Friday, March 14, 2014

Interview with Zaphara - Part Two

This is part two of my interview with legendary dancer, Zaphara. After chatting with Zaphara, she had so many wild stories, that two posts were necessary to fit them all in! You can read part one here.

Alessandra: How has your Greek heritage influenced your belly dancing?
Zaphara: Overall, I have a passion for the music and the dancing. I love Greek music because I can understand the words, but I also love Arabic music.  Even though I can’t understand the words, it still gives me a sense of what it’s about and evokes a feeling.  Also, being Greek has put me in a position of representing the Greek community, and in particular, Greek women.  But then overall, that’s generally a problem for all dancers, is that they are representing not only themselves, but dancers and women in general.  The general expectation is that dancers are second class citizens, so you have to prove yourself; whether Greek, Arabic, Turkish, or American you have to take into consideration how you are dancing.

Alessandra: Between your length of time of time as a professional dancer, and your fiery temperament, I know you’ve got to have some great gig stories. Have any that you care to share?
Zaphara: Oh, I’ve got so many gig stories.  One happened at the Lebanon Restaurant in Seattle, in the l980’s.  It was THE hot spot and always packed.  Lots of Arabs would come and it was a place for them to bring a guest to show off their culture.  This night, Omar Batiste was playing tambourine, Imad Fata on oud (Lebanon), and Shiham Sbeit on tabla (Palestine). And we had a big table filled with the soccer team from the University of Washington.  One of the players was an Arabic guy and wanted to bring his teammates in to see what his culture was about.  At the time, when the dancer would go out for tips, it was common for patrons to help her up onto a chair and then onto their table to dance.  And from there, they would tip her on her belt.  As I was up on the table, one of the American men on the soccer team, put his hand under my skirt and was about to go up my leg.  I took a handful of his blonde hair and yanked as hard as I could. I could definitely tell it hurt. And his buddies roared because I had shown that son of a bitch!  Wrong place, wrong move, Dude!

Another time when I also ended up inflicting pain on a customer was at George’s Bar and Grill.  I was dancing there three or four nights a week, and we were having a really big busy night.  Taki’s band was playing, and there was a table with two guys sitting near the stage area.  As I was dancing, one of the guys, stuck out his tongue and licked his lips suggestively at me.   When I saw that, I just lost my temper inside and turned away from them.  But when I turned back around, he did it again! So I slowly danced over to him and put my hand under his chin and suddenly, I slapped his jaw up.  At that exact time, he happened to have his tongue out of his mouth and I ended up drawing blood!  His buddy just roared.  Taki kept playing but was looking at me with eyes big as saucers because I just assaulted a customer.  But after that the guy stopped this behavior,  and watched the show.  I was so upset that I ran back to the kitchen and told my boss to get this guy out.  He needs to be in a strip club, not a Greek club.  After the show, the man walked over and he apologized to me. Fortunately, rather than suing me or the club.

On another night, also at the Lebanon, we had a large party of Saudi royalty in.  You could tell they were well to do with Rolex watches and nice suits.  Their wives were there too, with the black traditional dresses and head coverings, sitting quietly while the men were clapping and talking.  I noticed one elderly lady in the group who appeared to be the matron of the group, smiling at me.  When I went out for tips, I was going to stay away from them, but ended up going over to the old lady, and as she was reaching to tip me, I said thank you in Arabic, sokran, and suddenly her face stopped smiling and looked mortified.  I thought oh no, I’ve said something really bad.   I finished , went back to the kitchen, asked the  kitchen crew what I said,” sokran.”  They started to laugh and said that I’d actually called her a drunk.  I’d said sokran, rather than shokran, which means “thank you.”  Well, I got dressed went back out and apologized profusely, and finally she took my hand and smiled.

