Letter from the Editor:
In this month’s issue I have the pleasure of getting a bit of perspective and history of “Nubian Dance” from the lovely Alia of Melbourne, Australia. She had the great fortune to study with many peoples of Egypt including the Nubians while belly dancing there in 1996 and ’97. Alia, a native of New Zealand, was also the only foreign dancer requested at the time to dance for then President Hosni Mubarak. (Our cover girls this month are Alia reclining with the Isis wings on the lower left and Johanna circa 1964 in the upper right).
My mother always said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” In fact, I’d just about say it was her motto. That could not have been more true than when Johanna found that she had encountered through sheer co-incidence all the main players in the “Kennedy Saga” – one person in particular proved to be somewhat of a mystery and his identity will be revealed here in this issue. (The article also features several photos from “Ghost Town” at “Knott’s Berry Farm.” While preparing the article I did not realize this Summer is the “75 Anniversary” of “Knott’s Berry Farm” and all season special events are being celebrated at “Ghost Town.” Congratulations are in order).
A tidbit about “Tahitian Dance” and a memory of Danny Thomas are in this month’s issue. (Planning August’s issue will prove to be a challenge-with raising money for flood victims in WV to the controversial Democratic Convention in Philadelphia- it may be the most daunting yet! Stay tuned). Hope everyone has a happy and safe Fourth of July!
Exciting news from Aziza coming soon-be sure to subscribe to “Egyptian Chick” to get the latest info.
Johanna on the cross country trip she took with her husband Bill in 1966
Onassis Lost Love: The Belly Dancer Who Might Have Changed the World
By Aziza Al-Tawil
I would tell you that this is another crazy “She slept with the Kennedys story” but that would not be the case. At the risk of disappointing you I will say it’s a story of unusual connections and happenstances that occurred over a decade or more in the life of my mother Johanna and her husband Bill.
My mother Johanna was a beautiful girl from Charleston, WV when she went into show business with her husband Bill, a “malaria survivor” right after World War II. From the mid 1940’s through the late 50’s they starred in ballet companies, studied Flamenco with film legend Rita Hayworth’s uncle “Paco” Cansino, and toured as a nightclub act doing “adagio.”
After moving to NYC, every few years when they could fit it in, Bill and Johanna would go home to visit relatives in Charleston. One such occasion happened to be when John F. Kennedy, Jackie, and his brother Robert were in the middle of their famous campaign stops in West Virginia. Lifelong Democrats, Bill and Johanna not only met John and Jackie in a receiving line but found themselves joined by Robert F. Kennedy in the choir loft of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Charleston. Johanna thought they seemed to be nice people, especially Robert, and both she and Bill voted for John that Fall.
By the late 1950’s/early 60’s the popularity of “Dance Teams/Duos” was on the decline. Flamenco, a part of the long running “Latin” craze in music and dance was also a bit in decline by the 1960’s. Johanna was thirty two years old and ready to retire when Flamenco teacher Lola Bravo begged her not to quit “dance.” At the same time, belly dancer “Morocco” strong armed Johanna into trying belly dance after Johanna’s first reaction to it in an agent’s office had been less than “positive.” The cigar chomping agent had, while trying to describe belly dance to Johanna, actually placed his hands on her belly. My mother was horrified and burst into tears and ran out of his office. The fact that “Morocco,” a fellow “Alexandros” rehearsal studio regular, talked her into it finally was a miracle.
“Greektown” in NYC was a district around 8th Ave. and 29th St. dense with nightclubs that literally sprang up even more after the Greek hit movie “Never On Sunday” exploded onto the American pop culture scene.
Hungry for all things “Greek,” fans packed the venues for their oriental music “fix.”
Some of the many famous patrons who were fans of Johanna included jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Jane Fonda and her then husband Roger Vadim, and Aristotle Onassis and his young daughter Christina.
