The “Business” and Bert Balladine
Tales of a Lifetime
Interview by Ma*Shuqa Mira Murjan
with forward by Shareen El Safy
Winding down a country road on a clear winter afternoon, a friend and I were driving to the home of Roman Balladine, or Bert, as he is known to many. We had spoken in passing only once or twice before, and now I would meet him on his own turf—a small working farm just north of San Francisco. I had received the following interview for publication, and had come to collect photos and a few more details from him. Driving through a large wooden gate shouldered by a stand of cypress, we parked near the weather-worn barn decorated with flower boxes and heart-shaped cutouts. The small compound of rustic buildings (which we later learned were either new or remodeled, designed and crafted to appear old) looked like a quaint European hamlet.
We were greeted by Glenn, Bert’s cousin, who was dressed in an apron and boots and carrying a bucket. We had arrived a few minutes early and had caught him finishing some barnyard tasks. Bert welcomed us at the threshold, and asked if we wanted to see the farm. As we walked about, I remember thinking, ‘Home is where the heart is,’ because it was evident that much personal care and attention have been lavished upon the fortunate creatures living within these gates.
Ducks and white Chinese geese were bobbing and splashing in the large pond just east, beyond the front door. Behind the house were corrals of bleating sheep and goats with their kids. A horse and donkey came down from their knoll on the hillside pasture to nuzzle us. Inside the cool dark barn were bunnies of all kinds and newly hatched chicks. Black roosters and red hens were clucking and pecking, and a cat was sunning itself in a warm corner outside. A large rambling rose bush arched over the back of the house, and pockets of lilies, daffodils and yellow daisies were growing here and there among the fruit trees. The perimeter of the property was edged in the brilliant green grass which shoots up annually after the first winter rains in California. The farm provides serenity and purpose in daily life. Bert confided that if he experiences pre-performance jitters, he thinks of his animals, helping him to balance the demands of being a public figure and putting it all in perspective.
Sitting inside the cozy dining room with dogs curled up and napping nearby, I felt that I was somewhere in the ‘old country’—a generous bay window overlooking the pond, carved wooden antique furniture, a china cabinet holding hand-painted porcelain, sunlight coming through a stained glass window…Bert himself has an old-world charm with his thick accent, hearty sense of humor and mischievous twinkle in his eye. But his face has more than ‘character lines’—it’s a face of someone who has lived intensely, and has seen both the good and the bad of life.
Glenn, the resident chef and computer whiz, served us all freshly brewed coffee and rich pound cake made from their abundance of eggs, as our talk centered around Bert’s long show business career—one that spans fifty years. He doesn’t divulge his age, except to say that he has survived both World Wars. I was eager to start from the beginning, but a shadow passed over his face at the mention of early childhood. He began by discussing the training he received at the tender age of eight. His grandparents had a circus in Eastern Europe, and he was schooled in the family tradition of circus acrobatics by his relatives. These formative years, which cultivated his natural talent and theatrical abilities, combined with rigorous athletic discipline, provided a fitting foundation for an enduring performing career.
Bert excused himself from the table and disappeared into the hallway, returning shortly with an arm load of photo albums, faded newspaper clippings and playbills. “I was a show-off, really,” he explained. “I have a thing that is almost bad—I am always performing. I know it subconsciously. I am really an entertainer more than a teacher; I entertain when I teach.” He dances with an exaggerated style honed by years of theater and classical training. His persona is unmistakable. “Phony macho—that is how I feel when I dance.”
The entertainers he has met and worked with around the world have been like his extended family. “What I like about show business is the camaraderie; I love the atmosphere in the dressing room…You look forward every evening to being with your ‘family.’ It is my nationality.”
Throughout his career, Bert has had many engagements in many countries, but one venue seemed especially portentous. He was a member of an acrobatic dance team, which, after appearing in Lebanon, went on to Egypt, where they became stranded. While waiting for the next gig, he maintained his conditioning by taking ballet classes with Russian and French choreographers, which were also attended by Oriental dancers.
He later stopped touring with the company in 1955, and became involved with the beginnings of the Middle Eastern dance craze that hit the U.S. He also taught and performed in Europe, planting the seeds for a now burgeoning Middle Eastern dance industry. Some of his early enthusiasts have become leading professionals in the field, including Feyrouz, Beata Zadou and the late Dietlinde Kartuli.
The qualities which originally attracted him to this dance—freedom, charisma and energy—he now projects in performance and encourages his students to experience, “so that movement becomes a vehicle for self-expression…I can ‘dance a woman up.’ I love ‘framing.’ I like to take an overweight forty-five plus (year old) lady and go on stage and make her look like a million dollars—not teaching…I coach. I like to have them do their own thing.”