And I have another story involving Saudi royalty.  For a time, Seattle had various Saudi princes who were here going to college here.  They were obviously well to do and for Seafair one year, a prince with a beautiful house on Mercer Island had hired myself and the M.B. Orchestra to perform at his party.  The house was enormous with a big pool outside of the kitchen, blue velvet walls in the living room, two 80-foot “cigarette boats” sitting on his dock, and women all over the place with four hanging all over the prince.  Bahaa set up his keyboard near the edge of the pool, as they had specifically requested a candelabra dance.  The prince also had two or three body guards, and one was half drunk, completely excited, and playing a tambourine.  The drunk body guard kept coming near me and I put my hand out for him to keep his distance because I had 13 lite candles on my head and I can’t balance it if I get rattled. Well, he kept trying to dance with me and I lost my temper. I looked at him, smiled, and said can you swim? He said yes, and I pushed him into the water, tambourine and all!  I just can’t understand why we were not hired back (smile).

Alessandra: What advice would you give to new dancers?
Zaphara: Practice, practice, practice. Sometimes it takes 10 years to be really good at this.  I took 10 years of lessons, and my teacher was constantly there criticizing and critiquing me, so with every performance I would learn.  The other very important thing is learning to freestyle.  My teacher threw me into the fire pit and I was fortunate to start with live music, dancing with the MB Orchestra and Taki Dotis.   I tell my students to dance to live music when you can find it. I remember doing a show with Spiros and we had a young drummer with us who didn’t know the beats.  So when we got to the end of the show and drum solo time, Spiros started giving me a solo with the bouzouki instead.  Two of the strings flew out and broke and he kept going. I just went with it.  We were hot.  It was something you could never repeat, so much energy I can hardly remember it.  The audience went nuts and the drummer seemed stunned but did a great job following us.   Those show experiences are a “natural high”, better than drugs or sex!!!  And you never know when this will happen!
Alessandra: And what advice would you give to dancers who are newly professional or looking to turn professional?
Zaphara: Sharpen your claws! Get out there and dance where ever you can to get your name out there.  Go to different places. It’s really hard to be a professional dancer right now, because there are limited  nightclub venues to hone your skills. But network with other dancers and try to get a name for yourself.  Advertise. Keep working it and try to get gigs. And always conduct yourself in a professional manner at all times.

With that said, may I introduce you to my alter-ego, Miss Jess E. Belle:

Zaphara’s Picture Explanation: Back in the day all the dancers were divas and I thought it would be fun to do a parody of this, so Omar and I put together Miss Jess E. Belle, who had made any early appearance  for Omar’s birthday party 20 years ago at Mamounia Restaurant. Miss Jess E. Belle is the hilarious epitome of inappropriate behavior & bad attitude for a dancer. She has been around a long time. She is terminally nine month's pregnant.  The sign on her back says "I should have danced all night".   She is slightly disheveled, hair, rollers, whatever. Her belly dance outfit? It’s not perfect, (ok, it's a mess).  She is grouchy, short tempered and being "ladylike" is not one of her strong points. She has been known to frequent the "tenderloin" district and her beverage of choice is any brand of fortified wine! She just loves to nibble on musician's necks and "paw" them while they are entertaining audiences. She always shows up uninvited.

 Pictured behind Omar and Miss Jess E. Belle, are members of Baladi Center Dancers, the first bellydance troupe in the N.W. that began in the early 70’s.  From left to right: Cindy Muir, Lorie Muir-Graff, Lorie Jones, Bill Jones, Mary Mohler (Karija - director of the Baladi Centre Dancers). 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Interview with Zaphara - Part One

The Introduction
A master instructor and entertainer in the Pacific Northwest, Zaphara is one of the few belly dancers in the U.S.  of Greek heritage.  She has appeared in nightclubs and taught workshops throughout the Northwest and other U.S. cities.  During that time, she has appeared on local, Canadian, Japanese, and National TV shows, including ABC’S 20/20.  Zaphara has co-produced, hosted, and performed in four one-hour TV  shows on public access; Bellydance 101, My Big Fat Greek TV Show, The Cairo Connection (featuring Cairo’s famous costume designer, Hallah Mustapha), and It’s Greek to Me!  She previously wrote a monthly belly dance “gossip column” for eight years for Jareeda , a national belly dance publication.  Zaphara has traveled to Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Columbia, and The United Arab Emeritus to study, perform, and teach Middle Eastern Dance.  In Seattle, she teaches belly dance classes at the Phinney Center and performs at Yannis Greek restaurant and at Harissa Mediterranean Cuisine. You can learn more about Zaphara and her events on her website.

