In 1972 I stepped into a small studio on Presidio Street in San Francisco, which was across the street from Lux Antiques, the store owned by my friend Wanda and her husband Jim Helms. In fact, Wanda was the one who convinced me to take lessons from a mysterious woman she had met at her store. It seems this woman was selling several pieces of very fine ethnic jewelry through Wanda’s store and had already talked her into dance lessons. I had just had my second and last child and was emerging from that heady decade of change and revolution, the ‘60’s, and belly dancing sounded exciting and exotic. I loved to dance and stepping it up to a formal education sounded appealing. It came down to a decision between belly dance and Tai Chi, and Wanda assured me it had to be belly dance. She even gave me a length of sheer flowered fabric to make a pair of pantaloons and a top, so I whipped up a costume and decided to give it a try.
The small studio was crammed full of women. There must have been 30 of us in a claustrophobic rectangular room with mirrors across the wall at one end. Some of the girls already had real costumes: pantaloons and halter-tops, decorated bras, sheer circle skirts, silver bangles, dangling earrings, draping veils. This immediately appealed to me. Fantasy and costume were a big part of my years in the Haight Ashbury scene. A few of the ladies were positioned in front of the mirrors, practicing stomach rolls and rib movements with looks of intense concentration on their faces. Intimidated, I sidled to the back of the studio, feeling awkward and silly in my gaudy floral garb. I didn’t have a hip scarf or a veil and no jewelry or finger cymbals. I made mental notes on what I would need for the next class, should I decide to continue.
All of these feelings fled as soon as Jamila walked through the door. A big impressive woman clad entirely in black, her loose silk jersey pantaloons clung to her legs and a long-sleeved black silk khameez tunic fastened at her shoulder with small gold buttons hung to her knees. She hauled in a huge reel-to-reel tape recorder and set it on the table. After fastening an elaborate coin girdle around her hips, she squatted down on her haunches and rummaged through a giant leather bag, emerging with a set of enormous finger cymbals. Fastening them onto her thumbs and middle fingers, she rose, moved the bag aside and clicked on the tape recorder. Walking to the center of the floor, Jamila waited while we scrambled to arrange ourselves in a large oval circle. She began with finger cymbal exercises, right-left-right, right-left-right, right-left-right, right- left-right. Moving around the circle, she paused in front of each of us as she played.
No one had uttered a word since she entered the room. Every eye was riveted on her. Those of us who had no cymbals held our hands and arms up in position and played along, miming the rhythm. After Jamila circled the room once and made eye contact with every person, we all turned our left shoulders to the center and began moving slowly to the heavy beat of the tabla baladi and wailing mijwiz.
Jamila called out the steps, “Step and pivot and step and pivot” and cymbals, “Right left step and right left hip”. I struggled with the strange patterns, my arms held up and out, trying to round my elbows, adapting my body to the low-centered, grounded posture that seemed to be required. Occasionally someone would glance around the room and Jamila would snap, “Watch me, don’t look at anyone else!” This slow, methodical parade went on and on. Every few moments Jamila called out a change in steps. We went through an interminable series of changes that required increasingly complex foot and body work. I could feel my arms growing weary, as if they had lead weights attached to them. I tried to hold them “up and out!” My legs began to wobble as my thighs absorbed the full impact of the strange new posture. Every time a step would change, I felt like I threw the whole line off as I struggled to learn the new pattern.
After about 30 or 40 minutes of non-stop movement, culminating in a series of counted shimmies and increasingly complex finger cymbal patterns, we ended with an open spin. A long ululating wail arose from the dancers. Everyone covered their mouths during this group yell that I learned was called zaghareet. It was an eerie noise that sent chills up my spine, but it felt very powerful echoing throughout the large group. Along with the basic stance of Oriental dance, in which the dancer must open herself out from the center, the addition of the powerful cry of zaghareet signified another place where shy and constricted women found their voices. I was drawn to the community, the freedom, the movement that seemed to emanate from a familiar center, and to the music, most definitely to the music.
