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They Told Me I Couldn't

by Tamalyn Dallal

Excerpt from "They Told Me I Couldn't"
by Tamalyn Dallal, Ms. World of the Belly Dance
Bookstore ISBN #: 1-890916-19-6

'Moon Landing', by Marilyn Brown
Art by: Marilyn Brown

(From the publisher: Plenty of women seem to feel that they must live life within the confines set out by society -- but then there are those who make their life's journey from the fabric of their souls. Such a one is Tamalyn Dallal. This excerpt, from her book "They Told Me I Couldn't," describes how Dallal, the feminist belly dancer, chose to chuck her day job in order to become a globetrotting entertainer.)

By the time I graduated from Kindergarten I had an appreciation for dark-eyed boys, which over the years developed into an avid interest in looking at turbaned men on the pages of travel magazines. Needless to say, my first boyfriend was not the boy next door -- I chose an Iranian instead, a little wishy-washy type whose only saving grace was being dark and unusual.

At parties, when everyone else made a beeline to the living room to blast their rock and roll, I hovered around a group of foreign students, finding their music contagious, the movements that expressed it challenging. One gathering so intrigued me that I practiced hip circles and shoulder shimmies for months. Such was my introduction to Mid-Eastern dance, which soon led me to discover the "beledi" -- a word corrupted into "belly dance" by a turn-of-the-century entrepreneur -- but "beledi" symbolizes women's unity, not anatomy.

After sampling a variety of universities, I began to plan adventures, trying to come up with a strategy to wander into an obscure culture with interesting music and dance . One place captured my imagination. I joined VISTA and requested my desired assignment by highlighting "Zone 10" -- the southeastern United States -- in pink ink. My dream destination: Appalachia.

"Wait a minute! You speak Spanish?" exclaimed my Vista Interviewer.
They switched my VISTA assignment to Miami.
YUCK, I thought. "Everyone is rich there, and probably superficial, too."

I didn't like it, but nevertheless I hopped on the bus for Miami. Just as I arrived, President Carter declared a state of emergency -- Cuba had opened its doors and 125,000 refugees poured out on the Mariel Boatlift, flooding Miami with reasons for Spanish-speaking volunteers. I landed right in the middle of the headline news, surrounded by action and astonishing people -- men tattooed from head to toe, rumored to be involved with the Cuban crime underworld; adorable children; hot tropical sun baking new controversies into Miami's social fabric with each new day.

It was in Miami that I met Kaaren Mils, the opera singer who was to become my mentor.

Coiled on a drift of pending files atop my messy desk was a belly dance belt that I was beading by hand; a stack of food stamps, like box-office tickets to dependency, sat waiting to find new users. I was a caseworker for Cuban refugees.

We had a secretary with yellow fuzz-covered teeth who had just left on vacation; she couldn't spell, so I can't say if we were more relieved to bid her good-bye or to welcome her temporary replacement, Kaaren Mils. When Kaaren entered the office, I looked up to see a six-foot-tall voluptuous woman in a platinum blonde bouffant hairdo and full stage makeup, immediately out of place in this bureaucratic office, laughing loud enough to frighten the stockings off of social workers, commanding center stage wherever she went; she wore clothes handmade to fit her large and luscious self, dangling ribbons and flowers.

Though Kaaren sometimes accepted temporary office assignments, she had played Broadway and was once with the Rome Opera in Italy. Her choice of words always matched her theatrical voice, wonderfully dramatic. When Kaaren described an event, you knew it was an UNBELIEVABLY hot day; the BEST food in New York; the sickest she'd EVER been.

"Tami, this is the MOST dismal place in the world! You belong on the stage, not here," said Kaaren.

"I'm saving my money so I can travel," I explained. But as she talked I felt a stirring, as if the seed of some exotic tropical plant had suddenly germinated.

"Performers travel more than office workers."

My excitement was overwhelmed by my trepidation. "Do you think I can make it?"

"Why not? Is passing out food stamps what you call 'making it'?"

"Well ... no."

"Tami, you should consider taking your dancing to a professional level. Listen, I've traveled all over the world. How do you think I paid for it?"

"How did you?"

"My voice bought the tickets for me!" she said. And I knew, that day, she had spoken to my soul. I took her advice and embarked on a career as an entertainer, and a few years later, terribly nervous, I found myself on a plane to Colombia, South America carrying a sword, four costumes, and twenty dollars.

Giselle, the other dancer, looked splendid in fashionable clothes and--heaven forbid--five big expensive rings.
"Take off your rings," I urged, worrying about the fate of her fingers. She slipped them off and stashed them in her bag.
"Is someone meeting us at the airport?" It was a sensible question. It was Giselle's.
"I don't know." At 24 years old, I was thrilled from head to toe. Hmmm.
"Did anyone tell you the name of the place where we will perform?"
We thought for a moment.
"Do you have enough money for a hotel?" asked Giselle.
"Not really."

