Boston Belly Dance Firsts

By Amy Smith The “Nightclub Era” of Boston belly dance took place from the 1950s - 80s. During this time, you could see belly dancing and live music seven nights a week. In the early 20th century, Boston and eastern Massachusetts became home to Armenians, Greeks, Syrians, and Lebanese people. Because of similarities in culture and cuisine, and bonded by shared hardship, ethnic conflict, and political strife, these communities mingled at each other's clubs and restaurants. These were meeting places where they could have a taste of home, hear their native languages and music, and dance.

Back in the 50s and 60s, Middle-Eastern nightclubs were part of a larger nightlife scene.

Remember Ricky Ricardo’s nightclub in “I Love Lucy”? People went out for entertainment and to socialize. At one time, there were almost 100 Middle-Eastern nightclubs, restaurants, or restaurants that featured Middle-Eastern entertainment in Massachusetts alone.

I was fortunate to take classes with teachers who had been part of this scene, or who

themselves trained with dancers of the era. I became fascinated with our local dance history

and its significance to belly dance in America overall and have been researching the “Nightclub Era” for over 10 years.

In this article, I’d like to introduce readers to two important “firsts” of the Nightclub Era - the first nightclub, and the first dancer. Not only are they important historically - they are important because their histories and stories are intertwined.

Club Zara

The first Middle-Eastern nightclub in Boston, Club

Zara, opened in 1952. While business licenses were issued to both Zara and Club Khiam that year, Zara was the first to open its doors. Zara’s first location was at

475 Tremont St. After a 4-alarm fire demolished the original club on September 19,1954, Zara later reopened at 390 Tremont St.

In April 1952, a journalism student at Boston University, Gilbert Caswell, published his masters’ thesis that was

basically his tourist guide to Boston. His description of Club Zara, while a bit biased, captures the essence of

the importance and value of this landmark nightclub:

The club comes last on this list for just one

reason - and that is the fact that I think it is the

best nightclub in Boston. In fact, I like it better than any club I've ever been in, in any city

in the country. Then why list it last? Well, it's an unspoiled place so far. I mean it's off the

beaten path and the people who go there go there habitually. They don't just want to go

to a club; they want to go to the Club Zara. You never see a wild crowd there - or a

drunken one. But you never saw such lively fun in your life. I don't want to let the wrong

people know about it, because they could spoil it. And I'd lose my favorite place. You

see, this is an Armenian club, where the music is Armenian, the performers are

Armenian, and the food is Armenian. And the people who get up and dance do

Armenian dances. No, I'm not Armenian; but I sure like what they like. And that goes for

Miss Morocco too. So, if a few of you want to go to the best appointed, modern, cozy,

and neat club in the city, well, go ahead. But don't go too often and don't stay too long.


However, Mr. Caswell’s description of Zara as an Armenian club is not accurate. It was owned by a company named Bacchus Entertainment, and managed by a Lebanese-American couple, Joe Teebagy and his wife Morocco, a dancer and singer (and who was mostly likely Boston’s “dancer zero”) . Together, the Teebagys organized a Middle-Eastern floor show with continuous musical entertainment provided by a "house band" that included musicians of Lebanese, Turkish, Armenian, and Greek heritage. Sometimes musicians visiting from overseas entertained at the club. Morocco sang Arabic, Turkish, and Greek songs and danced in what was called back then the "Oriental style”. It was not unusual to have as many as 4 or 5 dancers perform nightly. After each dancer performed, she would change and then sit in with the band to play zils, riq, or doumbek for the next performer. The photo below shows several dancers on stage with bandleader Mike Sarkissian.



“We were famous all over. From coast to coast, the club Zara was known. Whenever you

came to town, you came in. People were lined up and down the street, you had to make

a reservation, like a week before. And we had all high-class people, lots of Americans.

We had lawyers and doctors and senators. In fact, John Kennedy used to come in.” -

Morocco, interview with ethnomusicologist Anne Rasmussen

Everyone who was anyone played at Club Zara. Many musicians cut their performance teeth

there. While dancers had to be of legal age (and Zara often got into trouble for playing fast and loose with this particular aspect of the law), it was not unusual for young musicians of high-school age to sit in and play under the watchful eye of bandleader Mike Sarkissian. In fact, Sarkissian became a legal guardian of one young drummer for the express purpose of enabling him to perform on school nights.



This photo shows three legendary musicians onstage at Zara. From the left: Mike Sarkissian,

doumbek; Udi Hrant, oud; and Fred Elias, violin.

“When I was 16, when I first started playing, my father snuck me down to the Club Zara.

Probably in the mid-50s before they closed the place. And up on stage were all the

heavy hitters. Marko Melkon and Freddie (Elias) were there. I think it was two drummers.

Gary (Alexanian) was there. Steve Thomas was there. The place was rockin' off the

wall.” - Udi Joe Kouyoumjian


This is a photo(below) of a Club Zara souvenir photo envelope. It used to be nightclubs had roving photographers who would snap photos of you and your date or friends on your big night out, and you could buy them and get them in souvenir envelopes like these. What’s important about this is that it has a photo of the neon sign that initially hung outside the building. The neon lights moved in such a way so that it looked like the dancer was dancing. Morocco herself told me that this sign caused a lot of fender benders in front of the club. The dancer portion of the sign was removed in 1955, after claims that it was indecent, which was probably a better story than the actual truth of being a traffic nuisance. This particular souvenir envelope included this photo (left) showing that tipping in the costume was the norm back then.



