A BRIEF HISTORY OF BELLY DANCE IN SANTA BARBARA
The 1970’s was a time of Globalization. World dance and music became the hottest thing since the 1930’s clubs with giant floor shows! LA was a mecca of folk dance and belly dance clubs which lined the strip: The Fez, The Seventh Veil and Folk Dance was alive and kicking at the Intersection. Santa Barbara had its own folk dance and belly dance scene at a number of cafes and restaurants.
I saw my first belly dancer at The Plaka in 1975 and took off my toe shows, jumped into classes and never looked back! I was lucky to have been able to see and learn from two of the great artists of the time, including my first amazing teacher Diana Ferrari and Jenaeni Rathor, who was my second teacher and the one I stayed with the longest. She launched many a dancer including her famous daughter, Ansuya!
At the time, the shows were professional presentations, unlike the present day shows you see in cafes, restaurants and hookah lounges. There was an MC and lighting and great sound! Dancers didn't just suddenly appear on the floor, unexpected and disruptive. Audiences were excited to see the dancer and anticipated the show because they were primed by the MC. We dancers were in demand as there were more clubs than dancers so shows were not just well produced, there were many of them! Here are a few of the restaurants and cafes that were open concurrently. You could see a different belly dancer any night of the week while enjoying Afghan, Greek or Indian food, to name a few.
Baudelaire’s was a lower State St. club that featured everything from punk rock to Middle Eastern to folk music. I remember seeing Diana there, seated on the edge of the stage playing zills with the musicians. Sometime in the set she got up, took her caftan off and launched into set of her own. It was mesmerizing! In those days dancers played zills – it was absolutely necessary to get a job!
The Bluebird Café
The Bluebird Cafe was a music café and one of Santa Barbara’s best music scenes. Some of the greatest 1970’s music happened at The Bluebird Café including bands like Cache Valley Drifters, Little Emo, The Silver Dollar Swing Band, Flash In The Pan, Largesse, Wild River, JJ and the Vibrations, Spliff, Fat Tuesday, and the Lonesome Tumbleweeds. But in that mix were Middle Eastern bands and belly dance. I would finish my show at The Plaka and head over to The Bluebird to catch the show there.
Situated in what was then Piccadilly Square in the 1980's and is now Paseo Nuevo, Khyber Pass featured Afghani food, a boutique and belly dance. One of my then students, Sarah – danced there. She was something of a Goddess with long blond hair and slanted green eyes. Her day job was as a medical assistant and she eventually gave up belly dance and married her doctor. But, what a treat to see a fellow artist after your own show! Khyber Pass went the way of so many restaurants in Santa Barbara, because of real estate prices.
The Tea House
This was a sweet little hole-in-the-wall in what is now the Santa Barbara Legal Aid foundation at 301 E. Canon Perdido St. A couple named Dona and Harvey Haber opened it after traveling through India. There was floor seating and Harvey greeted people in his long white kurta. The food was vegetarian and very delicious! They eventually sold it to a guy named Bill White who very smartly brought in entertainment in the form of Middle Eastern music and belly dance!
The Plaka, was a very popular Greek restaurant that was founded in 1971-ish by an LA actor, George Alexiades. The club started as just a hang-out joint in a small converted grocery store. People came and bought a sandwich and soda and folk danced. It grew so big so fast George rented the store next door, tore down the wall and made it a full-fledged restaurant with an out-of-sight floor show! The table dance, folk dance and a belly dance – of course, all MC’d by the inimitable George. He made his way around the perimeter of the stage talking to people, cracking jokes and priming people for the dancer. By the time we dancers got on stage people were on the edge of their seats waiting for us! It was the place to be seen as a belly dancer and any dancer who was there was a star in her own right!
Sadly, there are few to no professional venues anymore, with an MC, proper stages and lighting. Most belly dance shows are in wretched environments with no introduction and the poor dancer just appears without so much as an announcement! But those were the days. Perhaps there will be a come-back of a real venue for belly dance in Santa Barbara – In Shah Allah!