Marta Schill on 1970s Los Angeles Bellydance

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Years ago in one of my favorite bookstores (Book Barn in Niantic, CT), I picked up a copy of the Compleat Bellydancer by Julie Russo Mishkin and Marta Schill.  I loved it for its beautiful pictures and as a snapshot into American bellydance history.  It harkened the time before instructional DVDs and Youtube, even before VHS or CDs!  Published in 1973 when it was even difficult to access Arabic music by record, let alone a dance teacher, it gives 145 pages of bellydance instruction, warmup, performance guidance and costume advice.  I remember listening to instructional records as a child, and reading books like this which have been invaluable for those who don’t have access to teachers.  Lucky for us, we now have access to so much information and instruction in book and video form.  For those of us interested in the history of dances and how they’re shaped and transformed, these books by early pioneers like Marta Schill provide a window into our rich history.

Lucky for me, I now live in Los Angeles, the birthplace of MECDA, Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association.  So seeing the name Marta Schill on the advertisement for a Los Angeles Bellydance Academy event rang familiar.

Marta was one of the founding members of MECDA (originally Middle Eastern Cabaret Dancers Association).  She has graciously and generously edited the following discussion that she gave at the Los Angeles Bellydance Academy’s event last year.  Enjoy as she recounts her own bellydance history, what it was like for professional bellydancers in Los Angeles Cabarets, dancing to live music, Cairo Carnaval and forming an organization to protect professional dancers in Los Angeles.  Thanks Marta!


Alia and Marta Schill

When I began Bellydancing, one of my first teachers was living in a little house behind the Fez cabaret in Los Angeles, where she performed. She had told me that whenever I was in town to just come by and she’d teach me. I was thrilled, because there were few instructors with regular classes.

Like most cabarets, the Fez looked really dingy during the day. The staff would be cleaning, and we’d go upstairs to ‘Sinbad’s Cave,’ put up a mirror and start practicing. There was no music playing … but we had our cymbals. At that time, literally every dancer played cymbals; if you didn’t it was hard to find work. Literally all clubs had live music, and the musicians liked the added excitement of zills (properly played). It was like paradise. At that time, there really wasn’t much recorded music to buy. There were very few Mid-Eastern albums, and only a couple of them featured a bellydance “routine”.

My first husband Suleiman was a Flamenco guitarist. He and I became interested in Middle Eastern music together. He had lived in Turkey and was given a Saz, which is a village instrument. We sent to the United Nations to buy these scratchy albums of folk music – then we tried to listen and figure out what the techniques and rhythms were. That’s how we learned. I was playing drum and finger cymbals. The zills were real, but since we espoused the self-imposed poverty of Hippies, my first drum was a Quaker Oatmeal box! Just take the top off, eat the oatmeal, and for practice there was nothing wrong with it…
My first professional performances were near Occidental College in L.A. at a Mexican restaurant – The Red Mill. Its owner was a folk dancer, and he wanted a Middle Eastern musician and drummer on the weekends to play dabke, cirto` – all those kinds of dances. Suleiman (by now my ex-husband) and his friend Narendra (Nicky) Rathor were playing. Nicky later became Superstar Ansuya’s dad, but that’s another story. A few months after Sol hired me, he decided to leave and travel to Turkey. Although I didn’t know it at the time, his choice created a situation that would transform my dancing and career.
Saadoun Al-Bayati was an Iraqi drummer…and a very fine singer. He wanted to master the Oud, but was still immersed in refining his technique. So, he accepted the job at the Red Mill, playing oud instead of drum. I learned more from that man in a year than I ever could have dreamed, because he knew everything about rhythms and the Maqam (Arabic scales). It was fantastic!
Successful dancers in the 70’s became, by necessity, very adept at improvisation. When you were hired at a new club, there were no rehearsals. Your ‘rehearsal’ was on the stage, in front of the audience! You’d be up there on a wing and a prayer; quite often even if you knew the song, these particular musicians would play a very different interpretation. One way to learn their repertoire would be to sit on stage between performances and play zills with the band. During the weekdays there were often only two musicians…they welcomed you sitting on the stage and playing cymbals because it filled out the sound. At the Red Mill, I’d be up there with Saadoun, playing a new song (at least new to me), and I’d miss the break or a rhythm change. He’d glance at me as if he was smelling something disagreeable, and believe me, I remembered after that! For me to say that I owe so much of what I know about music and dance to Saadoun Al-Bayati is certainly not a unique event: Many, many dancers really cut their teeth at the clubs dancing to live music. The musical environment was one big difference between then and now. Currently, even the largest cabarets often have DJ’s, largely because there’s so much music out there on CD. Even the clubs I know that have a band give them a break when the dancer performs, leaving her with canned music. It’s sad, because the energy and interaction that can happen when you dance with a band is an experience not to be compared to anything onstage. And, a show with musicians doesn’t mean you can’t choreograph; certainly if you know the song well and they play correctly, it works – but you find yourself moving away from a static show into improvisation. Dancers wear different costumes constantly, and by the same token don’t want to do the same routine every night. Variety is essential to creativity.

