Monday, December 21, 2009

EVERYTHING'S COMING UP ROSES: DANCING INTO THE NEW YEAR




I was singing “Auld Lang Syne” at the top of my lungs along with the car radio as I sped down the deserted, pitch-black 210 Freeway in the early morning hours, towards Pasadena.

A mere couple of hours ago, it had been New Year’s Eve 1996. I had flown in from the East Coast earlier that day, and spent the night- including the customary midnight count-down complete with a champagne toast- dancing my ass off at my regular gig, Moun Of Tunis Restaurant in Hollywood. In the couple of hours it had been 1997, I had also just completed a show at a private party, but I was excited- I was going to dance in the 108th Tournament Of Roses Parade!

My belly dance troupe, Flowers Of The Desert Arabian Dance Company, was going to be performing as part of a float whose theme was world peace, ethnic diversity and cultural unity. The float’s sponsors had envisioned kind of a rolling, flower-studded version of Disneyland’s “It’s A Small World” attraction, but instead of the puppets and dolls that many floats feature, the dancers were going to be real people.

The Rose Parade is annually seen on television by more than 32 million viewers world-wide, and though I had always enjoyed watching the parade and it’s early morning riot of colorful flowers, baton-twirlers and innovative, clever displays, I had never experienced it live- let alone been a part of it!

Every float in the parade portrays it’s own theme, and they are custom constructed weeks in advance of the event, parked in huge refrigerated warehouses while hundreds of volunteers painstakingly glue on flower petals, leaves, ferns, seeds and other natural bits of flora. Since I suffer from hay fever, I had taken the precaution of fortifying myself with Benedryl, so I wouldn’t be sneezing and wheezing my way down the long parade route.

I finally arrived in the designated area for the parade’s performers in the pitch black of the wee hours. Of course, in the pandemonium, it took me ages to find a parking space, and even longer for me to find the float I was affiliated with and the rest of my dance troupe.

It was utter chaos: in the gathering masses, I pushed past police barricades, entire families who had been camped out on the street for days to get a good viewing spot on the parade route, television cameras and news crews doing pre-parade coverage, staggering drunks, fire trucks, and tourists with huge mobile homes who had come to watch the big game, which kicked off directly following the parade.

The throngs of other parade participants probably numbered in the thousands. There were huge high school marching bands packed so closely that their tubas and trombones were clanking together; cheerleading squads from across the nation were practicing their moves next to equestrian groups with trick-riders dressed as cowboys and caballeros, and of course, The Budweiser Clydesdales, whose extensive, semi-truck-sized transportation trailers practically formed a maze.

The Clydesdales and other horses were all beautiful, and their riders looked festive, but their presence, along with the mounted police also meant that there was a ton of horse shit on the street, and so I had to pick my way very carefully in the dark to make sure I wouldn’t get any on my Hermes sandals or the hem of my voluminous skirts.

Trying to locate the other Flowers Of The Desert, I encountered acrobatic troupes, soap opera stars, vintage car clubs with members dressed as 1950’s teenagers, astronauts from Nasa, all sorts of military regiments, troupes of Ballet Folklorico dancers, Victorian Christmas carolers, and what seemed like zillions of Disney cartoon characters whose plush costumes and over-sized fake heads I used to think of as claustrophobic, but now envied cause I was so damn chilly in my own skimpy cabaret costume.

Finally, I found my girls, resplendent in a glittering array of ethnic dance costumes, from Saudi thobes to silk pantaloons and Ghawazee dresses. They were clustered in a tight circle, huddled together for warmth. It was so damp I could literally see their breath as they greeted me through chattering teeth.

There are strict rules for Rose Parade participants. One of them is that since there is nowhere to change, you must arrive in full costume. More importantly, another rule was that no performer is allowed to bring anything with them on a float: no food, water bottles, purses, or even jackets. Hence, the goose bumps on all the participants who were dressed scantily, like the poor majorettes and us belly dancers.

I had my house key and a couple of bucks concealed in the bra of my costume. But while the other Flowers were clutching their chiffon veils around them in an unsuccessful attempt to retain body heat, I’d had the foresight to wear a raggedy old hoodie sweatshirt for pre-parade protection. I figured I would ditch it at the very last moment before the parade started at 7:00am.

Unfortunately, that was still a couple of hours away. Even in my hoodie, it was freezing! Not only that, I was becoming ravenous, and sure I wouldn’t last throughout the long morning without a bite to eat.

Deciding it was time to take action, I asked a friendly- looking parade official if there was anywhere to get warm, and he directed me to a Red Cross station set up specially to serve the parade performers.

“You can’t miss it,” he said, looking me up and down and then snapping a picture of me with a disposable camera,

“It’s right around the corner, a big mobile home- you can get warm in there. They have coffee and snacks for everyone in the parade.”

I asked the other gals if they wanted to look for it, but they were concerned that we would miss our cue for the parade’s line-up if we left. For me, the bone-chilling dampness and the antihistamines I had taken, combined with my jet-lag, multiple- gig fatigue and growing was taking it’s toll, and I informed them I was going to look for snacks and coffee, and would bring some back.

