Leona Wood

Leona Wood

From the Kamarinskaya to the Danse du Ventre

By Susan Marshall

It was Leona Wood who was largely responsible for taking the belly dance from the cabaret setting of ethnic nightclubs and outdoor festival venues and presenting it as an art dance in the theatre. It was her keen aptitude for lighting and dramatic choreography and an accurate knowledge of ethnic and tribal costuming combined with a solid knowledge of the cultural history of the Middle East that made her productions breathtaking to the connoisseur audiences who frequented the Los Angeles Music Center and California’s University auditoriums. Aisha Ali

I first met Leona when we were both performing with the African Study Group at the Institute of Ethnomusicology at UCLA. This was in the nineteen sixties, and the campus was full of students eagerly expanding their cultural horizons by starting folk dance clubs, joining foreign students’ organizations, and some even leaving school altogether to join the Peace Corps and have their new cultural exposure first-hand.

Leona Wood, Los Angeles Music Center, late 1960’s.

Leona had connections at Universal Studios, and when they heard that she had been performing Algerian and Moroccan dances with the students from those countries, she was hired to choreograph the North African sequence for Gambit, an upcoming film.

With the whole campus to draw upon, there was no problem in finding enthusiastic volunteers to learn the dances that would be filmed. Ad hoc auditions produced a surprising number of talented participants, including a couple of the real Moroccans. One of the volunteers was Michael Alexander1 , who was soon to become business manager of the Aman Folk Ensemble, and later to guide it through a decade of annual performances at the Los Angeles Music Center.

I remember asking Leona how she became interested in other cultures, and she replied that the conditions of her childhood undoubtedly contributed to an involvement that has not diminished with time.

From the Halls of UCLA to the Shores of Puget Sound

Leona grew up on these shores, where her father, a man of independent mind and athletic constitution, raised his only child to share his own Spartan values. She got used to taking an icy dip in the Sound even in winter; and she learned to shoot cans off beached logs when the tide was out. When she was old enough, her father took her skiing and mountain climbing. This was a rugged outdoors life for an aspiring ballerina.

The Northwest was a place of ethnic and cultural diversity that ran the gamut from the various Indian Tribes to the Japanese Community to the newly arrived Russian émigrés who fled the Revolution. Among these newcomers were the Novikoffs, who started a ballet school.

Ivan Novikoff was born in the Tatar city of Kazan, a city filled with beautiful churches and mosques, where church bells mingled with the call of the muezzin—Oriental and Russian, a cultural mix where folk dances and ballet co-existed with Muslim Customs in a wonderful harmony.

Madame Novikova was a leading ballerina in the Kazan Opera, and her talent was passed on to her three children: Ivan, Elena, and Boris – who, years in the future would become Premier Danseur of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Recognizing that the artistic future of her gifted children would stand less chance of success in a provincial town, Madame Novikova retired from the stage and took a teaching position in St. Petersburg, where the children were soon enrolled in the Russian Imperial Theatrical School. In only a few years they became full-fledged performers at the Russian Imperial Theatre.

The Novikoff Ballet School

At a very early age Leona learned to play the piano from her mother, a piano teacher. Although music and athletics are not incompatible, there are few ways to combine them successfully. Ballet seemed an ideal way to do just that, so Leona was enrolled at the Novikoff School.

It was here that she learned Caucasian and Central Asian dances, as well as Russian folk dances like the Gopak and Kasatchok, and of course, the demanding training in classical ballet. Dalcroze Eurhythmics also formed an important component of the curriculum.

Leona, Tadjik dance, c. 1967.

Because fewer boys than girls attended the school, Leona, who was taller than most of the girls, was taught the man’s part in Caucasian couple dances so that more of the girls could participate in recitals. The Novikoffs, however, did draw more boys than the other ballet schools because of the high-energy folk dances. Among these was Robert Jafar, who was later to become famous as Robert Joffrey.

When Joffrey became a member of the Balanchine and Kirstein’s New York City Ballet, he never mentioned publicly that he had been trained by Novikoff, for he was told that would risk Balanchine’s disapproval. Leona has always done the opposite, making sure that Novikoff’s contribution to dance is not forgotten.