Johanna made a big splash in “Greektown” working all the clubs. She recognized belly dancing as a “folk dance” and soon her nickname was “Naraitha” or “Wood Nymph” in Greek. Also known as “Dryads” they are dancing faeries of the trees in Greek mythology.
It was at the “Egyptian Gardens” that Aristotle first fell in love with “Naraitha”- Johanna.
Ari, who always brought Christina with him, would leave his table to wait patiently at the side of the dance floor for Johanna to finish her act. Then, careful not to touch her skin inappropriately, he would place a large bill under her bra strap.
Aristotle began inquiring about Johanna, constantly seeking to arrange a meeting with her through “go-betweens,” but Johanna would have none of it. “I’m married!” she would exclaim in horror. The waiters would reply with equal horror, “But that’s Onassis!” Johanna really thought Ari was a nice man but her husband Bill was the love of her life. (At that time they did not hire male dancers to work in Greektown so when my mother started missing her husband as a dance partner that became the catalyst for founding “Johanna’s Oasis Ballet.” They had already been doing that for a few years when Ari started pursuing her).
One night another dancer showed Johanna a ruby eyed snake ring a friend from Italy had just given her. She asked Johanna what her favorite gem was. Johanna told her that she loved the ring and that rubies were indeed her favorite. It turned out the dancer was getting info on behalf of Aristotle who readied to ply her with jewelry, but before he could take it any further, for love of her husband, she made clear she wouldn’t budge.
Ari finally gave up his quest and for a while it seemed that would be all Johanna would hear about it.
In 1966, Bill suddenly got the notion to take Johanna on a cross country trip to California to see an old friend he’d worked with in the printing department of the New York Times. Al Rojas and his wife Rosemary lived in Fountain Valley, CA now with their small daughter.
Johanna at “Viscaya” in Miami. Former members of the Dade County Ballet, they decided to go here first and then head West on their “cross country” trip.
Bill with some feathered friends at the “Parrot Jungle” in Miami.
Johanna and Bill, San Bernardino National Forest
Unbeknownst to Johanna, the reason for the trip was so Bill could get away from a young model named Barbara whom he was already having an affair with in NYC. The liaison with the twenty one year old began when the “Times” changed from “Linotype” to “Teletype” and their famous building in Mid-Town Manhattan was flooded with young female secretaries. Barbara was one of these women.
Rosemary and Al Rojas with their daughter Alexandra and Johanna at “Ghost Town” at “Knott’s Berry Farm” in California. Al came from a famous “Mariachi Band” family in Mexico.
Bill and Al with a couple of “Friends” they picked up at “Ghost Town” at Knott’s Berry Farm in California.
Johanna and Bill with Alexandra Rojas in “Ghost Town” at “Knott’s Berry Farm” in California
The trip West was for pleasure, Johanna thought. The pay for belly dancers in California was notoriously low so it had not entered her mind to make the vacation a “working” one. However, this did not stop Bill and Johanna from wanting to take in a show or two at local Middle Eastern Clubs and one encounter she had at one such place would turn out to be one of the most shocking and end up haunting and confusing her for years.
Johanna went to what she thought was the “Cleopatra Lounge” (although it could have been Lou Shelaby’s “The Fez”). A young oud player with a sweet disposition began talking to her and then started telling everyone that she was his wife. He went on and on about her being his wife even in front of her husband. Though he must have been joking it went on uncomfortably long. The oud player told her his name. It was “Sirhan” he said. Johanna’s impression of this young man was that he was very childlike and sweet.
Johanna on the trip West in front of some unidentified “Moorish” looking architecture.
Johanna did not care for the smog in Los Angeles at the time as it gave her bronchitis. (Johanna actually loved San Diego). Therefore, she expressed displeasure at Bill’s request they remain there and take up residence. Johanna’s refusing to move to Los Angeles sealed her fate as she was soon to find out when they returned to NYC. Bill, in full, “Mid-Life Crisis” mode, resumed his affair with Barbara. Johanna was horrified when she learned of the affair. Bill had been cheating on her all along-while she was turning down the romantic overtures of one of the richest men in the world!