The Interview
Alessandra: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get started in belly dance?
Zaphara: It was in the late 1970s and I was working in a chocolate factory.  My coworkers and I were encouraged to eat the chocolate for quality control, but the problem was that I was gaining weight and starting to get jiggly.  I had tried yoga, snow skiing, etc., but nothing was working.  So I started taking a belly dance class at the King County Parks Department.  I loved the moves, but I just couldn’t figure out how to do an undulation.  It seemed the harder I tried, the worse I got, and I could see my teacher, Shamiran Pick, from Iran, looking at me like “she’s hopeless.”  During this time, Shamiran held her annual dinner show at the Edgewater Inn featuring her students and herself.  It was my first time watching belly dance, and I went crazy.  I loved it.  After the show, I sat by myself, ordered a vodka and orange juice, and muddled over the experience.  When along came a handsome guy who says hi, sat down, and handed me his room key.  I responded by saying I’m married.  Which in turn, he responded by saying that’s okay, I’ll put the key at the front desk for you.  Well, the key sat at the front desk and I went home and told my husband.  My husband started laughing and told me I was naive, and that the man had thought I was a call girl.  After that sank in, I had another drink (and I never drank at the time) and turned on some George Abdo music, and started to dance in my living room.  Between the alcohol, happiness from seeing the show, and the shock of being solicited, the undulation came effortlessly.  And that was the beginning of it. 

Within 6 to 8 weeks later, I had my first performance, and in fact, I had two that day.  In the morning, I danced at the Bellevue Arts Fair, and in the evening, at the venue that is now currently Dimitrou’s Jazz Alley.  At my evening performance I was so nervous, I had to take a tranquilizer before the performance.  I am blind as a bat and at the time didn’t have contacts.  My teacher had instructed me to walk to the bottom of the stairs and then remove my glasses before stepping onto the stage.  Well, I ended up distracted by a waiter speaking in Greek to me and forgot.  So when I’m onstage, I can see my teacher standing with her arms crossed on her chest and a look of dismay on her face!  And I think, oh no, a boob has fallen out!  But fortunately that was not it.  It was because my glasses were still on.  So I stopped, took them off, and handed them to her.  And I got a huge round of applause for the comedic effect and that hooked me right then and there.

Alessandra: What teachers and dancers have had the biggest influence on your career?
Zaphara: The biggest influence has been Shamiran Pick, from Iran, who was my first teacher. Here in the States, I would say Badawia.  She was a fiery dancer with great technique.  Between her intensity and her beauty, you couldn’t take your eyes off her.  I’ve also gone to Egypt twice and I was able to study with Mahmoud Reda and Nagwa Fouad.  On my first trip to Egypt, the National TV show  20/20 followed us around for a week, filming everything we did, and it was like being in a movie.  I  saw Fifi Abdo’s and Nagwa Fouad’s  full show which was a great learning experience,. We had the opportunity to learn the basics with them.  We also went to the pyramids and did a show with live music for a group of dignitaries. During the trip, I was in a competition at the Sheraton Hotel using Nagwa’s band which had 18 musicians.  The drummer asked me what I wanted before I went on and I said whatever you like, not telling him that I didn’t know the names of any of the songs I’ve been dancing to.   But the band was so good, that it was just plain easy to dance to, it was as if I had been dancing with them for years.  I came in third place, as voted by 12 judges that included Nagwa Fouad, Sohair Zaki, Fifi Abdo, Mahmoud Reda, Egypt’s Minister of Culture, and other celebs.  

The other very important influences in my career are the musicians that I’ve worked with throughout the years. Takis Dotis (Grecian Sounds Band), David Saee (Persian, keyboard), Mohamad Meri (Lebanon, oud), Imad Fata (Lebanon, oud), and various drummers including Omar Batiste and The M. B. Orchestra, are some who have had the most impact as I have danced with them for years.  I also need to include The Red Elvises.  They are a world rock touring group, and for the last 12 years, some members of my troupe and I perform with them yearly when they are in the northwest. 

