Last year, a burglar bit my hand.
About 1:30 in morning, I thought the kid was up sneaking video games, so I pulled on my robe and went out to say “Go the f*ck to sleep.” But just as I reached my bedroom door, I heard the front door spring twang. I rounded the corner and there was a man in our landing.
I grabbed the back of his jacket, spun him around and said, “What the fuck are you doing in my house?”
He bit me.
I’m told I screamed.
I don’t remember that bit.
What I do remember is tackling him, hearing him say, “Run, Vinnie,” while I yelled for my husband to come help. The dog, who’d started new arthritis drugs that day, realized he should start barking. In the background, I could hear our son on line with 911.
Burglars are stronger on the ground.
He squirmed and wriggled and generally tried to get away. The burglar stank of aged sweat, alcohol and drugs. I told my husband to get his leg. He told me that was his leg. My husband grabbed the burglar’s flashlight and hit him in the head.
He yelled about his cabeza (Spanish for head).
I leaned over him and cursed him and his entire family.
He cried for his Mamacita.
The police arrived and an adrenaline drive blur of checking the house and giving statements accompanied a review of the burglar’s pockets. They emptied them on the hood of a police SUV. There was my jewelry along with three large knives.
The canine unit went after Vinnie.
One set of cops thought my dog had bitten me. The paramedics thought it was the canine unit. I was insulted that they’d besmirch either dog and explained it was a HUMAN bite. At which point they informed me that I needed to go to the hospital.
Human bites require antibiotics to make sure you don’t end up with a nasty infection. What they don’t tell you is that you can get HIV, herpes and hepatitis. What few law enforcement and legal officials seem to know is that in Washington state, you can’t get a search warrant for a burglar’s blood, not if you’re just the victim.
If you’re a good samaritan, healthcare provider or law enforcement official, getting the blood is automatic. The victim of a sexual offender? You wait until conviction. Me? You depend on the kindness of the guy who just sank his teeth into your flesh.
The burglar plead out. In exchange for dropping a drug charge, he gave up his blood. My blood work is okay, but the months of nerve and tendon damage forced me to restrict writing to paid-as-I-go tasks. Turns out I’m not great at dictating stories. I need to feel my hands on the keys or a pen.
And my hand needed time to heal, including the use of contrast baths. My skin smelled like me, but the spent water? Whenever I would dump it, I would get a whiff of burglar sweat. I kept at the contrast baths until the smell came up clean.
Embarrassed, our dog is now off his meds and barking furiously if a squirrel farts and there are alarms on all our doors.
Vinnie got away. The biter got 23 months. Despite my insistance that they get him into a rehabilitation program, I suspect he’s just being warehoused. I Googled the guy as soon as I had his name. We were his sixth offense. This is how he makes his living. My hope is that he can find something else to do, so no one else has their life stalled by a bite. And, yes, when all of the more pressing political issues settle down, I plan to work on changing Washington state law so that no one has to beg to make sure they haven’t just contracted a deadly disease.
As long as I’m not driving, I love fog. Wandering somewhere I half know, only able to see a few feet in front of my face while mist renders the air nearly solid is exciting for me.
I want things to come out of the fog. I want to go into the mist and find secret islands.
But the thing about fog is I know it will be burn off. Sooner or later, I’ll see the shape of what I know is there. Eerie and damp as it can be, I know it will disappear.
I’m working on maintaining this confidence as I write.
New projects I start and finish without pausing to worry over whether or not I’ve written the right scene or chosen the right word. I still work with care and attention, but I’ve shed the stress that comes from obsessively worrying about whether or not I’m making the right choices.
But that doesn’t apply to the unfinished works sitting in a folder on my laptop.
There are a couple of books that really want to be done. Pieces I could claim got interrupted by deaths, illnesses, accidents, other people’s deadlines, but the truth is that the stories are still somewhere in the fog inside my brain. As long as I believe the fog will eventually burn off and I’ll figure out how the story really goes, I’m fine.
The disheartening part of finishing these stories is that I’m not always certain about parts to keep. Or if the structure is clear. Or if I’ve focused on the right characters.
I just know there’s something out there, in the fog, and, like Mulder, I want to believe that if I hang in there long enough, I’ll figure the whole thing out. Or at least enough to type to the end of the book and send it to my copy editor. At my keyboard, all of this makes sense. I don’t need to explain it to my dog, who is there for most of my confusion, breathing the same essential oils I burn to motivate, nudge and clarify. Dog is my co-writer. He types nothing, but having him in the room is an essential part of my process. He’s there by my side as we metaphorical travel the fog together. Essential. Silent, except for his farts.
Explaining this to friends who want to know what’s going on with me is harder. The ones who don’t write hone in on my disorientation and worry or merely end up confused by my inability to narrow my mess-in-progress to a pithy pitch line. I write fiction without an outline. It just works better for me, but it leaves little to say to other people. Mermaid, blah, blah. Steampunk, blah, blah. My central character is giving me troubles because she might not be the right central character, blah, blah.
And then I’m driving home, realizing that my friend is concerned for my mental state. I haven’t done a good job of explaining that this lost, uncomfortable, occasionally boring bit is an integral part of the process—that, yes, I really do like spending my life in a muddle a good part of the time.
Other writers get this. We swill tea or alcohol and spout half sentences at each other and despite the lack of clear conversational structure, a kind of communication happens.
It’s comforting really. Not quite the clear communication my dog achieves through sniffing other dogs, but close. And, fortunately, since writers are for the most part human, not as physically intimate.
Like a magician, a writer’s skill depends on focus. We take the reader over for a look at one thing while something shifts across the foreground. We can widen the focus to take in an entire street, country, world, evolutionary time period, or we can narrow to a single taste of a character’s lips.
Deciding where to place the reader’s focus can be challenging. You’d like them to have all kinds of information that appears necessary on first draft (or maybe you need to add it back in on the second), but the real truth is that the reader is Goldilocks: she wants just the right amount of information to keep her engaged, but not so much that it interferes with the story.
When I write, my vision often narrows to the size of my laptop screen, but it never stays that small. On great days, I fall between the sentences to find myself on the other side of the story netting just what I need to show the reader to make them feel like they’re with me.
In other words, I shift my focus from narrow to wide.
Although I do this regularly on the page, it didn’t occur to me to consciously try this in regular life until I read Les Fehmi’s “The Open-Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body.” A clinical psychologist and researcher, Fehmi helped pioneer biofeedback in the 1960s and later turned to generating consistent alpha states to enhance relaxation and improve performance through neurofeedback.
Fermi’s exercises involve imagining the space between parts of your body as well as how you and your body intersects with the space surrounding you.
After working through one of his exercises (which is really just sitting there and being willing to go along for the ride by listening), I find my spatial perception widens and I am less conscious of where my body ends and the rest of the world begins.
While seriously relaxing, this state also appears to make it easier to draft new scenes and consider the daunting task of researching an historical novel. Since this feels new to me, I’ll have to let the writing cool and check back a few weeks from now, but the state feels like moments that used to happen to me as a kid, when the space between raindrops was as important as the rain, when I could trace a single snowflake from the top of the window to the snow pile or when I marked the shadows of street lamps as my dad drove us home from dinner with my godparents.
It’s a little like being able to step between the seconds of time and look on both sides—and almost as much fun as falling into the page of a story.
Author Ron Vitale and I met online through the NanoWrimo Facebook group. While cheering each other on writing-wise, we realized that we share similar political views. With today’s political climate, the need to develop tolerance is stronger than ever. Ron offered to share this post about what happened to him after being mugged.
What happens to tolerance after you’re mugged?