Bill reaching up for a lady, “Ghost Town” at “Knott’s Berry Farm, ” CA
Barbara called their apartment. Johanna told Barbara to leave her husband alone as he was going through some “issues” and was not “in his right mind.” Barbara growled into to the telephone sarcastically “You’ve had him for seventeen years! Now it’s my turn!”
After hanging up the phone, my mother picked up a finger nail file and headed downtown to the New York Times building. She approached Barbara there and stabbed the young woman in the stomach with the finger nail file enough to break the skin. Just then Bill had arrived and he and his boss broke up the “catfight.” He said to Johanna later that day, “If you had meant to kill her you’d have brought a knife.” Johanna said, “I was so upset at her attitude – I just picked up anything that was handy!”
Bill and Johanna “separated” but continued to live together in their apartment at 255 West 55th St. Interestingly enough, Bill and Barbara’s relationship turned sour apparently and he wanted to get back together with Johanna but he would not apologize. This was something Johanna felt she deserved. One night Bill said he was going down to the corner for the newspaper. He did not come back.
Johanna was beside herself but kept plugging along. To her astonishment, Bill’s boss at the New York Times actually came to the “Grecian Palace” where she was performing to try to talk her into getting back together with Bill. She said she wanted Bill to say he was sorry-not send “go-betweens” to smooth things out.
Bill told Johanna he wanted a divorce and since she was distraught he offered to go to Mexico himself to obtain it quickly. Things went downhill for Johanna after that. (Bill was not only walking out on Johanna but letting the entire company down of the “Johanna’s Oasis Ballet” which was booked solid, even asked to perform in Djakarta, Indonesia by the Sukarno government. The dance company was in existence about 2 1/2 years).
Despondent and alone she fell into the clutches of Samir Al-Tawil, the “black sheep” cousin of comedian Danny Thomas and the child star Anissa Jones. By this time, Ari Onassis had long given up his pursuit of Johanna and was at about this time about to become engaged to Jackie Kennedy. The ring’s gemstone? A ruby.
Samir, mostly remembered now for composing the Middle Eastern disco hit “Linda-Linda,” left Johanna penniless and pregnant after marrying her in a sham ceremony and stealing $5000 from her which was her entire savings. It was not long after that Johanna watched in horror the coverage of the Robert F. Kennedy assassination and the alleged perpetrator of the crime, Sirhan Sirhan. Could he have been that sweet young man she encountered in that nightclub in California? For many years she believed that was whom she had met. She believed him to be some sort of “Patsy” like Lee Harvey Oswald who could have easily been “hypnotized.”
Johanna engaged in a bitter paternity suit against Samir. Ironically, as all of this was going down, Aristotle Onassis finally married Jackie Kennedy on the Island of Skorpios. Aristotle had finally given up on Johanna. She felt like a fool.
When I was one year old , Johanna and I were performing at the “Parthenon” club in Houston and another Onassis “connection” was made.
This time it was the chef from the yacht “Christina,” who was now working in the kitchen of the Parthenon so his seriously ill daughter could receive treatment from heart surgery pioneer Dr. Michael DeBakey who was president of the nearby “Baylor College of Medicine.”
Johanna always says, “Well at least I got to eat the food prepared by the “Christina’s” chef. It was delicious!”
A few months after my mother Johanna’s death in 2012, I finally got a puzzle piece about the oud player that said his name was “Sirhan.” Some belly dancer friends in California told me that the oud player Johanna encountered was likely Adel Sirhan – Sirhan Sirhan’s brother. Adel played the oud on the Los Angeles and San Francisco circuit and was a beloved “sweetheart” to all who knew him. The Kennedy debacle was very hard for him. According to the dancers, they never knew Sirhan to have played the oud.
