Best belly dancer with a heart of gold
Once upon a revolution in Palestine, an earthquake rocked the fourth of July and a baby girl was born. She was kidnapped by her own father and raised by gypsies, who taught her to belly dance and play the oud. When her spangled hips caught the eye of a Kuwaiti prince, he sent seven slaves in a brand new Cadillac to win her love. But she fell for another man: a carpenter from California. That’s what brought Jodette Johnson to Sacramento. Seriously. She told me so.
Jodette is more than a local belly-dance instructor; she’s an epic, a collection of wild anecdotes that plug in to more eras than Forrest Gump. But her story isn’t just a worldly who’s who, dropping names like Janis Joplin, Ronald Reagan, Muhammad Ali and plenty of Middle Eastern royalty. Beneath the glitter, the dancer’s most endearing adventure is a local one.
This year, SN&R’s Best of Sacramento issue celebrates the spirit of community in our diverse city. And because of her friendship with Sacramento’s most vulnerable population, the homeless, we celebrate Jodette. Even if she was an accidental muse.
Research for a short article on belly dancing led me to Jodette’s answering machine, through which her recorded voice said, “God bless you. And God! Bless! America!”
Jodette didn’t call back. She showed up at SN&R. The tiny woman with the voice that’s at once commanding and downright charming prefers action.
“I can’t stay. I have to go home and cook maftoul for the homeless,” she said as soon as we shook hands. (Maftoul being the Middle Eastern word for couscous.) So we made an appointment; a future date that would turn up a lot more than a short story about dance.
Turns out, Jodette’s humanitarian cookout—a daily affair—isn’t volunteered for usual suspects like the Sacramento Food Bank or Loaves & Fishes. Not the woman who prefers life up front.
“Sometimes the Food Bank, they help me. Sometimes Loaves & Fishes. Sometimes none,” she said. “I am just a small woman. Nobody gives me money for [the homeless]. I feed them from my heart.”
Every day, Jodette takes her big heart and a van full of home-made Middle Eastern cuisine to the river. She wears her “old lady clothes” and travels alone. At the water’s edge, just as the California sun beats at its most merciless, Jodette’s greeted by several large men. But she isn’t daunted. These looming characters are her friends. Homeless, hungry, obedient to their tiny earth angel, the men unload the feast Jodette has prepared for them. At least that’s how it goes in her story. Jodette won’t let me come along; it might shatter their trust in her.
“A lot of homeless people are very guarded about where they are and it’s a privilege, an honor, a real trust for them to let someone come down and know who they are,” said Alan Kleinman, director of procurement at Loaves & Fishes. “There’s a warmth about [Jodette]. I really think she actually feels their pain.”
Blake Young, president of the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, has accompanied Jodette on these river excursions. “It’s a little bit scary and very gratifying,” he said. “She’s very courageous. She’s received very well; the people absolutely love her.”
At her K Street studio, just before the sun sets on a Tuesday night, Jodette takes me to her van, plastered with a giant photo of her as a young belly dancer. She opens the back door to reveal a floor covered in bulk supplies: diapers, canned beans, chicken broth.
“Sometimes, I find a sick homeless. I take him here,” she says, pointing to the floor of her van with the seats folded up, ready for human slumber. “Then I take him to hospital.”
To understand why the belly-dance star of Sacramento doubles as the homeless community’s patron saint, you have to hear her story—or at least the chapter kicked off by the Summer of Love.
The Middle Eastern beauty moved to Sacramento with her beloved carpenter, Carl Johnson, when the hippie movement was rolling together faster than the joints passed around. Jodette’s belly-dance costumes, with their “eyelash” fringed trim and spangled tips, were the height of groovy, and the self-proclaimed “first belly dancer in the history of America” became an unintentional darling of the American boho scene.
From there, Jodette’s tales about her young performer’s days shift from mortal to magical.
Like the time Jodette told her manager that she would never again dance for a party of those long-haired, shoeless hippies that he called sar soor, or bugs. They were actually the Beatles.Or the time a New York City Hilton hotel rented Jodette’s room to a Muhammad Ali fan, and she threw a tantrum so charming the boxing king found her a room and a limo ride to his boxing match. It gets better: Years later, Jodette was throwing another charming tantrum in the L.A. airport over a missed flight when a shoulder tap brought her face to face with a grinning Ali. Her famous friend helped her land a seat on the next plane to Cairo, Egypt. (A photo of Ali with his arm draped proudly over a giggling Jodette is a sweet souvenir to these knight-in-shining-red-gloves fairytales).
She’ll tell you about dancing for Reagan when he was governor, Nixon while he was president and, though she tried unsuccessfully to meet president Carter in Georgia, she’ll tell you how she charmed his mother and his brother, a local beer baron, who gave the teetotaling dancer a few of his home brews.
And she’ll tell you about her “hippie shop,” an incense and bell-bottoms supplier here in Sacramento, from which Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and members of Jefferson Airplane all bought Jodette’s groovy clothing designs in the ’70s. “They heard about me and they came to see ‘that woman,’” she said. The shop moved twice before evolving into her K Street belly-dance studio. But before all that, the free-spirited ethos of her hippie shop gave way to something else: her outreach.
“There was hungry hippies coming to my shop and asking for change, so I cooked for them,” she said. “Now I feed the real homeless.”
And because the legend of Jodette is never dull, her crusade against local hunger officially kicked off after a car crash, an eight-day coma, and a promise to God that she’d share bread with anyone who needed it if she could just dance again.
Beyond cooking for her transient friends, Jodette runs blanket and clothing drives, both in her studio and around town. Of course, she doesn’t just wait for these creature comforts to trickle in; Jodette spends her summer weekends at garage sales, buying blankets and thick coats just in case there aren’t enough come winter.
And she throws a great party, like the annual Homeless Benefit Show on October 19 at Persian Garden Restaurant. Donate 20 bucks and a few blankets or coats, and you’ll be treated to live belly-dance performances and an all-you-can-eat dinner. Jodette wants the belly-dance community to unite under this cause, not compete. She made a second trip to SN&R just to tell me so.
If you see Jodette hanging out at her studio, a “belly dancers have more fun” baby-doll tee offsetting her flowing skirt, you might not understand what this tiny frame is capable of. But watch her slink to the front of the room, arms raised, tiny cymbals clinking as her hips start to move with impossible precision. That’s when you’ll know you’re in the presence of a legend.