Alessandra: You’ve been in the business for some time now.  What are the biggest changes you’ve seen with belly dance as an art form and as a profession?
Zaphara:  The dance itself is evolving.  Different steps have been added, mixing in modern dance steps that never had anything to do with belly dance.  Of course, there’s the big influence of the American tribal style.  Personally, I don’t care for these types of fusions.  When I watch it, I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be belly dance or modern dance or a parody.  Sometimes dancers take tribal, then Spanish, then something else, and then they put it all together.  Sometimes the result looks like a hodge podge of style and steps. My opinion of what is “right” and “correct” is to dance it authentically.  When I perform, I want it to be an authentic representation, so I don’t blend other types of dancing to my belly dancing.

Frequently, when watching dancers perform, I think where are the finger cymbals? And some of the shimmies?  I hear lots of comments at festivals and shows about this subject.  Why are they missing?  Because it is a lot of work to learn.  You are learning to play an instrument!   As far as shimmies, there seems to be more locks and accents than shimmies.  Why?  Because it’s a lot of work!  Many instructors are not teaching finger cymbals or the authentic shimmies, and things evolve. I feel that it is part of the “belly dance” experience that audiences love; the whole package, along with your interpretation of the music, your personality, stage presence, costume, and entertainment value.

Another change is that the costume has also evolved to a tighter, more “Las Vegas” style look, almost like a two piece evening dress.  Not to say it’s bad, and the new look is gorgeous.   Again, personally, I prefer the traditional look of a bra, belt, and flowing skirt, as I feel it elicits a better response from the audience, especially when dancing for the Arab community.  Overall, a dancer and her costume should be sensual, not sexual.  The show a dancer is putting on should be for both men and women, and shouldn’t be in your face.

Lastly, a big change is that there’s really no nightclubs anymore.  Dancers have had to find other venues, such as restaurants, which in turn creates more problems with dancers dancing for free, or undercutting.   Not that I would say this is a something new, but it’s evolved more because there is no place to dance.  The clubs would  have one featured dancer who would perform for months or even years . In Seattle, it was predominately Delilah and myself.  

Alessandra: The topic of pay has been a hot button issue in the belly dance community lately, and certain Seattle belly dancers have recently started a guild to promote fair pay.  What do you think dancers can do to advocate for themselves and increase their compensation?
Zaphara:  It’s the same old, same old problem.  It’s hard because you’re dealing with a group of women and a creative art form that has a lot of competition.  The guild is a good idea, but I have to say that I don’t think it will work because there will always be someone who won’t follow suite.  There should be a standard, but that’s never been able to be held up.  Plus, you add in the fact that the owners of the restaurants are cheap! They’re going to try to get whatever they can for the least amount of money.  Profit is their motive.  Not too many dancers will confront an owner. I remember asking for a raise for all the dancers at a Greek restaurant (not in business any more).   The owner went ballistic, saying he would put in Spanish dancing instead. He was so upset about my asking that  he stopped the dancing  a few months later.  Of course, business really suffered, and then months later he called and wanted to restart the dancing with a $20 pay cut, but no go!  He finally started again at the same rate.  However, it was too late and he is now out of business. 
For the model to really work, the reputation of the restaurant’s food, the atmosphere, and the dancer all have to come together and be of high quality to make the business run.  I’ve been in clubs where there is a perfect mix; the owner feeds off the dancer and musicians, and vice versa.  In my career, I’ve done okay because I’ve had something to offer, and I think that’s the key.  The dancer has to help bring in business . You can’t just ask for $X amount of money.  You have to bring something to the table as well.  Rebecca, (the Fabulous), a former student of mine who books dancers at local restaurants, and I have been pretty good at holding the line with some of the current restaurant owners, but we’ve had to pull teeth to get raises!

That concludes part one of our interview. Check back next week for part two, including some wild stories on performing and her advice to other dancers!