An Explosion in Salta

“La Danza Arabe” in the Hinterlands of South America

By Tamalyn Dallal

Tamalyn Dallal spent 1984 to 1986 traveling throughout South America as a Middle Eastern dancer and adventure traveler. She is author of the book They Told Me I Couldn’t, about her months spent in Colombia. Ms. Dallal also lived in Buenos Aires for one year, and subsequently experienced the many faces of Argentina. This article consists of excerpts from journals of her most recent visit.

December, 2000: I am in Salta, a small city in northern Argentina. The culture is steeped in Gaucho (Argentine cowboy) lore and it is the crossroads between the more indigenous cultures of Bolivia and the immigrant melting pot that is Argentina. Twenty-eight hours northwest of Buenos Aires by bus, Salta is worlds away from that melancholy, tango-inspired metropolis.

Unexpectedly, one of the largest ethnic groups in Salta is composed of Syrian immigrants, who began moving to the town in the 1930’s. Now there are first, second, third, and fourth generation Syrian-Argentine “Saltenos.” The young people speak very little Arabic, and share the local passion for “Norteno” folk music, and the children may dress in gaucho attire for special occasions.

Instant rewind: It was 1985 and I was a twenty-six-year old “belly dancer,” financing my lust for world travel by dancing in out of the way destinations. I began my journey in 1984 with a contract in Bogota, Colombia, and continued through the Amazon jungle of Brazil via cargo boat, traversing the entire north and east coasts by bus, getting to know each town, until I reached Sao Paulo.

Having spent nearly all the money that I earned in Colombia, and unable to generate more because no one along the way knew or cared about the dances of the Middle East, I hit Sao Paulo and found a thriving Arabic community. With restaurants, social clubs, musicians, and a dance scene in its beginning stages, they welcomed me as a dancer with experience, who could give lessons as well as perform.

My visa was running out, so I headed south to Buenos Aires, another city that could offer regular employment in my field. At that time, there were two trained Middle Eastern dancers in the city: Mirta Ribnicov and Feiruz. I worked with Feiruz for three months in the city’s most famous club, “Shark” (meaning “East” in Arabic). It was, and still remains, a stopping point for many celebrities of the Arab world and Argentina. I even met and translated for Robert De Niro there.

With the favorable exchange rate, what I earned in three months bought a sophisticated new wardrobe, and enabled me to take the next three months off to travel. Destination: Machu Pichu, Peru. As always, getting there is the most fun.

Hopping from bus to bus, town to town, I found myself amid canyons, wine vineyards, and hills of multicolored earth. Arriving via dirt road on a bus that doubled as mail and newspaper delivery, I became enchanted with Salta. It was colonial and traditional, and the scenery reminded me of an old cowboy movie in an inverted hemisphere. I was fascinated by meeting my first Gaucho, a handsome seventy-seven-year-old man in traditional attire, having his boots shined in the central plaza.

Within hours of arrival I had connected with the local Arabic community. As in most South American towns, if you go to enough fabric stores, you will find one owned by an Arabic family. Many people who came to South America from Syria, Lebanon, or Palestine started out in the textile business. Once I had introduced myself as a belly dancer, invitations to meet friends and relatives ensued, and sometimes I would get lucky and be hired to dance at someone’s wedding.

There were no weddings coming up, but there was an outpour of traditional Arab hospitality, and I was shown all around Salta, and a performance was set up for me in Jujuy, the next town on the way to Bolivia. This show was in a “Pena folklorica” (a night spot where traditional folk singers and musicians gather). The treat was mutual. They had never seen the likes of me in Jujuy, and I was delighted by their magical music.

Fast forward to the present: I am now forty-one years old, operating a dance studio and Middle Eastern dance company in Miami Beach (Mideast Dance Exchange). I am trying to ease out of the business of dancing in restaurants and parties and into teaching seminars. In addition to sharing twenty-five years of knowledge, I can put more depth and creativity into my performances because the audiences consist of dancers and diehard Middle Eastern dance enthusiasts who relate to taking the dance a step further.

Who would imagine that I am now teaching a four-day workshop for over forty enthusiastic students…In Salta?

Tania Yael Yobi and drummer Osvaldo

Much can change in fifteen years, and now there are several teachers of “La Danza Arabe” in Salta, as well as in most towns and cities throughout South America. Tania Yael Yobi is one of Salta’s top teachers. She is a beautiful and promising dancer. At twenty years old, she conducts classes at the “Club Sirio” in downtown Salta, (which is a social and sporting club), as well as travelling to the town of Guemes on a weekly basis to teach at a studio there. Ms. Yobi is adept in both Oriental dance and the folkloric line dance, debke. Her major at the university is physical education, which she also applies to her dance teaching. In South America, the students often start as teenagers, but Tania goes further and makes marvels out of four and five-year-olds as well as teens and adults.

