Belly Dance History ~ An American Odessey
Eddie “The Shiek” Kochak
“Strictly Bellydancing Vol. 3”
Mostly Turkish and Lebanese, it could include just about any move that looked vaguely exotic or oriental. Nobody complained because nobody knew any better. Indeed many dancers of that era stress the level of ignorance that there was about the dance and its origins. Many that is, except those few who gradually developed their interest in the dance and who learnt “the real thing from the real people – the aunties, grannies, older musicians and other (Turkish) dancers” (29). Counted on the fingers of two hands, these dancers became the leaders of the profession who completely changed our view of the dance over the next 20 years.
Also they were belly dancing in response to performances by musicians from a mix of countries with varying traditions. The musicians in the ethnic areas would play together 6 – 7 nights a week and so came to knew each others’ music well. Those who were there remain nostalgic for “that all night mix of real Turkish, Greek, Armenian & Arabic music and folk songs that one could hear in most of the clubs/restaurants on any given night, where entire families would come in and dance together (28)”.
Away from these major areas belly dancers had to cope with largely western musicians whose knowledge of Middle Eastern music could be very limited indeed. This led to a sound that was a hybrid of Western and Middle Eastern and became known as “Amerabic”. Most dancers now associate the term with Eddie Kochak who, by producing his own records, made the sounds of that era widely available.
This was truly a golden era of bellydance in the US. Jobs were plentiful, and very well paid with the belly dancers all in the first flush of excited youth. For example, Aisha Ali speaks of the headline belly dancer in one particularly prestigious club earning $50 a week for a twice-nightly 10 minute slot (5), although even at the top clubs in Las Vegas the average was $300 – $350, but if measured against the rental for an NYC apartment of $45 -80 a month it was still a staggering sum (29). Adam Lahm wrote that in 1960 in NYC the Turkish dancers could expect $200 a night although others consider this unlikely.
To balance that though the average wage was $30 – $35 a night was common (6), but it’s worth remembering that this would be a steady 6 nights a week, 52 weeks a year income…in cash. And of course, belly dancers could do several gigs a night at weekends.
However it is worth noting that, according to Dahlena, most belly dancers were registered with the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) (9) and that during the 60’s there were just 300 throughout the whole of the United States; an exotic and rare breed. That said, the dancers in the ethnic clubs didn’t have to register at all and there were probably over 50 employed in 8th Avenue, NYC alone (30). Serena has also indicated that there were at least 100 – 150 more in regular employment in New York State and its environs, few of which were AGVA registered. Morocco says that although she is an AGVA member she has never needed it for Oriental dance.
On the West coast Aziza writes (10) that the Baghdad club, the most prestigious club in San Francisco, preferred that their belly dancers weren’t AGVA registered. Indeed Aisha Ali points out that due to the scarcity of dancers on the West Coast, AGVA membership wasn’t often necessary in California, but adds that it was essential to gain access to the well-paid work available in Nevada (11). So there may be a certain under-reporting of the number of dancers working professionally during this decade, but this doesn’t really conflict too strongly with Dahlena’s estimate given that New York and San Francisco were exceptions rather than the rule. Most agree that the number of belly dancers at this time nearer to 500 than 1000.
Ibrahim “Bobby” Farrah
Reading their rose-tinted reminiscences of this time, particularly on Gilded Serpent “North Beach memoirs” (12) the attitude seems typified by one of the songs from that period “Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end, we’d sing and dance, forever and a day, we’d live the life we choose, we’d fight and never lose, those were the days, oh yes those were the days”.
However, various strands began to come together that brought these halcyon days of well-paid performance work to a gradual end.
One was that by the mid 60s the better clubs expected their dancers to know what they were doing from day one, inexperienced dancers were no longer being employed straight off the “street” to sink or swim. So, various teaching establishments opened to meet the demand. It is probable that they gradually became so successful that they caused a situation of over-supply.
Bert Balladine and Jamila Salimpour had, like Morocco in NYC, been training dancers informally since the beginning of the decade. However, Jamila retired from performing in 1965 and began teaching on a full time basis. Initially her classes were small; Aziza talks of 5 or 6 at a time (10), although by 1968 her classes were very large indeed.
Meanwhile in New York Serena took over the Joe Williams “Stairway to Stardom” dance studio in 1966 and also began training dancers in ME styles. Bobby Farrah began teaching Oriental Dance at the International School of Dance, Carnegie Hall, before moving to other studios to found his own dance school (13). Although all of these schools were happy to accept students who were merely curious about this dance form, they were principally aimed at taking experienced professional or near professional quality dancers from other disciplines and turning them into club performers. Not all would actually make a career of it, but these additions would have had an accumulative effect given the small number of dancers at the time.
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