Theater / Film

Shimmying from Exile to Island: Belly Dance Diplomacy with ‘Havana Habibi’

Written By Celeste Landeros
October 25, 2018 at 2:52 PM

When Tiffany Madera visited Cuba in 2003, she was not looking for her roots exactly. She did not search for her parents’ homeland in rumba or son. Instead, the dancer who performs under the name Hanan – Arabic for “tenderness” — carried Middle Eastern dance as her calling card. She quickly befriended a group of Cuban dancers and musicians, eager to explore new rhythms. Fifteen years later, Madera wants to turn Cuban Americans in Miami onto what is now a thriving Cuban belly dance scene.

“Belly dance is a metaphor for mothering and reconciliation,” Madera explains. “I want Miami audiences to experience Cuba through belly dance.”

She plans to do this, in part, by screening Havana Habibi, a film produced by Madera and directed by Joshua Bee Alafia, at O Cinema on Saturday. Part memoir, part documentary, the film shows how Madera’s friendship with would-be Cuban belly dancers blossomed into a movement.

We see Madera mentor choreographer Gretel Sanchez Llabre, as the islander establishes a school and a dance company. We watch Madera bristle at road blocks thrown up by Cuban officials. We see her exiled relatives fret over her safety and perceived political betrayal. We learn of a traumatic event in her past that motivates her to share belly dance as a form of healing.

I witnessed the impact of Madera’s project first hand, when the dancer-turned-filmmaker invited me to the Havana Habibi Festival last spring, a now regular convening of the more than a hundred dancers who have added Middle Eastern dance to the Cuban repertoire.

For three days, Cuban belly dancers filled workshops in the studios of the beautiful, dilapidated building that houses the Cuban National School of Ballet. In the evenings, Cuban belly dance companies shared the stage with international stars. Each day, Madera and her Cuban counterpart, Sanchez Llabre, hosted panels. One afternoon they screened Havana Habibi, offering visitors and residents alike an origin myth for the birth of Cuban belly dance.

While so many dancers in Cuba have embraced the Havana Habibi project, Madera observes, “a lot of the Cuban American belly dance participants around town still feel some apprehension.”

To change their mind, Madera has invited a panel of dancers and choreographers she says “represents the highest level of the Miami belly dance community.” Many of those dancers happen to be Cuban American.

Belly dance, it seems, appealed to young Cuban women in Miami too. When I first met Madera in the late 1990s, she was already pursuing her passion at the Mid-Eastern Dance Exchange on Miami Beach. In a matrilineal art form, the studio’s founder, Tamalyn Dallal, could be considered the mother of Miami belly dance. Three of her Cuban American pupils would go on to international renown: Hanan; Virginia Mendez, who is known solely by her first name, and produces the glamorous Rak Star festival of Egyptian dance each year in Miami Beach; and Bozenka, a winner of the “Egyptian Crown” for belly dance in Cairo, who has choreographed and instructed Shakira.

Mendez and Bozenka will both appear on the Havana Habibi panel. So will Myriam Eli, a Cuban-American dancer and musician who has also toured with and choreographed for Shakira. Moroccan-born Maria Jamal, a former teacher at the Mid-Eastern Dance Exchange, is the only dancer not of Cuban heritage on the panel. She represents what Madera calls “country of origin expertise.”

While watching the film, Madera says, she hopes that these leaders in the Miami belly dance community will “think about modern-day Cuba and life on the island as belly dancers.” She is counting on them to help local audiences see in Havana, as in Miami,  “the understanding, love, joy, and sense of community created by belly dance.”

Havana Habibi brunch, screening, and panel discussion runs from 11am to 2:15pm on Saturday, October 27 at O Cinema Wynwood, 90 NW 29 St., Miami. Tickets cost $20.


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