It’s only been in the last couple of years that I became aware of an article that actor Robert Vaughn wrote about the RFK assassination for the UK Daily Mail around 2009. In the article, Vaughn, a long time personal friend of Robert’s claims that the plot to kill Robert did not take shape until early 1968. He continues to claim that through meetings with a woman named Helene Gaillet she revealed to him that Aristotle Onassis had confessed to her his bankrolling the RFK assassination. Apparently, a grudge had been started early in Robert’s career over Greek shipping and Red China (Onassis ships were not involved but blocked anyway) and Ari developed a desire to get “even” with the Kennedys somehow.
Whether this is true or not, I can’t tell you. I can only provide a link to the Vaughn article and let folks decide for themselves. The only thing that strikes me so, all these years later is wondering that if the story is true, how could my mother’s acceptance of Ari as a suitor and perhaps husband have changed the course of history? It seemed that his mind was not on Lee Radziwell or her sister Jackie when he made a very passionate and public play for Johanna (although this went on in Greek Town and the general public has never had a clue until now with me telling about it). If Johanna had said “yes,” would Ari have had less social communion with the Kennedys and been too pre-occupied with her to continue a grudge? At least not in such a drastic manner?
As for Sirhan, many believe he was under hypnosis by those who knew how to “program” those who are “malleable” in that sense. In February, of this year, Sirhan came up for parole for the 15th time. Paul Schrade, a confidant of RFK who is 91 years old now and among the five people shot at the Ambassador Hotel that night testified that Sirhan should be released because “The evidence clearly shows you were not the gunman who shot Robert Kennedy.” RFK was shot from behind three times and three bullets entered his body from that direction. (Sirhan fired his gun in front of him). Audio also captures 13 shots being fired and Sirhan’s weapon held only eight.
Many sad years march on, after a while, we lose an ability to find the truth.
The only thing I really know to be true is that turning down Aristotle Onassis was considered by my mother to be the biggest mistake of her life. “You’d have been Greek!” She always told me. Another thing my mother used to add, “If I had life to live over again-I wouldn’t have be so nice! I was just too nice!”
As with any topic in the genre we label “Beledi” as a dance form, Nubian might be simplistic in it’s steps and movements, however, it’s incredibly complex in that it carries the full weight of it’s history and traditions, the feelings conveyed as well as being part of the current geo-political scenario. This is why I presented a workshop on Nubian Dance, I explain to the participants, it would be incredibly boring to spend 2 hours going over the one step, which is basically all that Nubian Dance consists of, and they would, perhaps, feel “ripped off” if that is all I presented as a choreography. It would have been also remiss of me to just teach a dance without delving into the reasons why Nubians dance the way they do and all the influences that have compounded onto that one step.
If I could just digress for a moment, I remember several years ago having a wonderful debate and in-depth discussion with Hossam Ramzy on the question of “Beledi”. Although it translates as a collective possessive noun meaning “village” [of my village] or anything that is referred to as folkloric, we came to the conclusion that a better interpretation of the word (and concept for western minds) would be to use the word “community”. That way we can think of it being more intangible, and as a concept, the cultural aspects becomes mentally and physically transportable, rather than in the western thinking of a traditional dance that is only defined by it’s geography. This is particularly true of Nubian Dance where its geographical location has been obliterated from the late 1960s to 1972 when Lake Nasser was formed due to the Aswan High Dam and the commencement of Egypt’s hydro-electric program.
For centuries, Nubia was a country situated between Egypt and Sudan, until The Nile River was dammed. The result was the diaspora of the Nubian people and relocation of an entire nation to either north and become automatically Egyptian citizens, or go south into Sudan. Everything that was tangible evidence of their culture has been lost for ever under what has become the largest man-made body of water on Earth. The only thing that these people could take with them were their traditions that were carried on through their language, songs and dance. And as so often in communities, it’s dance that is the “glue” that keeps people together and their customs alive.
