Baolek Eh

May 8, 2019

Rehearsing for the Ethnic Dance Festival

Last night we had a rehearsal in my studio for the upcoming 2019 San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival We’re planning on doing a recreation of a Beirut Nightclub. Rehearsing were Jeanette Cool our manager with Georges Lammam, Susu Pampanin, Hash Abdel Hadi, Nicole Maria Hoffschneider Cao, Mohini Rustagi Vora and me, Amina Goodyear. MIA were L'Emir Hassan Harfouche, Khader Keileh, Terrianne Gutierrez and our fans the make-believe nightclub clientele. That’s a lot of people to coordinate schedules and a lot of last names to put on the EDF program for just a ten minute spot. Next time we'll practice in a larger studio to accommodate the rest of the players

Jeanette was talking about how the artists and administrators in the various arts agencies in the city remain loyal to their passions but sometimes crossover from one arts organization to another. While some move around and change agencies and panels, other have remained true to the same, year to year, decade to decade. Founded in 1978 The Ethnic Dance Festival has been in existence over 40 years and has seen this loyalty - coming and going according to life’s dictates but always returning. They were founded when my group the Aswan Dancers was only two or three years old and I certainly can attest that personnel can move around a lot through the years of operation, but really they may just continue in a different capacity. Such as I guess I’m the only one left of the original Aswan Dancers. Susu has always been around but since she was  just a kid, she didn’t really get involved in the group until a bit later and like some other core members of the Aswan Dancers would come and go depending on life’s other commitments. And so, just like the EDF we’re still here and still performing. 

The Aswan Dancers have gone through many different dance configurations. We first started in 1975 when the SF Public Library asked me and my group to present a show. It was a case of speak first, say yes and then worry about the problem later. The problem was — I didn’t have a show or a group. So…I gathered together all the dancers in my classes, all the best and all the rest, and we worked on choreography. At that time “choreography” was an unknown word in my vocabulary but it was so very necessary for group dances. The girls who were trained to improvise as soloists to work in clubs with musicians were pretty enthusiastic to learn something new so we had a great time working on “choreography.” We started with two lines and worked on creating formations and floor patterns while being unpredictable. Being unpredictable and not classroom square - square meaning four of this and four of that, go to the right, go to the left, don't leave you spot in the line - was something I learned not to do from Mahmoud Reda, Fatma Akef and other Egyptian dancers I studied with. I learned spacing, to be unpredictable and controlled chaos from them. The night of our debut at the library we were ready and hot to burn the house down with all our talent and enthusiasm. Bellydance was a new dance form in the 70's so we had quite a few curious onlookers. In fact, we had a standing room only audience. Men, women and lots of children filled the chairs and the room, were crammed between the stacks and were even hanging on the bannister rails up and down the staircases.  We were a huge success and we hadn't even started. I must admit that although it was a pretty memorable occasion, I quickly made a mental note to fire myself from being a group dancer. I couldn't do choreography. When the the girls went left, I would go right, when they turned right, I would turn left, when they stopped, I would keep going. I was a soloist and I was so preoccupied with worrying about them that I completely forgot about my choreography.Yes, we were hot - firecracker hot and the children especially were loving it - especially the whirling swirling veils. And then the girls pulled a few surprises. They decided to surprise me and the audience with a grand finale that they made up. Not only did they surprise us by removing their family authorized cover up costumes (remember I had trained them to dance in clubs and their only experience was Broadway in North Beach) in favor of two piece bedlah type costumes, but they all also pulled party poppers out of their bras for a grand, explosive grand finale. What a debut! It sounded like a war zone. And so the Aswan Dancers were born.

