In the Belly of the Best

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

Inevitably, explains Dallal, "there's ego, and there's sisterhood, and sometimes sibling rivalry. It's very deeply psychological."

Sometimes this rivalry has produced major catfights, perpetuated through the usual devices of rumor-mongering, price wars, and boycotts of other dancers' performances. "It's an art of selling themselves," laughs Fatahi, the Tunisian drummer and singer who frequently performs with local belly dancers. "'I'm better than the next one,' or 'I'm cheaper than that one,' is usually what you hear."

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

The mercantile side of the dance can be ugly. "The requirements of youth and beauty are very demanding of a person performing," Fatahi articulates. "They pay the price, the poor things. You'd be surprised what people ask [when booking dancers]. 'Is she young? Is she beautiful?' not 'Can she dance?'"

The competitive side of the business also touched Dallal's dance company as it morphed along with a changing South Beach scene. Toward the mid-Nineties, the success of her troupe and the lure of SoBe's skin-deep club culture resulted in some of her dancers "getting very full of themselves and very vain and totally out of touch with learning about the culture," Dallal remembers. "Around 2000 there was a phase where every little club in town wanted to have belly dancers, but dancing to house music on top of speakers. So a lot of my dancer students would get into that.

"It was that period where it was getting a little twisted," she continues. "People were getting so superficial, the customers would be like, 'I want this many girls with this color hair. Just make sure they have flat stomachs and they're thin.' I'm just like, wait a minute. What about the dancing? Hello! I see people fall prey to this image. At one time, most of my dance troupe were taking down time to recover from plastic surgery. It was like, this is not right. These girls are young and they're getting this tucked, added in, or zipped away. I thought, this is not what the dancing is about. I don't like to sell that."

The reality of belly dancing, she continues, "is really inner beauty and your smoothness, your calmness, and when you're comfortable in your own skin. That makes a good dancer. Someone can be beautiful but dance awkwardly, and they're not gorgeous."

For belly dancers who take themselves and their art seriously (sometimes way too seriously), the downside of profiting from a lucrative trend is the inevitable dilution of the local dancing gene pool. Most people look at belly dancing as a pleasant diversion, a sensuous performance by a woman in a fancy bra. In a rootless, culturally adolescent place like Miami, the market demand for young, beautiful women willing to shake their colitas for tips runs smack into the ostensible goddess-girl power aspect of the dance, in which ample hips and a mastery of technique signal a uniquely feminine aesthetic. "When a dancer is performing, she is transparent," opines Bozenka. "When you see a dancer faking it, it shows."

More than one dancer has succumbed to the lure of cosmetic enhancement, skimpy costuming, and sexy choreography to get gigs. If there's one thing Miami has in abundance, it's fresh, young immigrants willing to work cheap. "The South Americans have undercut the whole game," gripes Hanan, voicing a common complaint among experienced dancers. "They'll dance for nothing.

"I consider myself a dancer with a mission and a message," she adds. "Miami's value system does not necessarily find itself reflected in that mission. People go to happy hour with a belly dancer on a bar and think it's marvelous. They want the illusion of sensuality without the depth. Yes, it pisses me off."

Samir Al-barq, owner of Maroosh, a Coral Gables restaurant that employs dancers to go with the Middle Eastern cuisine, says he gets young women wanting to dance in his place all the time. "Every week somebody wants to dance here," he says. "I have four main dancers, all professionals. When somebody new knocks on the door, my dancers right away want to know what her qualifications are. Usually, once I see the costume, I know if she's serious about her job. If she's willing to spend $500 or more for a costume, you know she is [serious]."

Al-barq claims he insists on using only quality dancers and paying them rather than letting them rely solely on tips, but he admits that many other places around town aren't so choosy. "On Lincoln Road, you'll see them. They put them up in a cage sometimes and it's just a girl shaking up there," he says. Al-barq credits master teachers such as Dallal and Jamal with producing most of the local dancers who wouldn't be caught dead in a cage above a bar. But he refuses to express a preference for any one dancer. "They're all good," he offers. "I'm dating one of them, so I'm not getting into that. It really depends on their muse or their mood, how good they are." (Fatahi is equally skittish at the prospect of trampling on dancer egos. "No way," he laughs. "I have to work with these women.")

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