Jamila stare Everyone broke ranks and moved off to get drinks of water, walk outside for a smoke, or to chat with one another. As I walked through the room I overheard snatches of conversations about costumes, the coming Renaissance Faire, and the qualities of various dancers with exotic names. Jamila was surrounded by a group of women who patiently waited to be acknowledged. She made general announcements to the class about who was dancing where, at the Casbah or the Bagdad, advice about costumes, and rehearsal schedules. I just sat in the corner, taking it all in, nursing my sore legs. I thought the class was over and then Jamila moved to the center of the floor again and everyone snapped into place. Crammed together like fat tunas standing on end, we stood at attention waiting for Jamila to begin. This time the music was slower and had a distinctly different cadence. Jamila placed her hands on the front of her hip bones with her arms gracefully framing her torso and glided effortlessly to the side. She stood in front of each and every one of us again and went through the delicate head movements called sindari; out, out, side, side, circle, crescent, crescent. As she moved in front of me and began the sequence again, I giggled and couldn’t move at all.
She glared at me, clicked her tongue and immediately moved to my left, cutting me off. I could feel my cheeks flame bright red. I was humiliated. I felt horrible. I had missed my chance. I wanted to just fade away into the studio walls.
From the moment Jamila entered the studio, I knew that I was in the presence of someone special. Great teachers are rare. If we are lucky, we will recognize that special person who has the ability to impart special knowledge and change the very course of our life. I have never seen anyone move like her. Every movement from every part of her was calculated, fluid, rich and full of depth, complete and utterly controlled. When she danced, every part of her danced, right down to her fingertips. Her eyes, her face, her head, arms, torso, hips and feet were all involved in moving to the music. The power that emanated from her was incredible- such control, command and presence. She took us through the slow, difficult movements of taqsim with agonizing precision. I realized that although she broke the movements into segments; head, shoulders and arms, ribs, hips, there was so much more than these technical movements going on. It would take years for me to fully integrate this into my body. I knew right then I would spend my entire life trying to achieve that look.
For the next 45 minutes we did standing taqsim, simple veil work, and finally, floor work. By the time we got down to the floor I was ready to lay there in exhaustion. There was so much information in this class. I was excited and at the same time utterly confused. Jamila didn’t verbalize much; she showed us what to do. She didn’t do floor work, but had someone demonstrate while she explained it, and she didn’t break things down. We did not take notes; a syllabus was not handed out. We learned movement as it was integrated into our body and knew steps when we moved from one to the other without hesitation and without thought. She repeated the same movements over and over until they became our own and even then there was still more to perfect. There was a volume of unspoken expectations from the first lesson. We were expected to interpret the music, to feel the music. I realized I would have to do my own footwork in order to find recordings. Jamila was not overly generous with materials, but there was a lot of live music available to us at that time at any of the clubs, and information was exchanged between dancers.
Jamila did not coddle or cajole. She was authoritative, opinionated and utterly compelling. Dancers who stayed with her and paid attention earned her respect and became the best of the crop. She set the fire and if you got close enough for her to really see you, she fanned the flames. From the beginning I knew that being a “Jamila dancer”was special.
The steps and movements Jamila taught became my internalized vocabulary and then became my own dancing language. Jamila’s presence taught me dignity and professionalism. From the few dictates she did hand down, I learned the behavior that guided me throughout my career; to cover myself when I was not on stage, never to allow anyone to touch me in an inappropriate way, never to display myself or my dance in a way that solicited a negative response, not to use my dance for my own self-aggrandizement. A dancer is a performer, an actress. Make-up is our mask and our costume is part of the disguise. Being on stage implies tremendous responsibility to your audience and your band. Dance comes through us as part of an ancient and unnamable process. I never felt loaded down with dogma, though. Like all good teachers, Jamila taught her most important lessons by example. As I gained control of my physical body in dance, my sense of personal control grew. My life seemed to take shape and I found surprising reservoirs of power and strength. I found my “voice” in dance. This is the gift Jamila gave me.