“Give me your camcorder bag,” the black man had his hand in his jacket pocket and threatened me, “or I’ll shoot.”
A thousand things went through my head. Did he really have a gun? Could I run? Should I attack him? I just didn’t know what to do. I had never been mugged before.
Before I could do anything, he lunged forward, and grabbed the strap to my bag. I wrestled with him and the strap broke, he got the bag with the camcorder inside and ran off into the cold February night.
My heart raced and I didn’t know what to do. I watched him run off. He was shorter than me, black hair, and dark eyes with a dark jacket. I stood in a parking lot outside of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on a weeknight a little after eight o’clock and I had just gotten mugged. I took a deep breath and ran to my car, opened the trunk and pulled out an old army shovel that I carried there in case I ever got stuck in the snow. And then I did something stupid. I chased after the black man with the shovel and the first thing that came to mind is that I would chase after him, hit him with the shovel, and get my camcorder back. I hadn’t even finished paying off the damn thing yet.
I crossed the busy street in front of the museum and saw that he had disappeared into the unlit side filled with tall bushes. I’d not be able to see a thing there. Thankfully, my sanity came back to me and I stopped. I had only lost a camcorder. If I went any farther, I could be hurt or even killed. I lowered the shovel, turned around and went to the police. An officer was kind enough to take my statement, filed a report and then he opened a briefcase and pulled out stacks of photos. He asked me how tall I thought the black man was and he took the pile that was marked 5’9” and undid the rubber band, spreading a stack of several dozen photos in front of me. All were black men who were 5’9”. When asked if I recognized any of the men as the one who had mugged me, I shook my head. We even went through the pile of photos of black men who were 5’8” and I still couldn’t identify the thief.
Afterward, the officer drove me around in his police car and we looked at all the street corners in the area, but still I couldn’t find him. The officer told me that most likely the camcorder had been sold already for a few bucks for drugs and that I’d never see it again. I got to my car, drove home and my girlfriend at the time listened to my story and comforted me. Both she and my family were glad that I was safe and had not been hurt. I had been lucky.
The next day I went to work at my department store job just like normal. It was a slow night in late February. I sold cologne at the Men’s Fragrances counter. The money I earned helped pay my graduate school bills. I helped customers and had started to forget about the events of the night before until a black man came up and wanted to buy cologne from me. He was in his 20s, about 5’9” with dark hair. I’m ashamed to admit this, but on seeing him, I flinched and recoiled in fear. Logically I knew that he wasn’t the same black man who had mugged me, but I still felt afraid. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to run, but I needed my job. I fought back my fear, and helped him get the cologne he needed. An hour later, a black family came to the counter and I helped them and my fear slowly began to subside.
I knew that not every black man was a mugger and out to get me, but I did have to fight to overcome that initial fear. I won’t deny that. We now live in a world in which we’re afraid of terrorists. I’m hearing the news about how “all refugees” need to be blocked from coming into America or how all illegal Mexicans will somehow magically be whisked away and brought back over the border and we’ll build a wall. A magical wall made out of adamantite that will solve all our problems.
But I don’t agree with that. You see, I remember being raised by my single mom. We were Italian and when I was young the firmly established people in our area called us “wops.” I had friends who were Irish and called “Micks” or I’d hear others say that all Irish were drunks. Yet none of that was true. My mom worked hard to raise my brother and I. Between her and my grandparents, we were given the best possible education that they could afford. I took to learning, studied hard and now, as a third generation Italian/Irishman, I’m a productive member of society. There was a time when my mom needed to be on welfare to feed and clothe us. Without help from my grandparents and through welfare, I would not be where I am today.
No matter if you’re Black, Syrian, Asian, Hispanic or any other race or nationality, not all people from that group are terrorists, rapists, thieves, cheats or what have you. People do good and bad things. When I look back at my life and see where I am now, I know that the sacrifices that my family made for me to have a good education made all the difference. If we cast out those different than us, would we not be spiting ourselves? The next great world renowned inventor, doctor, or artist may be Syrian, Black or Asian.
I have been held up at gunpoint and have decided not to hate. The older I get, the less I know and I realize that I want to learn more about different cultures, religions and races. I believe America is such a beautiful country because we have opened our doors to the world. Yes, there are terrorists out there. There have always been people who have wanted to harm others all the way back to the beginning of humankind. But in today’s world, we need now, more than ever, to be brave. Tolerance and empathy is so needed in our world today. I wish we could wave a magic wand and solve all the problems we have, but that’s not reality. Yet I firmly believe that to help solve the problems of tomorrow, we need to educate ourselves and those around us—the more we learn, are open to different ideas and cultures, the better off we will be. If Malala Yousafzai could be shot in the head as a teenager for trying to learn, but then heal and strive to fight worldwide for a woman’s right to go to school, why can’t we do one small thing? It’s a tiny thing, but I admit it’s frightening: Be open to try, trust and show empathy. Each day I try to do this more and more. Some days I fail, but other days I succeed. If I can do it after being mugged at gunpoint, so can you.
Ron Vitale was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Influenced by the likes of Tolkien and Margaret Atwood, he began writing at an early age, creating short fiction from his Dungeons & Dragons role-playing sessions. His writing has appeared in various places from elephant journal, SFWA’s The Bulletin and SEARCH magazine. When not writing articles, he also is the author of the Cinderella’s Secret Witch Diaries series geared toward new adults. Currently, he is keeping himself busy by writing his blog, and on learning how to be a good father to his kids all while working on his next novel. Read more at www.ronvitale.com/blog
After scooping my last bite of Indian curry, I set the plate on the floor in the kitchen for the dog. He’s eleven, old in human years, so I spoil him and put up with pizza farts and having to share the tip of every ice cream cone.
But there was no ice cream on this January night. Instead, there was rain. Lots and lots of rain. Not the charming misty wet that used to happen when I moved to Seattle in the Eighties, one of the downpours we started having a few years ago. The kind of rain that loosens soil enough that Douglas fir trees are transformed from charming sentinels into possible instruments of death. The windstorms that follow the rains kill people in Western Washington when the trees start coming down like so many pick-up sticks.
So while my husband settled in under the covers with his book and the dog curled up in his bed, I lay lit by the light of my phone, ignoring Facebook while I listened to the rain pummel the roof.
The husband snored.
The dog snored.
And sometime after midnight, I drifted off to sleep.
Around two, my phone was right there, making it easy for me to check the time, the dog flipped over onto all fours. He whined and cried and stamped his feet until my husband climbed out of bed and took him outside in the rain.
While I lay there listening for wind and the creak of falling trees, I heard my husband cursing quietly as the dog came in. Without bothering to dry off either of them, he climbed back into bed. I kissed his wet hair and wrinkled my nose and pulled the covers tighter while the rain continued to fall.
An hour later, the dog was at it again. Only this time, he was bumping his nose against the bedroom door, demanding to be let into the kitchen. We like our Indian food spicy, so we let him out, but he refused to return.
Now here’s where I should tell you that my dog, even as a pup, could never see very well, but he has excellent hearing and we have wood floors. While listening as keenly as the dog, I was able to track him, moving from the far picture window in the living room to dart back to the dining room and over to the large window near the front door.
Outside of the rain, I heard nothing.
Or, that’s what I like to tell myself.
North Seattle isn’t like downtown. We have lots of Douglas fir trees and rhododendrons grow taller than garages. And we have animals. Neither raccoons nor rats have no problem sauntering about during the day, but while walking the dog on moonlit nights I’ve heard other things—sounds that make no sense in an environment surrounded by houses as well as trees. At the end of our street, just before the golf course, is a preserved bit of land: Llandover Woods. We walk the dog there and have seen only bees and woodpeckers, but there are places off the trail that appear dark, even during the day. And I tell myself that this is where something that didn’t sound right next to a house or a car would go at night when it was raining and it needed a place to sleep.
