, “Will you teach me how to dance?” And they said, “No, because Jamila won’t teach men, therefore I can’t.”
I was at the Southern Faire that year and saw Patty Farber’s group, which did belly dancing as well as Turkish and Rumanian folk dancing. I recognized one of the people from Jamila’s show, Farideh (or Cathryn Balk), went to her, and got to know her very well. My friend Jay and I were there for every single one of their shows. But she finally said she couldn’t teach me either, because she was Jamila’s student and Jamila wouldn’t teach men.
Then I found a student who told me where Jamila’s secret studio was in San Francisco. It was at the old poultry factory on Sansome Street, so I went down there. I had taken one lesson from another teacher, and we were being taught how to wiggle and “bleep” the audience. I thought, “This is not for me.” So when I found out where Jamila’s studio was, I went there.
There was a little waiting room outside, with this black curtain. I would peek through, and see everyone going around in a circle, “Step, pivot, step, pivot, back, pivot, back, pivot,” and I’d be doing it in the waiting room. I think they were into “Arabics,” and I said, “Ooh, I think I’ll try this, too,” and all of a sudden the curtain whipped open and there stood Jamila one step up from me, so she even looked taller, and she said, “You! In here, sit there, not a word, don’t leave.” I thought I was dead! But it was such a thrill, because I actually got to sit in the room.
You remember how we were all in this big circle in class. Well, everyone kept coming around, and the person who did tell me where the studio was kept coming around going, “Shhhh! Don’t tell her it was me!”
After that class, Jamila said, “Come! I want to talk to you. Are you really this interested in this dance?” and I said, “Yes I am.”
I had a beard at the time, and she said, “Would you be willing to dance traditionally?” and I said, “Yes. What is that?”
She said, “The boy dances in the early 1800s, so you have to look more like a boy. Will you shave off your beard?” and I said, “Yes.”
“Will you dress as they did then?” and I said, “Yes I will.”
Two weeks later, I had my first solo at the Renaissance Faire (accompanied by gales of laughter). That’s how I got started.
Hahbi’Ru does the Faire now, and it’s no small task! How did you go on in two weeks and do a show?
I had a one-hour private lesson in Jamila’s living room in Kensington, and then I think I actually had one or two lessons in the studio, in class. I was not very good. But I felt it, I felt the music, and I had the energy, so it worked. I had this tiny little two-minute routine, and I counted out the whole thing. And when Jamila thought I was ready to learn a new step, she taught it to me on stage, in front of the audience. I understand her original Bal Anat film has that in it. I look like a spastic chicken, trying to master in front of strangers, the “back walk figure eight.” But at least I was happy, so people said, “God, you’re having so much fun!”
That’s real evident! So you got started with Jamila, but how much of an influence was she, in terms of where you are today? How much of that would you attribute to her?
She was a tremendous influence! She was very much into the old-style dancing, and I think I’ve taken it a step further, by working with people like Patty Farber, who researched village dances, which I’ve incorporated into the show now. So it’s not just old-style belly dancing, it’s old style village and bedouin dances, and dances from many different countries. But, yeah, Jamila was my first teacher. She took me under her wing, and said, “I’m going to turn you into something.” She did.
Speaking of turning you into something, how did you ever get that nickname, “The Sheik?” I’m not sure if it’s something that you like or not.
Well, actually, no; but I’ve gotten used to it and it doesn’t bother me. The San Francisco Chronicle did that. I was working my first very serious dance job, a pizza parlor, Friday lunch and a Saturday night dinner show. It was the late seventies, and then I took a break until the early eighties. First, NBC did a news segment about me, “Male Belly Dancer at Pizza Parlor.” Then the Chronicle came down and did an article with this big series of pictures. Matter of fact, it was full page on the first page of the Entertainment section, and they called it “Valentino is Alive and Well in Sunnyvale — John ‘The Sheik’ Compton,” and it’s stuck ever since. Jamila had tried to name me everything from “Gehan” to “Jhi-ra-g,” but no, I was always just John. I’m still just John.