The jolting of the plane as it screeched onto the tarmac put a stop to our conversation; we picked up our carry-ons and stepped into South America. Though I had hoped to land in some fascinating spot, inspired by "National Geographic" and Hollywood's "Romancing the Stone," we arrived in Bogota late at night at a dimly lit airport -- no women in sight, but everywhere, men in dark suits. Bureaucrats in cheap dark suits. Businessmen in finely tailored dark suits. The most colorful costumes I saw were khaki uniforms on a horde of machine-gun toting boys.

"This place gives me the eebie jeebies," said Giselle.
"I like dark men," I said.

A government official and a 19-year-old boy whisked us out of the airport. The trying-to-be-mustachioed teenager turned out to be one of my bosses and the official had taken a payoff to help us clear customs -- a lucky thing, because customs officials had been instructing me to balance my sword on my head and threatened to confiscate my coin-dangled costumes.

They ushered us into two Colombian-made Renaults. Instead of taking us to a hotel, the man driving the car headed into a fancy residential area, utterly silent, where armed guards patrolled sidewalks and sat on front porches holding rifles.

Visions of white slavery danced in our heads. "Take us to our hotel," we demanded. The driver pulled up to a sprawling private dwelling. "This is your hotel," he said brusquely.
Giselle and I looked at each other. "Do you think we've been kidnapped?" we whispered. We stayed up most of the night, worrying.

Upon awakening, I listened for clues that might inform me as to our situation. A chorus of odd new sounds filtered through the door: gurgling and goo-goos and enchanting little chirps---"Dahh?" A house that tinkled with such tiny voices seemed decidedly unsinister, so Giselle and I slipped out of our private suite to find a salon full of American and European couples holding babies.

"Is this a hotel?" I asked.
"Oh no," said Nina, the maid. "Mr. Zeytun said you should stay in a residencia." In Colombia, upscale boarding houses are called residencias, and this residencia catered to foreign couples adopting children.
"How cute!" I put my pinky finger into a tiny brown hand for a squeeze.

Between the residencia and the restaurant where I worked lay only manicured embassies and carefully guarded blocks of wealthy homes. Every day, at first, I did as I was told: NO WANDERING, just meek commuting from the residencia to the "Libano Restaurant," where I danced seven lunches and six dinners a week.

A fleshy Lebanese man named Khasif came into the restaurant often, accompanied by six bodyguards. Some of the bodyguards stayed by his car, others stood in the entry of the Libano, and two sat by Khasif at the table; every one of the guards said they came from a mysterious place called the Guajira Peninsula. They never let go of briefcases under their arms. I wondered why a guard kept his briefcase pointed out the window with his finger near the latch, until he showed me that his briefcase, at the touch of a button, became a machine gun.

Men would pull pistols out of their belts and plop them on the table. They drank incredible amounts of "aguardiente" (sugarcane liquor, literally, "burning water"). The more they drank, the more quietly they sat, until finally they put their heads on the gun-festooned tables and went to sleep.

When you dance, you bare your soul to the audience. When you dance for people who are too drunk to appreciate it, or for people you can't respect, it feels like a compromise.

Every foreign entertainer who performs in Bogota must do a show at "Media Torta" ("Half a Cake"), and this quickly became my favorite Colombian venue. It is an outdoor theatre that shivers high on the side of a mountain. Here, the government sponsors a nationally televised variety show every Sunday. Because admission is free, Colombia's poverty-stricken masses pour in by the hundreds. This warm and responsive audience more than compensated for the frigid conditions, showering me with fan letters, offering pictures of my show drawn on scraps of paper, and always, giving me free rein to perform straight from the heart.

"Colombia is very dangerous," everyone said. "You musn't wander around." This was the conventional wisdom, but I soon realized that the most immediate danger lay in Colombia's terrifying driving habits. The people seemed harmless, especially compared to many neighbors I've had in Miami. I vowed to go anywhere, do anything, but be very careful crossing the street and check the sidewalks for wayward vehicles.

Soon I had wandered throughout Bogota, and survived a wild ride with Grandpa Zeytun into the mountains. Ambling through "La Candelaria," an area of narrow, hilly cobblestone streets and whitewashed 17th-century Spanish buildings, I stretched. It is this almost dizzying sense of walking through history, of touching and smelling unusual things, that makes one yearn to wander the globe. I felt immensely lucky to be here. Indeed, trading that caseworker job for a career as a traveling dancer had been the most important decision of my life.

Like many artists, I had no real prospects for monetary wealth, but I reveled in the luxury of dancing, all expenses paid, in Bogota, where I could scrunch along the sidewalk of La Candelaria, zoom through mountains chasing sun-baked curves, and return home to maids and a private suite in a spacious white stucco residencia.

Ignoring instructions, mostly handed out by men, I began to plan a bus ride into Colombia's back roads and remote areas, searching for new people and exotic forms of music and dance.

About the Author:

Tamalyn Dallal grew up in Seattle, the youngest of five children. She is a member of MENSA, speaks many languages, and is renowned for her multicultural work promoting Middle Eastern dance. Ms. Dallal has performed for Saudi and Jordanian royal families, for rock stars Madonna and Michael Jackson, for actor Robert DeNiro and for the SuperBowl football halftime. In addition to her acclaim as a performer, she has succeeded in the business arena, writing and giving workshops for dancers and entertainers on how to get booked and get PAID.

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