Once Upon a time in San Diego

By Delilah

I first took belly dance lessons from Scheherazade fresh out of high school in 1972. I performed my first dance 9 months later in a contest at the Sheraton Hotel. Jamila came in first and I tried for second place with Scheherazade’s 14-year-old daughter Carla. Then, she invited me to start dancing with her at a local venue in San Diego called King Louis. When I looked back, I realized I made pretty good money and I wondered why. It was because Scheherazade demanded that every dancer she brought to dance with her was paid. And we made lots of tips on top of that. Strange, but years later I would find myself fighting tooth and nail to make what Scheherazade made sure her beginning dancers were paid just to show up.

I was very young, inexperienced and in awe of her, and yet too shy at the time to even talk to her. I admired her so much. She was only 5’ 1” but, to me, she was always 10 feet tall. I remember her saying something to the extent that every dancer should see herself as 10 feet tall in class. In my mind, she is always 10 feet tall!

In 1976 she left San Diego, California, for Florida just as my career was taking off. There were a few moments when we connected over the years. We would meet someone who knew the other and would carry a word back. I sent her a copy of my “Dance to the Great Mother” video as a gift because she was, after all, the Mother of my dance. I finally saw her again in 1996, twenty years later. We were both still dancing strong and happy to see that in each other. We acknowledged gratitude in having experienced such long and rewarding careers in belly dance. Neither of us dreamed we would have come face to face this many years later and still be so involved with belly dance and in full form.

Presently, Scheherazade is teaching on Monday nights in Miami and she dances for parties. She even dances with her daughter Carla (who is also an accomplished belly dancer and teacher) and her two grand daughters, Kaitlyn and Brookie. She has seven grandchildren, so It’s possible she could eventually dance with a great grand daughter one of these day. Now wouldn’t that be something? I spoke with her recently and it was so good to reconnect after all those years and reminisce even more about our origins in the dance. She told me her story, one I never had the opportunity to hear before. I bet she has 1001 stories.

Story One: The Princess is Summoned

Once upon a time, Deanna Mc Kenny had her first child at 16. She pictured herself as the average American housewife in Kerney Mesa, California, with three small children. However, she wasn’t ever close to average. She has always been exceptionally beautiful. She had a perfect figure, which never gave anyone a clue she had three kids. She has a golden brown complexion, a long mane of Indian black hair that fell to her waist and sprite little bangs for clever definition.

United Press International: 11/13/73

Scheherazade with Marvin in a short article about belly dancing as a popular way to lose weight.

One day, in a shopping mall with her kids, a woman came up and introduced herself. She said she had seen her belly dance at such and such a place. Deanna told the woman she must have been mistaken, as she didn’t know anything about belly dancing or belly dancers. She never had even seen one. In fact, not many people had seen belly dancing yet. It was just starting to catch on across America as a popular fascination.The woman was sure Deanna was that belly dancer she had seen, and walked away very puzzled and in disbelief. It happened again, and again, and people would get adamant and even a little angry that she wasn’t admitting to the fact that she was the belly dancer they had seen in various places. One day in Mission Valley, a person came up to her and complemented her on her alleged belly dancing, again. This time she just decided to say, “Ok, that was me, thank you very much!” Then they asked how it felt to be on the Johnny Carson show? Oh, now Deanna was really embarrassed! The dancer on the Johnny Carson show turned out to be the famous Ozel Turkabas from Turkey. Deanna recalled even her own kids would come to believe she was the dancer pictured on one of her first belly dance records, “How to Make Your Husband a Sultan”. It was Ozel.

The phenomena of the mistaken identity was too much for Deanna. Finally, she heard about a belly dance class near her neighborhood in La Jolla. It was taught by Lena the Persian Kitten. Deanna barely made it into the class. The registration box slammed shut behind her. She had only taken 5 weeks of lessons when her teacher asked her to come down and dance at a real Middle Eastern style night club called the Barefoot Bar in San Diego's oceanfront tourist area called Vacation Village. She performed her first show under the stage name of “Amira” which means Princess in Arabic. Lena went and sat with some friends in the audience and asked them what they thought of this new girl? The friends said, “ This one is legendary! She’s straight out of the fairy tales of a 1001 Nights.” So Lena went back to the dressing room and told Deanna Amira that her new name should be Scheherazade; Princess Scheherazade.

The night I registered for her class was wet and rainy. Belly dancing was fast becoming the rage.There were 200 women turned away and I was one of them, but then Peggy Paul, the registration volunteer, squeezed me in. Just like my teacher, I barely made it in. Scheherazade taught two classes back to back, two nights a week at Grossmont College. She taught other classes elsewhere on other nights and her phone was ringing off the hook for public performances, private parties, charity events and TV shows. Scheherazade was legendary because everything came to her so naturally. No one knew she was learning as she was earning. She was in tremendous shape, she loved what she was doing, and she really knew how to handle her audience. Her movements were clearly defined and her smile was playful. She was indeed legendary.

In the early ’70s, Scheherazade became the Mother of belly dance in the San Diego area. She taught so many woman to unlock their inhibitions and swing their hips to the Baghdad beat of Eddie Kochak and Muhammad El Bakar. The Ramada Inn opened the Sultans Lounge with the Harem Caravan Revue. Athens West opened in La Jolla, Haji Baba opened in Mission Valley. There would come contests, festivals, and workshops. Trade publications would sprout up, books would be written and belly dance associations would form chapters all over the nation. Women would start dance troupes to perform with and their husbands would learn to play the drum. American musicians would write music for the dance and college conferences would bridge the cultures that nurtured and evolved this dance form into new classical dimensions. Videos would become a recording tool capturing the beauty of our dances and reaching across continents to share the knowledge of technique, style and personality.

Delilah with Scheherazade
Jamila, Scheherazade and Delilah


Scheherazade and I are from adjacent generations of belly dance. We will attest that this dance has kept us young, vital, and engaged in life. She continues to be my mentor and inspiration. Sometimes, we even act younger that our own children! I encourage all women to start belly dancing. It’s never too late. And it is so personally rewarding!

For more personal stories about women who belly dance see:

For healing dance stories see Lorraine Lafatta’s Column:

— Delilah , Belly Dancing with Delilah