A History with the Aman Folk Ensemble, Part I

Michael Alexander recalls the beginnings of the Aman Folk Ensemble, which grew from its beginnings in the early 1960s at UCLA into a major company of international distinction, recognized for its exuberant, authentic recreations of a wide variety of world dance cultures.  Michael is currently the Executive Director of Grand Performances, a performing arts series in downtown Los Angeles.


Introduction and Chapter One


Hundreds of people – maybe a thousand or more – were involved in the Aman Folk Ensemble from its inception in 1963 or 1964, depending on whose account one hears.  Dozens played critical roles in the development of the Company.  Of course there were the founding Artistic Directors, Leona Wood and Anthony Shay.  But throughout that forty-plus year history, an incredible array of dancers, musicians – both instrumentalists and vocalists, dance researchers, choreographers, production staff including stage managers, lighting designers, sound engineers and costume specialists, board members, other volunteers including the many who joined the Aman Women’s Council chaired by Diane Disney Miller, administrative staff, and board members (who, during the peak years, we absolutely critical to the Company’s survival).  I was privileged to be one of those who played a role and, as of this writing, here is Chapter One that recounts my memory of Aman’s history.

At this writing [July 2013], a large cohort from the Company are planning a 50th Anniversary gathering for the company for October, 2013 in Palm Springs.  Folks are researching the history including gathering the names of people that were involved directly with the company in one way or another.  I recommend that people interested in learning more about the company can go to the following website: aman50.com‎.



My career in the arts owes a lot to my personal history with the Aman Folk Ensemble.  I danced with the company for seven-plus years, managed it for a dozen (some of which overlapped with my dancing career), and was involved on the board at its beginning and at its end. But let me start with my involvement as a performer before sharing stories about what was done to change a UCLA “club” into a nationally respected ethnic dance company that toured the country and then the world and became one of the leading dance companies in Los Angeles.

In 1965 I started UCLA and took a Balkan dance class being taught by Elsie Dunin.  Among my classmates was Mika Seeger (Pete’s daughter).  Concurrent to our evening dance class, Aman was rehearsing on the lower floor of the UCLA Women’s Gym (now Kaufman Hall).  When she told me that Aman had been engaged by Universal Studios to be the Berber dancers in the film Gambit starring Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine and Herbert Lom, I dropped by a rehearsal and almost instantly accepted an invitation to join the company.  I was 18.  (The story, as I recall hearing it, was that Mustafa Akkad – not yet renowned for producing a film on the life of Muhammed – was hired by Universal as a consultant for Gambit and he recommended engaging the Aman dancers and musicians for a scene taking place on a Moroccan street.  I also heard that some of the footage shot was later used to promote tourism to Morocco.)

Victor Sirelson and I started working out a dance that involved two men mock fighting each other with five-foot long pieces of doweling.  We incorporated all kinds of jumps, squats and lunges as we swung our sticks towards each other and engaged in “combat.”  At one point, I got to show off my prowess by holding the stick with both hands and jumping back and forth over it.  I had quite an exciting part for the film – all which ended up on the cutting room floor.   Other sequences from Aman’s Berber Suite were featured, but if you hunted for your popcorn while watching the film, there was a good chance you would have missed the company.

I had not fully committed myself to really joining the company but Universal kept putting off our day at the back lot and each passing week found me more and more engaged in the company’s repertoire.  I was learning other dances, being asked to participate in small performances, having a good time and making friends (not an easy thing for a commuter-student at UCLA at that time).  We finally were filmed, I got my measly dancing/extra check (not even $100 if I recall correctly) and I was hooked on staying with Aman.

What was this company?  I quickly learned that Aman was the product of the merger of two dance groups with links to UCLA.  Anthony Shay and Leona Wood were two charismatic leaders who enticed dozens of people over the years to join in their dream.  Leona had been the director of “Friends of Arabic Dance”.  Her husband, Philip Harland, was a brilliant musician (and over the years, dozens of musicians joined Aman just for the opportunity to work with Phil).  Phil was an astrophysicist working for McDonald Douglas by day and making music by night.  Whenever the UCLA’s Institute of Ethnomusicology was lacking a resident Ghanaian master drummer, Phil was in charge of passing the drumming traditions of the Ashanti and Ewe to UCLA students of African music.  Anthony (called Tony by everyone who knew him) was the director of the Village Dancers (Westwood Village?), which had a heavy Balkan and Central Asian focused repertoire.  Tony had spent time living in Iran in the early 60s where he had absorbed much of the culture, learned the language and, even, performed as a singer on the national radio station.