“How did we connect?” you may wonder. In 1998, I taught a weeklong workshop in Buenos Aires, and taught at the “Argentine Congress on Arabian Dance” in 1999. To my surprise, quality dancers and troupes from all parts of Argentina, from Patagonia to the Bolivian border, made great sacrifices to come to this event. Tania and a troupe of ten little girls and their mothers rented a bus for the trek from Salta.

The following summer, she came to Miami Beach to study at my studio, and said that her dream was to sponsor me in Salta. I heard nothing more for several months, then received a call. She had gone to Syria to get more in touch with her culture, and was now ready to bring me to Salta…in two weeks! Was I ready? Of course!

Day One: Classes began in a small dance studio above the Club Sirio. Tania had not expected such a healthy response, so we divided the class into beginners and advanced. Most of the advanced students were teenagers, and some professionals and teachers. Some were Syrian and others not, but all said that they felt the dance and music with a passion that they could not explain.

The beginner’s class posed more of a challenge, as there were several tiny girls, ages four to five, who were easily distracted and vying for attention, whereas the older girls and adults were focused and eager to learn. The little ones were adorable, but kept interrupting. A nine-year-old student named Milli danced quite well. She has Downs Syndrome, but it doesn’t hinder her dancing. She is completely at ease as part of Tania’s children’s troupe.

Day Two: The classes were moved to the main salon downstairs, where there was more room and it was easier to focus on and correct individuals in the advanced class. The beginner’s class became chaotic, as the little ones gave into the temptation to use the open space to run around. I could hardly hear myself teach over the din of club members coming and going through the salon and sitting in groups to watch and socialize. I was concerned for the students who came to learn, but nobody seemed bothered and treated the distractions as a normal part of the learning process.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, in marched a television crew from the evening news. They filmed a few hip circles, then stopped the class and asked me to do a solo. Students and spectators alike thoroughly enjoyed the excitement.

Picture this: the temperature was over 90 degrees, there were no air conditioners to be found outside the new cyber café (more on that later), and no fans in the Club Sirio. I was a sweaty mess in sweat pants, a cut off leotard, and a hip scarf. Luckily, I am not self-conscious, so I danced an impromptu dance, then did an unprepared interview. All went well until the commentator asked what time the performance was. I looked around, and someone called out “Ten o’clock Friday night.” They ran reruns of this segment on the news for two days!

Tania and her students are very dedicated, so after class they rehearsed until after eleven p.m. I walked to the plaza, which is now in a perpetual state of construction and modernization, but it has not lost its colonial charm. The same cafés surround the plaza as in 1985, and my drink of choice is “café con crema,” (espresso with whipped cream). Afterward, I wanted to check my e-mail, and noticed that the phone company advertises internet rental at their offices where people go to use the public phones. I entered and tried to get online, but to no avail. Nobody working there knew how to use the internet and they were asking me the difference between a web page and an e-mail address. The employees said the internet computers were new, and all Telecom offices were required to have them, but they recommended that I go to the new cyber café to actually get online. This place was so modern and high tech that it looked out of place in Salta, but I became a regular customer.

Day Three: Both classes were calm and productive, and the onlookers had moved on. In the evening, I had another television appearance on “Cultura Abierta” (Open Culture). This time I was in costume, actually did a show, and was coached on what questions the interviewer would ask. It went well. I danced to “Amayaguena.” The filming was live, so I was glad my sword stayed on my head.

Day Four: Since the big salon was rented out for another event, we moved into an adjoining meeting room. The heat was stifling. I rolled my stretch pants to my knees, and tied up my hair. A photographer came and snapped dozens of photos to sell to the students. We finished all the difficult technique and combinations that I planned to do. The advanced students caught on well. I taught finger cymbals, which will require lots of time and practice, since they are not used as often in Argentina as in the U.S. We tried to do veil and cane in the cramped space. Afterward, I had everyone dance one by one, and Tania prepared a certificate of completion for each student. The photographer snapped away as I signed each certificate and handed them to the dancers.

Chaos took over once again during the beginner’s class. Children in Gaucho costumes leaned through the windows and dozens of people popped in to watch class. Speeches and amplified music competed with my Arabic CD’s. My tiny tots were so energized with all the goings on that I gave up trying to keep their attention, and taught those students, ages six and up, who miraculously held onto their concentration.

Later in the evening, after unwinding with a café con crema at the plaza, I came back to rehearse and work out at the dance studio upstairs, while Tania’s dancers continued their rehearsals in the salon until midnight. A flash flood ensued and soon, sheets of water covered the floor of the club. Taxis didn’t want to take us home because water on the street was knee deep. One driver took us to Tania’s grandmother’s house by driving on the sidewalk.

Day Five: Show time! Argentina’s most famous Arabic band, led by Mario Kirlis arrived in the morning. All evidence of last night’s flood was dried up. Mario brought his drummer, Osvaldo, a def player, sound technician, and Syrian singer Youssef Hamed. I had worked with Youssef, Mario, and Osvaldo in Buenos Aires in 1985 to 1986, and it was a real treat to see them again.

