STAYING FREE AND ALIVE
by Phaedra (Phyllis Saretta)
Reprinted with permission from Arabesque Magazine, courtesy of Phaedra.
I feel compelled to write about the following incident because I’m sure that others in the oriental dance profession have at one time or another gone through a similar experience, or will perhaps encounter the same problem in the future.
After an absence of several years from nightclub work, I was persuaded by friends to accept an opportunity to work at a top Greek club in New York City for a good salary. The two owners of the club (male and female) had never seen me dance, but hired me on my credits and from what they had heard about me. The arrangement I made with them was that I would stay no longer than a month, but if after a week, they were not satisfied, I would leave. I agreed to this, for in the ten years I have been performing, I was always held over or called back for a return engagement and foresaw no problem. After the third night there, as I was leaving the club to go home, the female owner said she wanted to talk to me. She told me I was one of the best dancers she had ever seen, that my costumes were most elegant and beautiful, and that I was a true artist. But there was one problem – her partner thought my costumes were too modest. He wanted me to show my legs and in general reveal more flesh (it was actually put to me a bit more harshly). I explained to her that although I have nothing against anyone wearing a revealing costume (unless of course it is flimsy and cheap looking), it is not my style to do so, (I generally wear two or three skirts and a bolero top) and that as far as I’m concerned my costumes reveal enough and that I have never had a complaint from anyone I worked for, including American club owners – and that there is no way I will change my ideals or my style, unless my own tastes change in the future. S0, the job lasted one week.
On my last night there, all the musicians told me how much they enjoyed working with me, that I was an artistic dancer, and they were bewildered as to why my engagement was ending. Because they are Greek, they found it challenging to try to play some of the music I asked for – Arabic (I even had them learn a beledi). It was unfamiliar to them, yet they tried hard and did a good job.
At first I was flabbergasted by the whole incident, for as I previously stated, I have worked in every type of place possible from cabarets to theaters, and very successfully. I have always been complimented for having good taste. On occasion one may come across a mentality such as the one of the proprietor of the club I described that ruins our profession – and it is the dancers who give into these demands who hold us back from progress. The dancer who replaced me in the club is one of my favorites – to me she dances like Scheherazade. However, the audience in this club will never know that – when she works in this place she forgets about her art and is extremely commercial for the sake of the job. I know we all have to pay our rent, but if good dancers would only stick together and not succumb to these degrading demands, life would be a lot easier for the true professional.
My purpose in communicating this experience is that although the whole affair was sickening and disheartening, it didn’t discourage me in the least from future nightclub engagements if I should want them. It only angered me, and I wanted to share my feelings with those of you who may run into the same problem in the future, especially those of you who are newcomers to the profession. The above case is not the norm according to my own experience, and although I am aware this problem exists, and probably always will, times are changing. Men with archaic ideas who treat dancers as a piece of “flesh” will perhaps someday realize the art for what it is, and if it is oriental dance that they want, they will hire a “dancer” – if it is something else they wish to display, then they can bill it as some other form of entertainment. S0, all of you who believe as I do – don’t be discouraged – I can think of worse reasons for losing a job than being told in not so many words, “you have too much class for this place.”
Saretta, Phyllis/Phaedra. “Staying Free and Alive.” Arabesque Magazine Vol. IV, No. 1 1978: Page 18