After that first class, I was hooked. I went every Saturday and for two hours immersed myself in this amazing dance. I thought about nothing else when I danced. There was no room for anything else. It was addicting. I was young and poor at that time, but I managed to scrape together the three dollars it cost for a weekly lesson, even though that three dollars was dear. I was a sponge, absorbing everything I could. Soon I was able to keep up and to go from one step to another without looking like a complete idiot. I found music for practice, but never found the magical music that Jamila used in class. That was the music that played directly into my soul. I finally obtained a scratchy copy from another Jamila dancer many years after I had stopped looking. I embarked on an arduous schedule of study. I read everything I could find on this dance form, listened to every kind of music even remotely related to the Middle East, and quickly moved into the related fields of folk music and folk dance, the roots. I scoured magazines and libraries looking for information, photos and scratchy old phonograph records. I began a lifelong quest to learn as much as I could about this dance, the culture that birthed it, and the music that drove it. I went to the Casbah and the Bagdad to see my fellow students dance on Student nights. I never laughed again when Jamila came by to demonstrate head movements and I watched her intently for the entire class. In fact, that single-minded attention served me well in every class and seminar I took throughout my career. Watch the instructor and try to get in the front of the room.
Occasionally Jamila would bring in an advanced student to demonstrate movements. I was mesmerized by the quiet exotic grace of the majestic Galya. She was the first dancer I saw who wore a cabaret costume with a tribal twist, a style characteristic of the early 1970’s, and one that Jamila’s dancers helped popularize. Her headpiece had small coins dangling at the sides and a series of chains attached to coins that formed a small hat-like ornament reminiscent of old photos of Theda Bara from the 1920’s. She was covered in antique jewelry from an arms length of silver bangles to a full collar piece set with lapis. Draping her upper torso was a piece of off-white assuit that followed the contours of her body and swung seductively when she moved. Assuit was the signature of Jamila and her dancers. The hexagonal net scarves with silver alloy wire woven into geometrical patterns gave the fabric a heavy lame-like drape and an enchanting gleam. It was eagerly sought and coveted by Jamila’s students.
Nakish was a tall, busty black woman who was Jamila’s sword dancer at the Renaissance Faire the year I started class. She had skin like rich chocolate, and wore her hair slicked back and swept up into a tall ponytail or cone on top of her head a la “I Dream of Jeanie.” Her eyes were shadowed in bright turquoise and outlined in black with white and red dots beneath the black liner. Incredibly exotic, she was an exuberant dancer. Her strong graceful hands with blood red, inch-long nails moved delicately at the end of her bangled arms. She looked like a Nubian princess, and seemed to move everywhere at once. After a whirl of frenetic activity, she would suddenly stop and fix the audience with a piercing stare and an open, engaging smile. Her head slid to the side and she arched one eyebrow in punctuation, repeating the same action to the other side. It was like being hypnotized by a snake. Once she fixed you with her eyes, you were paralyzed. Her buoyant and joyful style was different from the rest of Jamila’s dancers. Nakish filled the stage with energy. This was the first time I had seen a dancer with a style other than Jamila’s that appealed to me.
Aida was Jamila’s protégé and was already dancing professionally when I started class. I regarded her with a mixture of awe, envy and respect. She frequently demonstrated technique for Jamila, especially floorwork. Aida was tall and dark, with masses of wavy auburn hair held back in a variety of headpieces and clips. Her stomach movements were truly amazing and she spent a lot of time before the mirror practicing; her face fixed in her trademark, pouty, sultry stare.
Her stomach undulated in cascading waves, rippling like wind on water and then vibrated in rapid flutters that made all the coins and bells on her massive stomach drape jingle. It was something to see! Her Turkish drop was breathtaking. Starting with a rapid spin, she stopped suddenly and dropped to the floor with her back arched and her arms over her head. Done in one fluid movement, it is one of the most dramatic moves in belly dancing.
With the demise in popularity of floorwork, it is seldom performed now. Even at that time it was an awe-inspiring move that few dancers could do well. We all practiced it with no whining or complaining about knees, backs or feet. I never mastered this movement, although I did very passable floor work and had my own take on getting to the floor with drama. I have heard it said that of all of Jamila’s dancers, Aida was the most like her. She wore her hair the same way, was the same body type and had a similar presence on stage. While some considered her “heavy,” I found her exciting to watch as she was totally absorbed in the music and so incredibly strong. Her taqsim and floor work were some of the most exciting and engaging I have ever seen. Her signature moves, such as a standing backbend sliding into an arched layout and a kneeling backbend over the edge of the stage, were done with athleticism and grace. Her finger cymbal playing was stellar, despite whispered controversy about upstaging the band. I never felt that she overshadowed her musicians, but rather, enhanced the music as an extension of the band. Aida was an exciting dancer.