The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo

This new company had been organized by Colonel de Basil with dancers who had been with Diaghilev. Among them was Leonide Massine, an old friend of the Novikoff’s. When the Company’s tour took them to Seattle, Novikoff would take Leona and one or two others backstage to meet Massine, Tamara Toumanova, David Lichine, and other company members.

This was very exciting, but what really made an indelible impression, contributing to Leona’s future direction in dance, was a photograph of Elena, taken when she was performing at the Russian Imperial Theater in the role of Sheherazade. She was wearing the gorgeous costume the painter, Leon Bakst, had designed for the part, creating a lasting image of the mysterious Orient seen through Russian eyes.

The Turning Point

By the time Leona had entered high school, dance had become less important not only because she was skiing in winter and mountain climbing in summer, but because her artistic development had turned in a new direction: Painting. She had begun to have paintings accepted in an annual juried exhibition, the Northwest Annual, at the Seattle Art Museum. Later on, she received a purchase prize for a painting that soon appeared in Art News magazine – and is currently used in Museum publications.

She decided that painting, not dance, was to be her career: so after she was given a one-man show at the Museum, she went to New York to try her wings in the big league. She was soon doing book illustrations for Doubleday and other publishers. Bringing some paintings to Julien Levy’s gallery, she was included in his stable of painters, where she laughingly confesses to being low man on a totem pole that featured big name artists like Salvador Dali and Eugene Berman.

It was here in New York, or more correctly, at the Minerva Theater in Brooklyn that she first saw Egyptian movies. It was in these films that she saw real Egyptian belly dancing. She was thrilled by both the dancing and the music, and bought a stack of Alamaphone 78’s that reproduced the dance music from the films’ soundtracks. She was determined to learn this exotic art form herself, and practiced in front of a mirror while listening to the music from films she had just seen. Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, it is also a very good way to learn almost anything, but especially dance.

I asked Leona how often she made the trip to Brooklyn to catch the newest movie, and she said, “Why, nearly every week; but was always disappointed when the current film was a serious drama. Not knowing Arabic, I had to use my deductive powers and imagination to follow the plot, as there were no sub-titles, which would have been superfluous for the rest of the audience. But the language posed no problem in the musicals. Whether it were Farid Al Atrash singing to the dancer of the moment, or that marvelous duo of Nabouia Al Moustafa and Chococo.”

Too many commitments left little time for Egyptian movies, and hardly any for painting, because everything else had a deadline. Then an advertising agency for which she worked, Dorland International Petingell and Fenton, made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: West Coast Art Director.

Once settled in Los Angeles, she found more time to paint than had been possible in New York. Later, when Pettingell and Fenton broke up and closed the Los Angeles Office, Leona was suddenly able to devote full time to painting.

It was not very long before she was having sold-out shows at Gump’s gallery in San Francisco and the Lane Galleries in Los Angeles; and was represented by the Hewitt Gallery in New York, owned jointly by Hewitt and Lincoln Kirstein. It was Kirstein who sent her work to Italy for the Two Worlds Festival in Spoleto that had been organized by Gian-Carlo Menotti.

Then she received a really big commission to do a series of paintings for De Beers Diamond advertisements. These appeared in publications in the U.S., Europe and South America. Under the heading of Culture: “The New Medicis,” Newsweek reviewed Art USA, a huge show of corporate art at the New York Coliseum, and made special mention of Leona’s De Beers painting.

But Diamonds were not Forever

Some friends of Leona’s at UCLA had discovered a place in Hollywood called the Greek Village. It was a popular spot where good food and folk dancing were the attractions. The orchestra featured a virtuoso bouzouki player who played Greek-style belly dance music between the folk dance sets. Leona’s friends persuaded her to go out on the dance floor and improvise. This was so well received by the patrons that Fedwa, the owner, offered her a job.