It would have no need to be around my house, driving my dog to distraction.
Leo’s nails clattered against the windowsill, squeezing a bark out of him. After another five barks, I got up and went into the living room to check on him.
He looked at me and snorted. No way I was getting the dog into the bedroom now.
I pulled the curtain aside and peered out into the wet, seeing nothing other than the dripping trees and phone lines, but I could sense something. When I was little, I read a book about a boy who went blind after playing with firecrackers. Nearly a whole chapter was devoted to the moment he learned to sense objects by feeling displaced air.
We live in an old house with cracks around the door and double-pane windows that no longer hold their seal. I closed my eyes and felt for the small sips of air that always find their way into the room.
I felt nothing.
I didn’t even hear the dog creep up beside me until I felt the shock of his fur against my bare knees. He wedged himself between me and the wall, pointed his nose at the door and began to bark.
He was close enough for me to feel the sides of his rib cage squeezing in and out. Between barks, I caught the slow scrape of claws against wood.
But Leo was on the carpet.
The front door shook on its hinges, bellowing in and out in response to each of the dog’s barks. My husband yelled for me to settle the dog down and come back to bed. I reached for the dog’s collar and he dashed to the other window, mounting the window sill and shoving the curtain out of the way as he barked, barked, barked.
His legs tangled with the curtain. As he dashed to the next window, the fabric was yanked back from the rod. I squinted out into the dark, but saw nothing. My nose twitched. Not the weird ozone smell that happens after some rain. Something vaguely rotten seemed to be coming in through the cracks in the walls.
I moved closer to the window and a tree branch cracked against it. I jumped and crashed into the piano and onto the floor.
The stench grew stronger as I lowered my nose. The dog dashed from door to window to door as a sound grew in my ears.
Not quite the growling sounds I’d heard while walking the dog. More like the soft sounds of everything that had ever scared me in the dark.
The dog came and stood in front of me. His barking grew more frantic as he bounced up and down on his front legs, his jaws snapping with sound.
My husband snapped on the living room light. “It’s four in the morning. Get the dog and get back to bed.”
The light seemed to chase away the smell, which didn’t make sense, but I didn’t feel fully awake. I tugged at the dog’s collar. This time he came with me, even if he did keep looking back over his shoulder into the empty room.
“I think we should leave the light on,” I said.
“Sure. Just sleep.”
The dog refused to stay in his bed. Instead, he stationed himself right in front of the bedroom door and curled up with his nose pressed into the space between the door and the floor.
By morning, he lay on his side.
The wet hadn’t stopped. I sent my husband out the back door into the rain with the dog while I tried to wake up with a cup of tea.
I sniffed as I walked around the house. Nothing.
My husband returned with the dog. I dried the dog while he dried himself. I had the towel in my hand when it occurred to me to check the front door.
Pulling it open proved harder than expected. Seattle rain can make it feel like night, but after telling myself that the street lamp was off, I turned the knob.
There on the front door was a set of twelve scratches. I ran my finger into a deep groove and brought it to my nose and nearly vomited. Whatever was under its claws was rotten.
“I don’t think we should feed the dog any more Indian food,” my husband called from the kitchen.
“I think you’re completely wrong. Have a look at this.”
The dog came along with my husband, he sat on his haunches while we examined the door, ears alert, face as perky as when he expected a treat.
“The dog eats whatever he wants,” I said and locked the door before going to find the dog something scrumptious.
I wrote my first short story at my grandmother’s kitchen table while she and my mother drank Cokes and talked family business. I was fifteen. My burnout boyfriend had dealt (and smoked) a little pot while I was in his friend’s car. At that time, I didn’t drink or smoke and since we were within three blocks of our high school I was freaked out. Honor students didn’t get busted for pot.
Instead of talking to him, I wrote a surrealist story that explained how I felt better than the “what the hell” that was running through my mind. I wrote longhand while my mom and grandmother chatted and I finished the thing in one sitting. I turned it in and my English teacher suggested I enter a local college’s writing contest. If I made it, I’d get to go to a writing workshop with other teens and maybe win a scholarship.
I got in. But instead of putting me with all the other short story writers, I ended up at drowningtable full of poets. The teens were cool. They put up with reading all the extra pages of my writing compared to the handful of poems they’d each submitted. The adult running the table was a published poet and he proved less helpful.
He fixated on a central image in the story and told me it was wrong, but explained that he didn’t know why. So I turned to the teens and asked them what they’d gotten out of the story. My feelings of drowning, struggling to swim — all seemed to have come across. So I shook my head at the poet and explained that I’d reached my audience. I hadn’t written the story for him. I’d written it for other teens and they had the exact reaction I was after — they got that it was about drugs and all they confusion and trying to fit in and fear that went with them (this was the ‘Just Say No’ era). He continued to disagree with me until the speaker started talking.
Oddly enough, I don’t clearly remember my boyfriend’s reaction to reading the story. A part of me wants to say that I tried to give it to him and he laughed it off, but I can’t be sure. What I do remember clearly is that poet sitting there in his three-piece suit shaking his head no while I was so certain I was right. Maybe I didn’t win the scholarship, but I walked away confident.
Or I thought I did.
I’ve never liked editing my own work. Give me someone else’s story and I’ll do my best to remain true to their vision, to tease out the lines of what’s there and ask questions so that the story remains the author’s, but ends up stronger than when it first landed in my hands.
I edit this way for other people because I have a deep respect for them and their stories. I feel it’s my place to help them find their own way, not grab their story and rework it until it’s mine.
I’m working on two large projects at the moment: a 600-plus YA novel that’s about to be beta-read by a teenager and a steampunk that’s given me troubles off and on for three years. I just realized that the editor in my head looks nothing like me. The editor in my head doesn’t even have a clear sense of how to tell me what he thinks is wrong.
And there it is.
The editor in my head is that male poet in his three-piece suit, leaning on the back of his chair, shaking his head no. And here I am trying to figure out how to politely thank him for his input and ask if he could kindly go find another member of the faculty. I don’t remember what any other teacher at that event looked like, so I’ll have to make someone up. Toni Morrison comes to mind, but frankly, I find her daunting. I’m not certain I can live up to her standards. So I’m going to pick someone I think would be more encouraging, but perhaps just as tough. Right now, I’m doing my best to get my cool, new editor to hang out with me. If you’re wondering what she looks like, she’s a bit like Stevie Nicks.
Yeah, the suit is still bleeding through, but this is new. I just created Editor Nicks in my mind. I need to give her some time to settle in.
Maybe it’s seeing people get all pissed because Hermione is going to be black. Or maybe it’s because I read a women’s lengthy response to being criticized for identifying with “Lolita.” Or maybe it’s Trump.
The thing is I have had it with being asked to view everything through white male eyes.
As an English major, I was trained to read canon, which means white, male, Anglo-Saxon literature. I learned to peer through the eyes of the (white, male) main characters and understand their thoughts, challenges and joys. Many of the female (white) characters were there for sex, whether they offered it freely or not. Anybody else was often just not there.
Over the years, I’ve been mistaken for Latina, Hawaiian, having black blood, Jewish, Egyptian and Black Irish. With those assumptions has come the expectation that I will read these white texts (books) in a specific way or that I’ll understand other texts from a whole different place. I’ve disappointed those people as well because I am not any one thing. I’m a mutt — a mix and regardless of everyone else’s designs on my provenance, there’s nothing I can do to change the body I was born with.