While Jamila dancers had a certain “look”, they by no means all looked the same, nor did they dance the same. There were blondes, redheads and brunettes. Some were small and delicate. Some were big and tall like Aida. Some dancers had none of the ethnic look I was drawn to and were strictly “chiffon and bead” belly dancers. The fact that taller, bigger women could move with such stealthy grace astounded me. The silent, statuesque dancers who most resembled Jamila were always the most compelling to me.
Jamila taught us how to dance with the assumption that our goal was to perform. We learned the protocol for club work at the same time that we learned the mechanics. However, dance and musicality were always paramount.
As far as the mechanics of the dance, Jamila was very specific. I learned to do my shimmies flat-footed, making no noise, then transferring up on the balls of my feet. I kept my knees bent and moved evenly, no bouncing or bobbing. When it came time for me to use a sword, I had no trouble at all balancing it, as the basic posture I learned in my first classes prepared me for the centered stillness required to balance without using a headpiece. Jamila admonished the class over and over again to keep our legs together and not spread apart. The basic techniques I learned from her are easy to spot on dancers to this day. Even my own students are recognized as “Jamila dancers,” or at least dancers who studied her technique. It has so much to do with centering. While I never got the impression that we were in class merely to socialize and have fun, there was an almost cult-like aura about taking lessons with Jamila. I was never one of the inner circle, never close to Jamila, but she knew everyone who studied with her, and once you had, you seemed to be hers forever.
author after leaving Jamila's classes and starting her own troupe
Jamila's vision of her troupe was definitely her own invention. It was fantasy, hokum, gypsy arts and circus, damn good theater and it made Oriental dancing more saleable to a broader audience whose idea of belly dancing was stereotypical: just a tiny bit more exotic than stripping and somehow involving the removal of clothes. The tribal format, Oriental dance infused with ethnic movement, was perfect for outdoors, for faires and museums, places where families gathered. It was great entertainment. Jamila dancers did essentially the same dance in a club that they did at the Faire, with folkloric pieces added to give the show variety and interest. As time went on, I supplemented my studies with some Eastern European folk dancing, a little dabkeh, a little North African and Central Asian, and started learning more about the various cultures of the many different countries that have all contributed movements to Oriental dance. I began to separate styles of dance and learned to recognize the music from different countries, Egyptian, Lebanese, Turkish and Greek, Persian, Moroccan and Tunisian. They are all a little different, all a little similar.
Jamila created an entirely new kind of show using ethnic styling and exotic costuming. She birthed the vision of today’s American Tribal Style, insisting always on a solid foundation of dance. She took Oriental dance out of the clubs and into the broader arenas of American life. Jamila inspired an entire generation of dancers who went on to research and explore the dances of the Near and Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.
She was instrumental in helping Oriental dance obtain an appeal and popularity outside of its own community and she touched the lives of hundreds of American women who might never have put on a costume and gotten up on stage. For me, as a young single mother coming out of the hippie era, belly dancing was a very daring, very revolutionary thing to do. Even if you weren’t in Jamila’s inner circle, belonging to that broader dance community that encompassed other early teachers and their students in those early years was heady stuff. It was very empowering.
Whether you agree with the validity of her style or her dance politics is not important. Jamila was enormously influential in the evolution and popularity of Middle Eastern dance today. She had a profound and lasting effect on hundreds of dancers and musicians, and that cannot be diminished or denied. I am grateful to the dozens of other dance pioneers in this country who brought Oriental dance into popularity and with whom I was privileged to study. Jamila was my first teacher, and deserves a place with those fascinating and powerful women and men who contributed so greatly to our understanding of the dances of the East. I will always be grateful to her for the way Oriental dance changed my life.