In the Belly of the Best

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

Dallal recalls that when certain students decided to leave her troupe, the emotional trauma was often akin to a teenager leaving home for the first time. "Sometimes if people want to leave their teacher they get guilt and they project it back onto the teacher."

But she thinks that her best students have largely weathered the rough patches in the belly-dance world because she grounded them in solid technique. "I was really strict. There were rules about how they danced and how they presented themselves. They had to come in with perfect makeup and costume. Certain techniques had to be in order. Like finger cymbals have to be in rhythm. If you do a hip drop, you have to point your toes, straighten your leg and not lift it too high.... You have to use your muscles so everything is in line, in the rhythm. People got a really solid foundation that way."

For Dallal, the reward has been developing a word-of-mouth reputation for producing quality dancers. A handful, including Dallal, frequently get international dancing gigs (parties, weddings, and workshops), usually in Latin America or the Caribbean. They can pay as much as $700 a night plus airfare and accommodations. "Those gigs are gotten solely on reputation and they never hire anyone sight unseen," Dallal says. "You have to be established. It helps to have videos on the market and a Website."

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

After more than a decade, however, she's restless. Sometime next fall she plans to turn over her Mid Eastern Dance Exchange to a successor and move to Hong Kong. "I love Miami, but I'm getting a little bored," she adds. "I need a new challenge."

Already there is a tiny rippling of intrigue in the moist, heavy air over South Beach, tapping into those dancing egos. Who is the anointed heir and will she be able to fill the power vacuum left by Dallal? "I think if she leaves, it will be a loss," allows Hanan. "She changed the history and culture of belly dancing in South Florida."

That said, Hanan is a little miffed she wasn't asked to take over. She seems to exhibit some of the classic student-mentor behavior -- she respects her former teacher, yet also struggles with the sometimes paradoxical emotions of seeking her approval while also wanting to surpass her. "I came from Dallal and I know her vision," Hanan begins. "We have a love-hate relationship, kind of passive-aggressive sometimes. I think maybe she sees me as competition more than some of the others."

"I hate to say it, but she creates her own realities a lot," Dallal scoffs. "Her imagination sometimes seeps into our relationship. I've tried to do a little reality check with her. Hanan and I aren't competitors. She's doing things I've already done."

Sniping aside, they've all helped to create the space that will allow new generations of dancers to perform, an infrastructure that will outlast the individual personalities who made it. "Miami is so transient," Dallal observes. "People forget real fast in this town. In five years, will they remember me? But now, there's a lot of seeds planted. There's really strong dancers, and they will continue their own traditions."

A Brief History of Belly Dancing

Belly dancing has a rich history that stretches back centuries and encompasses the seemingly paradoxical characteristics of women and their place in the world. It's a tradition of folk dance that developed in several cultures throughout the Middle East, including that of Egyptians, Greeks, Turks, and even Indian gypsies. Many believe it started with ancient birthing rituals, and morphed into several types of Oriental dance, commonly referred to as raks sharki.

In the 1890s, belly dancing made its popular debut in America as a kind of risqué sideshow at a Chicago fair. From there the dance was appropriated by vaudeville and burlesque entertainers, where it picked up its association with the striptease. Every culture has a particular style of dance, but probably the most widely known is the Egyptian style, which is characterized by bare feet and a smooth combination of rolling abdominal muscles, hip shimmies, traveling steps, and graceful hand movements.

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