So, Jamila was a big part of it. But let’s hear more about Patti Farber.
She was at the Southern California Faire, but then she also came up here because her show was so different from Bal Anat’s. Jamila’s was a very Egyptian-style belly dance show; Patti’s had “country” belly dancing, Turkish folk dancing, and then midway through the show, they all changed costume and did Rumanian folk dancing. So it was my first time to be thrown right into the middle of a folk dance ensemble. That was where I learned a lot of my debke, a lot of my traditional Tamzarah steps from Turkey, the basics for one of the Yemeni numbers we do in our show today, and a whole lot that I’ve forgotten. She also had a show where everybody was the same size, they all moved and looked alike, and I said, “Yes. This is the look I want.” At that point, Bal Anat had changed.
What was it like being part of Bal Anat in the early days? What were rehearsals like? What was the backstage aura?
Up until the first year I joined Bal Anat, when I first saw them, it was a bunch of solos. Jamila danced on water glasses — that was really something, when she was dancing! Rebaba was dancing pot, Galya doing the solo, little Lisa doing snake — everyone doing just solos. The year before I joined it, there were trio dances. There was a Kathak dance, and Jamila was in that, and Mish Mish (the San Francisco one, not the one up in the Northwest). They danced with bells on their ankles. I think snake was still a solo. But there were all these little trio dances. The year I joined, it was the first year that there were larger group dances. There were three snakes out there at the same time, there were about ten swords. But still there were the three pots. The pot dancers drove me nuts — I loved them. I was a solo, little baby Suhaila was a solo, and Galya at the end. And I learned most everything from watching the pot dancers and Galya. That year, Jamila stopped dancing, but at the last show at every Faire, they’d scream “Jamila! Jamila! Jamila!” and she’d move across the stage, holding her assiut dress tight at her hips, hardly moving at all, just so subtle — and the audience went berserk. She was so powerful; it was just incredible!
She was, still is, an incredible person. Incredible power, too. So when Jamila started you off, telling you that she wanted you to dance as a khawal, what did that do to you? Did you immediately go to the library, find everything you could about it, try to learn more about that tradition — and what did you learn?
Back then, I was very naive. She basically explained that during the Ottoman Empire, the women were tabooed from the dance because of religious belief. Therefore, young boys — she had a picture (and I wish I still had a copy) of a young boy wearing a fez and just a pile of braids coming out all around it, a billowy shirt, a vest, a belt and a big skirt, or actually three skirts. So that’s what I wore the first year. Oh, boy, that costume was something.
At that point, I started doing more research and found more articles that were written in the early 1800’s by the British who had gone to Egypt and Turkey and had seen these dancing boys. In Lane’s The Modern Egyptians it says, “Their dances are exactly of the same description as those of the Ghawazi. They frequently perform at public festivals. There is another class of male dancers who are distinguished by a different appellation, which is ‘gink,’ a term that is Turkish, and has a vulgar signification which aptly expresses their character.” I found that most of the dancers that were dancing publicly at the time were men. So I feel that there is a place for male dancers, and it’s not doing modern — style dancing, because the male dancer came from a period of time when women did not perform. It wasn’t until 1866 that the Ghawazi were allowed back in Cairo to perform, and so at that point the male dancers weren’t fashionable any more. Male dancers also had a reputation for being even more sensual than the women, because they knew they were men, so they could get away with it; they could be even more trashy. In Serpent of the Nile it says, “Many of these khawals originally came from Istanbul, where they had been outlawed for causing trouble in the coffee houses. Members of their audience were known to throw glasses, brandish swords, and even get into fights over the relative merits of khawals.”
Not that you would ever be trashy.
Oh, occasionally. But all in humor, though.
It’s always done with tongue in cheek.
I don’t think I do it in bad taste. It’s always tongue in cheek when I do it.
Then this whole tradition was just a brief little historical blip during a time of women’s segregation, during the time of the harem, when women weren’t allowed in public at all. But women were still dancing, if only for themselves?