To tell the truth, being forced to spend my entire educational career analyzing the hearts and minds of those in power has proven useful. And a great deal of what’s out there is art, even if, say the protagonist became my next door neighbor, I’d be forced to turn him in for his criminal acts.
Art is where we can explore anything.
I still like that about art.
But I am really effing tired of reading about old white men and young white men and their desires. I’m tired of them being put forth by lists in Esquire as the best and most important bits of literature.
I read because I can be anyone or anything. I read to lead more than this one life, so, yeah, it’s been great to play at being a white dude, but I’m hungry for something else. I’m after an inclusive canon, where everything can be explored and there is no expectation that I have to match the protagonist’s skin tone or genitalia. But there is the possibility that every reader will, at one time or another, see someone who physically is like them in the position of hero and there is the requirement that others, who do not look anything like that hero, will be asked to look out through there eyes and see the world through a non-white gaze and open their effing hearts and minds so they can gain a little empathy.
For the past two weeks, I’ve spent an embarrassingly large part of my practice time lying on the floor on my elbows trying to flip a quarter using my stomach muscles. I’ve gone from turning deeply red and drenched with sweat, to just sweat, but I’ve achieved the flip about eighty percent of the time. No, I will not be providing video. Instead I will dazzle you with the lady that holds the record for flipping nine quarters up and down twice, then one at a time up and down, then alternating quarters. Yes, belly dancer Helena Vlahos is in the Guinness Book of World Records for Unique Abdominal Dexterity.
While this trick has some serious wow factor, it gives you just the briefest hint of the control and grace Helena maintains throughout her entire body. At 67, Helena continues to flip coins, acquire new dance moves and teach with the patience, humor and skill that lead her to develop her signature trick – and made her a club favorite for over 50 years. She’s the reason why I’m cribbing so hard with that quarter. At the end of this month, Oriental Bliss Productions is bringing Helena to Seattle for a weekend intensive featuring workshops in Helena’s signature 6-part cabaret, sensual chiftetelli, abdominal technique and zils, plus a performance. (There might be some spaces left, click here for more info.)
From timid to at home on the stage
Helena Vlahos left her home in Greece when she was only eight-years-old. After growing up on an island without automobiles and more tourists than residents during the high season, Helena left “water so clear you could see the fish” to make a stop in Chicago before her family finally settled in Los Angeles.
In her earliest memory of the U.S., she talks about the city feeling “like kind of a jungle” with all the people walking around. Timid Helena would turn “red as a tomato” if a teacher called on her, but that shyness didn’t extend to the dance floor. “When my foot set on that stage, it changed me. I’m still shy in certain environments. It’s something about dancing that seems to be where I belong. It’s my home.”
Although Helena’s first teacher (and distant relative), Fofo DeMilo spotted natural talent “that everybody used to like” in Helena’s movements, her skills are the result of hours of practice, observation and breaking down the movements for her students.
In addition to teaching her the foundation moves such as hip movements, figure eights and arms, Fofo took 15-year-old Helena around to all the clubs so she could watch the other dancers and learn what worked and what didn’t in Fofo’s opinion. Fofo was opening the first belly dance studio in Hollywood and wanted her protégé to be stunning – and help with the other students. She used to say to Helena “Do you love the dance?” Helena says she didn’t know. She’d just started, but Fofo pressed on “You’ve got to love the dance.” As time passed on, Helena says she did grow to love the dance, sometimes, “you have to grow into it.”
Sixteen-year-old Helena debuted at the Athenian Restaurant in Los Angeles. When she was going around viewing other dancers, the MC got her up to dance and the owner liked what she saw and asked her to dance in the grand opening. Since she didn’t have a costume, she rented her something from the movie studios – a something with a very small bra and sparkly fishnet, but it could only be rented for three days at a time. So she was hired for three days. Helena wound up staying on for a year, working weekends for the likes of movie stars Rosalind Russell and Edward G. Robinson.
During the week, she danced in the Arabic clubs like Shakour’s Oasis among others and later moved on to dance at the Greek Village, Seventh Veil, Ali Baba’s, The Fez (see documentary clip and images below), and the Athenian Gardens in Hollywood.
Power: how to get (and keep) the audience’s attention
In addition to the advice to never date your club owner, musicians or customers, that Helena did not take to heart and resulting in significant heartache, Fofo taught her how to reach her audience through eye contact by knowing when and how and at whom to look. “What I learned later,” Helena says, “is that when you have the attention of one person, you have everyone’s attention, but it depends which person you pick” She advises that you ignore that rowdy one in favor of one “a little bit on the shy side and looking at you in awe. They will attract the eyes of everyone else on you because of their facial expression. This is what gives us more power in the dance. It just takes a few people to help us along in our dance. We’re not just alone. We need the other people to help us along.”
Getting musicians to work with you
In addition to the audience, Helena worked with musicians who helped hone her knowledge of the music and a few kind ones who helped develop her act.
In the mid 60s, Helena joined a group of musicians gathered by violinist Hrach Yacoubian to perform at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. Classically trained Yacoubian expressed his Armenian roots through a deep love for Mediterranean music. He liked to gather groups of Greeks, Arabs and Americans to create his own unique blend. “Everybody was afraid of him because we all admired him so much because he knew music so well and played the violin so well,” Helena says.
They played Greek and Arabic music as well as Turkish-influenced jazz like Blue Rondo à la Turk and Moscow Nights. In putting together the show, they rehearsed daily, including a head flinging bit that Helena performed regularly. Yacoubian expected the musicians the play perfectly timed to her flinging, but the musicians liked to count on the upswing. For Helena, it felt better counting on the downswing, which led to much discussion and even more rehearsal – so much so that Helena’s neck muscles grew so tired that she found her head wanting to rest on her chest. However, all the rehearsal paid off. At the end of their run, the Aladdin asked Helena to stay on without the band. But at 17, she felt she needed more experience and travelled on with the group to work at Yacoubian’s cousin’s place in Fresno – the Arabian Nights. While the musicians later went on to Bimbo’s in San Francisco, the owner’s wife preferred another dancer. Helena stayed on at the Arabian Nights for the rest of the year, becoming great friends with Yacoubian’s cousin Becky and her family.
Helena’s famed belly rolls started in the studio when she was left to her own devices and was trying really hard but “couldn’t feel what I was supposed to do.” She says she was so nervous that she flopped down on the floor and pretended to quit. Once down there, she decided to give it another try. She tried and tried, finally felt something for the first time and propped herself up on her elbows so she could watch what her body was doing. From then on, she included belly rolls and flutters with her floor work.
A huge influence was Khamis El Fino who played the oud and sang and understood the need to bring the audience along. “He would look at me and try to get as much out of me as possible to follow him.” Wearing a fez and pantaloons, this “great showman” would bring his oud over to play beside Helena during her floor work and belly rolls, playing faster when she fluttered, without ever taking away from her show.
Najib Khoury (formerly married to Antoinette Awayshak, a dancer and Suhaila’s ex-mother-in-law) would follow Helena’s belly work with his voice. “The ones that want to help you are part of your show and they create something really amazing with us.”
But Helena says she also learned from the musicians who wanted to steal her show, including a doumbek player who would “fight” with her musically on stage during the drum solo. He’d try to make his playing too hard to follow, she’d try to outdo him with her dancing. “Even that helped me a lot. You don’t learn dancing just by yourself. You have help from other dancers and from the musicians.”