Leona’s and Tony’s companies had shared performances and they realized that they shared common interests, standards and performance goals.  They decided to merge and call their new company the Aman Folk Ensemble.  Among the goals that they had was to have live music played on appropriate instruments (we ultimately toured with 15 or more musicians and upwards of 60 different instruments), authentic costumes or well-researched copies, a large corps of dancers and a varied and substantial enough repertoire that the company could present full evening concerts without having to share the bill with anyone else.

By the time I joined Aman, it was at least 18 months old (start dates vary according to my sources).   It still needed to involve some guest artists.  A local tamburitza orchestra, the Hajduks,  was engaged to accompany the Croatian repertoire until Aman had enough string musicians to create our own.  (Eventually we had to purchase a number of the instruments from Yugoslavia so we could have our own tamburitza.)  The soloist skills of various individual were also essential to filling out a full program including belly dancing by Leona, accompanied on dumbek by Phil, and Tony singing a number of Persian songs that he had learned while abroad.

Aman was a “community” by that time.  Though we clearly had two artistic directors, there was a collaborative leadership spirit that impacted on the company’s growth in many ways.  Many of the most experienced dancers taught new dances to the company.  Various members coming with specific expertise helped expand the repertoire into new and exciting areas.  Dancers with backgrounds in other styles of performance dance helped us raise our standards in many areas including how we warmed up before rehearsals, worked to have a Bolshoi level of tight performance, learned to sing in a variety of languages and add elements of theatrical dance (lighting and other stage craft) that helped distinguish the company from other “folk dance” groups performing exhibition work.  We were modeling ourselves after the finest international companies – the ones that Sol Hurok was touring (and we once auditioned for him but more on that later).

So I decided to stay with the company after the filming at Universal was complete.  In short order I was learning dances from Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Morocco and Gujarat, India.   We were getting performance opportunities throughout the LA area. In addition to performances with UCLA’s Institute of Ethnomusicology under the direction of the legendary Mantle Hood, we performed for Croatian and Serbian churches, various Jewish Community Centers, UCLA’s Spring Sing at the Hollywood Bowl, various civic events and as special entertainment for society banquets at major hotels.  All sorts of dignitaries were in our audiences including Princess Alexandra of Great Britain, Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi of Iran (during the Shah’s reign) and numerous elected officials.

Not all our venues were meant for concert dance.  One of the most memorable was the time we danced at the Olympic Auditorium – the primary location for boxing, wrestling and roller derby at the time.  Fortunately the corner posts and ropes had been removed but it was weird for us all to use dressing rooms that had also been used by Gorgeous George and Haystack Calhoun.

By the late 60s, we all felt ready to produce our own concert at the Wilshire Ebell Theater.  It was one of the primary rental houses in town with a seating capacity just under 1,300 seats.  Remarkably, we sold it out.  Aman was still an amateur company – no one was paid to perform.  After covering all the performance related costs all funds were invested in building the costume collection.  At first replicas were made here but in time, Aman started to purchase authentic costumes directly from villagers in Yugoslavia, Rumania and Bulgaria and fabric from Egypt essential to the costuming for our Ghawazi suite (from the city of Asyut, we bought netted fabric with hammered pieces of silver bent over various threads to create beautiful intricate pattern that reacted beautifully under stage lights).  Instruments usually belonged to the individual musicians but Aman did buy some over the years, including a cymbalom, the tamburitza instruments and a number from Greece.

Management of the company, if you could call it that, was provided by various individuals at different times.  Most of the managers were the spouses of members of the company.   I wanted to be involved in the management in some way and in 1967 – just before my 20th birthday, I became “bursar” – the keeper of the checkbook.  Meager as the funds were, I would collect our fees and distribute the funds as needed to buy cloth, beads, dye and who-knows-what so we could make authentic-looking costumes ourselves.  Leona became quite expert at knowing which types of tea would color a fabric just right for different regions’ costumes.

By 1969, after a series of spouses had taken on one aspect of managing or another, I got a call that Tony and Leona wanted me to give a try at a more comprehensive management job for the company.  I was young with limited personal responsibilities and could devote 15 or more hours a week to company management at that time.  I was offered 5% of the income as compensation.  In a good month, I might make a few hundred dollars.  Within a year, I was working full time for the company with a guaranteed $500 per month.  (Thank goodness I still had my clown shoes – purchased when I started to work for the LA City Circus in 1964.  If it weren’t for the clown work that I continued to do every weekend, I would have starved!!)

