My Life as a Dancer: 1980’s South America

In 1980, I met a singer who sang on cruise ships and at hotels in Miami Beach. She suggested I could travel the world as a dancer. She then incorporated me into her hotel shows.

Soon, a new phenomenon called “Bellygrams” became popular. A woman would appear at parties to sing a birthday song. Then she would bring in my boom box, press play. I had seven minutes to do an entrance with finger cymbals and veil, a sword balancing act, audience participation, and a drum solo.

By 1983, I was offered my first international gig in Bogota, Colombia. I danced in a show with a live Arabic band in a Lebanese restaurant. Throughout Latin America, there is a sizable Arabic community. In Colombia, they were mostly Lebanese and Palestinian. Other countries are also Syrian. Arabic immigration to South America began during the Ottoman Empire. Levantine people would sell fabrics and dry goods from door to door. They were successful at business and became fairly wealthy. I stayed in Colombia for one month, fell in love with the country, and vowed to return.

Six months later, I was called back, to bring my own show. Just as I was preparing for the journey I learned that my apartment building in Miami would be torn down and that I would have to move. I sold my car and put everything in storage. I stayed in South America for two years, dancing in Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. 

Most places had few, if any Oriental dancers, but every place had an Arabic community. I learned that, in any country, I could go to the area where they sold textiles and I would meet Arab descendants. If they had any weddings or family parties coming up, I could perform. This afforded me income to keep traveling and I often stayed in the homes of the families who hired me. I was embraced by the Levantine community. They often had their own cultural centers and would organize a dinner party for me to perform at.

Although sword balancing was an Americanism in the dance, my sword dance was appreciated and requested. I traveled throughout Brazil by land for 3 months, exploring new places and learning to speak Portuguese. Then I stayed in Sao Paulo for 3 months. There were a few dancers and live musicians. I met Syrian singer Tony Mouzayek in Sao Paulo. He brought me to shows with him and introduced me to the owner of a restaurant where he sang on weekends.

I started dancing there and teaching resident dancers, Samira, Rita and Daisy. Samira suggested we make an instructional video of me teaching the basic movements in Portuguese. She said “It will be like a Jane Fonda workout video.” That video circulated throughout Brazil for the next ten years. Brazil is now a hot spot for Oriental dance. Samira and her grown children started a school and a huge festival in Sao Paulo called “Mercado Persa.” When I attended it in 2009, there were 6000 attendees. It was the biggest Oriental dance festival in the world.

Soon after I left, an Egyptian tea house opened, where Lulu Sabongi became a well known dancer and the dancer, Saroya, who is now a star in Cairo got her start. In 2001, a hit television series called “El Clon” was made in Brazil and swept Latin America, becoming the reason a whole generation of dancers fell in love with Oriental dance. Tony Mouzayek, Samira, and other people that I knew from those months in Brazil were in the show.

My 6-month visa ran out. I barely had any money left, as the economy in Brazil was unstable and the currency devalued. I heard that, in Buenos Aires, there were Arab clubs with musicians, dancers and shows six nights a week. I took a bus to Argentina. In 1985, upon my arrival in Buenos Aires, the economy came to a standstill. The peso was worthless. The banks closed and there was no way to exchange dollars. I had to stay at a hotel and promise to pay the owners when the situation stabilized. I had to do the same at a local restaurant so I could eat. People told me about a famous restaurant called “Shark.” The resident dancer named Fairuz was a household name. There was a full band, led by Mario Kirlis and two singers: A Syrian named Youssef Hamed and an Armenian named Arturo Kouyoumdzian. It was grand. I worked there six nights a week, until 5 am for several months.

Arturo had a potent voice, like Charles Aznavour. He was of Armenian heritage from Argentina but was more famous in Armenia. We became good friends. I followed him to another club called Erevan. This tiny club was owned by a Rom leader named Roberto Papadoupolis. Arturo sang with his band, I danced, and a lot of Romani families spent their evenings enjoying the nightlife. In Buenos Aires, the neighborhood called “Villa Crespo” was where Levantine Arabs, Armenians, Jews, and Roma lived and had restaurants, clubs, and other businesses.

I rented a room in a house from a former “Miss Paraguay” beauty queen, and could walk from club to club, enjoying the vibrant cultural life. There were three main dancers in Buenos Aires; Fairuz, Souhair Nemisis and a 22 year old male dancer named Amir Thaleb. Fairuz later became known as the president of Argentina’s favorite dancer. She bought the glamorous Shark restaurant, which is now called “Fairuz.” Suhair Nemesis moved to Egypt. Amir Thaleb became the first to open classes in Argentina, in a karate studio. To this day, he remains a major influence in Oriental dance in Argentina, as well as the reason there are many accomplished male dancers there. One of his students, Saida is now world famous.

Now there are hundreds of Oriental dance studios throughout Argentina. The scene is one of the most active in the world. Interestingly, Badia Masabni, the Syrian woman, often referred to as “the mother of modern Oriental dance,” lived in Argentina during her childhood in the early 1900s.

Much has changed in South America since I left in 1986. Oriental dance is popular in nearly every country, largely due to the dancers from Argentina and Brazil traveling to teach their art. I have been back to Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Ecuador numerous times to teach workshops. During the quarantine, I have been interviewed for conferences and dance programs in Argentina. Several generations later, there is curiosity about how things were in the early days of Oriental dance in South America. I feel fortunate to have born witness to the development and changes.

About Tamalyn:

Tamalyn Dallal's wealth of experience in the dance world includes performing and teaching in 43 countries, having been one of the original "Bellydance Superstars," having operated a non profit arts organization called "The Mid Eastern Dance Exchange" for 16 years in Miami Beach. This organization was a center with many instructors, guest artists, often from North Africa and the Middle East, through which Ms. Dallal produced theatrical productions and the street festival "Orientalia."

She has written four books: "They Told Me I Couldn't" about dancing her way around Colombia, "Bellydancing For Fitness" (Instructional), "40 Days and 1001 Nights," a travel narrative where she lived in five Muslim countries for 40 days each, and her new children's book "The Bellydancing Kitties of Constantinople," illustrated by the Japanese dancer, Ayako Date. She has made three dance documentary films and, most recently has been featured in the new DVD by Amaya, "The Icons of American Dance." Tamalyn currently resides in New Orleans, Louisiana. Visit Tamalyn online at