This painting of Morocco is one of the few

things to survive the Club Zara fire, albeit

with some smoke or water damage. It was a gift to Morocco from an ardent admirer. It hung in her apartment, where this photo was taken.


According to newspaper accounts of the time, Zara was raided on a regular basis, most often for having underage dancers or for presenting “immoral” shows. Was it because they didn’t know any better? Were the right people not paid off? We’ll never know. Zara’s liquor license was revoked for good in 1960 and without liquor, there’s no club. Joe Teebagy and Morocco went on to open the El Morocco nightclub down the street at the corner of Tremont and Stuart Streets.

Dancer Zero



This paragraph from a Boston Globe article from May 1969 started me down the rabbit hole of trying to determine who Boston’s first dancer was. Besides misspelling “Morocco”, it essentially states that Boston belly dancers have, as our founding mothers, women of MENAHT cultures.


Morocco is among the first, if not the first of these, and is certainly the most well-known.

Morocco was born Laurice Rizk in Aitaneet, Lebanon on November 14, 1924. She left Lebanon at the age of 16 to dance professionally. She met and married a German baron early in her travels. He was a performer - a tap dancer and band leader. They met at a nightclub in Beirut where he was working. He taught her ballroom dancing, and they started to work and travel together. Their visited and performed in in Damascus, Iraq, Iran, India, French IndoChina, and Japan.

“When I was little, I always had the music going and wore my mother's dress. I went in front of the mirror and danced: I loved dancing! And I liked singing, but I liked dancing more.” - Morocco

Morocco and her baron partner enjoyed much success on the road. There were some

adventures, too. Morocco said that, in Calcutta, a maharajah wanted her as a concubine. In

Iran, she danced for the Shah. Eventually, she made her way to the United States in the early

1940s, separating from the baron before she left.


“I wanted to come to the United States because my

Morocco at 16

father was here, and I never saw my father. He was here; he was a United States citizen. When he had to leave Lebanon, my mother was pregnant with me.

Then he left, and I was born. I never saw my father, so I wanted to come so bad to the United States so I could see him. Then I came in to San Francisco, then I came to New York and worked at Port Said (a

famous New York nightclub). I was a big hit there, too.”

Morocco worked in New York for about a year, singing and performing Arabic dancing. She and the Baron had separated before she came to America.

She would eventually meet up with her father too, who was an attorney living and working in Savannah, Georgia.

It was in New York that Morocco received her dance

name. A Greek woman told her "Oh, you look like a

Moroccan, so I'm going to call you Morocco.” It was there that she met an oud player, Jimmy

Nazereth (James (Puzant) Nazaretian) who encouraged her to move to Boston, where he lived.

And that is where she met Joe Teebagy, the man who would become her husband. In her

words:

"He wasn't a professional, but he loved to play for me. He was born here, but he loved

the oud! He used to play with the musicians, but he wasn't really a good musician. So I

came to this place and my husband used to come in at the Club Zara. A Greek fellow

owned it - his name was Charlie Karyanis. My husband used to come and spend money;

he was very wealthy, you see. He spent money like water. We had Oriental dancing. But

we danced without a costume, because they didn't allow it then. I had two-piece . . . one

down, and the fringe. Because in Boston, it wasn't allowed. So, I used to dance and sing

and the people used to go wild. "If Morocco's not there, then the people leave." They

wanted to see me. So my husband said: "I'm gonna buy you the club." I said: "Okay: you

buy the club." So he bought the club. And we ran it; I did the dancing and the singing."

In addition to Club Zara, Morocco and Joe opened the El Morocco in 1955. After that closed in the early 60s, Morocco made guest appearances at other clubs, where she performed as a

singer. She became a United States citizen in 1963. Her husband, Joe, died in 1983.

I had the great good fortune to meet Morocco in 2018. A cousin of her late husband had

attended a talk I gave on my research, and he offered to bring me on a visit. Morocco was

gracious and charming. She made us Arabic coffee and regaled us with tales from her past. We even danced a little together. It is one of the highlights of my life, to have met someone so vital and pivotal to our history. Sadly, Morocco died in August of this year, at the age of 96.


You have do to a lot of feeling to Oriental dancing. I was like in the clouds when I danced. I

Morocco at age 93, in her apartment in West Roxbury.

felt like I was in a cloud: that was the feeling I had from all my heart and soul. Sometimes I had goose pimples from dancing because I loved the music so much. When I hear that music, I'm in a different world. -

Morocco



Sources

Caswell, Gilbert F., A practical application of journalism. Boston University, Boston, MA. 1952

McClean, Deckle. “An ancient and honorable art.” Boston Globe, May 4, 1969

Rasmussen, Ann. Individuality and social change in the music of Arab-Americans. University of California, Los Angeles, 1991.

Rasmussen, Ann.” An Evening in the Orient": The Middle Eastern Nightclub in America”. Asian Music, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Spring - Summer, 1992), pp. 63-88 Published by University of Texas Press Interviews with Laurice (Morocco) Teebagy, Joe Kouyoumjian



Amy Smith has been belly dancing for almost 30 years. She is the original founder and publisher of the newsletter Belly Dance New England. Amy has been researching and documenting Boston’s belly dance history for over 10 years.

She has started posting her research finds and information to the website Flaming Cheese Productions, where she is

working on providing a multimedia experience, including original club music recordings and videos. info@flamingcheeseproductions.com

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