Absolutely, they were still dancing, but it wasn’t respectable to have them dance publicly. In some of the places, I guess you’d call them nightclubs now, but the gathering places where the British went and all the European people, and the native people as well, that’s where they saw the boy dancers. And many of the Europeans didn’t know they were boys, but the Arabs did, and liked them because they could see their dancing, and they became accepted. They were known to be very rowdy. Obviously a lot of them were probably male prostitutes. Fights would break out in some of these places. In 1893, the favorite dancer at the Chicago World’s Fair was a man from Syria named Mohammed.
Wasn’t he the one Jamila had a big picture of in the studio above the Casbah? We would be going around, playing our finger cymbals, and there would be Mohammed, standing on the wall!
That was Mohammed.
Who was the man with all the glasses on the tray? I know his picture so well.
I heard that he was a man from Morocco who danced at the Dancing Boy Cafe. He was actually a waiter, but would put on that chiffony overcoat that they wear, and a belt, and he would dance the tea down the aisles. He became a very old man and was still doing this. He was 64 or something. But now the Dancing Boy Cafe is gone, and he’s gone.
Did you get into the Bay area street dancing thing? When we were all baby dancers and looking for places to perform, we’d do street gigs, every art fair and local craft fair, anyplace we could find to perform. What kind of stuff did you do?
Oh, yes. Of course, Bal Anat did its certain shows. I did the Renaissance Faire, and then I was hooked. I had to keep going. I would dance at Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, Ghiaradelli Square. In those days they would let us.
Right! You didn’t need a street performer’s license or all that.
So we’d put out a basket and perform. I also did the Castro Street Fair in the old days — I mean, any place I could find. I was there with myself, Sharlyn, Farideh from Vancouver (she was from the Bay Area at the time), Jay, Mark Jaqua on drums and Paul Wernick on the saz. And we’d hop in the van, and zip! we were just everywhere. We were often seen in Golden Gate Park doing it too. So first it was that, in 1973 and ’74. In 1975, I had a temporary falling-out with Jamila, left her show and joined Patti Farber’s show at the 1975 Renaissance Faire. The following year, we were all fired — all the paid entertainment was fired from the Renaissance Faire.
Then promoters for a big event that was going to happen at the De Young Museum contacted me and wanted to know if I would present a show there. Well, I was a nervous wreck. I still felt like a baby in this whole field, so I called all the people who totally intimidated me — Solomon from Sirocco, Ernie Fishbach, who had been one of the musicians with Bal Anat, Armando the drummer from Sirocco, Cathryn Balk, Katrina Bourda, Sharlyn Sawyer — all these dancers and musicians who were like my idols, and they said, “Yes, we’d love to do it.”
We did it in the big entry hall of the De Young Museum, where all the walls are lined with old tapestries and big suits of armor — we changed costumes in the Van Gogh room; it was too much! They wanted something big, so I was carried on in an upright sarcophagus in a gold costume with 18 feet of gold wings that folded out from behind me, and we did the Pharoah’s death procession. It came to me in a dream; I just wrote it down and we did it. It was the spookiest thing I’ve ever done, and all the women were dry-heaving under these black mourning costumes. Cathy and I went to a psychic after that. We just said, “We’re here about a show.” She said, “Do not reenact your own death — do it as a performance.” We were amazed — how did she even know?
So at what point did you start teaching? How did you get started teaching? Who was it who said, “I want you to come teach?”
Actually, that must have been probably in 1974 or ’75, when I did have a good block of basics. People kept coming to me saying, “Will you teach, will you teach?” And I’d always say, “Go to Jamila, because she’s the real teacher.” But people kept asking for a real informal class, because they wanted to learn from me first so they would know all the basics — then they’d go to her. So when I finally said OK, I was living in the Haight, and back in those days I had a big reel-to-reel tape recorder that I’d lift up, carry down around the corner to this studio. And I started teaching. I only had continuous classes for about a year, because I didn’t really like doing it on a regular basis.
