The Turkish Delight: Nejla Ates The Original Belly Dance Showgirl
by Dawn Devine~ Devina
During the 1950s, the most famous belly dancer working in the US was the incomparable Nejla Ates. Hailing from Turkey, this petite dynamo arrived in New York City early in the decade and signed with legendary nightclub impresario Lou Walters of the famed Latin Quarter. Dubbed the Turkish Delight, she went on to star on Broadway, perform on TV and in Movies, and toured the US not only as a showgirl but as the first multi-media belly dance superstar.
Nejla The Early Years
Necla Batir, Nejla’s given name, was born in Romania in either 1927 or 1932. Her family was Tatars, a Turkic ethnic minority dating back to the 12th century. Young Necla showed an aptitude for dance and grew up dreaming of stardom. As soon as she was able, Nejla moved first to Istanbul where she performed in nightclubs, honing her skills. She was booked to appear in the 1947 movie “Kerimin Cilesi” where she appeared as a dancer in the background. With a movie title in her resume, she landed a year-long booking in France at the Casino de Paris.
The Turkish Delight - New York Show Girl
She arrived in 1953 and started work for the legendary New York supper club, the Latin Quarter. She debuted as third billing in their spring show, “Parisian Mardi Gras” and toured the US. Although she would change managers several times in her career, she owed a great debt to Lou Walters, the owner and impresario of the Latin Quarter for launching her career here in America.
Nejla Heads to Hollywood
With Lou Walters as her manager, she was able to land a few plumb roles in Hollywood. She spent time in California making appearances in two major motion pictures. Want to see Nejla in action, follow the links below:
King Richard and the Crusaders c. 1954 - https://youtu.be/2ejMgxvFuc4
Son of Sinbad c. 1955 - https://youtu.be/RgQ7g4vhvPc
“Fanny” - Belly Dance on Broadway
Upon returning to New York after filming for her two movies, Nejla was cast in the Broadway play “Fanny.” She worked from 1954-1956 on the triumphant run of this award-winning play. She worked on nearly all of the 888 production shows during the New York run. When the play moved to London, Nejla choose to stay and work in New York.
As a working dancer, Nejla took on many performance opportunities, including an appearance on the Tele-Play “The Lord Don’t Play Favorites” where she portrays “Little Egypt” in a traveling show. You can check out this performance by following this link to YouTube.
Las Vegas - Touring Belly Dance Showgirl
From 1956 - 1960, Nejla toured the dinner club circuit often as as an opener for bigger acts including singer Bobby Daren. Her home base was the El Rancho Hotel but she appeared up and down the Vegas Strip as new hotels popped up like the Thunderbird, Riviara, and the Dunes.
It was a short hop from the glamorous showgirl-style extravaganzas of Vegas, New York, and Hollywood, down the ladder of entertainment opportunities and experiences to the world of Burlesque. Nejla started booking seedier theaters, making 16mm home films sold beside famous strippers, and posed for numerous photoshoots wearing the tiniest of costumes made from chiffon and rhinestones and featuring pasties.
Injury Ends Nejla’s US Stay
By 1965 Nejla, now in her early 30s, was struggling with injury, work gaps, dwindling finances, depression, and homesickness. Her stay in the US ended in November 1965 when she returned to Istanbul to recuperate and reinvent her career, using the fame of her US achievements to book several major tours around Turkey.
We can only hit the highlights of Nejla’s career in this piece. If you’re interested in learning more about the life, loves, and adventures of this amazing showgirl and her decade in the US, come join me on Patreon for more belly dance history. https://www.patreon.com/davinadevine
Author – Dawn is the internationally acclaimed author of Costuming from the Hip, a guide to designing and making belly dance costumes. She owns and runs her own independent publishing company, Ibexa Press, a growing firm with a backlist of eight titles and more on the way. In 2002 the company shipped over 2,400 pieces worldwide. Her most recent book, Embellished Bras, is a step-by-step guide to building costume bras for dance performance. A few of her other titles include From Turban to Toe Ring (2000), Bedlah, Baubles and Beads (2001) and Style File (2002).
Costumer – Dawn has been sewing professionally since 1985. After receiving an A.A. in Fashion Design and a B.A. in Art History from the University of California at San Diego, she went on to work for four seasons at the La Jolla Playhouse in the costume shop. In 1995, she moved to Northern California for graduate school at UC Davis, where she completed her coursework in Art History and spent a year in the design M.F.A. program. Along with her professional career, she has enjoyed making costumes for fun, participating in hundreds of costume shows at conventions throughout California. She continues to design and sew wearable art, dance costumes and historical pieces for herself and clients.
Dancer – With a lifelong love of dance and expressive movement, Dawn discovered belly dance as a teenager and hasn’t looked back. Under the professional dance name Davina, Dawn has been performing since the mid 80s and teaching since the early 90s. She has performed in numerous restaurants throughout California in San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Jose and Reno and at dance festivals such as Rakkasah and Desert Dance Festival. She teaches dance classes and performance workshops in her own contemporary fusion style that integrates the stylistic features of Egyptian, Lebanese and Turkish technique and builds on her classical dance training. With over eighteen years of performance experience, she is an in-demand judge for belly dance contests such as Wiggles of the West in Reno, Nevada, and Double Crown in Portland, Oregon.
Historian – With a B.A. in Art History, Dawn has combined her love of art and costume history to produce her M.A. thesis. She worked as a lecturer, presenting such topics as Fashion and Impressionism, Safavid Splendor – Persian Motifs in Textiles and Miniature Art and her own original M.A. thesis work From High Art to High Fashion: Aesthetic Movement and Queen Magazine. She has worked on several costume exhibits including From Bustles to Bikinis at the San Diego Historical Society Museum. In addition, she has worked as a research assistant to other authors and was pleased to contribute to the book California Couture, by Maureen Reilly. She has lectured extensively on Victorian costuming through the Old Sacramento Living History Center and has presented her work at the Costume Society of America Symposium. Her current publications focus on research into the history of Middle Eastern costume. Facebook: Davina - Dawn Devine (facebook.com) Youtube: (31) Dawn Devine - YouTube Etsy: Belly Dance Books Costumes Jewelry and Supplies by DavinaDevine (etsy.com)