However, Nubian culture has come to the point where the people have forgotten why they do certain customs, the reasons for them have been lost to time (and water). This too is a point I raised in the workshop, and although I teach the authentic steps and movements, as taught to me by the Nubians I met in Aswan, their dance is in danger of being lost, or perhaps fused and blended with the cultures of the countries that have taken them in. Their dance becomes a paler version of what it once was as a new generation of Nubians growing up in essentially a foreign land, and without their roots, their traditions are memorized parrot fashion, to be put on display for western tourists who just want to be entertained but not really immersed into someone’s culture. Or, their songs have changed to reflect the emotions of losing their home land and subsequent diaspora created from moving into these countries. They are not necessarily sad, such as the well know Belly Dance piece “Salaam Cairo Salaam”, from a Nubian song embracing a new life in the exciting city, but certainly don’t reflect the proud traditions of their ancient world.
To the Egyptians, Nubian dance, music and songs were interesting from around 2005 until 2010, but more as something that was useful for the tourism industry to show off Egypt’s cultural diversity. (This was until the “Arab Spring” and subsequent turmoil, and now any western research and further joint Egyptian archaeological exploration into any remains of what was Nubia in and around the Wadi Haifa region (on the boarder between Egypt and Northern Sudan) have been thwarted due to Islamist uprising or more pressing geo-political and financial issues. Coupled with the downturn in tourism, this has also meant a lack of interest within Egypt of Nubian culture).
But getting back to the point of Nubian people presenting their culture to western audiences. Like any Beledi dance, this genre is really participatory, for an entire community or of a family grouping of people ranging in ages/generations rather than a dance as a performance piece. So most of what is seen has been adapted to present on stage, as well as utilizing traditional dance movements to showcase elements of their culture, such as a traditional wedding, which can take anywhere from five to seven days, and subsequently shown to audiences as a “wedding dance” which encapsulates all the various elements of the entire wedding ceremony into five minutes.
All Nubian dances are performed as a group, either male dances which are usually portray fighting with the Tahkteib (large stick), that also doubles as part of the rhythmic structure of the music; female dances which show elements of the lead up to the wedding ceremony, or of daily life; or if men and women are dancing together, they dance in segregated lines. The women often coming into the performance space and weaving in and out through the men, in their own choreographed patterns, also utilizing rhythmic clapping, but they don’t play any instruments.
It’s interesting to note that both men and women use rhythmic clapping while standing in a line and alternating, one will clap above their head, the next down at the knee, then swapping. This is kept up through the song. Also when men and women dance together, the men often take a secondary role, or a background role to the women, and often lower their head height to below that of the women, or actually dance on their knees or in a crouching position when dancing near women.
Other elements, for both men and women, include the “arm swing”, where the arms are kept low, and elbows in at the waist (unlike any other kind of Middle Eastern dance form where the arms are always kept away from the body). The arms swing from out either side of the body, then swung inwards up to the chest, and outwards again. This is done in conjunction with what I call “The Nubian Step” – a shuffling gait with the left foot turned inwards with right foot placed slightly behind. The heel of the right foot is raised, and the movement is executed through the ball of the foot. This step is repeated throughout the dance, either stationery or used as a travelling step. The women usually have a shuffling step without the turned foot, or just a quick. short “running” step while maintaining a “gliding” gait.
It should also be noted that while the men show emotion and joy by smiling while dancing, traditionally the women do not, which was pointed out to me on numerous occasions by the Nubians. They do make a point of saying that this particularly sets them apart from the Egyptians, and they do get annoyed with the fact that when Egyptians presented Nubian dance in their cabaret shows in Cairo for the tourists, that the female performers were smiling.