I started doing workshops about 1976, when people started calling. Marta Schill from LA was actually the first one to call. She said, “I want you and Farideh to come to LA and teach a workshop. Will you teach classes in basic old-style movements and balancing?’ Well, I had never taught a workshop before. I was used to being in a circle with Jamila in the center, and I walked into this place and they said, “We have 400 people for your class.” Well, maybe it was only 200, but I remember it just scared the be-jesus out of me. But I walked in there, and it was a stage with a microphone on a stand. So, first of all, I could teach the way Jamila taught me , I could emulate Jamila, but all of a sudden I was put up on a stage in front of all these people. The only person I had seen do that was Bobby Farrah, but only once. So there I was, trying to dance with this cord, trying to teach people how to spin and do this and that, and I realized I couldn’t work from what I was familiar with, that I had to start to train myself, once again while standing in front of a crowd. So that was my first one — and it was probably the scariest I ever did. After that I was off to Vancouver, Moosejaw and Calgary, and a lot up in the North. Then I went to Hawaii to teach, and the East Coast, and Chicago. But they got easier.
Also, I feel like Oriental dance went through a waning period, so it was never again these rooms packed with a surge of hundreds of people pushing back and forth at you. It was more like a hundred to 160 people, which is a lot more comfortable. Those early days with the big crowds were really scary. Especially when I really didn’t know. I mean, how do you teach someone how to balance? Either you can keep it up there or you can’t.
But you had other gigs besides teaching — for instance, your long run at Finocchio’s.
Oh, sure! But I have to go back a little, to that gig at the pizza parlor, because that was really exciting. Friday lunch was when John “The Sheik” male belly dancer was going to be there. They were booked up three months in advance. The place sat something like 250 or 300 people, and it was booked 90% with women who came for their business lunch hour. They drank a lot of beer, and I don’t know how they got back to the office. And they stuffed me with money!
In 1978, I left there and went to Hawaii through 1979, where I worked at the Marrakech. That was my first taste of a Middle Eastern restaurant. It was a beautiful, beautiful place. Jallaladin Takesh was playing there, and there was Diana from Santa Barbara and Farasheh from here, from Jamila’s studio, and myself. We did two shows a night, and then went out and partied in Hawaii. I came back here, and went back to work at the pizza place for a while, and then started working at the Balkan Village in Palo Alto. Sirocco played there, and they also played for me at the pizza place. Then I got an agent, and I went to Reno and Las Vegas — hated it!
You mean you were a lounge act?
Yeah, and it was just horrendous. I would go on at maybe one or two in the morning, and if people were losing, it was just a horrible vibe. Plus I didn’t have any musicians, it was just me and a tape. I was so different from any other act there. It was too difficult. And I hated being up all night, so I only lasted there about a month, and I said, “Get me out of here.” It was about two weeks in Reno and two and a half in Vegas, and I knew that was enough. So I went back to San Francisco, and my agent said, “Would you be interested in working at Finocchio’s?”
You’d better tell everybody what Finocchio’s is!
Finocchio’s is a landmark, famous San Francisco nightclub known for being the first place in the area, or in the state I think, to present female impersonators. It began in the forties, and is still going today. I had never been there, never seen the show, and when I heard what I’d be making a night, I said, “Well, let’s try it.” So that was real odd to walk in there and be one of the two non-female impersonator acts in the show. They brought me in and stuck me in this dressing room with the star of the show, Lori Shannon. He’s gone now, he had a heart attack at 46 years old, but I can remember hearing him out in the hall, “Get that goddamn belly dancer out of my dressing room!” We actually became very good friends. He also played Beverly LaSalle on “All in the Family,” and the San Francisco Comedy Award is called the Don McLean Award, because he kept winning Best Stand Up Comic for years.
So Don McLean was billed as Lori Shannon at Finocchio’s, and also played LaSalle on TV. And you shared a dressing room with him.
