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"The Screamin' Sirens" circa 1985... my old all girl punk-a-billy band. yesp, that's me, the blonde in the bottom right corner
My professional career began in 1991. Enchanted by the dance in all its forms - Egyptian, American Cabaret, Turkish, North African folkloric, Roman, Persian - you name it, I studied it. I took classes and workshops, saw as many dancers as I could (both live and on video) and did as much research as possible in those days, before the Internet made that part easier. I made many more pilgrimages to Egypt, to study with Raqia Hassan. I was obsessed!

At that time, Oriental dance was in a kind of limbo state. The first Gulf War was going on, and anti-Arab sentiment was strong in this country. The huge belly dance fad that had swept the nation in the Eighties had died down, and the art was only being kept alive by a few die-hards: wonderful, experienced women who’d been teaching and performing professionally for years.

I stuck out like a sore thumb - I was a tattooed and pierced rock chick with bleach-striped dreadlocks … nowadays that doesn’t seem weird, but back then, it was! My tattoos were hidden when I performed, nobody knew I had them. I borrowed my mom’s clothes to go to Arabic clubs - all I owned were leather mini skirts and ripped fishnets … any money I had was going directly towards Egyptian costumes, so I could live my dream!

I also danced there every Tuesday in Hallah Moustafa’s showcase, along with Jillina, Neena & Veena, Rania, Roxxane Shelaby and well-known guest stars like Sahra Saeeda, Anglika Nemeth and Fahtiem. Every Wednesday, Anaheed held a showcase, also with live music, at The Middle East Connection; I danced there at least twice a month.
This led to gigs on Arabic and Persian TV, and performing with Arabic superstars like Alabina, Amr Diab, Ragheb Alama, Sabah, and Natacha Atlas. I did private parties, from family functions to galas thrown by the Clinton Administration (had to get a Secret Service clearance for that-and was amazed I passed due to my prior juvenile delinquency!) and the Saudi Arabian Royal Family. Because I lived in Hollywood, I also danced for an endless parade of movie stars and celebrities.

I knew about putting on shows, so I did, and produced the first theatrical belly dance event in the LA area. In 1993, I co-wrote (with Brandi Centeno) directed and performed in a show called “Common Threads: Women And Oriental Dance”, which had two sold-out runs at LA’s Highways Theater, and was later tapped for MECDA’s Cairo Carnivale evening show. It featured all styles of Oriental and folkloric dance, acting, spoken word voice-overs, and numbers that were pure fantasy, and would now be known as Fusion. The cast included Zahra Zuhair, Sahra Saeeda, Anaheed, and a then- up and coming performer, Jillina.

Me and "Mr Lerman" at Restaurant "Moun of Tunis" (Hollywood)
Through the ‘90s’ I worked at Anoush, Byblos, Layalina, Cabaret Tehran, Miami, The Casbah, Athenian Gardens, Cleopatra, all with live music.
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Photos ©: 1 Josh McQueen; 2 & 4 André Elbing; 3 & 5 Pleasant Gehman, 6 Don Spiro
Graphics and layout: Konstanze Winkler
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Author, painter, musician, theater director, dancer, enfant terrible, punk rocker – this list could be continued endlessly (and in the end be longer than the whole article). All this condenses to Princess Farhana, but even more important, in February Princess Farhana will come to Germany, to Munich, to put it exactly. And this all together is most welcome reason for us to take a look at this dancer proper, who may not have invented “burlesque”, but is without doubt personal responsible for the rebirth of this genre (amongst other people, of course). In our first act, Her Royal Highness writes about her life, about the ups and downs and how everything merged (fused) together at her 50th birthday.
Ever since I was a little girl my dream was to be a dancer. I literally grew up in the theater; my whole family were artists and entertainers. My father was a well-known novelist and entertainment writer; my mother was an ex-chorus girl, dancer and singer. We lived on the East Coast in the early 1960s, and it was rich with culture. Some of my earliest memories are of watching live ballet in New York City – “Swan Lake” and at City Center; the legendary Maria Tallchief performing George Balanchine’s “Firebird”. All I could think of was dancing on stage wearing a beautiful, sparkly costume. Curiously- though in hindsight it makes perfect sense - I also was totally obsessed with the vintage Sinbad and Ali Baba movies I watched on our black and white television, and wanted to be a belly dancer!
As a child, I put on shows in our living room, back yard, basement and garage, roping my siblings and neighbourhood kids into performing re-created versions of “The Wizard Of Oz”,  “Arabian Nights” and “The Nutcracker Suite” … of course, I was always the star, playing Scheherezade, Dorothy and The Sugar Plum Fairy, sometimes all in the course of an afternoon!

At nine, I finally wore my mom down begging for ballet lessons. She brought me into the neighbourhood dance studio, where the pompous self-important dance mistress rejected me for having flat feet. My dreams of dancing were completely shattered; I cried myself to sleep that night.
I hung around backstage and in the costume room, learning to sew and apply stage make-up. I snuck into the University’s Film Program screenings, watching “Cabaret” when it first came out, silent films and Hollywood musicals from the 1930’s and 1940’s.

At the age of fifteen, my family re-located to Los Angeles. I began painting and writing seriously, and acting in movies but also ran wild - cutting school and sneaking into night clubs, drinking, taking drugs and struggling with Bulimia. When punk rock started in the late 1970s, I was still in high school, but began a professional journalism career that would span more than thirty years. I booked rock clubs and formed three bands, all of which released records, toured extensively and had songs in film soundtracks. If you Google my given name, Pleasant Gehman, you will see this and more.

In 1990, I was thirty years old and on the dance floor at a rock club. A woman asked if I was a belly dancer.

She said, “You move like one”.

Turned out she was a belly dancer, and intrigued, I went to see her perform. I met her friend, male dancer Zein Abdul Al Malik. He showed me Golden Age Egyptian movies, made me mix tapes of Arabic music, and introduced me to Zahra Zuhair, who became my first and most significant teacher. If anyone had told me at that point that belly dancing would take over my life, and I would become a professional, I would’ve laughed them out of the studio! But what started as a lark turned quickly turned serious. A friend gave me a ticket to Egypt (you could swap plane tickets in those days) and it was all over. My life completely changed.

At Zein’s behest I auditioned for-and got my first job at Moun Of Tunis Restaurant, which I still have twenty years later. I was among the last generation of Oriental Dancers in Los Angeles to perform with live musicians. I joined Laura Crawford’s Flowers Of The Desert; we performed every Friday at the Arabic club Al Andalus, to a live Egyptian band.
My parents split and my mother was working in the Theater Department of Wesleyan University, directing musical comedy, so I had other outlets for my creativity.  I got the education of a lifetime!   As a Faculty Brat, I acted in student films and on stage, and watched visiting artists like The Alvin Ailey Dance Company and sitar player Ravi Shankar accompanied by classical Indian dance.
PRINCESS FARHANA - That's me!
Her majesty in her own words
by Pleasant Gehman