Back In The Day – What It Was Like To Be A Belly Dance Star in the 60’s & 70’s
Are you ready for a trip in the bellydance time machine? We’re turning back the clock about 40 years to a time when glamorous bellydancers graced the stages of big clubs almost every night of the week. I chatted with Roxxanne Shelaby, a California-based bellydancer and daughter of Lou Shelaby, owner of some of the most well-known Arabic clubs of the west coast.
Mahin: Tell us about yourself…
Roxxanne: My name is Roxxanne Shelaby and I am of Lebanese and Brazilian heritage. I grew up in my father, Lou Shelaby’s Arabic nightclubs, The Fez and the Cascades in Southern California. I have been belly dancing since I could stand up, started performing at the age of 5 and began my professional dance career at 15 at the request of Farida Fahmy principal dancer of the Reda Troupe from Egypt. I teach and perform nationally and internationally as well as produce Belly Dance events.
M: How is it that you came to know Farida Fahmy at 15?
R: She was living here and going to UCLA with Sahra C. Kent who is my closest friend. I met her through Sahra. They were planning to bring the Reda Troupe to perform at an Arabic festival in LA but the visas didn’t go through. So at the last minute Farida trained Sahra, Kamala and Latifa of Arabesque Dance Co. and several other dancers to perform in their place. I was just hanging out with Sahra and went with her to one of her rehearsals and they happened to need one more dancer so I was standing in for the “mystery dancer” since they didn’t know who they would choose yet. Farida liked my dancing and asked me to do it.
M: What a lucky break! Did you perform in your father’s clubs?
R: It really was a lucky break!
Unfortunately not, I was too young. My dad sold The Fez when I was one and the Cascades when I was 14 but I did social dance a lot at the Cascades and we had a one- hour folkloric show choreographed by Sahra which I memorized because I saw it every night and would go home and perform in my bedroom.
M: I’ve worked for many Middle Eastern family owned restaurants and though I was usually treated very well, I was also aware that they did not see performing as a bellydancer to be fit for their own daughters. Can you comment on this?
R: <laughs> You’ve opened a can of worms! I will do my best to be PC.
M: It’s an issue many dancers don’t understand! I know I didn’t really process that and make peace with it for several years.
R: Middle Easterners have a tenuous relationship with belly dancing (and in many cases with performing in general). They love the dance and want to have a dancer at every possible occasion. However, they would not want their own women to be professional dancers and in many cases for their sons to be musicians or performers. Artist are not considered as highly as other professions. And in a traditional culture where women are not supposed to draw attention to themselves in public, being a professional dancer on stage-drawing attention to themselves and wearing a provocative costume goes against their conventional ways.
My dad used to tell a story that illustrates this well. When he was in middle school in Boston, he and his sister performed in the school talent show. He played the violin and she sang a popular song at the time, something like “Dancing Cheek to Cheek”. When they got home, they both got a spanking from my grandfather – my aunt because she had the audacity to stand up in front of people and draw attention to herself and my dad because he was the male and supposed to protect his sister’s reputation. In this case we are not even talking about belly dancing but 2 teenagers performing a harmless song for their friends. But it shows how many feel about performers in general.
Also, here in the west we have dancers who are highly educated women. In the old country, they are not used to and they don’t understand how a woman like myself for example, who is an elementary school administrator can also be a dancer and loves to dance, and dances for many reasons beyond looking sexy or getting attention.
M: I recall this being a very confusing feeling when I first started out. I thought that maybe they really did look down on me even though they were very kind and almost always had me sit down to dinner with them.
R: They don’t hold women who are not of their culture by the same norms, so its ok for you to dance. They probably love your dancing and love you…and might not necessarily want you to marry their son
R: My dad was the only musician/club owner who tried to bridge this gap. He taught the Arab musicians and patrons that these women (dancers) were good women, they dance because they love our music and culture and they are intelligent and often very well educated.
M: Historically speaking, what years were your family’s clubs open?
R: The Fez was owned by my family from 1959-1970 then sold but remained open until 1979. My dad bought The Cascades in 1976 and it was open until 1985.
M: Being a working dancer back then was so much different than now, it would seem. Having seen both first hand, what would say is the difference in the dancer’s importance in the club’s entertainment overall?
R: At my dad’s clubs the dancer was the star. She worked in one place and had a following. The people came to see her! She only danced to live music and especially at The Fez, danced for a mixed audience of Arabs and Westerners. This shaped their dance. They learned to dance in a more authentic way because they were dancing for the people of the culture.
They made their own costumes and learned by watching other dancers.There were really no teachers then and certainly no classes.
M: Were the stars of the clubs in that era doing this as a 2nd job or as their primary source of income?
R: From what I understand the majority of them only danced. They were dancing 6 nights a week usually.
M: How many shows per night and how long were their sets typically?
R The Fez had an upstairs room and a downstairs. Downstairs was a formal dining area with a stage and upstairs, “Sinbad’s Cave” was a more intimate space with low tables and cushions on the floor and the dancer danced in a smaller space closer to the audience. They danced at least once in each and possibly more depending on the crowd. There was also more than one dancer at the club. Their set was 45 minutes – can you believe that?
My dad believed in having different styles of dancers and he would rotate them every few months so the audience wouldn’t burn out.
M: Did the dancers venture into the crowds near the end of their set as is common these days?
R: At my dad’s clubs the dancers stayed on stage and were not tipped on the body. Money was showered over them or made into a necklace of dollar bills.
M: Yes, I’ve seen money necklaces – what a great way to be tipped!