When working with live musicians, Helena recommends informed respect and knowing your music and rhythms. “Bring the musicians into your act. Don’t act like they are not there, as if you are dancing to a CD. Acknowledge your musicians. Show them respect. As a solo dancer, you have to be in control of the stage. Never let a musician take over your show. Work with them to create a great show. It is your dance, your show. You should be in charge. This way you get the respect of the audience and your musicians.
Growing your act with your audience
The theme of working and learning from everyone around you flows throughout Helena’s career, but figures especially prominently in her signature trick. While on an off night from the Seventh Veil, the whole group was hired by the People Tree in Calabasas, Calif., dancing for a largely American crowd. When it came time for the floor work, the oud player came close and he was funny, so people would laugh and feel like they were part of the show. While Helena was rolling her belly, one of the customers decided to join in by placing a dollar on her belly. The bill caught in the folds and everybody grew very excited. Helena realized she was onto something and began practicing.
She learned to flip the bill up and down and long ways and crease it and open it again. Then she decided to try coins, testing every denomination, but finally settling on quarters.
First she worked with one, then decided to see what would happen with two. While rolling, one stayed put. She went with it and was able to make it happen when she wanted to. Then she added one more, then another as her muscles developed. After she’d been dancing for six years, she could do 9 quarters up and down twice, one at a time up twice each, every other one up and down and the remaining four together.
Helena had relocated to Texas, achieving local celebrity dancing for several years at the Bacchanal in Houston and later at Zorba’s in Austin. When she returned to Los Angeles, one of her students mentioned her act to Regis Philbin, then of A.M. Los Angeles. Regis asked her to be on the show the very next day and a nervous Helena’s celebrity quickly grew. She ended up on That’s Incredible, The Merv Griffin Show, Mike Douglas Show and others, including the Spectacular World of Guinness Records TV Show. In order to be on that show, you had to have a record. Unsure how to register her act, they finally settled on “Unique Abdominal Dexterity.”
(I’ll vouch for that. Sit-ups will never make your stomach burn like trying to flip quarters. Fortunately, Helena tells me she’ll share some tips and tricks to make it easier during the workshop.)
Learning organically; teaching technically
While Helena may have absorbed a great deal of the dance through observation, dancers in the 60s were expected to bring their zils with them and could count on being called up to dance at any time. You were considered “lacking” if you couldn’t play. Dancers were also expected to be versed in veil work, floor work, chiftetelli, bolero, 9/8 and 6/8. Helena’s sister Maria Vlahos, also a dancer, provided “very truthful” feedback. Not always what Helena wanted to hear, but always helpful. (Below is some rare footage of Helena and Maria Vlahos dancing at the Seventh Veil. The full clip also includes Diane Webber. While the image is quite dark and there is no audio, you can get a small taste of what dancing was like then.)
Helena spent a good deal of her time practicing and learned the hard way that playing the zils while sitting still could lead to trouble. “I used to play the music and try to keep up with the rhythms. I was practicing my zils separately from my dance. I used to sit down and listen and it was a challenge to me to see how fast I could go. A month later, OK I’m going to dance now with my zils. Biggest shock of my life, you can’t do that.” She says she learned how to dance with her zils through “trial and error” and with the help of the many musicians she worked with over the years.
Although Fofo did give her a foundation in the basics, teaching was not so technical then and dancer’s prided themselves on a variety of trade secrets. You would go to see so-and-so who specialized in belly work, another dancer for floor work, someone else for dancing with a great deal of emotion and so on. Each dancer had something unique to her that was a part of her show. And dancer’s guarded those skills like the trade secrets they were. So when a dancer shared a piece of advice, Helena says she treasured that information.
By the time Helena started teaching, students were used to asking questions – a great many questions – so Helena took what she had learned through observation and practice and learned how to break down everything from body part placement and posture to how to step properly with the downbeat. Today, Helena takes a special pride in teaching not only intermediate and advanced dancers, but beginners as well because she feels responsible for passing the dance along, especially to those who are dedicated and willing to learn her way of dancing which she says “can be a little harder.” Calling on her deep experience and technical knowledge she feels prepared to answer students’ challenging questions.
Dump the rules, keep the guidelines
As a judge for the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition and while watching dancers on the internet and at workshops and shows across the country, Helena sees dancers influenced by ballet, modern dance and jazz. She says she loves the way dancers are dancing today because they know a lot more, but that sometimes dancers dance alike because they’ve been exposed to the same workshops and videos on the internet and worries that some people have developed too many “rules” for the dance.
“I hate when a dancer gives me rules. I am not following your rules. We’d all look the same.” One of her students in Arizona, a psychologist, helped her crystalize her concern: “You have to know when to do something and when not to do it. It’s not a rule; it’s a guideline. That’s what I believe 100 percent. What I’m telling you here is my opinion. Use your head. Use your own experience. Take what you want, throw out what you don’t.” Helena watches herself carefully. “I’ve had to eat my words,” she says, “when a dancer manages to make a move I’ve criticized look amazing.”
While belly dance has become more stylized over the last 50 years, Helena isn’t willing to leave anything out. I asked her what music a dancer should have in her collection and she mentioned Om Kalthoum because the music is so textured and fully orchestrated as well as Hakim, Sa’ad and the old standards like Aziza and Zaina, but she also says, “Collect as many [recordings] as you can of different singers, orchestrations. Don’t limit yourself to one thing. Variety, variety so you can pick different things, when you dance. I don’t believe in limiting when there’s so much.”
And while some dancers snub other dancers because it is not a style they dance, Helena scoffs at the need to snub dancers because they choose a different style than her own: “Do you mean to tell me that I can’t appreciate a dancer that is a really good dancer no matter what style? It may not be my thing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a performance of someone who is good and has put so much time into doing it. We’re all in this. There are many types of doctors and a doctor is specialized in one or two things and you need them at different times for what ails you, but why not in dance? We can enjoy different things at different times.”
Which brings us to why we need dancers at all. Helena definitely sees the personal benefit to the dancer and to the audience in experiencing entertainment, but also sees the opportunity for unity. “Cultures take from each other, they borrow, they love and in turn they give their own in exchange. The purpose we’re serving is to connect with arts and music and dancing. It’s a better understanding than trying to understand people’s ways. Dancing and music is very beautiful for most people. Kind of a cure for loneliness, depression. Dance is a beautiful thing.”
In the 60s, psychedelic rocker, Damon the Gypsy asked Helena to play zils on one of his albums. He recently remastered the songs and asked Helena to play again — and appear in his music video. They also performed at Amoeba Music in Hollywood.
How often do you practice? Not often enough. I practice when I teach and when I teach private students. That’s the time. I try to listen to music when I’m available and practice new things. Sometimes I want to try out a new move, so I teach to one of my really good private students and I show her, so by showing her, I practice. If I want to take that move and make it my own, I have to try and show her so I have to learn it. But I also do it on my own. I’ll think of a move that I want to try out and I want to see how it works or I play music that I’m going to dance to, so I play the CDs over and over and over in my car and then I try it at home. Not as often as I would like, but as often as I can.
What is the best piece of dance advice you ever received and who gave it to you? More recently when I was in Phoenix, Arizona, I asked the Sonia Valle, Director of Dance at Paradise Valley Community College who hired me to teach for-credit classes, what would you advise a dancer. She said, “Don’t anticipate the music. Wait for it to come.” In the back of my mind when I’m missing my cues. This is what I tell myself.
If you could whisper one piece of advice in every dancer’s ear, what would it be? Go out there and dance, and feel like the princes or queen that you are.