Leona and Eric Azari with Iranian film crew, Los Angeles Art Museum, late 1970’s

Ray Bowman, who represented the Spanish dancers at a club called the Cid, was putting together a show at the Wilshire Ebell Theater to be called Los Flamencos del Cid. He had seen Leona dance, and invited her to join Juan Talavera, Margarita Cordova and Raul Martin to round out the cast. The show got rave reviews.

The urge to dance had now taken over completely, and Leona was performing with the Arab students – including Mustafa Akkad, and expanding the lure of the culture by teaching a class at UCLA extension, appropriately titled: The Performing Arts in a Muslim Context. Painting was put on hold, just as dance had been.

Back to the Olivetti2

Bobby Farrah was now publishing Arabesque and he asked Leona to contribute feature length articles. He relied on her breadth of scholarship to ensure that a wide variety of topics would be covered. Her extensive library includes a complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary and the 13th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which saved quite a few trips to the UCLA library, and serendipitously yielded some very arcane bits and pieces.

Some of these bits and pieces came from sources closer to home. “At the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1867,” she told me, “There was a troupe of dancers from Kutch, a district of Gujarat. They delighted their American audiences, but inadvertently bequeathed their name to the vulgar imitations that followed. Bobby Farrah wanted to rescue Oriental dance from the tawdry image of ‘hootchy-kootchy’ and to this end spent much time teaching, but his creation of Arabesque as a vehicle for the dissemination of educative materials is his most important and lasting contribution.”

An important way to expand the recognition that Oriental dance is one among many artistic ethnic dances, is to write about these other dances. One of Leona’s articles, “The Divine Mother Dancesthat had appeared in Arabesque was translated into Spanish for publication in Cuerpomente, a Barcelona magazine. The title was changed to “La Diosa Oscura,” a title with a little more mystery and the black and white illustrations from Arabesque were replaced with handsome full-color reproductions of Indian paintings.

While writing articles for Arabesque was engaging work, there were other, more immediate writing tasks at hand: advertisements, publicity, and other promotional work for Aman – including the narration for the PBS Special featuring the Company. Leona’s background in advertising also gave her graphics for Company polish and sophistication.

Costumes and Mise-en-scène

Many 20th century painters have contributed to the staging of ballets with their set and costume designs. This has always been an important part of Leona’s work. Her visual conceptualizing and aesthetic were of both artistic and practical value in the design and construction of costumes and sets.

Aman Folk Ensemble in Ouled Nail dance from Algeria. Front row: left, Ronda Berkeley, and right, Michelle Gerard, c. 1977.

The Caucasian bridal dance has always been one of my favorite dances. I loved the feeling of lofting the silken scarves and veils which constitute such an important part of certain costumes. They seem to intrigue Leona, so I asked her about this. “It began with what I call the ‘Isadora Duncan effect’. At Novikoff’s, Eurhythmics was sometimes out-of-doors in Woodland Park, and I loved being part of a flock of little girls in wispy white tunics flitting about, barefoot, the breezes fluttering our costumes.”

National Dance Week

1979 was the year that we made our East Coast debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This was the same year that Leona was appointed to the Committee for National Dance Week. It was also the same year that Leona put her years of choreographic experience to the test by creating a real theater piece, “Tseyka”–Kwakiutl Winter Ceremonial. The NEA grant for this was generous, allowing for mise-en scène of greater complexity than had heretofore been financially possible. So, in 1980 Tseyka was produced at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It was Leona’s most ambitious theatrical work, and received unstinting critical acclaim. “A visual masterpiece” wrote Martin David in Dance West.

I had enjoyed being a part of this magical production, but hadn’t given any thought to the reason Leona was so excited about doing it until she said, “The totem pole in Seattle’s Pioneer Square was always a reminder of the rich artistic culture of the indigenous tribal peoples of our region. And when I saw the marvelous Kwakiutl masks carved by Northwest artist Duane Pasco, I realized that it would be possible to stage a real – or nearly real – Winter Ceremonial on the stage, right here in Los Angeles. This was made possible by the NEA grant that paid Duane for making three wonderful bird masks, and gave Aman enough for the costumes and stage set – the fabrication of which I oversaw throughout construction to make sure that every detail was authentic.”