R: Yes, I remember customers at the Cascades spending all night with the stapler and some dollar bills (or 10’s and 20’s) coming up with interesting ways to put the bills together for the dancers!
M: How did the dancers’ pay rates compare to current rates? Have you ever done a conversion with adjustment for the years?
R: Thats a great question. I would need to look into it – I don’t want to miscalculate. I can find out!
M: Do you know what the dancers were paid then?
R: Antoinette who was one of the first dancers said she started off at $5 a night – but that was around 1960.
(She looked up the conversion during our interview)
$5 in 1960 is equal to $35 now.
M: As many dancers who have worked with a band know, dealing with tips can get dicey. Do you know what was customary back in the day as far as sharing or dividing the tips with the band and dancers?
R: Yes, the tipping practice was that all the tips were put together and 1/3 went to the dancers 1/3 to the musicians and 1/3 to the house.
M: About the musicians – how large was the band and were they of mixed backgrounds?
R: The band was usually 5 members or so in the old days (60’s to mid 70’s). There was an oud, a drum, a violin, a singer and maybe qanoun or tambourine. They were mostly of Syrian or Lebanese heritage and some Arabs of Armenian descent and maybe a Persian or two. Then it started to change there would be a keyboard and maybe an electric guitar and there was an influx of Egyptian musicians.
M: When I interviewed Helena Vlahos a few years ago, she talked about the mixed bands that really were at the root of what ultimately became “American Cabaret” style.
R: Yes but that was in other clubs. My dad tried as much as possible to keep everything authentically Arabic. There may have been an Armenian, Turk or Persian, but they were playing Arabic music for the most part.
My research on The Fez has shown that the dancers there did not do the style of dance we now refer to as American Cabaret. They did play finger cymbals and dance with a veil but they each had their own style and as I mentioned before, they were dancing to Arabic music for Arabs. I’m told that this style of American Cabaret came here from the East Coast.
M: Did the dancers’ shows have any format musically or stylistically?
R: Yes! They entered wrapped in a veil, did a fast number then a taxim followed by something fast then a drum solo and then an exit. I’m teaching a Fez routine workshop!
M: That sounds like fun! Wish I could take that one! Did the dancers every use folkloric styles or props in their shows?
R: Yes, they did. Not so much in The Fez days, but in the Cascades days folklore became popular. They would include Dabke, Assaya, and some Khaleeji among others. We would feature dancers such as a Circassian man who would do a knife dance and an Egyptian woman named Alia who would do a Shamadan dance.
M: I’m imagining all this as you describe it and I feel like I’m being transported to a very exciting place and time to be a dancer! I wish I had a time machine!
R: You and me both! Thank you because this is exactly what my mission is with this documentary – to not only preserve a piece of our history but also to transport dancers, and other aficionados, back to one of the greatest times and places to be a belly dancer!
M: It just occured to me …being a “bellydance star” back then was to be famous among the club patrons and ethnic communities. Now it is to be famous amongst other dancers!
R: You said it!
M: That’s both a good and a bad thing. We’ve become an insular community in some ways.
R: Exactly! So many dancers today have not only NEVER danced to live music but they have never danced to Arabic music. I think all the styles of belly dance that have emerged are great, but we have to know what our roots are – our tradition – then we can go on and take creative license and fuse the dance with other elements.
M: Very true. I feel very fortunate that I danced weekly for years with Arab-born musicians. It was a HUGE part of my education as a dancer. Sadly, my students don’t have that experience available to them where I am based here in Phoenix..
R: IMHO you have not really danced until you have danced for an Arab audience!
M: I agree. That is a completely different experience than an American audience. and a world apart from an audience of other dancers!
R: Yes, and only dancing for other dancers has taken the dance in a completely different direction as well. As a promoter I took on the responsibility of promoting showcases with live music only so that dancers would be able to have that experience. Sadly many of them refused because they don’t know how to dance to live music and wanted to cling to the safety of their recorded music and memorized routines.
M: That is is so discouraging. On the flip side, sometimes when a dancer who IS able to and would love to dance to live music comes to a gig, the owner wants them to dance between the band’s sets to recorded music so the band can have a break. The only thing breaking in that scenario is my heart!
R: Ditto – but the only way that is going to change is by showing them we are good at dancing to live music and that the crowd wants to see that.
M: So many of our prominent master teachers began their performing careers in those days. Who were some of the The Fez’s stars we would recognize?
R: Aisha Ali, Feiruz Aram, Marta Shill, Helena Vlahos, Janaeni Rathor (Ansuya’s mother) and Tonya Chainis. Jamila Salimpour also appeared at The Fez and had a long standing friendship with my dad.
M: That’s quite a legacy. Did you interview all these women for The Fez documentary?
R: Yes I did!! And there are a few others that are not known by the dance community today but are legendary and are also part of the documentary. One is a dancer by the name of Maya Medwar . She passed on and is not in the documentary, but I did meet her. She is the dancer that Jamila Salimpour named the vertical figure 8 “Maya” after.
M: Ah- thats why her name sounds familiar. I have heard that story before. Im sure their interviews are fascinating – I can’t wait to see them! What’s the status of the project currently and when can we hope to see it?
R: It is almost finished! It will premiere at Cairo ShimmyQuake in Los Angeles on June 7, 2015. Then it will be available for purchase and download.
M: I predict a lot of dancers having a movie night once it is released! It will be quite a history lesson.
R: Yes I hope so! You know we are currently doing a Kickstarter to pay for the documentary. One of the prizes for donating is a movie night with me for a Q & A session in person or via Skype. There will also be private screenings as well.
M: Thank you so much for the opportunity to get a window into this part of our history. I am so looking forward to the film!