Some of the more serious dancers from this original group continued on and further in 1975 and then in early 1976 I took choreography more seriously and the group performed at a festival in Sigmund Stern Grove with some of my crazy African inspired Arabic fusion dances. I was experimenting and having fun with choreography (Go to about 1:52 to see the Sigmind Stern Grove shenanigans. Before that is me dancing -silent film in the Naji Baba TV show) and wanted to do something other than "club" style dance. But I had also talked my friends in the Jazayer band to learn Egyptian songs. And they did it for me. At the time this band consisted of Vince Delgado, dumbek; Mimi Spencer, saz and teen-aged Devi-Ja Delgado, viola. At the time, Turkish/Armenian music was what was more popular, but Jazayer learned Egyptian for me and I'm forever grateful. They did such a great job memorizing the songs so we could do "choreography" that we (my friend Hoda and I) asked them to perform for a bellydance festival that we would produce in 1976. They learned our music and we ending up dancing to a sold out house at San Francisco State University McKenna Theater (seating capacity 700+). We were on a roll. Sold-out!! Imagine that. Nowadays we're a huge bragging success if 20-40 people show up at a club. The seventies was the heyday of belly dance in America; San Francisco was a trailblazing city and Hoda and I had produced the very first (as far as I know and no one's disputed this) ever belly dance festival and convention in the United States. 

Up to this point, the Aswan Dancers never did anything unless we were asked or we self-produced. It never occurred to me to reach out for gigs or to audition for anything. We had enough going on with Arab church functions, parties, street fairs and my working every night at the Bagdad. I don’t think my self-esteem could handle rejection so we stayed pretty safe with our little gigs and of course there was the Bagdad where I could have student nights any time I wanted. There I could just take over the place and decorate the floor with fallen popcorn and peanuts and my students and friends could dance to live music. We really didn’t need any other performance outlets.

But then one day in 1978 we heard about a dance festival featuring dance from all over the world. It was called the Ethnic Dance Festival. We thought it might be fun to be part of this festival but quite honestly the thought of auditioning was pretty intimidating. But the auditions were held in familiar grounds - McKenna Theater at San Francisco State University. So, after going to see the open auditions a couple of years in a row, we finally decided to try our luck and in the early 1980’s we auditioned and were accepted.What an experience it was to perform for this prestigious festival and in another prestigious place - the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. The stage sure was bigger than the Bagdad's in North Beach and a whole lot more formal. They had lighting that the dancers and musicians didn't have to operate. They didn't want improvisation. It was choreography again. What joy, what fun, but also what a commitment. So we worked on choreography yet again. This time it would be a debke that a friend had learned at the Arab Cultural Center. I never learned the original choreography so I just made something up with lots of nice staging and the group memorized it. This time I was smart. I did not put myself into the choreography. I would do improvisation at the end of our piece. We practiced twice a week for months using a larger performance space and luckily St. Nicholas, our local Arabic Church, let us use their hall and gymnasium for free in exchange for us performing at their food festivals. By this time our group had grown to also include guys so our show consisted of a Lebanese debke with both men and women and also me doing an improvised drum/cymbal dance piece with my daughter Susu. Founded in 1978, this Festival was the first multicultural city-sponsored ethnic festival in America and we were so fortunate to to be part of it. But it was so much work and after the festival we decided: “Been there, done that, we don’t need to do it again. Too much work and commitment.” And so we chose to forget about being in another EDF and would continue to just concentrate on our own stuff.

But a few years later, with a few different and enthusiastic dancers added to the mix, the Aswan Dancers again wanted to audition. Yes, we had turnover in our group, but usually it was because the girls got married and pregnant or moved away for school or work. Since we were primarily an Egyptian dance group, we decided that our audition would be an Egyptian piece. In this phase of our dance life we were preoccupied with drums, zar and moulids. Susu was busy creating and composing drum pieces for the dancers and I was choreographing dances where the dancers drummed and the drummers danced. We were forming the Cairo Cats drum ensemble but didn't know it yet. Again the audition was fun and again it meant extra rehearsals for the dancers, the drummers and the musicians in spaces larger than my studio.  And it was worth it. We got to perform at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House again and be with really famous ethnic dancers and dance groups. Dancers who we looked up to and we got to be part of the show with them.  But it took so much work, time and commitment including money spent for large rehearsal spaces. So like Poe's raven, I declared " Nevermore...This is it and nothing more.”