All two hundred tickets were sold out and it was a formal event. Everyone was getting their hair done and pulling out elaborate evening gowns. Tania and all the women in the family had brought theirs from Syria. I thought the least I should do is get a desperately needed manicure and pedicure, which turned out to be a complex undertaking.

Everyone knew of a manicurist but no one had their phone numbers. I saw salons advertising haircuts and manicures, but upon inquiry none actually had anyone doing manicures. They either pointed to the next place that didn’t have one either, or said they really hoped I would find a manicurist that knew what she was doing. I continued my quest, figuring “How bad can a manicure be?”

Wandering through street after street, I happened upon a small, dark storefront with the window painted “Cosmology, Color Therapy, Manicure, Pedicure.” Aha! A mysterious looking woman took me through a curtain into a tiny, candle lit room full of religious icons, with a massage table and Christmas tinsel throughout. A chart on how to read the soles of the feet hung on the wall. She reached behind another curtain to produce the selection of nail polish—opaque white, metallic white, pearly white, and opalescent white. I enquired about other colors and she brought out a grotesque shade of purple with clumps.

From behind the curtain she pulled out a new-fangled, circa 1970’s electric fingernail filer. I suggested that she soak my feet meanwhile. She thought for a moment, left the room, and returned with a mixing bowl full of cold water which I squeezed my feet into. The manicure was unusual because her hands shook so much that I had white polish far beyond the confines of my nails, and there was a real strong smell. I read the bottle, which was in English. It said, “Fortified with garlic.” By then, I was unable to contain my amusement, and she replied, “No wonder my clients complain about that bottle.” The pedicure was much better, and she took so long buffing four days of callouses from my feet that she probably knows my life story, if the chart on the wall is an indication.

More preparations for the show: my candleabra had not weathered the flight well, and needed to be sodered. We didn’t find anyone willing to attempt it, so I stuffed some pieces of gum in my mouth and was about to do my own repair job. Tania’s aunt’s cook, Marta, brought out some strong glue, so I threw away the gum and we tried to glue it. The glue never dried, and I was ironing my seven veils and a twenty-one yard silk costume, so she sent someone to buy me more gum. The only problem was that it was soft center Bubblicious, and never hardened. I chewed several pieces, stuffed the candleholder among the gum in the metal cup and said, “It will have to do!”

The class performs in the show.

Though events throughout the week were fraught with harmless mishaps, the dinner show at Club Sirio was flawless. It was entitled “Leyla Suria “ (Nights of Syria). Every detail was taken care of, from the handmade belly dance costumes on Barbie dolls decorating each table, to plate after plate of delicious homemade Middle Eastern food that kept coming in a never-ending feast to every table. The music was great, and the planning of the show was lively and varied. Adorable dance numbers with little kids in lavish costumes, more sophisticated choreographies by the older dancers, Syrian songs that drew emotion from the audience when Youssef sung them, and solo dances by Tania and I were interspersed with such timing that there was never a dull or monotonous moment. When the band finished, a DJ took over. He began to play modern Arabic songs, which soon segued into “Cumbias,” which are originally Colombian, but now form one of the most popular music styles in Argentina, especially when it comes time to party, then 1950’s American Rock, Spanish techno, and so on. We danced ourselves into a frenzy—“we” meaning everyone from older generation Syrians, who danced to the Spanish songs with Arabic steps, to the younger ones. The party ended reluctantly at 5:30 a.m., and we were all glad that the flood had happened last night, and had spared this wonderful evening.

I stayed in Salta five more days to drink in the culture, attending a “Doma” (Gaucho rodeo), and a concert where four local folksingers called “Los Nocheros,” who have become nationally famous, returned to Salta to give a concert. They drove the audience to such an emotional high that I was swept away as well. I saw a dance concert that included dancers from Salta who travel to Ireland to study step dancing, and it was some of the best of the genre I have seen outside of Riverdance.

I watched videos with Tania of dance events she has participated in throughout Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. It is amazing the amount of interest in Middle Eastern dance that is surging throughout the region. There is a dancer from Sao Paulo, Brazil named Nuria who travels to many of the smaller cities to teach workshops. In Brazilian towns of all sizes and in all areas, interest in Middle Eastern dance has spread like wildfire, even more than in Argentina. It is amazing to see how far this dance has come in a few short years in places where I was once the only reminder of a forgotten and mysterious dance. In Miami, the Colombian singer, Shakira, who is of Arab-Colombian descent, has had an important impact on the popularity of Middle Eastern dance with her song “ Ojos así,” which combines Spanish rock with Arabic music. She dances with jeans and a hip scarf as she sings, and after her concerts, my classes swell. In Salta, they used that song a lot, and many agree that Shakira is one of the many contributing factors to the belly dance resurgence, and they are eagerly awaiting her next Spanish-Arabic song.

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