Speaking of doing one’s own thing, Bert is outspoken in his dislike for set routines, and is all for improvisation: “We have killed the dance, made it plastic. The music is canned, the dance is canned—like a frozen dinner! The West is playacting. We have lost our audience, and the Germans are now losing their audience, too, because we have lost the allure. We scream so much that it is a high priest-like art form…That is already boring right there. If people liked art we would have ballerinas in nightclubs!”
Roman Balladine has influenced large numbers of dancers both here and abroad, impressing them with his singular sense of style and wit. He has created and enjoyed a unique niche in a form predominantly practiced by women. “I think I am not a pioneer; I am a maverick in the field. I have something….I have some energy, some show business pizazz, and I can motivate people to move. I can make women feel good, and that is important.”
Shareen El Safy
Interview by Ma*Shuqa Mira Murjan
Q: You have been in other forms of dance before? What made you choose belly dance?
A: I was exposed to it in 1958 in Egypt. Later I traveled to the Far East and worked with a dancer named Princess Amina. I was fascinated by the dance because it was a dance form that appealed to me as much as flamenco. It wasn’t structured like some forms of dance, notably ballet. Each dance was governed by the music and by the style of the performer.
Of course, now we have the custom of choreographing dances, and the very essence of the dance which drew me to it has been lost. I have never taught choreography except for very special people, people who can collaborate in the creation of it. I feel that choreography instead of improvisation is like ready to wear clothing rather than designer fashions.
Q: What was your impression of the dance in Egypt in the late 60’s and early 70’s?
A: I was really fortunate to be able to see and rub shoulders with the famous stars of that era, and as a result I appeared on Egyptian television (interviewed with Delilah) in 1977 during the first study tour of American dancers to Egypt. Seeing the Egyptian dancers made me aware of some misconceptions I had concerning the dance form.
Q: How do Middle Eastern dance teachers deal with the fact that a European is a founding father of the dance in America and Europe?
A: It does not seem to be a problem; at least I have always had very amicable encounters and amiable relations with all of them I have met or worked with. As to being a founding father, if that is a true definition, then fate had something to do with it — being in the right place at the right time.
Anyway, I’m not too fond of the term “founding father” because it has a sort of ancient ring to it.
Q: Would you tell me something about your early dance background?
A: My first professional appearances as a dancer, before I had formal dance training, was as a circus acrobat in Europe when I was fourteen. What we did was called “show dancing” and was considered a kind of ballet. A little later, I studied at a famous ballet school in Paris, but my main ballet education was received in Germany, mostly from Antonia Kern, a well-known soloist with the Ballet Russe, the Komische Opera and German musical films. She was like a foster mother to me; in fact, my career in belly dance today continues to have links to Mme. Kern. Beata Zadou, one of my professional dance students met her when she was a very senior ballet teacher in Berlin. In her last years, Mme. Kern sometimes watched me teach belly dance with pride, because I was one of the few of her students who had continued in the professional dance world.
Q: In what other dance forms did you perform?
A: I was in lots of movies (36) in Europe. Often I was one of four male dancers “framing” the star, which may be why, to this day, I like to dance with a partner and “dance her up” — make her look good. Many times, of course, I was one of sixteen or more dancers in a group scene. Usually it was something colorful, with great costumes, like a Bavarian-style wedding, a Spanish Gypsy dance or a big swirling waltz finale. We did a theatrical form of anything from tango to Hawaiian, as well as what could only be called modern dance. Later, I studied Spanish dancing in Spain and appeared there in a couple of American film productions being shot on location. King of Kings was one of the American films. I was working in Spain as a dance team with an American partner, and our agent asked if we wanted to appear in that film, and, of course, we did. The casting people were expecting a blond couple, but when they saw us, they immediately demoted us to Gypsies, and we even worked with real Gypsies in some biblical scenes.
Q: I read in Sausan’s Clyde’s Guide that you have been “shot at, cursed at, and detained, and you crossed the strait between Kowloon and Hong Kong during a typhoon.” Would you tell me more about these exciting adventures?