On MECDA and Cairo Carnival

By the end of the 70’s, there were thirty-four clubs in Southern California and of course they all needed dancers. Los Angeles wasn’t alone: In San Francisco, there was a huge infatuation with Middle Eastern music and dance. Jamila Salimpour was there, as well as the incomparable Bert Balladine. They were excellent instructors with tons of students – and because of supply and demand, the pay in nightclubs began to drop for dancers. Ultimately, the Greek Taverna in San Francisco had the dancers working only for tips, with the owner paying them no money. Some moved to Los Angeles, causing concern for the L.A. performers who had careers only in dance (no ‘day’ job). I don’t know how it could have been any worse, except that you would have to stay and clean the floor for the honor of dancing! As a result, working dancers, professionals, met and tried to decide on fair criteria for performing in cabarets. I’m not talking about little restaurants, but in cabarets. We also discussed working conditions, because there were clubs that had a curtain instead of a door on the dressing room, no mirrors, nowhere to secure your property, etc. We worked very hard to change things like that, as well as creating a fair minimum wage. Of course if you were a popular dancer, a draw for the house, certainly you could charge more. But dancers were not going to go below the minimum. As a result, the Middle Eastern Cabaret Dancers Association (MECDA) came into being. It was a guild for professional dancers, trying to keep what happened in San Francisco from happening in L.A. It started out with twelve of us, kind of like the apostles (grin). There were a lot of dancers that didn’t want to join. They didn’t want the owners to be upset: They were, as I said, people who did not have other jobs at all, they were professionals. Dancing was their career, and they were very unwilling to make enemies of these owners by trying to make them ”toe the line.” And speaking of lines, we started having picket lines at certain places that would not comply… and some of them did! Other clubs would not agree to any contract; however, they acceded to the pressure by putting up dressing room doors with locks and installing mirrors. MECDA was having an impact. MECDA was working. But, there were other clubs that were not going to cooperate in any way. We picketed – and got coverage on TV, in newspapers, even magazines. And of course, it did give great publicity to the clubs that we didn’t like. We hadn’t thought of that part! It was an interesting and exciting time, and very quickly more and more dancers became members and supported MECDA’s values. Wages did not go down as they had in San Francisco. Later, what began as a professional dancers’ guild became an informational service organization for everyone interested in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dance, and by the time I left in 2007, there were over a thousand members in eighteen chapters all over the country. We had a magazine, newsletter, and a Teacher/Vendor/Entertainers directory. MECDA was a very successful vehicle for uniting the ME dance community, and keeping members apprised of everything that was going on. At that time, Central MECDA put on one dance event – the Cairo Carnivale. The reason for the Carnivale? MECDA’s annual dues of $35 could not cover the expenses incurred of $75 per member for the services and publications provided. That’s what the Carnivale accomplished – making up that difference without having to raise fees.
Currently, with the advent of communication on the internet, this type of organization is not as necessary. It is, however, vitally important that we stay connected, and for all of us to support each other. We are a part of a truly great community.
Now I would like to take questions…
Q: Does Bellydancing change from day to day?
A: The Cabaret style of Middle Eastern movement is truly a living art, and literally is in a constant state of transition. This is in contrast to Folkloric dances that are essentially frozen in time: Their specialized moves will become more finessed, more athletic, and more energetic; however, Folkloric dances are what they are. Cabaret dance absolutely changes all the time, that’s one of the greatest things about it! There is constant evolution, for example, in costuming. If you’re someone new to bellydance; you’ve never seen it and you’re not a part of the community, any attractive outfit may look great. Example: A dancer appears with all this long fringe. Its’ a beautiful costume, right? And yet someone who’s into ME fashion might be critical. “No one uses long fringe anymore!” may be their first thought. This devotion to the look in current vogue is true of Flamenco aficionados as well – It’s true of any living art form that continues to change – but not always to advance … sometimes the pendulum swings back, and a retro look is really ‘in.’ It’s as if Led Zeppelin sang “Home on the Range” at a rock concert. If you’re from Iceland, it could sound pretty good; but if you’re a fan and know what they can really do, you’ll be disappointed. Another example: The whole infatuation with Fusion and Tribal, and beyond that, with Goth, Steampunk, ad infinitum – working with music that’s not Middle Eastern; music that sounds like a train wreck, you know? But its creative, and I really do think that there’s a place for any kind of inventiveness…as long as it’s not destructive towards other people or ways of thinking. That never belongs in art anyway. To respond: You’re absolutely right! Bellydance changes every day, especially if the bellydancer wants it to.

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