Know of a belly dancer who needs her (or his) story told? Once a month, I’m blogging about dancers from the 1970s (and earlier) with the goal of educating and expanding an audience for this incredible dance form. The selection process is entirely subjective. Please send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. I also write supernatural noir, urban fantasy and horror. You can check out my fiction here (and yes, there is a belly dance book in the works).
Ever wonder what a lifetime of belly dance will do for your body? Aisha Ali started dancing fifty-four years ago in 1961. She scheduled our interview around getting estimates from various roofers and needed time to climb onto the roof with each of them to point out what she wanted. So, yes, a lifetime of dance will improve your flexibility, grace and, apparently, balance.
I know Aisha primarily from the pages of “Habibi Magazine.” When I started dancing, there were only a handful of online Belly dance sites, so each magazine was a cherished opportunity to learn about dancing around the United States and internationally. I’d sit down and read the magazine from cover to cover, but the memories that most stick out are the black-and-white pictures of Aisha in intense poses as well as the excellent quality of her scholarship. Neither prepared me for the bubbly and passionate person on the other end of the phone line. Aisha is a delight. Go study with her. Just go.
Aisha tells me she’s been hard at work on a book of her memoirs, so what follows is the briefest of appetizers for the feast that is to come.
(Below: Aisha Ali dances in an episode of the TV show “The Girl from U.N.C.L.E”)
Believe in yourself
Aisha’s career is marked by belief and confidence — and a fair amount of luck.
During the early 1960s, Aisha was studying drama with Rick Walters at the Theatrecraft Workshop in Hollywood and her scene partner was this guy (the one playing Dracula at right). Yes, she and Frank Langella were studying together during a period when Frank came from New York to check out Los Angeles. It was Langella who told her, “With such long legs, you should be a dancer.” When a boyfriend gave Aisha his fencing credits from The Nico Charisse School of Dance, she was hoping to take belly dance. They didn’t include it, so she settled for “primitive” dance with Ellie Johnson, a Katherine Dunham dancer.
“Frank and I wanted to give a party but didn’t have much money so we invited people and told them to bring food and drinks. We bought a record by Karaman called “The Flames of Araby” and I entertained with my so-called exotic belly dance. It was all phony baloney, but we were both very young and believed in ourselves.”
As luck would have it, the following year, Aisha was working as a part-time draftsperson and was invited to a party of mostly engineers where she met George Rabe, the president of UCLA’s Arab Student Group. He invited her to the school’s international festival and said that the Arab students were presenting a belly dancer. When Aisha informed him that she was a belly dancer he promptly asked her to perform. She hesitantly agreed only after he told her she would be the star.
Actually Aisha had never even seen a belly dancer, but after consulting her aunt, she and her mother went to The Fez to watch one. Unfortunately, they didn’t consider the dancer’s schedule, so they didn’t get to see a dancer, but many of the Arab students who hung out there danced with Aisha and told her she was great, so she decided, “OK, I’m good. I don’t need to see a dancer”. Fortunately a week later, George Rabe called to invite her to see Zanouba, a dancer from Egypt, who would be performing for a Hafla at St. Nicholas Church. This is when Aisha saw her first authentic belly dancer. “The bare-midriff was shocking to me, but not in a bad way. I was struck by how statuesque and elegant Zanouba was – all fresh and perfumed with a smile that invited the audience to be part of her performance.”
After renting a vintage costume with some pantaloons worn by Betty Grable in an “On the Road movie,” Aisha first performed a week before the festival at the Religious Conference Building on campus. By the festival performance, at Sproul Hall, she and her mother had quickly pulled a costume together: “Black chiffon panels and a silver brocade belt that stuck out in the back like a ducktail. The bra had a few beads dangling from it.” She used the “Flames of Araby” record and danced to two selections. The audience found it curious that she kept dancing during the blank space between the tracks.
The other dancer was Leona Wood who would become Aisha’s closest friend and mentor. Aisha was impressed by Leona’s costume and complimented her on it. Leona smiled and replied “Well after all, the difference between three months and one week of work,” pointing to Aisha’s. “At the beginning, I must admit that it’s the costumes that lured me to become a professional dancer. I was motivated to learn how to design, cut, sew and bead,” Aisha says.
With few other dancers around, Aisha was quickly in demand. Very soon she was making more money dancing than working as a part-time draftsman, so she gave up her job and became a full-time dancer.
Pay and working conditions
Her very first job was in Fresno dancing at The Bagdad, where she brought home $50 for the weekend ($395.65 in 2015 dollars) plus tips. Her next job at The Torch club in Hollywood brought home $15 a night for two 15 minute sets – that’s $118.70 in 2015 dollars. Her starting salary at the Greek Village was $15 for one dance, but when not dancing she had to sit on stage with the musicians and singers and play cymbals all night. At The Fez she earned $25 each night for three long dances. Dancing at parties or “haflas” for Mustafa Akaid and the Arab community, typically paid between $30 and $50. In the beginning, she worked about four nights a week. Later, she had contracts in San Diego, Vegas, and London, where she danced every night.
Aisha had also joined Leona Wood’s dance company, which was to become AMAN International. In addition to fine art oil painting, she learned much from Leona about design, music, and lighting. Since belly dance wasn’t Leona’s primary love, Aisha learned that from watching other dancers. In addition to the Egyptian dancers in Los Angeles, Maya Medwar and Zanouba, she also learned from dancers visiting from the East Coast: Turkish dancers like Soroya Melik and Princess Ayshe. Then there was Marlene of Cairo, aka Marlena Adamo from Brazil by way of New York, who traveled with her scrapbooks and press releases about her career as a ballerina. Marlena was so good technically that she could work in any club she chose for the highest earnings. Several times she fixed it so that Aisha would get her job with the Marlena-earnings by “suddenly” leaving the club owners in the lurch, after providing young Aisha as a substitute. In San Francisco Aisha worked with two Algerian sisters known as Soroya and Fatima Ali, and was influenced by American dancers like Jamila and Dahlena, whom she lived with for a short time.
But it wasn’t all great money and live music. At The Torch Club on Hollywood Blvd, Aisha found herself working for a Greek woman named Helen Capello who imported gypsy musicians from Greece: “She would provide their airfare, room and board and they worked for tips and stayed as long as their visa would allow. When they left Capello would import a new group.”
“Most customers smoked cigars and drank Metaxa and tipping was done differently back then. The Torch was frequented by older Greek, Turkish and Armenian men who would spit on silver dollars and paste them on my forehead or chest. And Madame Capello was often slow about paying me.”
Traveling to the Middle East
During the 1960s while studying ethnomusicology at UCLA, Aisha enjoyed full access to the archives and had “fallen in love with the folk music of Upper Egypt.” For nearly 10 years, she used the field recordings of Hans Hickman, Tiberiu Alexandrou and Fumio Koizumi, to teach Ghawazi style to the music of the Banat Mazin whom she would later perform with, film, record, and write about. Eventually, Aisha felt the urge to go to the Middle East herself and “find the roots of the dance.” (NOTE: Aisha has used the 19th-century British spelling “Ghawazee” in all her published works since 1971 when she borrowed it from her sources. Although the term literally means “invaders,” it was a name given to certain Egyptian dancing girls. Since Ghawazee were virtually unknown in most circles before Aisha introduced them, there was no other spelling in use. Today some western scholars prefer to use the spelling “Ghawazi.” The feminine singular would be “Ghaziya” and the masculine singular would be “Ghazi.”)