A: This will make the most sense to people who are familiar with Hong Kong. I think of it as being like San Francisco and Oakland, without a bridge. We were working both sides of the strait because the agents who, incidentally, liked to call themselves impresarios, were booking us into a club in either Hong Kong or Kowloon, and then the owner of that club would farm us out to other nightclubs, sort of like subletting. We were the “foreign act” in three clubs simultaneously. When we finished our first show, we grabbed the sheet music and our costumes and rushed out to try for a taxi or a rickshaw. (Our private little joke was that, since rickshaws only take one person, my partner always got to say, “Follow that rickshaw!”) So, off we would go to the island colony on Kowloon to do our next show. We had to take the famous Star Ferry, which put us in pretty close proximity to a lot of people, and since we were still in makeup, people would come up close and stare and giggle and point at us, quite without embarrassment. If we were in a good mood, we would smile back and nod or wave. If we were just too tired and exhausted, we would sometimes smile wanly and say, “Yes and up yours, too!” or something equally as rude, and hope that nobody understood us. On the famous typhoon night, the Star Ferry wasn’t running because of the dangerous conditions, but our employers believed in that famous old motto: “the show must go on.” So they hired a little dinghy to take us across. I still have very vivid memories of that night, and I can see our costumes flapping in the wind, getting soaked, and the boatmen themselves fearing for their lives because the typhoon was so violent. Well, we made it and “the show went on.”
Many interesting things happened during our stay in Hong Kong. Our act had to run twenty minutes, so we did double, single, double, single, double—which means we danced as duo, then one person continued alone while the other changed costume, following which we danced together again and then the other one would stay on the dance floor during a costume change, and so on. After our Viennese waltz number, I removed my jacket, and in my ruffled shirt and vest did a pseudo-flamenco routine, hoping fervently that there were no Spaniards in the audience. Then my partner came on to start a calypso number, and I had to race backstage to change into a calypso costume, a complete costume change this time. As in so many Chinese restaurants, equipped with movable sliding partitions, the size and shape of the rooms kept constantly changing, depending on the crowd of the night. On the second and third nights we completely sold out the restaurant, so our dressing room had disappeared! Costume changes were made on the fire escape thirteen floors above the Hong Kong harbor with a beautiful view—the real show was out on that tiny fire escape. Anything for art!
Talking about the famous calypso routine, later, in Japan, it came in handy. There we had to make our changes in the least possible amount of time, as they timed our routine with a stopwatch. We were young, enthusiastic, and in good shape, but even so, there are limits. So we devised a “rest” number to give me more time to change. My partner danced to the famous “banana song,” and carried a basket of plastic bananas with a few real ones on top. She would peel one seductively and then let some guy in the audience take a bite of it. It went over great because the Japanese love audience participation. But in Hokkaido, the price of bananas was staggeringly high, so we decided to change the show and give out green apples. The manager, part of the famous Toho-Geino Production Company, objected to this change, so I told them they could buy the bananas. They agreed, but counted the bananas every night, which just brought out the larceny in me. So every night I tried to sneak one out, just for the heck of it. The reason I mention all of this is because it shows how real dance life is. Most people, even when they are the headliners, only write about the plum jobs; but for everybody there are many jobs between the four star hotels, and most people don’t mention them.
Q: How did you ever get to the Far East and the Middle East? Did you just call up an agent?
A: On, no. These things usually come about because of recommendations of other performers. For someone to be willing to import you from across the world, they need the opinion of a show business person they trust. After all, people can write glorious resumes and send their early pictures—some look like they were made just after photography was invented. When I was working in Portugal at a resort following a tour of Spanish bull rings (more about that later), I met a Filipino entertainer who balanced objects, plates and such on his forehead and nose. He was very depressed, but happy to have someone to talk to, so we became friends. He arranged for us to work in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. We worked in a gambling casino run by a Moslem, who also ran illegal betting on horse racing in Calcutta. Our main job was in the nightclub, but every two weeks we had to appear in a big auditorium (read that for the “poorer population”), because the nightclub catered to a rich clientele. There we appeared with all native entertainers, which turned out to be trying, if interesting. Can you imagine a Viennese waltz being played by a gamelan orchestra? Puts your musicality to a real test!
Q: You’ve mentioned Spain. What was special about Spain for you?
A: I worked in Spain in theaters and nightclubs many times when vaudeville was still going strong. Actually, it is still going strong. I know this through my friend Amaya, who goes to Spain to teach. The time for me was memorable, especially because we worked in bull rings. The bullfights were in the afternoon; then they cleaned up the gore and put out chairs and a stage. The less expensive seats were up in the galleries. It’s quite an experience working for more or less the same crowd that was at the bullfight. They’re pretty noisy, so one has to project strongly and try to figure out what goes and what doesn’t. On one tour we were a supporting act, along with a French magician and a father-son acrobat team, for the singing group Los Cinco Latinos, then an internationally famous act. We used the same dressing rooms as the bullfighters, even eating our lunches with them. The matadors were usually young kids, looking very worried, who enjoyed their lunches less than we did. I was happy to be a dancer — if I made a mistake or fell down, the worst that could happen is that I would be booed. We traveled by bus from the Spanish equivalent of Hicksville to Nowheresville and once in a while we would hit larger cities, but they were mostly poor places where the arenas were no longer used for bullfighting, and were overgrown with weeds. When we arrived in Madrid at the end of our tour, the management absconded with the money and we had to go to the Spanish entertainers’ union to get paid. That was an advantage of having a work permit, which was necessary in many countries then.