Again different Aswan Dancers came and went and the group didn’t seem interested in auditioning for the EDF anymore. So I was happy and didn't mention it. It really was too much work and the pre-audition paperwork was always so daunting. True the festival was fun, but to me, not really worth all the pre-show work. However, Susu was periodically asked to audition and perform with other groups, and somehow because of being her mom and also being a backup percussionist, I would sometimes get pulled in too. This was a fun way to be in the Ethnic Dance Festival. Of course there was work and commitment but it was easy. Being a musician there wasn’t the responsibility of the auditioning process that the dancer had. By this time, the Festival moved to yet another fun and prestigious venue, the Palace of Fine Arts. And by now, the Ethnic Dance Festival had around 14,000 dancers with dancers from community groups performing alongside internationally recognized professionals, all performing on the same stage.

A few years ago Andrea Sendek's dance company Khepri auditioned for the festival with a CD and got in. The EDF staff decided that it would be nicer with live music and asked Andrea to find musicians. I was fortunate that she approached me to put together a group. I knew that the only person capable of leading musicians for memorized choreography (there's that word again) was Georges Lammam. It was great that he said yes and he put together the band - him, Khader Keileh, Susu Pampanin,Terrianne Gutierrez and me. We all worked together at Pachamama and we would rehearse the pieces while at work. Andrea added her dancer Mohini who was also a drummer. As I said before, many times dancers leave dance companies because of pregnancies and Andrea's company was no exception. Her dancer Mohini couldn't dance in Andrea's choreography because of pregnancy (so she drummed instead) and her dancer Gina just performed pregnant wearing a bit of fluff to try to disguise her beautiful belly. (And a little side note: The other dancer, Lucille waited to become pregnant until after the festival. Andrea certainly has a fertile and talented group of dancers.) The EDF also decided to add Alma who had also auditioned and was accepted in the festival and we were to play for her also. Her music was easier to memorize because we already knew the arrangement. I guess the Ethnic Dance Festival staff liked Arabic music because that year they had us play in the lobby, for the dancers (Andrea and Alma) on the main stage and also between other ethnic dance acts.

And so now fast forward to 2019 and we're in rehearsal mode. Here we go again. We are in the Ethnic Dance Festival again and we're trying to coordinate so many people's schedules so we can practice for our fun show. After this festival I wonder if I'll continue to say "Merely this and nothing more...Quoth the Raven "Nevermore.'" I probably will and after a few years, will probably forget - because, after all, The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is a great festival with so many different ethnic and multicultural acts. It’s really an honor.

And this time in July we get to perform in yet another really neat venue. This time we'll be at Zellerbach in Berkeley. It'll be really fun of course and especially exciting because directly from there we will jump into our waiting vans already filled with sleeping bags and hustle on up to Mendocino for camp. for more ethnic and multicultural music and dance experiences.

May 14, 2019

Poor Starving Artists

I was upstairs in the dressing room at the Bagdad alone and close to tears. One of the dancers was on stage dancing and the other dancer was still downstairs hanging out with friends enjoying her  show. I had just finished my second set and was feeling upset thinking about my show. I was so embarrassed at my bad dancing that I just wanted to pack up my costumes and leave but I couldn’t because I still had another set to do. I worked in a club with two other dancers and every night we did 3 shows each, a total of 9 shows a night. There was not as much at stake in the first show, because we dancers and the musicians usually used the first shows to warm up and wait for the house to fill. But the second shows were important because that was when the place was full and we'd don our best costumes and dance our hearts out to really fantastic music because the musicians would be warmed up by then. I really can’t explain what happened to make me want to quit because nothing unusual had happened. There were no mishaps on the stage and the customers seemed to enjoy the show, but somehow everything felt off. Just blah. I felt it was better to do a memorable show, put my feelings out there for all to experience, take a chance interpreting the music differently, bare my soul for all to see...whether great or horrible, that would be a better show than one that was just blah. Blah was safe. Blah was uninspired. Blah was boring. We usually didn't choose the music for our sets because this was dictated by the customers' requests or the musicians whims so it was always exciting to create on the spot. Although many of those moments were amazing when we all connected, some were pretty bad to the point of even being funny when we were unconnected, but it didn't matter as long as it wasn't boring. Sometimes the drummer would take a break during the veil or floor part of the dance and the oud player would play a super long taqsim to kill time until the drummer returned but it really wasn't their fault. In fact when I think about it, those poor musicians never got to take a real break, so out of necessity they would take turns leaving the stage when it was slow.