Going Global

In the September 7, 1981 issue of Newsweek magazine, an article about the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles contained the following: “…UCLA, a center of folk dance, has helped spawn Leona Wood’s Aman Folk Ensemble, an internationally known pan-ethnic dance troupe.” And this was before we were as “internationally known” as we were soon to be.

Aman Folk Ensemble (author Susan Marshall on far left) in Samarkand dance, 1970’s.

Leona was interviewed for the Voice of America by Ray Kabaker, West Coast VOA chief, and when they were through with the recording, Leona asked Kabaker how to interest the State Department in sponsoring Aman for a goodwill tour of the Middle East. He said NEA approval was necessary, which it already had – for Leona had received her grant for Tseyka from the National Endowment for the Arts. This set in motion the machinery that would launch Aman on a tour that would take us from Morocco across North Africa, down to Yemen and on to the Gulf States and up to Jordan.

Leona was contacted at various stops along the tour in order to participate in electronic dialogues with local journalists. She later told me, “In Bahrain, Public Affairs Officer Peter Kovach warned me that I might get questions regarding ‘belly-dancing – a form treated as next to prostitution in some countries, and respected as an art form in others.’ Apparently I fielded the topic successfully.”

I asked her what else she talked about, and she replied, “When I mentioned Mustafa Akkad, and how he had helped me in the past, their ears pricked up, for everyone had seen Mohammed, Messenger of God, that Mustafa directed – a film widely known and admired throughout the Muslim World.

On the Road to Damascus

Before the final stop in Amman, the company made a brief stop in Jordan as a point of departure for Syria. Motor vehicles were provided to drive us to Damascus for the next performance. The last leg of the trip was Amman. After still another enthusiastically received performance, the troupe finally arrived home to the welcome news that the United States Information Agency had reported that Aman’s was the only U.S. Goodwill Tour that had received 100% positive response.

Leona at home in Los Angeles, 1992.

Full Circle

Leona continues to write for various publications, but the major portion of her time is spent in her studio, painting. Because dance is the subject of so many of her paintings, and the dancers are often Oriental, Leona is sometimes called an Orientalist. Some of these paintings appear on the cover of Araf recordings; others have appeared in magazine and art publications, and one – a portrait of Aishi Ali – on the cover of Arabesque.

She seldom accepts commissions anymore but Aisha persuaded her to do one for Chris Tucker, a Guedra dancer, which she has just completed.

While most of her work is in museum and private collections in the U.S., her paintings for the De Beers Diamond Company are in the Company’s extensive collection of twentieth century art in South Africa.

For Leona, the world of the theater is now expressed on canvas, and the proscenium is a frame on the wall.


1 Michael Alexander is now Executive Director of Grand Performances California Plaza.

2 The Olivetti is one of many typewriters in Leona’s collection.

Susan Marshall was a founding member of Aman, contributing to the Company over many years of participation. She developed skill in the demanding techniques of Kathak, under the tutelage of Chitresh Das, with whom she often performed. She also spent a season with the Los Angeles Circus when Michael Alexander was Ringmaster. She taught for nine years at the 32nd Street USC magnet school that operated under the umbrella of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where she directed a children’s group that performed at the Cid and elsewhere. With her students as performers, she made a video documentary of the making of a shadow play—a West African folk tale, “Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky”­—which she choreographed, and for which she made the masks and costumes. Another similar project was a narrative poem, “El Rey de Papel,” which she directed, choreographed, videotaped, and for which she made the costumes and painted the sets. Her annual trips to Spain have expanded her own performance experience in this cultural area. In the summer of 1993 Susan presented a program of Central Asian, Middle Eastern, and Kathak dance in the Courtyard of a Mudejar Carmen in Granada, and performed at the University summer session in Baeza, Spain. Susan, a UCLA graduate who also attended the Sorbonne, today continues to pursue her scholarly interests as well as a theatrical life, and is at present a member of a classical acting group.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.