In the Belly of the Best

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

While Dallal is the better known of her two star pupils, Jihan Jamal is Aziza's truest protégée. Jamal, a 52-year-old Cuban American, is considered by most other local dancers to be the purest practitioner of the classical Egyptian style, which features bare feet and elegant flowing movements. "It's amazing the way she dances," remarks Dallal. "Very passionate, very grounded, very subtle. I'm much more eclectic. It's funny that both of us studied under Aziza, and yet we are so different." For her part, Jamal is equally complimentary of Dallal's ability to turn out so many good dancers -- almost all of the best dancers working in Miami today were trained by Dallal (although most expanded their training with other teachers). Both dancers have won Ms. America of the Bellydance titles -- Jamal in 1987, Dallal in 1995 -- and two of Dallal's students won in 1996 and 2000.

In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Jamal, Dallal, a Miami Shores mother-daughter team by the name of Kahreen and Kira, and a few others were the backbone of a small but active core of dancers either performing or teaching around town. There was also a thriving Middle Eastern cabaret scene that kept everyone working steadily. Then restaurants stopped paying for quality, and belly dance as a workout fad was replaced with newer fads like jazzercise. Dancers moved, had families, or retired. Dallal spent several years dancing in South America and New York City. By the late Eighties, Kahreen and Kira were almost the only major belly dancers operating in Miami.

Dallal was disappointed with how the belly dance scene had dwindled when she came back to Miami in 1988. "It wasn't much," she recalls. "I was used to making my living as a belly dancer at that point but the opportunities in Miami weren't that great. The restaurants were paying badly, the belly gram services had mostly become stripper grams, and they were expecting longer shows for less money."

From top to bottom, drama queen Hanan, mother-daughter sword players Kahreen and Kira, and graceful Bozenka
Jonathan Postal
From top to bottom, drama queen Hanan, mother-daughter sword players Kahreen and Kira, and graceful Bozenka

After a trip to Egypt in 1990, Dallal decided she needed to start a school that could be the focal point for building a better local belly-dance culture. The studio/school was founded in the bottom of a dive hotel on Lincoln Road, which, to save money, also became Dallal's apartment for two years. Her timing was spot on. The Mid Eastern Dance Exchange opened in the heart of South Beach just as a young, arty, and urbane crowd began to flow in, and just before the place got too hip and expensive to maintain its more interesting fringe characters.

The studio had windows at street level, so passersby could press their noses against the glass, watching troupes of women move to complex Oriental rhythms. "It really did put belly dancing on the map because the public could actually see it," Dallal remembers. After Hurricane Andrew and the beginning of SoBe revitalization, the hotel owner jacked Dallal's rent, so the studio moved a few blocks down the street to its current location at 350 Lincoln Rd. There the dance exchange, which had included many types of dance classes, concentrated almost exclusively on belly dancing, and became a nonprofit organization seeking arts grants and a degree of credibility from other local dance cultures.

Ask a local belly dancer who the best dancers in town are and there's a certain amount of sniffing, sighing, and eye rolling that goes on in the answer, as each person weighs a complex formula of talent, beauty, style, and personal loyalty or animosity. But mostly the same names come up, if ranked differently on each dancer's list. Dallal, Jihan Jamal, a dancer and percussionist named Myriam Eli, and Kira from Miami Shores are all generally considered excellent teachers and good performers. The top performers of the next generation are mostly Dallal's students -- Bozenka, Hanan, Amar Gamal (who left town to live in New York and tour with this year's Lollapalooza), Virginia, Samay, and Aireen. "We all come from Dallal," says 27-year-old Bozenka, whom many consider the most beautiful dancer in town in every sense. "She is very selfless. She'll teach you everything she knows and encourages you to seek out other teachers. She's got the recipe for giving you a good base."

From that recipe, each student makes something quite different. "Bozenka's style is soft and sweet," assesses Jamal. "Virginia is more dynamic, and Hanan is a bit of both." Virginia Mendez has a strong stage presence, influenced no doubt by her years as the singer in a local altrock band called Agony in the Garden. Hanan is an accomplished dancer, but she often uses the art for social commentary, usually with a feminist bent (examples from her shows include drag belly dancing and female circumcision). "It's not a crime to just want it to be pretty, but that's a limited view of the human experience," Hanan argues. "I'm using belly dancing as a tool for change."

Every dancer has an opinion about who has the best technique, or puts on the best shows. "Everybody's style and approach is different," says Dallal. "Like Kahreen and Kira call their style Las Vegas style, which is the last thing I would ever want to be. It's very glitzy and production-oriented." Understandably, the mother-daughter team is equally sniffy about overly long Middle Eastern-style shows, which they feel are great for certain crowds but unpalatable for the general American audience. "We try to do something people can identify with," Kahreen explains. "We try to bring it to the people as entertaining first."

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