Only briefly. Then they moved me in with the chorus “girls,” the Eve-ettes. That was such an experience! Some of them were straight men doing female impersonating. In fact, the wife of one of them was a cocktail waitress. There were a few transvestites, and there were a definite few who were starting hormone treatments and heading toward sex changes. So it was a real learning experience being there! But it was also great for me financially, because I had friends right across the street working at the Casbah and the Bagdad at that time, making something like $15 bucks a night, and splitting their tips with the musicians. And I was building a savings account to buy a house and a car; it was more like executive pay that I was getting at this place.
How long were you there?
I was there six years. I was supposed to be there eight, but I had to get out of that, too. Once again, it was the nightclub routine. And the music there! Oh, my god! There was a piano player, a saxophone player who usually nodded out halfway through numbers, and a really good jazz drummer. But he didn’t know an Arabic beat. They took a piece of music, notated it, and tried to play it, but it didn’t work at all. So I had to play cymbals for my own rhythm.
Now that’s something that seems to be becoming a lost art — playing cymbals. You see so few dancers play them today, yet when we started dancing we wouldn’t have dreamed of walking out on stage without them.
That’s also something that through time has begun to disappear. If you read old articles about the dancers, they always talk about their large brass cymbals the size of castanets. I still like them. In the show that we do now, because everything is so fast-paced, I don’t have time to play them except standing in the background. This is the first year I haven’t played cymbals while I danced, because the pieces are so short, I am all done by the time I put them on.
After I left Finocchio’s I decided I would work periodically in clubs. When I left Finocchio’s I also joined up with a landscaping firm, because that had always been my hobby. So I said, OK, I have a new income now, but I don’t want to give up dancing. I worked in San Jose, because they paid much better than they did in San Francisco. And there I played cymbals, because we had to do twenty-minute routines, and I would play them for at least half of that time.
When you were on the workshop circuit, what kinds of things did you teach? What do you try to get across to students? What do you want someone to take with them when they walk away from a workshop with you?
I gave them what I learned — the basics of the dance. As Jamila Salimpour used to put it, “the meat and potatoes of the dance.” I would teach them how to shimmy, how to move, where your weight is, how it relates to the music, and all the old basic steps, they way it would have been passed down through a family. “Do this, watch this.” I never taught the modern style because, as I said, the male dancer didn’t come from that period of time, so I’ve only absorbed some of it by seeing it and by osmosis — some of the more modern steps. So I would teach “old-style” beledi dance with finger cymbals, because I thought that was very important, and I would make them dance with their cymbals on. Later on, people wanted choreography, so I would find a more modern piece of music that had the old-style flavor to it, and I would use all the old style steps and do a choreography to that. I wanted them to see how I would take it and put it together, because that’s what I did.
You have had a reputation for being a sizzling partner. You’ve partnered a lot of interesting people doing your duets. Who all have you worked with in that respect?
The first partner was Sharlyn Sawyer.
How did you decide to do this? You don’t normally see partner dancing in this form, and in a sense you pioneered that concept in Middle Eastern dance.
We were there doing the Kos Kadas show, and then we started doing the street stuff. It was often just Sharlyn and I, and we would say, “Well, let’s just dance together.” So at first it was some of the folkier stuff. We had one dance which was the ladies’ dance, to a slow chiftetelli, and we decided to do a “love dance.” Sharlyn had gone to Spain, and Farideh (Cathy Balk) and I picked it up and choreographed it, and we did it together. That was the original “love dance,” which was the original version of what I’m still doing today.
Cathy and I were so much in love, it just showed. We were like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — no matter what I did, she followed, even if I just made it up on the spot. She was so incredible! So it just happened; it was something we made up. We took a lot from Persian miniatures, too. There would be a couple pictured, and we would just decide to replicate that pose (later duets included Asia, Karema Nefsy, and Paula).
It’s something we just made up! I don’t know if there’s any real tradition in that whatsoever. It was also influenced by the “Rudolph Valentino/Sheik of the Desert” fantasy. The American public wants to see that — the Sheik and his wife or his harem or his dancing girl.
