Established in 1990, The Giza Club is a cultural organization that meets regularly in an irregular way. We came about because we felt that in order to understand our dance and music, we needed to understand the culture. Our mission is to promote and inform people to know more of the cultural background behind the music and dance.
We have hosted and organized
- Guest Speakers - anthropologists, dancers, musicians, wacky women travelers...
- Fllm Festivals - from documentaries and social narratives to black & white classics and silly Egyptian comedies...
- The Giza Academy Awards and Hall of Fame - honoring fellow artists.
- Field Trips - educational, social or music/dance events.
- Popcorn days - watching good and bad belly dance film clips.
- Discussions - socially relevant issues about our dance and music.
The History of The Giza Club
By Linda Grondahl
When I think of Amina, I usually associate her with her dance group, the Aswan Dancers. Amina was my second belly dance teacher and shortly after I started studying with her in 1979, I joined the Aswan Dancers. Dancing in her group, we performed all over the place in venues from small house parties to large 1000 person juried and civic events. We were locally based in San Francisco, but we also traveled throughout the West as far south as Los Angeles and as far north as Seattle, Washington. We were also invited to perform for the prestigious Cairo Women’s Club in Cairo, Egypt where Amina delivered a lecture on the differences between American and Egyptian style dance. Hearing that some of us were going to perform in Cairo, Amina’s friends Morocco and Carla Lopez arranged a pre-Cairo workshop and show at Fazil’s in NYC since the plane to Cairo left from New York. Those were pretty exciting times and we felt like we were going to conquer the world. But in reality, we were San Francisco based, had full-time jobs and we were just on vacation.
I enjoyed being an Aswan Dancer because we were different from most Middle Eastern dance groups in San Francisco. Because Amina worked at the Bagdad, she met and became friends with many people from the Middle East. Most knew that she wanted to present shows with a traditional and authentic touch and they helped us by giving us Egyptian language lessons, song translations, singing lessons, drum lessons and dance lessons. They also just hung out with us, dancing, singing and playing music at the Bagdad and at get-togethers and parties in Amina’s studio. Many of these lessons were free because they were spontaneous and every once in a while. But we wanted more; so we’d arrange for and pay for on-going classes. We realized that because of our travels and because of our association with our Middle Eastern friends, many of whom were Egyptian, our dance group really was different from most of the other dance groups that mostly did belly dance choreographies to recorded music. Because Amina had her fill of uninformed audience comments watching her in two piece belly dance outfits at the Bagdad, she wanted to inform the uninformed about the rest of the Middle Eastern culture that she and we were learning from our friends.
We were especially Egyptian culturally specific because of Fatima Akef’s influence on Amina. Fatima* was one of the dancers who Amina used to work with at the Bagdad. She used to work in a circus in Egypt and when Amina convinced her to teach in her studio, Fatima formed a dance company. It was called the Egyptian American Dance Company and Amina and Fatima were the only members. Later when they found other dancers, in their first show Fatima had Amina dressed as a man, wearing a mustache and a pillow for a stomach. She had Amina speaking in Arabic, singing in Arabic and dancing with a stick trying to pick up the pretty dancing girls…specifically Fatima. This is what formed Amina’s sense of Egyptian dance and is what opened her eyes to Egyptian sensibilities and humor.
We craved and loved learning about the Middle East and wanted to share our knowledge. Some of us had even traveled to Egypt to learn more and to shop for musical instruments and costume supplies. In the early 1980's we presented a show that included our now mixed gender group. After all, how could we have a true culturally correct dance show without both guys and girls. Well, guy dancers were hard to find unless they were belly dancers but Amina wanted guys who were interested in learning guy dances also.
She started talent scouting by asking us if we had any male friends, relatives or otherwise who would be interested in learning to dance for free. She herself asked one of the regular customers at the Bagdad, Bobby. Bobby, our first male dancer, was an attorney who later was responsible for making us a non-profit dance company. Then, on a bus, Amina saw a guy who looked familiar. She thought she had seen him at a belly dance party at drummer Mary Ellen Donald’s house. She approached him with a: “You don’t know me, but I’m Susu’s mother and wondered if you would like to dance in my dance group?” He was thrilled that he would get to meet Susu, the drummer and agreed to try it out. He introduced Amina to his friends on the bus as “This is Susu’s mother.” Our other guys were Michael and Tim donated by Aswan dancer, Eleanor. They were her roommate’s friends. Then we got Gregangelo who was the son of Aswan Dancer Eileen/Saleema’s doctor's receptionist. Then she found Esther who had auditioned at the Bagdad as a male belly dancer. Esther who was tall, with long hair and a full beard finally agreed to learn to dance like a guy for our shows. So we had a group of guys who agreed to dance with the (formerly all-girl) Aswan Dancers.
It was pretty exciting and often almost scandalous as we would many times have to share dressing rooms and even hotel rooms when traveling. It totally changed the dynamics of the group and also changed the style of dances. We no longer had to have the girls wear mustaches dressed as guys (ala Fatima) and we could really work on doing folkloric routines with girls as girls because now we had guys as guys. But Amina still kept the Egyptian humor in our pieces, such as the dance where we reversed roles and the guys dressed as girls and the girls were the guys.