During her first trip in 1971, Aisha says she observed various Gypsy entertainers but didn’t find the group she was searching for. Notes with the field recordings hadn’t provided the dance group’s name. “In those days, many non-Arab scholars didn’t understand that the term Ghawazee usually referred to Gypsies.” Aisha tried to explain who she was looking for, but her Arabic was limited and those that did understand her, didn’t consider the entertainers she was looking for as “desirable.”
Due to the Arab-Israeli War, her travel was confined to main roads. At that time, she regularly attended classes with the first Egyptian National Dance Company, the Reda Troupe. She was dependent on Mahmoud Reda who brought Nezla Al Adel (left), a ghaziyeh from Mansoura to his studio so that Aisha could learn from her. He also arranged for Samia Gamal to come and coach her. Travel in the Middle East was significantly different from what it is now. There were no large dance festivals in those days and she didn’t go with a tour or a group of her pals. She went alone, often relying on letters of introduction and luck to make her way. With a dance company and a Beverly Hills boutique at home, Aisha could only remain abroad for a month or two at a time.
In 1973, while staying with an Armenian family in Cairo, she finally learned the actual identity of the particular group of Ghawazi she wanted to find. They told her to seek out a group called the “Banat Mazin” and that they lived near Luxor. While buying a ticket to Luxor Aisha told the travel agent her reason for going to Upper Egypt and he suggested she contact the agent El Baron, who was often used by film studios for arranging entertainers and licenses. When she mentioned Baron to Mahmoud Reda, he advised her against making the contact, explaining that the man had a colorful reputation.
Before leaving for Upper Egypt, Mahmoud wrote a letter of introduction for Aisha, who barely understood what was written given her limited Arabic, but generally it said: “This is my friend Aisha Ali who is a teacher and respectable woman. Please assist her in locating the musicians and dancers she seeks.”
When Aisha reached Luxor, she got off the airplane and couldn’t find her luggage. As she continued circling the small airport, a man kept following her and asking if he could help. Accustomed to being pestered in Cairo, she was rude to him but finally broke down and complained that she couldn’t find her luggage. The man wanted to know who her guide was and Aisha didn’t have one but since he seemed to feel that a guide was a necessity, she gave him the name “El Baron.” He was taken aback and responded with “Why didn’t you say so?” Quickly he located and removed her luggage from a waiting tour bus and insisted she get in his private “limo”, after which he drove her to the Winter Palace where her “guide” was waiting to meet her in the lobby.
Without removing his sunglasses, El Baron, gave her a scrutinizing look, and asked how he could help her. She mentioned the Banat Mazin and then had the inspiration to hand him Mahmoud’s letter. He took the letter and appeared to be reading it, then excused himself for about 45 minutes.
When he returned, he assured Aisha that he would take care of everything and told her to go to her room to rest and meet them later around 6pm at the ferry landing. He advised her to wear a baladi toub covered by a gallabeya.
Aisha explained that she couldn’t afford to stay at the Winter Palace, but he told her “everything was taken care of.”
That night, at the landing, Aisha met the Banat Mazin and Abu Kharage’s mizmar group. The entertainers boarded a river boat and performed together for a group of French tourists. “I watched and followed the dancers and instantly adapted to their loose choreographies. It was easy because I had been dancing to their music for 10 years.” Once the French tourists were dropped back at the dock, they returned to the Nile and floated with the engine turned off while Aisha recorded the music.
El Baron turned out to be rather wonderful and they became great friends. “He was the only person I met in all of Egypt who had a similar passion for the music,” Aisha says. After that night, he booked her for weddings, festivals and parties and whenever she worked with the Banat Mazin, she was able to film them and record the musicians. This continued over a period of more than 25 years whenever she came to the Luxor area.
“At first the other dancers tolerated me, like having an odd duck in their midst,” Aisha says. Over time, Aisha’s costumes may have influenced the Banat Mazin. “Traditionally they wore wide fringed skirts overlaid with panels of coins, and hip padding under the skirts that lifted them and made them swing better. By 1977, they had also begun performing in straight tobes. Later, once the fringe skirts wore out and they sold them, I don’t think they ever went back to that style but it was a great costume, that really moved.” They were curious and sometimes competitive with Aisha, especially when performing for European tourists, but the competition didn’t extend to when Aisha performed raqs sharqi, the Egyptian form of belly dance developed during the early part of the 19th century and seen in countless Egyptian films from the Golden Era. “They were very firm about not performing raqs sharqi because although they were known courtesans, they considered the dance to be indecent,” Aisha says. When their cousin Shadiya went to Paris with Mohamed Murad’s group and performed raqs sharqi, they were outraged.
“Because they respected El Baron, they learned to accept me and I helped make them famous by writing about them and publishing the music. Prior to that, it was mainly the Fellahin in Upper Egypt who knew of them. Over the years, their tolerance of me turned into affection, and certainly, I have always loved them, especially Khyria who was performing even after marriage and was usually my dance partner.” Aisha says.
In 1973, Aisha hauled her equipment into the desert to visit the Ouled Naïl, no small feat given that it was 120 degrees in the shade. “It was so hot you could hear the heat buzz.” At a rug festival near Chellala, the dancers performed in tents. Their feet kicked up sand and the steam from the brewing tea mixed with the dust.
“Their moves were limited but specific. Most typical was the strong control of the pelvic region, which they borrowed from the Ottoman Turks and is still seen in Turkish dance. The defining technique is in the bouncing belly, up and down, lift and drop, then side to side and up and down with fast shoulder shimmies.” The dancers wore layers of dresses made from semi-sheer shadow cloth fabrics.
“It was hypnotic,” she says. “The bendirs with snares created a deep buzzing tone that echoed the environment. This was accompanied by goatskin bagpipes played by musicians using circular breathing so they could continue on without stopping for fresh breath.
“The woman were wearing the same gowns that I later saw worn in a French travel film made in 1937. They had given me a gown that was identical.”
After reading “Flute of Sand,” Lawrence Morgan’s book about the Ouled Naïl, Aisha says, “It sounded so familiar at first that I got upset, thinking he had gleaned his information from my articles and workshop lectures, but I soon realized I was being paranoid. He has given a pretty good portrayal depicting their human side as well as their mystique in a very personal recollection. Of course, we don’t really know how the Nailiyat felt about him. We can only hear his side of the story.”
A few key dance adventures
Thank goodness Aisha is working on her memoirs because I’m having a hard time keeping this internet-length. But I asked her for some of her favorite memories. Here are a few direct quotes:
“Floating down the Nile in the middle of the night on the ferry boats with Abu Kharage and the Banat Mazin, once we had left the tourists ashore. With the motor turned off, the water created a perfect sound studio and this was when I recorded many of the pieces on my first album ‘Music of the Ghawazee’ which is so soulful and stimulating.”
“I enjoyed performing to live music in night clubs for close to 40 years. The admiring audiences gave me a sense of purpose and fed my ego.”
“Whenever I was in Cairo, on Thursday nights I would watch the rooftops for colored lights. If there were lights I knew there would be a wedding celebration going on and I often crashed the parties. Because I was a girl carrying a large camera, families would welcome me and move their friends so that I would have a seat up front for the entertainment. Then they fed me and some gave out boxes of party favors. I attended celebrations for couples from all walks of life. They were all different and the dancers were wonderful.”