But that’s the leap from folkloric to art — that you take some little piece of culture and build your own story around it. And there is that really workable mix in Hahbi ’Ru (which was formed in 1991). What you’re doing now combines the very traditional (so that Middle Eastern audience members expect the group to understand Arabic; they’re astonished that none of us know a word!), yet it also feeds the American fantasy, particularly in the more “arty” pieces that aren’t strictly traditional. It still works for both those diverse audience segments, and it’s an amazing thing. Do you make a conscious decision in the way you balance those elements?
A lot of the village dancing is very repetitious, and it’s done more as a ritual or a communal activity, where it’s done over and over and over and it’s one step until they just drop. What I’ve done is take this dance and make it more stage-worthy. The Yemeni dance for instance — there are definite pieces I have added to that to embellish the actual village dance. Although when Farideh and I were doing it in Calgary, and the front row stood up and sang it with us, I was totally shocked! It was a Yemenite family, and they hadn’t heard that song since they had left Yemen. They were just thrilled that we were doing it.
With certain dances, like the debke, I’ve taken the liberty of combining a variety of steps from different countries. There’s your Jordanian debke, your Lebanese debke — every country has favorite steps. I have videotapes of huge debke lines, and they do one step over and over, and then the next group comes on and does their one step. I’ve taken my favorite steps from a lot of sources and combined them into one dance, which appeals to the American public. They love it! It moves faster, and it’s exciting. Then the Arabs see it and they say, “Wow! They’re doing all that in one debke — this is really exciting!”
Tell us more about Hahbi ’Ru?
Hahbi ’Ru is a group representing an old style of Middle Eastern and North African dance forms. We’re here to educate the American people, as well as entertain them. We try to educate them on the music and the dances from all those cultures, primarily the Bedouins, the travelling tribes of those areas, and dances of the Ghawazi, as well. People often question the richness of our costuming, but an interesting article I read said that the Ghawazi are often dressed more richly than most, because they have collected so much in their travels and in entertaining the rich and powerful. Because our costumes are fine — they’re made of assiut and silver.
When you see Hahbi ’Ru on stage, I think the audience sees the sheik and his wives, and their musicians. We give the impression of being a family or a tribe.
We are. We are representing a travelling band, i.e., Bedouins, who have collected finery. That’s why we look so good. And our costuming is made up of antique fabric from Egypt, antique jewelry, definitely not Pier One Imports stuff. The basic look is designed after drawings of Egyptian costuming of the 1800’s, such as you’d see in Lane’s Modern Egyptians. There’s a vest, pantaloons, a tunic and hip scarf. And those cute little shoes.
Another aspect of Hahbi ’Ru is that we’re trying to preserve this period of time in the dance that is being forgotten, when it was more “country,” more tribal, before the times of nightclubs, lots of electricity, big lights, and electric orchestras. We use a very “village” sound in the instrumentation, the same way that the Marrakech Folk Festival does (a collection of Hahbi’Ru’s favorite dances is available on the video “Desert Wanderers”). If you saw any of the village stuff when Festival of the Nile was touring, the instrumentation was very old style. Some of the dancing in it had become more modern. I had seen a former incarnation of the group in the seventies and even then, the look of that particular show was a lot older. I feel that the Arab culture is moving too fast, or perhaps too uncritically, to look more Western. Even from the videos we have of the old-time dancers, you can see the progression from a more beledi look to an imitation of Hollywood movies. So they are becoming very Westernized.
How about moving along to what your public life has been like? You’ve gotten lots of press, been interviewed by every media known to man. It’s sometimes a real pain in the posterior to be “famous.” You begin to lose some of your ability to be totally who you are because people expect you to be bigger than life. You sometimes begin to censor what you say. What are the pros and cons of being “famous,” well known, respected, an icon in the field, a legend in your own mind? When did you start to notice that you were known?
