In the Belly of the Best

It takes more than hips and bangles to shimmy to the top

"Why aren't you here already?" Francesca whines into a cell phone as she stands in the makeshift staging area behind the bandshell on the Lincoln Road Mall. She pauses to listen. "Why the fuck did you take that way?" She rolls her eyes at Jeri, a six-foot-tall (in stilettos) black woman with cascading hair and silver glitter heavily layered on her eyelids. "How do you get from I-195 to here?" Francesca asks her.

"Take a right on Alton," Jeri replies, but the connection is lost just as Francesca is about to relay the instructions. "Look at me," Jeri exclaims. "I'm sweating bullets."

"Oye, Dios mio," Francesca commiserates, swabbing at her pretty face with a dry cloth. She tugs uncomfortably at the covering over her costume, a shapeless black tunic with red and pink flowers that resembles a fancy hairdresser's duster.

Jonathan Postal
Tamalyn Dallal founded the Mid Eastern Dance Exchange  on South Beach
Jonathan Postal
Tamalyn Dallal founded the Mid Eastern Dance Exchange on South Beach

Claudia, a tall, buxom Venezuelan in a sea-green wrap, glances out across the Lincoln Road sidewalk, through a scattering of tables outside Sushi Siam. Spotting someone who looks like management, she heads over to ask him whether she can use his bathroom to change into her bra top, since there's no curtain to shield her from curious passersby. Noticing this, Jeri stalks off and returns leading an insouciant South Beach type with sleeveless shirt and short ponytail.

"Listen, we need the fourth side of this tent because the dancers are going to be changing into their tops," she demands, pointing at the three-sided enclosure behind the stage. The man casts a glance into a maelstrom of femininity within: brightly colored chiffon, velvet and silk, beads, crystals, and miniature coins accenting the womanly curves on a dozen perspiring, perfumed bodies.

"Why? This is South Beach," he snorts dismissively. He shrugs in the direction of the lightly clad pedestrians milling a few yards away. Unsaid, but clearly evident on the man's face, is what translates roughly to you're belly dancers, chill out for Christ's sake. Jeri allows her baleful glare and distinct height advantage to answer him.

"All right," he concedes. "All right."

Amid this preperformance chaos, its chief orchestrator, Tamalyn Dallal, floats serenely. A short, curly-haired woman with a Valley girl accent that even creeps into her Spanish, Dallal exudes the beaming intensity and nervous energy of a stage mother. As a crowd steadily grows around the stage, Dallal glides through the steaming press of adrenaline-stoked dancers, checking the music, adjusting costumes, calming nerves. Her own peaches-and-pearls costume is concealed under a white drape, as etiquette demands of serious belly dancers. Occasionally she places her hand above her mouth and lets fly with a zaghareet, a high-pitched "lalalalalala" ululation quickly echoed by the other women. It sounds a little like seagulls at a cocktail party. At one of these moments, a man walking by jumps slightly and looks uneasily at the cloaked women, as if they might turn out to be concealing T.E. Lawrence and an army of Bedouins on their way to a bit of nasty business with the Turks.

At this event -- an annual spectacle dubbed Orientalia -- on a sweltering Thursday evening in July, Dallal seems to inspire the kind of adulation among her dancers that winning coaches do from young athletes. This infectious enthusiasm is quite helpful, as it's clear that one purpose for the event is to recruit new acolytes to her dance studio just a few blocks away. "If you ask any one of these women sitting out there if they would want to be up here wearing this costume and dancing like this, not one of them would say no," assures Claudia Mantilla, a former Dallal student who dances in New York under the name Aasal ("honey" in Arabic).

The audience is also filled with women who look like belly dancers, costumes and all. These are the hard-core fans, mostly students who come to every show they can. "It's kind of like a cult," laughs Beatriz Arencibia, a statuesque Czech-Cuban who dances under the name Bozenka. "My brother says [these events are] like a Star Trek convention. But it makes a lot of women feel like they're part of something."

In this realm of feminine ego, the subtlety of the dance wars constantly with the lushness of the fashion. "You can always tell how long someone's been belly dancing by two things -- how big their earrings are and how low they wear their belts," quips Joharah, a Kendall-based vendor who imports belly-dance costumes from the Middle East. "Every year it goes lower and lower. And the earrings go from small to these big dangly things." Joharah's adopted name, which she prefers, means "jewel." There is actually something like a Big Book of Arabic Names many fans of Middle Eastern dance flip through to choose an identity to go with the glamour and subterfuge of a woman's fertility dance.

With her Irish Gypsy looks, Dallal (real name, Tamalyn Harris) doesn't quite seem a habibi muse, but the 44-year-old is easily the best known belly-dance instructor in Miami. She founded the Mid Eastern Dance Exchange on Lincoln Road in 1990 and has slowly built an international reputation for producing solid, occasionally star-quality belly dancers. She and a handful of other dancers in South Florida are responsible for creating a burgeoning scene that's beginning to rival the longer-established Middle Eastern dance cultures of New York and California. Miami also has become a natural portal between the exploding South American belly-dance market and other hip-shaking enclaves around the world.

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