Heading off in the direction the parade official pointed me in; I wandered down a residential street as dawn broke, in search of warmth, caffeine and hopefully a sandwich.

I was almost crying with relief as I spotted the large trailer, right where the guy said it would be. I trudged up the rickety, portable aluminum stairs of the mobile home, gathering up my sequined skirts so I wouldn’t trip.

As I stepped into the cozy trailer, I closed my eyes in contentment as I felt the warmth envelop me. I couldn’t believe that the place wasn’t packed full, it was so cold outside. Happily, I smelled fresh coffee.

I grabbed an apple off the counter and bit into lustily it before making my skirt-swishing way to the bathroom to check my make-up in the tiny, fluorescent-lit space. Even though it had been on all night, my lipstick was intact, and my whole face was so bright and glittery that I was satisfied everyone, even in nosebleed seats of the bleacher stands would be able to see how glamorous and exotic I was.

Someone had thoughtfully left some perfume out on the sink counter, so I helped myself to that, too, splashing it on generously. As I stepped out of the tiny powder room, holding my half-eaten apple, the door slammed, almost hitting a gentile-looking older lady in a Christmas sweater.


“Oops! I’m so sorry!” I called out as I plopped down onto a couch, making myself at home.

“ Do you guys have some coffee for me?”

My request was greeted with silence, but I didn’t care since it was so warm in there and I was busy finishing up my apple.

“May I have some coffee, please?” I repeated.

After a long pause, a man’s voice asked solicitously,

“Sure, how do you take it?”

As I looked up to answer him, suddenly things came into focus. Neither the man or the woman in the Christmas sweater were wearing any sort of Red Cross name tag or identification… in fact, there was nothing in there at all even remotely connected to The American Red Cross, no posters, no literature, no visible signage.

There was a tiny, staticy portable TV showing pre-parade coverage, framed family photos on the walls, and some pillows and an afghan covering another couch suggesting it had been very recently used as a bed.


A large Golden Retriever with a holiday-themed bandanna around it’s neck was snoozing on the couch near where I had sat down, and some copies of Reader’s Digest and a half-completed knitting project lay on the table.
The man was elderly and kindly looking, wearing a football jersey and he had his arm around the lady in the Christmas sweater.

I gulped, realizing that I had stepped into a private motor home!


And then it came to me what I must have looked like: an escapee from a mental hospital. I was a blatant, un-abashed trespasser with a sense of grandiose entitlement, and bleary in my Benedryl haze, my face caked with over-the-top, garish make-up, I was a lunatic clad in a revealing belly dance costume topped by the kind of a dirty, ripped-up, gray sweatshirt that would be featured in Bag Lady Vogue if such a publication existed. Not only that, I was holding the core of the recently devoured stolen apple in my hand and I reeked of the lady’s perfume.

“Oh my God, I’M SO SORRY!” I spluttered, my face turning crimson in embarrassment.

The couple tried to keep straight faces- apparently, they had understood exactly what was going on the moment I crashed into their trailer, and were waiting to see how long it would take me to catch on.


“The Red Cross trailer is next door,” the man said, deadpan,

“But you can still have some coffee…and we promise not to tell anyone what you did if you take a picture with us!”

At that, we all burst into laughter, even though mine was pretty sheepish. Turned out they were formerly from Pasadena, but now lived in Idaho, and in town for a few days to visit friends, see the game and watch the parade. They said that they had made the pilgrimage to Pasadena every year for the past decade. Luckily, they were thrilled to see a glamorous- though very disoriented and sleep-deprived parade performer- come crashing into their world. We posed for a few photos, and then amidst more laughter, I left to find my sister dancers, who wondered aloud where I’d been for so long.

“Why didn’t you come to the Red Cross trailer?” they squealed. “It was awesome, everyone was so nice!”

I started to tell them, but then we got rounded up in the appearance order for the floats along with all the other performers, because the parade was about to begin.

At 7:00am, The Stealth Bomber flew over downtown Pasadena, creating an earth-shaking sonic boom, which kicked off the festivities that year. As the floats revved their motors and the procession started, we rounded the first bend on the route, and there was literally a wall of television cameras.

The sound of the crowds in the stands and on the streets was beyond deafening. The bands were all playing different songs at the same time; spectators were screaming and yelling and there was incessant bleating from those plastic souvenir parade horns that vendors sell to kids on the streets during events such as this.

After about forty minutes, my hip sockets felt like they were ground to dust and my feet began throbbing from the constant dancing. My face hurt from non-stop smiling and both my arms were sore from waving.

People cut out of the crowds, zipping from the sidewalk to the floats running up and offering Dixie cups full of water for the all the performers. About halfway through, parade spectators who were obviously locals were holding up large, hand-lettered signs that read slogans like

“ONLY 1.5 MILES TO GO!” “THE END IS NEAR!” and “HANG IN THERE!”

By the end of the parade route, I was completely exhausted, spent, utterly finished. I was so tired I didn’t even want to get a VIP close-up look at any of the other floats; I just wanted to get home and go to sleep.

But in spite of my sore cheeks, I was still grinning ear-to-ear and laughing to myself, because I couldn’t think of a better way EVER to start the New Year!

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