It started right at the beginning. The very first show I did with Jamila’s Bal Anat. I was a total novelty. The second year, Jamila had said one week, “I want you to dance with a tray on your head.” She took me tray shopping and she bought this huge tray for me, and the goblets and the huge pot which are still on my head to this day, and said, “I want you to dance with this.” I said, “When?” and she said, “Friday.” This was on a Wednesday. We had a show in Marin County. I moved very little under that, because I was just learning how to keep something on my head.
Well, Jamila certainly knew how to give us a challenge!
But it happened real early. Once I mastered the tray, we did a show at Bimbo’s for the Egyptian Consulate, and they went nuts. There was a magazine in Egypt that came out with a picture of me on the cover, laying on the floor with this tray on my head, and so the fame started right away. People were talking from the beginning, “You’ve got to see this male dancer in Jamila’s Bal Anat.” And then, when I left her show in 1975, I got a big solo in the middle of the Turkish show, with the tray.
So you kind of welded this thing to your head and it’s been on there ever since?
There was a period of about a year when I performed without it, and people said, “Hey, where’s the tray?” So it went back on. I did one year at the Desert Dance Festival without the tray, and even there, where they’ve seen it forever, they said, “Where is it?” People want it. It’s like if the Beatles came on and didn’t sing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” It’s like, your first number — you’ve always got to do it. So I’m still doing it. And actually, I don’t mind. I enjoy having it up there now. So, this whole “fame” thing just happened real quick. All of a sudden, there were a million people coming up and saying, “Oh, hi John,” and I knew all their faces but I couldn’t remember their names. That’s still happening to me today.
A lot of what did it, too, was the Chronicle article, and then Evening Magazine jumped in and did a spot on me. Then it was “Real People,” “World of People,” “You Asked For It,” “The Alan Hamel Show” in Canada, which was the equivalent of “The Johnny Carson Show” here. The list just went on and on. It seemed like every time I turned around I was on TV. What I do regret is that I don’t have original footage from any of that, except the “Alan Hamel” one. Now I wish I had gotten copies!
You’ve been doing this a long time. What do you see out there that excites you these days?
I see a resurgence of interest in the old style of dancing. That excites me. Some of what I see is very unusual, but their hearts are in the right place. They’re trying to grasp onto something that has gone by. These “gypsy” dancers are entranced with the fantasy of what was. And there was a lot of gypsy dancing — if you saw Latcho Drom, you saw just people having fun, not a performance, just dancing to the music. So that’s happening everywhere, in all cultures — a seeking out the roots of dance. This year we presented a very small part of Hahbi ’Ru at Rakkasah, and the energy, the excitement when we hit the stage, was overwhelming. People hadn’t seen anything like this. It was all brand new to them, but it was also so very old. I looked out and saw hundreds of people, all open-mouthed in amazement.
What’s the best thing you’ve gotten out of this — out of 25 years of being John “The Sheik” Compton?
A nice house on top of a hill with a view. Lots of recognition. A lot of really good friends. A drawer full of old broken finger cymbals. A basement full of old rotted costumes. Travel. And it made me happy. I am my absolute happiest when I am on that stage, dancing. Any problem in the world, any physical pain I might have, all disappears. Except for the one time I thought I was having a heart attack on stage, last year at the Faire. Something was pounding inside my chest, but I thought, “OK, I have to finish this number.” I’m going to be like Bette Midler in The Rose. When I go, it’s going to be BAM! Right there, I’m just going to drop dead in front of everybody — with a grin a mile wide. But don’t let me drop the tray!
Bàraka was crowned Miss America of the Belly Dance 1993. She has also been First Runner-Up in both the San Francisco Festival ’92 and the Egyptian Category at the ’93 Southern California International Belly Dance Competition, and Second Runner-Up at the ’93 Belly Dancer of the Year. She is a member of Hahbi’Ru, and performs, teaches and coaches in San Francisco where she is employed at a well-known publishing house. firstname.lastname@example.org