 Anyway, it was one of those nights when there just wasn’t any magic on the stage. To me the show was so off that I was ready to cash it in and call it quits. I felt I couldn’t continue dancing when the musicians and I were so uninspired. We just weren't connecting and I could feel the tears wanting to start running so it would be better to just quit before I further embarrassed myself. But first I had to finish the night because I had promised to not ever quit during or at the end of the night...ever again. Yousef, my boss, had made me promise to always sleep on it and then quit the next day if I still felt the same way because I would often quit when leaving work at the end of the night only to call the next morning saying that I changed my mind. Fortunately Yousef was a musician; he was also a violinist, not just my boss, and he knew and had experienced the same emotional ups and downs that we all went through. I wasn’t the only employee who was so temperamental. It seemed that being passionate and melodramatic was an artist’s curse. Sometimes we were our own best enemies and these tempestuous reactions could keep us from getting ahead. 

This may seem like a bit long by today’s standards. Notice how the drummer magically disappears to take a break during the slow part of the dance. While the music is beautiful, I felt we just were not connecting.

Just more of the same.

Middle Eastern musicians and dancers are not just performers, we are also artists in our own right but because of circumstances and because of our temperament and principles many of us can be called poor starving artists. Many of us would not, could not sacrifice for our art; would  not be willing to make compromises to get that extra dollar; would not want to denigrate our music or dance. Not wanting to do easy gigs such as bellygrams put our dance in the same level as being a clown or a stripper. Bellygrams were entertainment, maybe fun but certainly not culturally significant. Out of necessity some dancers did these types of gigs, but many of my friends and I did not. So we didn't always get those extra dollars that would have helped in buying groceries or paying bills. Sometimes we had a hard time turning down easy money when it came time to paying the rent. We tried hard to follow our dreams of creating for the sake of creating and not for the dollar bill; we tried hard to not compromise our art form, but sometimes it was a hard choice...feed the belly or feed the soul.

Many of us sacrificed for our art. Why? Creating something uniquely esoteric didn't always get understood when we had to satisfy the general public, the public who would walk in off the street and be enticed to stay and buy more drinks. Did it even matter if we created something really great if the public at large only wanted to see skin? This was during the time when we were on Broadway in San Francisco surrounded by topless, bottomless and completely nude clubs. We were isolated in our art but still there was this compulsion to create. Did it even matter? Did anyone even really care? Thank god we had friends and followers who came from that part of the world who understood and cared and that was all that mattered.

In the old days, it was easier to be a poor starving artist. We were all young. Life was cheaper. Life was so less complicated. Back then we did our art, we slept our art and then we did it again. But times change and with it, the economy, the pressures, the lifestyles and becoming American following the white picket fence dream. This new generation of immigrant clientele had the urge to nest and assimilate into the general population. Many put their love of music on the back burners of their minds and hearts and simultaneously the hippies leaving hippiedom began to concentrate on careers and becoming adults. This generation marked the beginnings of the tech culture and the birth of the Yuppies that would lead to the Gen Xers and later the Millennials with ideals and values that would turn the economy topsy turvy. Or as Ahmed Adaweya would say Kulloh alla Kulloh.

Today the musicians sacrifice their economic wealth in work in liquor stores and drive limos or uber so that they can maintain a certain amount of freedom to jump at the chance to make their art. And todays dancers, Gen Xers and Millennials, often sign up for agencies that send them off to do gigs similar to what Eastern Onion,a bellygram agency, offered. But more often than not, todays dancers become weekend hobbyists while really living a life of comfort holding down "real" jobs in the tech or professional world so they can have their cake and eat it too. It has become harder and harder to minimally, barely support oneself as a full-time artist. Poor starving artists are not considered a different category or a generation but there don't seem to be venues that can support the artists, dancers and/or musicians, if they want to do their art full-time. The public at large doesn't seem to be interested unless it is to see and be seen and pretend to be experiencing art and culture through 5 minute pop-up shows at venues that claim to be authentic but are really facsimiles and safe havens for the monied chosen few. The real culture and art is left for the poor starving artists with too much integrity to compromise a dollar for their art. And the musicians' audience usually is of the multicultural variety while the dancers' audience is practically non-existent due to lack of time or funds to support this art. There is just too much bad press and we now seem to only present our art to each other. But is this even true? Here is a little something I found on facebook written by Jill Parker on just this subject:

"Support your local dance scene - Attend Events and really be part of the audience. Stay to see other dancers perform. Go to events where you are not performing to support events. Events are struggling due to a variety of pressures including rising costs of venue rental as well as “Hit and Run” dancers who show up, dance and leave. Or worse, dancers who don’t show up because they don’t see intrinsic value in supporting other local dancers. Bottom Line: Participate in local, regional, national and even international dance scenes."

Although I'm sharing my thoughts now, I myself am from what is known as the silent generation. I'm a "war-baby" (WWII). According to the list of generations, I'm a silent generation and according to personality tests, I am INFP (introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceptive) I feel I belong to the bohemian and the beatnik generation. I was not a hippie. Many hippies, especially the later hippies of a different generation and war (Vietnam) were the baby boomers and when tired of hippiedom and became yuppies. Some hippies refused to change and, I believe, embraced the more bohemian or beat way of thinking and life.  Being a silent generation, being influenced by bohemians and beats, I believe I was of that persuasion. 

I wore black, wore boots, painted my eyes black, had long straight hair, loved all things artistic, especially music and dance and carried bongo drums. I guess nothing really changes in my world. I was a drummer wannabe then and still am. Actually the beat of the drums the magic of music is the heartbeat and lifeblood of my soul. And in my universe, I can't conceive that anyone could feel differently. 

My very first experience performing in public as a bellydancer was at the Bagdad on Broadway in San Francisco's North Beach. It was to live music - violin, oud, drums, voice. I was there looking for a job to help pay my mortgage and feed some bellies. But when I heard the music and responded to it, I didn't even care if I got paid. The music was payment enough and how I reacted to it was a life changing event. I got the job and fortunately for me, I not only got reimbursed for my art, I also actually found I could pay my mortgage, feed the bellies (I had 3 babies) and even then some.  Yes, I got paid enough to even pay other bills such as car and utilities. What more could a person ask for? I had an opportunity to express myself in a way that not only nourished my soul, but also brought joy to others. When I got to know my co-workers, the dancers and musicians, I learned that they too were driven to express their feelings. Sometimes we had bad nights and couldn't be creative and would be driven to tears feeling we did a "bad show" but other nights we not only had great shows, we had them together. Meaning the musicians and the dancers clicked. This is what made life worth living. We were like a family. A marriage looking for and sometimes finding that ultimate moment when we could feed off each other. Today people talk about Tarab and Sultanah. We never did. Those weren't words in the vocabulary then because there weren't  academics or educators around to write about and define those terms. But it didn't matter. Because those were just words in a textbook and we were those words in reality and in life.

This is me in a show in the 80’s showing what it was like to be inspired in the 60’s. I never told the musicians I recorded this memory.

None of us were rolling in the money; it really was a hand to mouth existence, but the happiness and fulfillment in being able to create more than made up for being a "poor starving artist." And, it is all relative. One isn't poor if one is rich with joy in creating art. So maybe it should just be "starving artist." Yes, in my world we all shared the same urges and desires and that was to create and make art. Making a little money while doing this helped, but was not foremost in our minds while creating. I was a single mother of three babies, two dogs and a couple of cats by this time and was so fortunate that my full-time dance job (6 nights a week) could feed our bellies while feeding my soul. I knew that I could have made more money if I compromised my art, but that wasn't even a consideration.

While I've spent 50 some years having fun feeling fulfilled by dancing, playing music and creating shows we artists are still struggling. I've been fortunate being able to merge my work with my play, my creativity, and I've certainly had my share of sacrifices in order to maintain my integrity but I've never really had to compromise to continue my art. Yes, it's difficult to be a "poor starving artist," but in the final analysis, at least this artist is very rich with dreams and desires fulfilled now and yet to come. I hope this can be an inspiration to others. Follow your dreams and the rest will follow.