In the Belly of the Best
"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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.")
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."
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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