Upon arrival at Café Casbah in Berkeley on the occasion of her dozen students’ annual recital-cum-banquet, Rayna (age “50,” real name Lorraine) hadn’t yet decided whether she herself tonight would deign to perform the “dance of the orient” (raqs sharqi, for those in the know). But her students had zero choice in the matter, and they needed a dressing room, whether the maître d’ liked it or not. And so Rayna, trailed by her disciples, marched through the bustling kitchen to the coatroom they’d used last year for this purpose and flung open the door, thus startling the half-naked house dancer within. The girl, a redhead, clapped her hands over her chest just as Rayna barked, “Out!”
“Jeez.” The girl turned her freckled back, threw on a jewel-spangled green bra that matched the gaudy belt riding low on her hips, and stood fumbling with the bra’s fasteners.
Waiting, Rayna took in the aerobicized gams visible through the girl’s sheer avocado skirt, and she thought of her own stodgy costume hidden under her robe-like galabiya: the black velvet halter top, the full black skirt, the wide belt plastered in black and silver sequins (the matching bra to which she’d long ago outbosomed).
The house dancer stuffed a wad of gauzy pastel veils into her wheeled suitcase, zipped the case shut, and went scooting lissomely out of the coatroom, one hand tugging along the wheelie-bag, the other clutching a sheathed prop sword.
Rayna detained the girl with a look. “And the Red Room is ours tonight,” she said, “which means that you”—AND your goddamn sword, she all but added, having forbidden her pupils to trifle with such gimmicks, having disdained to trifle with such gimmicks herself—“stay in the Blue Room.”
“O-kay,” said the house dancer. “But this sucks.”
“Too bad,” said Rayna, and got busy policing the coatroom shuffle, but not too busy to notice that one of her younger students, a bovine blonde named Dawna, had hung back from the herd and winced an apology toward the house dancer.
To which the house dancer wisecracked, “So much for ‘sisters in dance.’”
To which Dawna, glassy-eyed and clearly starstruck, said, “What’s your name?”
“Jahziha,” said the dancer (and Rayna, with a sniff, figured this spud-nosed “Jahziha” for an Erin or a Maggie or a Jane). “Yours?”
“Dawna,” said Dawna, (and Rayna sniffed again, for “Dawna,” pathetically, was Dawna’s name). “Sorry you got muscled out of your dressing room.”
“And,” said Jahziha in a voice raised, doubtless, for Rayna’s ears, “muscled out of the big room with the big tips.” (Rayna, who in her day had danced for no payment but tips—which then had to be split with the band—refused to feel bad for the little payroll bitch.) “But whaddya gonna do?” concluded Jahziha, and cocked her suitcase back on its wheels. “Gotta run.”
Dawna beamed. “Me, too. Gotta scramble into my costume,” she said, meaning (Rayna knew) Dawna’s only costume: the silver lamé skirt with the two-panel over-skirt of lavender chiffon and the sequined belt fringed in staggered diagonal tiers of beads in layers of lavender and silver, bra to match. It was Rayna who’d sold her this gem, an import from Cairo, a favorite that no longer fit. Dawna flittered her fingers toodle-oo at her new idol and sing-songed, “Good luck tonight.”
Jahziha touched the hilt of her sword to her forehead in a jaunty salute. “Luck to you, too,” she said, and wheeled off.
Rayna turned away from Dawna and directed a stewing stare at her other pupils, duffers and hobbyists all, many depressingly dumpy and two almost Rayna’s age but in disgustingly fine shape. The gals were wiggling into their homespun getups and armoring up on ethnic jewelry, re-poofing their over-henna’d hair and re-lining their over-kohled eyes, all ajitter in anticipation of performing solo to live music in front of their families and friends and beaux (and one manly belle) already seated in the Red Room quaffing Almaza and munching mezes served to them by real-live Middle Easterners. Real-live, too, was Mehmet the celebrity drummer, who also happened to be Rayna’s boyfriend. Weeks ago, when Rayna had invited her young stud to drum at this recital, Mems had gallantly accepted. But Rayna had waited until last night to approach him with her secret special request, a request designed to teach a certain young bovine blonde a lesson in the vital importance of choreography. The request had not gone over well.
Uneasy at the memory, Rayna went up on tiptoe over the dressing-room flurry and hollered, “All right, ladies, no chickening out!” And with that, she fled to the Red Room.
