March 30, 2011
Dancing on edge of memories in former café space
There is a tiny two-block alleyway in West Los Angeles that runs on a diagonal from South Barrington Avenue east to Pico Boulevard. The backs of small industrial buildings border one side. On the other, a chain link fence shields a packinghouse or shipping service. To look at it, you would never call it the street of dreams or the isle of atmospheric romantic intrigue. You certainly would never envision it as the pulsating focus of a once-young, vibrant new generation of American Jews animated by the lightning victory of Israeli soldiers during the Six-Day War.
Not long ago, I was fighting road rage and gridlock, traveling south on Barrington, desperately looking for an escape route. I suddenly came upon this nondescript alley and found momentary relief in its empty flow. Seconds later, just as the alley was emptying out onto Pico, my eye caught a steel staircase and its second-floor platform that led to an open door. I gasped. “Look where I am.” I spun the car around, slid into a space and immediately jumped out.
Standing next to the staircase was a large guy who watched my entire movement. In a Caribbean accent, he said, “Mon, you looking to buy some T-shirt?”
“No,” I said, “I want to go up these stairs and take a look inside that open door.”
“Just a T-shirt printing company. That’s all.”
“No, it’s not,” I said. “Let me tell you what this is.”
“What do you think it is? I work here.”
“This is where Café Danssa was. This is where I danced till 1 in the morning. This is where I made my best friends. This is where I built my dreams. On that landing up there is where I stood sweaty, with beautiful girls, talking of what our lives would be someday. This is where I met my wife. ”
“In there? In the T-shirt printing room?”
“I need to see the room.”
“Go, take a look.”
I climbed up the stairs, not quite the way I used to bounce up them 40 years ago. I walked inside.
Café Danssa had been erased. I was looking at what had once been the holy temple of my youth, now completely desecrated with printing equipment, industrial paints on metal tables, shelving that held thousands of T-shirts, racks of hanging T-shirts, tables of drying T-shirts.
I turned to the corner where you could always find the swarthy, handsome Dani Dassa at the phonograph, from where he would step forward with his beautiful wife, Judy, looking like a sculpted dancing Michelangelo couple. Each Thursday night, they would teach us Israeli dances inspired by the words and songs of a culture that none of us Americans knew, but which he taught us belonged to all of us.
A black printing machine was now wedged into that space.
I looked at what had been the dance floor, where sometimes up to 200 of us would move together in unison, hold one another for the first time, sing together, laugh together, get teary-eyed together and scream “opa!” as we jumped along with Dani. It was where we learned romantic couples dances that swept us into each other’s arms, singing softly into each other’s ears. It was where we swayed in exotic Yemenite dances. I looked again at the floor and remembered how it would gracefully bounce during debkas.
Now it was covered with cheap industrial-grade linoleum, strewn with debris.
I looked afar at what had been the booth area where many of us ate falafel, hummus and tahini for the first time, where we would talk with recently arrived Israeli soldiers and Israeli students who had come to UCLA, establishing a bond with one another. It was the area where romances sparked, where affairs began, where gossip spread, where news was told, where we practiced Hebrew, where we first met Moroccan and Yemenite Jews, where the American Zionism of the era, flourished.
I could barely see that far through the clutter of more shelving and machinery.
I looked at the concrete block walls once painted with colorful biblical figures carrying jugs on their heads. They were now painted gray.
I stood there, silent, listening for the music of thousands of atmospherically saturated nights that I know had seeped into those walls. I wondered if there was a way to squeeze it out of the crevices.
Dani Dassa is now 80 years old and still tall, erect and handsome as ever. I see him and Judy once a year at the annual Israeli folk dance marathon, led by his son David. When Dani dances, everyone stands back to watch the master, as he continues to moves with an inspirational agility and grace. Dani sold Café Danssa in the 1970s. It was bought by Los Angeles Times editor David Blume and his folksinger wife, Carolyn Hester, who operated it in much the same spirit for many years, until it was closed in 2007, after Blume died.
I saw the life of Café Danssa in my mind’s eye as I walked out of the T-shirt room, down the stairs, wondering how that tiny, bland space could actually hold all those memories — and all that meaning.
Gary Wexler’s memories of 40 years ago are fading fast. To contact him before it all goes blank, visit garywexler.com.