The women NOT smiling while dancing is so ingrained in their culture, there is even a comic dance where the men utilise funny movements, or pull faces to try and make the women laugh and drop their demeanour. The women respond with expressions of cool detachment. This is not due to current religious sensibilities but because as a society, the Nubian culture is by tradition, very matriarchal. For centuries Nubia was ruled by a succession of Warrior Queens, known as the Kandake (pron. KAN-DAI-KAY), and later the Nubian word evolved to Kandasay or Kandayce (which, incidentally, is where we get the present day female name CANDACE or CANDICE). These ancient women were highly trained to use swords and other weaponry, and to this day, in a traditional Nubian wedding, the groom presenting his sword to the bride is the symbol of marriage. Even today, for Nubians living in Egypt, property inheritance is handed down the female line and not the male side. Another element that sets them apart in today’s Egyptian society.
This article is just a snapshot of a fascinating culture and dance, and can’t really be fully appreciated unless you have had the opportunity to experience it. I was lucky enough to have been taught by numerous Nubian people who were willing to impart to me their knowledge during my time in Egypt from 1996 – 1997, from which I made copious notes, managed to video as much as I could, and that they gave me permission to teach this dance form at any opportunity, in the hope that their culture doesn’t disappear.
Alia is a professional Belly Dancer, and has worked all over the world, especially in Egypt, where she earned her Performer’s License there (which is the highest qualification you can earn in the Middle Eastern Dance world). While in Egypt, she had the unique experience of being the only foreign dancer to have performed for President Mubarak.
She has had almost 30 years of dance and teaching experience and brings a wealth of information, and in Melbourne, AU, Alia performs at restaurants, weddings and functions, both in the cabaret and folkloric styles.
She is especially interested in teaching Belly Dance for women’s health, and has taught workshops extensively around Australia and overseas, to a large variety of women’s groups, including dance therapy classes for disabled women. Alia was also approached by several hospitals in the Melbourne area to write a paper for them on the health benefits of Belly Dance, particularly for Pre/Post Natal and dance exercise during pregnancy.
Alia has appeared in numerous dance shows, TV appearances and has taught workshops all over the world, as well as around Australia. She has also facilitated for some of the world’s most renowned experts in the field of Belly Dance and Music, most notably:
Laurel Victoria Grey
Hossam & Serena Ramzy
Omar Faruk Tekbilik
for further details contact:
Alia (Deborah Kananghinis)
0418-525-684 (for International drop the 0 and add +61)
(61 3) 9497-5727
FACEBOOK: Alia Bellydance
Flea Market Find: “The Dance of Tahiti”
In the 1970s we were still in love with the “exotic” and the preservation of ethnic cultures through dance and art. It is in that spirit that Jane Freeman Moulin wrote the book “The Dance of Tahiti” (1979) after much studying and graduating from schools like “The Institute of Ethno Musicology” in Los Angeles.
Her work on this book though comes from the very intimate experience of actually moving to French Polynesia and becoming a performer of these dances herself. I’ve only posted a few photos of the book and it really does not do it justice. There are scores of beautiful photos of dancers page by page and some in depth instructional illustrations. Even though, as a dancer myself, I know that the written page in general is not the best place to learn dancing, I still applaud the effort put forth in this book and it is something I feel anyone like me would be really excited to find in good condition in a thrift shop or flea market. It looks so interesting I can’t wait to read it!
“The Dance of Tahiti” by Jane Freeman Moulin 1979
One of the instructional pages from “The Dance of Tahiti” by Jane Freeman Moulin 1979
One of the many lovely dancers in photos throughout “The Dance of Tahiti” by Jane Freeman Moulin
Photo Memory: Danny Thomas in the 60s
Lebanese Comedian Danny Thomas Mid 1960s
The wonderful comedian, actor, and philanthropist Danny Thomas. He hired Johanna and Bill (“Turhan”) for his Danny Thomas Brotherhood Award Show in Miami, FL. This photo is either from that event in Miami or might be when they visited Las Vegas on their cross country trip in 1966. Danny was the founder of both the Saint Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and “ALSAC” – the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities.
“YOGA BURN” for info:
New exciting news from Aziza. Subscribe to or follow “Egyptian Chick” to get the update as soon as it hits the press! Thank You