* * *
From a nest of tasseled pillows at her prime corner spot, Rayna reached over the remains of her rabbit couscous to set her beer down on the brass tabletop and beef up the strained applause for gangly Karmilla, the eleventh of her dozen students to plod through a choreographed five-minute routine. Twelfth and last would be Dawna, whom Rayna permitted to dance free-style because the girl just froze whenever pressed to remember steps. And then there’d be an open-floor dance, everyone welcome to get up and shake it. And then, only after sufficient begging and pleading from the crowd, Rayna herself just might oblige.
As Karmilla galumphed back through the swinging kitchen doors under the Moorish archway, Rayna slid a tepid glance across the room at the band. The violinist, keyboardist, and kanoon-player were all slouching in their seats with eyes glazed (the oud-player hadn’t even bothered to show up); only Mems, sitting alert with his doumbec over his knee, looked engaged in the gig. Too engaged. Cinnamon-and-paprika-with-a-hint-of-quinine was the scent on his carob-colored skin, this morning, when Rayna had tried to renew last night’s bold request with a kiss. That kiss had not been returned.
Now, all at once, the stained-glass lanterns dimmed and the floor lights blazed bright. On cue, Mems struck up a spirited rhythm that fired up the band, and out through the kitchen doors leapt Dawna in a burst of silver and lavender, a veil billowing behind her in silken amethyst waves. She circled the floor with nimble spins, then broke into shimmy steps that won shouts and rhythmic clapping from the crowd. And when, after much horsing around, she finally tossed her veil up behind her and let it cascade to the floor, Mems suspended the beat as the violinist sidled into an extravagantly tortured solo, a serpentine twisting of notes. Dawna slithered dreamily in place, a muscular impulse spiraling from her hips to her ribs to her neck and on back down her spine like a glittering pinball, her costume—Rayna’s costume—rippling with sparks.
Rayna endured the wait as the zithery traditional kanoon peacocked through its solo and then the cheesy modern keyboard followed suit, and then—now, right now—Rayna caught her lover’s eye and rubbed her nose.
Mems ignored the signal.
Rayna did it again—the look, the nose-rub—but Mems refused to honor her request that he mangle his drum solo into shattered rhythms and haphazard beats to trip Dawna up in her unchoreographed folly. Instead, he meted out crisp sonorous taps on the center of the doumbec and tantalizing trills toward the rim, the patterns symmetrical, logical, catchy and oh-so-danceable. And Dawna nailed it. Mems wrapped up promptly to lead the band through a Moroccan number with a frisky finale through which Dawna twirled and twirled until the final note, when she spilled over in a backbend and blew an upside-down kiss to the house. Wild applause laced with zaghareets filled the satin-tented ceiling. Coyly, Dawna snatched up her veil and darted back through the kitchen doors under the Moorish archway.
Loitering in that same archway, unglimpsed until now and sveltely spectating in her garish green costume, was Jahziha. With her sword. Rayna braced herself, and sure enough, over the ebbing ovation, some fathead on an ottoman called out, “Hey, a sword!”
“Ooh,” chorused the room amid scattered shouts of, “Show us some moves!”
Jahziha looked surprised at first, the crafty minx; but then, after just a little more coaxing from the crowd, she snapped gamely into trance mode and stepped forward with the sword held out flat in front of her across both palms like a sacred silver offering. The room hushed. Rayna muffled a queasy burp and reached for her beer.
Moving with reverent languor, Jahziha raised the sword in a flashing horizontal line above her head and, with the sharp side of the blade facing up, lowered the blunt side to rest atop her coppery tresses. An adjustment or two for balance, and she wafted her hands away as the hilt floated over her left shoulder and the tip hovered past her right. She held her arms out to either side, elbows and wrists cocked at oriental angles, and stalked forward, each step triggering an undulation from her hips up through her belly to her chest, the sword holding firm on her head. When she reached the center of the room, she pivoted to face Rayna’s table and sank to her knees, nary a bobble from the sword. Bending sideways, she swung a low, slow, meticulously-controlled backbend over her heels and—to claps and yips and zesty ululations from the house—snaked around to the other side and rolled up from her hips to finish with a brazen smile that hit Rayna like a custard pie.
The room erupted in volcanic applause. Acting on instinct—the instinct of an artist, she told herself, of a true performer—Rayna hoisted her beer in toast to the kneeling girl, astonished as she did so at her own graciousness in the moment, at how quickly she relaxed into the jelling certainty that she, Rayna, would never dance for anyone ever again.
Return to Volume 5.1
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