Among the first things that I did was take advantage of our affiliation with the UCLA Student Activities office.  As a UCLA club (we got a tiny allowance from UCLA for a number of years), I could use a spare office and phone at UCLA a few times a month to place phone calls throughout the state trying to line up performances.  I got directories of all the colleges and universities in the West and called to find out who was responsible for booking each one’s concert series.

Leona (you need to look her up on Google) had an illustrious history as a fine artist and as a graphic designer.  We worked together on copy for booking brochures and press kits that we mailed out to prospective presenters.  Fortune came our way when a few community concert associations asked us to perform for them and we came to the attention of Columbia Artists, which owned Community Concerts at that time.  Columbia Artists asked us to fill in for a Philippine Dance Company that was scheduled to perform in both Oakland and Sacramento.  They were not on consecutive days and we were going to have to come home between shows.

The Sacramento date was in the middle of the week.  I bought seats for 60 plus performers on PSA airlines to get to Sacramento but the only flight after the performance was one chartered by the US Post Office.  No one was allowed to buy advance tickets, but we could get in line and get really cheap tickets ($13 per person if I recall correctly) just prior to the flight.  I sent one of the musicians who had nothing to do in the second half of the performance to the airport with instructions to buy seats for all the performers and some of the larger instruments that we would not store below the plane (e.g. the bass, some large drums, etc.).  At the end of the performance we had less than 45 minutes to get out of costume, pack everything and head to the airport on two charter buses that I had engaged (one driver asked me on the way, how to get to the airport!!!).  Sixty chicken dinners were delivered just before we took off and we made it to Sacramento’s airport with about 15 minutes to stow everything and get on board.  The flight staff kept insisting that we would have to buy more seats for various instruments so we kept running back to the counter to buy more seats for various Central Asian santours and the like.  At one point Leona was about to be kicked off the plane when she would not give up holding onto one of the more precious instruments in her and Phil’s personal collection.  Ultimately we took off all intact.  The flight made a stop in San Francisco where a bunch of young travelers who had never had trouble getting seats on this cheap flight were turned away because we monopolized the plane.

Other tour dates in California included performances for the University of San Francisco, Mills College, a Serbian Church in San Diego, the folk dance club at UC Santa Barbara, the Sacramento and Fresno Bees, various out-of-county Community Concert Associations and a few summer series including the Redlands Bowl.  Though mainstream media ignored Aman for the most part, folk dancers, ethno-musicologists and others with specific interests in folkloric and non-Western traditional arts knew about Aman and were organizing for our visits.  Many hosted welcome parties and helped fill halls as we toured to their home towns.

After a number of successful Ebell concerts, I was encouraged by Tony to see if we could get booked at the Music Center.  The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was just about five years old when I approached the Music Center about an engagement.  We were told that we would have to be approved.  Two associates of Dorothy Chandler including Marjorie Winfield, who ran Chandler’s Performing Arts Council, came to see us at one of our local performances.  They gave us a “thumbs up” and we started the process that led to our premier performance there on March 19, 1971.

We had to present ourselves.  I borrowed $7,000 from my father’s Electrical Workers Credit Union (on his signature alone) to cover the theater rental and stage crew costs.  Barry Glass, who by this time was one of the Assistant Directors of the Company, set up a meeting with his father who was a Hollywood producer with a substantial press/promotion background.  At his suggestion we engaged a publicist who helped us get some special coverage in the papers and on radio.  To our relief and astonishment, we sold out.  I had promised two people seats and could not get them any.  I ended up having to put seats in the wings so they could watch the performance.  I was able to pay the Credit Union everything they loaned us before the month was out.

Within days of our success, I got a call from Jack Present, who was in charge of booking for Music Center Presentations.  They wanted to bring us back in September for four performances at the Ahmanson Theater.  Now we would not have to front money for the performance.  Now we could work with the Music Center’s very sophisticated marketing team.  We met Dave Bongard and Betty Barr who helped us get even more local coverage and a review from Martin Bernheimer who called himself a “Martin-come-lately” who discovered that “Aman was every bit as good as its reputation.”  We had turned a corner as a member of the local dance community.

Next, Chapter Two: Entering the Local Dance Community and Establishing a Fund-raising Apparatus for the Company

© Copyright 2013  Michael Alexander  All rights reserved