Q: You have so many stories about your performances all over the world. When did you actually start teaching and performing belly dance?
A: Well, as you know, I taught in Egypt — theater skills, arm movements, etc., for Oriental dancers. I didn’t think there would be much demand for it in other places, but when I returned to America in the early 60’s, the Haight-Ashbury “flower children” scene was alive and people were ready to discover this dance, and so I helped them. I remember teaching single people in my studio apartment (which forced me to make my bed daily). I had never heard of people taking Danse Orientale in groups. Ibrahim Akef, for example, taught single students. A lot of people learned to dance by becoming proteges of famous dancers. But after a while there was a demand, and using my background in ballet, I gathered together groups of students and began teaching small groups in my basement apartment. I had bought the building with my cousin, but couldn’t afford to live in one of the flats, so I lived and taught in the basement. One of my first students from that time, Sabah (Jamie Miller), is still in the dance. We sometimes get together to reminisce about the good old days. They were good old days because we had enthusiasm. The burden of being a well-known instructor or performer, and other related concerns, weren’t with us, so we really had fun and enjoyed the dance in each other’s company.
Next came the historical first of a recreation department hiring a belly dance teacher — hiring a male belly dance teacher. Soon the city fathers realized how “racy” the recreation program was and canceled it, but by that time I had a group of followers: the rest is history. Later, because of working in other recreation departments, I received an Award of Honor from the State of California signed by Governor Reagan, and this gave me the credibility that enabled me to reach recreation programs elsewhere. Talk about credibility — a mature lady doctor in Germany took my classes because she wanted to change her career from gynecology to sports medicine; dance classes were acceptable study, and so my classes did the trick in helping her achieve her goal.
Q: How do Middle Eastern people, especially those in the dance community, view you?
A: In the early days, I was perhaps considered an oddity, but during my career I had the opportunity to teach together with Mahmoud Reda, Mohammed Kahlil, Hassan Kahlil, and even Nagwa Fouad. Of course, she is an extraordinary performer and not a teacher, but she went along with the joke and we taught at the same mega-production in Germany. That’s just to mention the old-timers, but of course I have shared the stage and classroom with younger, more recent Egyptian stars like Momo Kadous, Mo Geddawi, etc. The respect and camaraderie with those professional people is often better than with my fellow “western” belly dance teachers and performers. I think Middle Eastern dancers and performers are less hung up on what is called “ethnicity” than dancers here. The professionals in belly dance will accept any good dancer or teacher — for example, Dahlena, Shareen el Safy, Sahra Saeeda and Sakti, just to name a few from the U.S. who have danced successfully in Cairo for extended periods. While westerners will ask about the dancer, “Is she ethnic?”, Middle Easterners will ask, “Is she good?”
Q: When you talk about the dance you always say “she.” Wouldn’t it be better to say “he/she?” Or is this because English is your second language?
A: Since this is mostly a dance for women and mostly performed by women, I find it rather silly to repeat “he/she” when you speak of dancers in this field. The chances that a male would be called “she” is fairly remote, and after all, you really have to know whom you are talking about. Women get shortchanged in many instances, since we have “mankind,” “man hours,” “manhandling,” etc. And I don’t mind if I might be considered an “honorary woman” for the purpose of promoting this female dance form. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Teaching is also performing and performing is also teaching. And the show goes on!
Having completed her MBA, Ma’Shuqa Mira Murjan now divides her time between her career as a university professor of business, her work as a business consultant, and her performing, teaching and continued study of Oriental dance. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Educational Administration. www.mashuqa.com
Shareen El Safy is an award-winning instructor and choreographer who has performed and taught Egyptian dance in sixty major cities on five continents, including many states throughout America. She has made numerous trips to Egypt, researching dance, studying with renowned artists there, and leading her Dance Study Tours. As one of few westerners, Shareen performed raks sharqi in Cairo nightclubs during the 1988 to 1992 summer seasons. She has released a number of instructional DVD’s focusing on Oriental dance technique. Shareen presented at the 1999 World Congress of Sports and Dance, and taught and performed at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival (2001), and the Nile Group Festivals (2009 and 2010) in Cairo. Shareen co-produced the First and Second International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance in 1997 and 2001. She was Publisher and Editor of Habibi from 1992-2002 and Editor-in-Chief in 1993. www.shareenelsafy.com.