Her Egyptian friend Samir who called the Bagdad bar his office became our first language teacher. Samir who also taught Egyptian at the Monterey Army Language School would come to practice and helped coach us on making mannerisms authentically Egyptian. Teaching Egyptian culture along with the language was part of his curriculum for the soldiers, so why not us dancers who also wanted and needed to be culturally specific? But at least we didn’t have to be spies or whatever it was those soldiers did. Amina also watched lots of Arabic movies and videos and choreographed the dances from her visions based on what she saw on VHS, what she saw in her head and what she saw and learned from all the Arabs she worked with. So in the early 1980's we debuted the guys and were an instant success and were complimented by our Middle Eastern and non Middle Eastern audience for bringing the traditions of the Middle East and specifically, Egypt, to the stage.
We noticed that we really were different from other groups because Amina insisted that we dance covered most of the time and that our dances were folkloric in origin rather than being predominantly Oriental pieces. She always wanted a theme that subliminally brought about the point that our dances were cultural and based on the music and lyrics. The dancing was just a given.
We danced at a juried event a couple of times. It was called The Ethnic Dance Festival. It was fun to do, but took too much of our time based on the outcome. Although it was a San Francisco “sort of” sponsored event (paid for mostly by the hotel tax funds), it really was a “sort of” prestigious event that was more about presenting slick ethnic shows that brought big revenues but wasn’t that much about the ethnic communities they represented. Through Meroe, another Aswan Dancer, we got a grant from the city to host our own event that we called Culture Caravan. Culture Caravan followed the year after our Aswan Dancers Summer Studio Series where we presented folkdances of Egypt and the Middle East and included talks on the costuming and culture of the dance. Meroe wanted to expand on this and so went after a grant to include folkloric dances from throughout the world. It was kind of like our grass-roots response to the slick Ethnic Dance Festival. We invited different ethnic dance communities to participate and perform but they also had to talk about the culture and participate in very informal panel discussions. It was a very low budget dance festival that also stressed the culture. It was very informative but not that successful because we found that most audience members just wanted to be entertained without the bother of learning about the culture in a classroom situation. Our CultureCaravan was low tech in a conference room in an office building in downtown San Francisco.
Since Amina’s focus was more about Egypt and the Middle East, she soon forgot about doing another Culture Caravan, but that indirectly fostered another idea. It was to become the Giza Club.
In Amina’s other life, she was heavily involved in the Mexican art community and even got us a number of gigs dancing at civic events sponsored by San Francisco’s Mexican/Chicano art world. One day she was invited to an art salon hosted by her artist friend Yolanda Lopez. Amina was fascinated by artists, musicians and dancers and wanted to always surround herself with creative people. To her, it was the only thing that mattered in life. Of course her family mattered too, but being around intellectual and artistic stimulation made life worth living. She wanted more than the Aswan Dancers performing in shows. She wanted more than just dancing at the Bagdad. True it was greater fun than anything and it was inspiring to dance and create night after night to live music. But she wanted more. She wanted to share her love of the culture of the dance and music of the Middle East. So, inspired by Yolanda’s round table of Chicana artists socializing and discussing issues, in 1990 Amina decided to formalize the idea of a cultural club. She called a few of us together to discuss the idea. She presented her idea of what would then become the Giza Club. Those of us at the meeting all became charter members. The Giza Club after 25 years is still dedicated to its original mission which is to promote and inform people to know more of the cultural background behind the music and dance.
We still meet regularly to discuss issues about our dance, to explore the cultures that surround it. We also have social events and many other interesting activities. To be continued...
* Exotica (1957) and Primitiva (1958) were two LP albums by Martin Denny who produced music of a musical genre of thepost-war 1950’s that included a combination of the South Pacific and the Orient that really was pure fantasy.
** Later Amina learned that Fatima was the sister and child dancing partner of Naima Akef, legendary Egyptian dance and film star of Egypt's Golden era. Naima was the youngest member of dancers that we all lovingly called "the big three." They were Taheyya (Carioca), Samia (Gamal) and Naima (Akef). Naima and Fatima were members of a true show biz family - their grandmother owned the famous Akef Family Circus and their uncle, Ibrahim Akef was choreographer to the Egyptian dance stars. When Naima moved off to film stardom, Fatima, accompanied by her drummer husband, toured the world and eventually called the Bagdad and San Francisco their home.
Linda Grondahl is a devoted fan of Middle Eastern/North African music and dance. She took her first dance lesson in 1979. She has studied Egyptian singing and dialect, a little oud, a little drum and continues as a 25 year long student of the Arabic tambourine (riqq). She has been a member of the Aswan Dancers, Danse Maghreb and El Asaab and currently plays riqq with her own band Tahneen, the Khalil Abboud Ensemble and any band that will let her play! She also dances whenever and wherever she can.