“The most exciting moment was when I performed at the Municipal Theater in Tunisia for their Independence Day. I was the only dancer, but I had two orchestras, one folkloric and one sharqi. The old style auditorium was large and had balconies. People threw roses on the stage as I danced, and it was breathtaking. My friend, a Tunisian engineer, was supposed to record it for me on my Uher Report L, but he didn’t know how to use it and the music was distorted”
“I have had countless exhilarating experiences on stage, but one of the best was when hired in Germany by the city of Nuremberg to perform at a festival held for the local Gypsies, Arabs, and Turks. At the time, I was in my fifties, although the posters of me plastered around the area displayed a photo taken in my middle twenties. I was hiding at the back of the outdoor raised stage waiting to be announced and worrying that the audience would be disappointed when they discovered I was not in my twenties, when suddenly a group of young Jordanian boys ran up to me chanting my name. They lifted me into the air and carried me before the cheering crowd and set me on the stage. As I danced at least a dozen little girls from the audience settled down at the foot of the stage with faces propped in their dainty hands, staring at me with rapt attention. I felt totally appreciated.”
I’ve read about American Cabaret dancers being criticized after their friends returned from Egypt, but this is the first time I’ve heard about the dancer who made the trip experiencing resistance once she returned to the States.
After her second trip in 1973, Aisha found a lot of her dance style had changed. She’d spent much of her time watching and working with a group that performed at Sahara City, a cabaret tent near the pyramids.
“Dancers on the West Coast didn’t know what to think about the minimalist movements to more subtle music. At that time, music in most U.S. clubs was primarily Turkish and Greek. It was like a gallop,” Aisha says, “which meant dancing was made up of shimmies with turns, spins, the choo-choo, and Turkish drops or backbends and a dancer was considered good if she was very fast and then very slow for the taksim”
Aisha asked the local LA musicians to learn from her recordings, but they were unable to cooperate. “By then I was doing subtle undulations and responding to the nuances in the music. The local music seemed uninspired and repetitious and after experiencing the real thing, it no longer excited me.”
Persuading club owners to change proved a challenge. “Since the musicians were often from various Middle Eastern countries, each played their own version of Egyptian music, which came out more like neighborhood hafla music, not what you’d hear from professional musicians in a Middle Eastern nightclub”.
After showing her Ghawazi dance footage shot on 8mm film, Aisha overheard some dancers in Oregon commenting:
“Did you see those plump women and what they were doing? Are we supposed to dance like that?” Despite playing finger cymbals regularly, most American students couldn’t keep up with the tempo of the tab’l baladi, which usually accompanies a mizmar band.
However, being able to perform these dances allowed Aisha to offer something different and to develop the subtleties and nuances of raqs sharqi, which is why her troupe was brought to London. Working with the Lebanese drummer John Kannan from London’s original Omar Khayyam was a learning experience. “Formerly the drummer for Nadia Gamal, his technique was precise and professional and he actually watched and followed the movements of each dancer so that there was an exchange between artists.”
After living and working in London, Aisha continued traveling regularly to various Middle Eastern countries over a period of 25 years, staying a month or two at a time. With experience and after learning more Arabic, she began moving around freely, visiting Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco as well as Turkey. She never got to the Arabian Gulf but in the 1980s a group of Kuwaiti male dancers and musicians came to Los Angeles. After learning their Khaliji dances, she and her dance company, performed with them at UCLA, USC, and UCRiverside.
Samia Gamal’s advice
During 1971 when she was being coached by Samia Gamal, Aisha was disappointed that Samia would never dance with her. “She showed up wearing a sheath dress with nylons and would stand to watch me, telling me what I was doing wrong. Mostly she would nag me to keep my arms raised but she guided me to get rid of any American mannerism I had picked up. Suad, of the Banat Mazin, also stressed keeping the arms raised when I danced with them.
“Middle Eastern people generally lift their arms when they dance. Even if they are not a dancer, they will stand and lift their arms high, which signals a feeling of exhilaration and moves a different part of your body.”
Aisha feels that today there is too much emphasis on technique alone. We should not bring our technique drills to the stage. She would prefer to see more subtle articulation of the chest, for example, raising the chest on an accent without lifting the shoulders or tightening the back.
Still, she admits that when judging for the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition, she finds there are many accomplished dancers, both local and international, who have the right feeling.
As we learn, I think that we have an ideal dancer in our heads. We see someone and long to move our bodies like them. So I asked Aisha how that ideal dancer in her head shifted with her travels.
Aisha says it’s hard to remember when that image actually shifted. She tries to discover traces of her old style while watching some of her students who studied with her 35 or 45 years ago and have come back to dance with her after a marriage, divorce or their kids growing up. Sometimes she can see remnants of her early style in their movements.
But she returned to Zanouba as her ideal:
“Zanouba had intense feelings for the music and for the musicians. She would dance to each one to make him feel special and create a call-response action with her body answering either the melodic lines or the rhythm. Her movements were always elegant and she was beautifully costumed and made up to perfection. Like a geisha, her purpose was to make herself beautiful and share the experience of her performance with the audience.”
Respect for the dance
Aisha’s been introduced as a “national treasure” by Peter Sellars at the Los Angeles Festival, she’s been invited to speak at prestigious universities across the United States and has travelled the world representing the dance in international festivals and concerts. Since I continually see the theme of respect turning up on the internet and in conversation with dancers, I asked her what advice she might have for dancers looking to garner greater respect for their art form. Here’s what she had to say:
“Be diligent about researching costumes, music and movement. It’s important if you want to be credible and taken seriously. You must earn the respect of the community the culture belongs to if your goal is to preserve that tradition. If you prefer being more creative and modern, you may do whatever you like, as long as it’s labeled as such, but when you are representing a culture, be faithful to it. Don’t mislead your audience because you would not be preserving culture, you would be corrupting it.”
How often do you practice? In my youth, I rarely practiced because I was performing every night. Later when I had my dance company I had to create choreographies and rehearse with the group, so we practiced the routines two or three times a week. These days I perform mostly solos and enjoy the spontaneity of letting the music decide how I will move. I get practice when I am teaching my regular classes or when I am just dancing on my own whenever I hear music.
What’s a regular session look like? My weekly classes are my regular sessions and I always play a variety of music from various regions of the Arab World. It gives us a good workout because each style concentrates on different groups of muscles.
What is the best piece of dance advice you ever received and who gave it to you? “Smile honey!” is what many of the patrons at The Fez would say to me early in my career. In the beginning I always had a serious expression. An authentic smile can make up for a lot of inexperience or a limited repertoire.
If you could whisper one piece of advice in every dancer’s ear, what would it be? Enjoy yourself and never worry about how many movements you remember. If you have prepared yourself, the music will guide you and the movements will flow from your subconscious.
STUDY WITH AISHA
If you’re in LA, you can attend regular classes or sign up for private sessions. She also offers various workshops.
Please feel free to encourage Aisha to write regularly. I can hardly wait until her memoir comes out.
Know of a belly dancer who needs her (or his) story told? Once a month, I’m blogging about dancers from the 1970s (and earlier) with the goal of educating and expanding an audience for this incredible dance form. The selection process is entirely subjective. Please send suggestions to email@example.com. I also write supernatural noir, urban fantasy and horror. You can check out my fiction here (and yes, there is a belly dance book in the works).
When I hear about a friend going through a rough time, I want to do something for them — anything from lending an ear to running earrands — generally something tangible that I think might make them feel better.
And sometimes it helps.
But sometimes what a friend is facing is so overwhelming that they need something else from you — they need the opportunity to know that a life somewhere is different from what they’ve got going on. They want to go over the details of how your life is working. There is something in their pleasure at what’s going right in your life that makes them feel better for just a bit.
Everybody’s had moments when they’re the friend that needs to live and moments when they’re the one who needs to live for your friend.
Knowing that, I find myself wanting to live a larger, risk more, make sure whatever I’m doing is worth it, so that the next time I meet with my friend, I’ve got a better story to tell — something to help carry the pain.