In the Belly of the Best

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

More than a decade after Dallal started her studio, belly dancing in Miami is slowly evolving beyond a kitschy subculture characterized by cheesy restaurant gigs and internecine warfare, into a dance form recognized as an art in its own right. There have been concerts at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, and coveted grants earned from organizations such as the Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council and the Miami Beach Cultural Arts Council.

Michael Spring, the effervescent director of the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council, recalls that when the Mid Eastern Dance Exchange began applying for grants a few years ago, the council gambled with a small seed grant. The amount has risen every year, to $11,524 this year. "They do a thoughtful job of exploring the roots of the dance and fusing it with contemporary dance forms," Spring notes. "As their programs have grown and deepened, our grant funding has increased."

The best working dancers can earn up to $50,000 a year -- if they really hustle -- teaching classes, performing at Arabic weddings and private parties, and being flown to other states or countries (usually South America) for gigs. "Miami has a really good reputation for producing great belly dancers," says Dallal. "We've really pushed the scene forward in South Florida. And pop culture in general has embraced this."

Miami belly-dance pioneer Evelyn "Aziza" Hamsey still has the moves at 84 years old
Jonathan Postal
Miami belly-dance pioneer Evelyn "Aziza" Hamsey still has the moves at 84 years old
Sure it's about expressing the inner goddess, but it doesn't hurt to be a hottie
Jonathan Postal
Sure it's about expressing the inner goddess, but it doesn't hurt to be a hottie

Blame Shakira's be-twitching hips. The Colombian pop star learned her moves from belly dancers based in Miami and Davie. Her mass appeal, plus a broader trend of sampling Middle Eastern music in hip-hop and Latin tracks, has helped give belly dancing a new cachet it hasn't enjoyed since its emergence as an exercise fad and marital aid in the early Seventies.

In South Florida the dance form also got a big boost from an odd Brazilian telenovela called El Clon. The basic soap formula of the show, enormously popular last year and into early 2003, was moved along by an unlikely axis of subplots, such as Islamic culture, cloning, and drug addiction. For some reason, several of the main characters spent a lot of time belly dancing, which gave Latinas across the hemisphere a license to shimmy.

Every belly-dance instructor in South Florida did well during the show's peak, as classes filled with women seeking their inner goddess through better abdominal control. "El Clon was some seriously good living," recalls Tiffany Madera, a former student of Dallal's who teaches and performs under the name Hanan. (Madera also occasionally writes freelance music articles for New Times.)

Long before belly dancing found its way into the local mainstream, there was just the Egyptian queen of Westchester. If anyone can claim to be the mother of belly dance in Miami, it is 84-year-old Evelyn Hamsey. Hamsey -- a Lebanese from Montreal -- moved to the wilds of western Miami in the 1950s with her husband. Around 1958 she began teaching Egyptian-style belly dancing to small groups of women in the gym of a school in Westchester. She is fondly known throughout local dancing circles as Aziza (beloved).

Aziza is a tiny woman, under five feet tall, and pear-shaped, with wide hips. She still wears plenty of eye makeup, very common among dancers. On this day, it's blue eyeshadow, a dark kohl eyeliner, and penciled-in brows. Seated at the table in her front room, she wears a flowery tube dress with a blue chiffon shirt and a large Sagittarius pendant. "I was the only one doing this when I started," she intones, her accent vaguely French. "I just did it for exercise, you understand. It's so good for your insides."

Aziza learned to dance as a young woman by watching old movies her father would import from Egypt. She never danced in public because it would have offended her family (a common prohibition among conservative Middle Eastern families). But for more than two decades, Aziza taught women the secrets of the shimmy, hip drop, and stomach undulations. "These girls would come to me and I'd teach them the right way -- the Egyptian way," she recounts. "Some of them became very good. Some of them made a business out of it."

A young Tamalyn Dallal studied with her for several years, as did Jihan Jamal, another well-known local teacher who essentially took over Aziza's classes when she retired. Although now she's out of the game ("What else could they teach me after all this time?" she asks), Aziza keeps tabs on the local belly dancers through Fatahi, a Tunisian drummer who lives in her home, and Jamal. She doesn't much like the trend of dancers these days fusing Middle Eastern dance with Latin, jazz, or other styles. "Aziza is very particular," Jamal notes. "There are no gray areas with her."

In her living room, Aziza tries to conjure the old magic. Tottering down the hall to a bedroom, she returns with a hip scarf, which she fastens low around herself, just under her ponderous belly. Standing with feet wide for balance, she begins to shift her weight from side to side. Moving slowly at first, her hips build speed to a rapid vibration, causing the miniature gold coins on the scarf to jingle. But the weight of the scarf combined with the hip work disturb the integrity of the elastic at the top of the tube dress, threatening to send the entire mass to the floor. Unperturbed, Aziza yanks her dress back up a few inches. "It's all in the shimmies," she reveals confidently. Her eyes intently appraise an awkward attempt to copy her movements. "Well, you gotta practice," she sighs with dissatisfaction.

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