About two months ago, Alyssa Mandel stepped into the center of a vacant parking lot in Burns Court and shimmied sinuously in a black see-through dress and purple harem pants.
In front of a crowd of spectators, Mandel, 36, performed hip circles and thrusts. As she rolled her body to the Egyptian music, the coin scarf tied around her waist jangled like a tambourine. Mandel, a librarian at
The Out-of-Door Academy’s Upper School in Lakewood Ranch, was uninhibited but in total control. When her 3-year-old son, Martin, ran out to join her, she refused to break character, and, in turn, the crowd accepted the dancing toddler as part of the act.
An art-history teacher from Ohio, Mandel was still new to her position at ODA when she was asked to belly dance at the Sarasota County Arts Council’s “Arts Tonight” advocacy campaign.
She was apprehensive about performing, hesitant to reveal the fact that she spends her days ordering and cataloguing reference books and her nights teaching belly dance at Dance Fusion, a dance studio off an industrial side street near Clark and McIntosh roads.
Her 14-year dance career was still a mystery to colleagues and especially her principal. Mandel, a Sarasota resident since 2001, didn’t want to blow her cover prior to ODA’s annual talent show
“Thunderpalooza,” at which she planned to blow away students and faculty with a similarly enchanting routine.
“I swore I wouldn’t do it,” Mandel says. “I’m not someone who goes around talking about belly dancing with students and colleagues. Besides, I’m new at the job and I didn’t want to horrify my boss.”
Admittedly, Mandel has nerve. Despite her anxiety, she saw the school talent show as the perfect coming-out-of-the-closet opportunity. So, on a Saturday in mid-May, she stashed her sash, sequins and gold headband in a bag and headed out the door.
“It’s not that I mind people knowing,” Mandel says. “It’s just that sometimes you get pigeonholed. Suddenly I’m ‘Alyssa, The Belly Dancing Librarian.’”
ODA’s Petrik Thunderdome was packed. The lights were dim. When it came time for Mandel’s performance, the stage went dark and the audience grew quiet. Standing in the pitch-black in front of hundreds of ODA students and faculty members, Mandel felt weird. Her costume — decidedly modest for a belly dancer — was still a far cry from her everyday wardrobe, but as the spotlight cast its blinding glare and exotic music filled the room, Mandel slipped into familiar moves and turned to face her awestruck crowd.
“There was such a massive upwelling, I felt like Cher,” she says, laughing.
The four-minute routine was liberating — and good for business. In the weeks that followed ODA’s talent show, female colleagues started asking Mandel for lessons.
“It’s an outlet,” Mandel says. “Some women want to shock and amaze their friends. Some want to impress their husbands. Some want to connect with an archaic or exotic culture, and some just want to exercise.”
Mandel has spent her entire dance career trying to debunk the industry’s “I Dream of Jeannie” stereotype.
A pragmatist with a biting sense of humor, she started taking lessons shortly after she graduated from college to relieve stress-related stomachaches.
“I could have taken yoga or Xanax,” Mandel says. “But I was looking for something more creative.”
Mandel, an art history major, was having a hard time finding a teaching position after college, and belly dancing seemed like a natural fit.
She landed her first professional gig in graduate school — a surprise birthday party at a Chinese restaurant in Cincinnati. It was at once the scariest and most thrilling moment of her life. In five minutes she made $90.
“It was such a huge deal,” she says. “I bought enough groceries for three weeks.”
For six years Mandel danced with the same troupe of girls. Even when she got a job as an art history teacher at an Ohio college, she continued to teach belly dance. She liked how the two worlds collided.
Despite the dance’s steamy reputation, Mandel approached it with the same academic vocabulary she used in lecture halls.
Even after she and her husband relocated to Sarasota, so Mandel could teach art history at Ringling College of Art and Design, Mandel continued to belly dance. Even while she was pregnant with Martin, Mandel continued to dance.
“The art historian in me wants to preserve it in its purist form,” Mandel says. “As the world gets increasingly globalized, the regional-and-ethnic differences between dances start to blur. To the naked eye, belly dancing is belly dancing. Egyptian style is Turkish style. But it’s not the same. There’s rural, urban, northern and southern. There’s this tribe’s dance and that tribe’s dance … ”
Mandel could go on and on, her bookishness overshadowing her artistry. She can’t help it. Her cerebral tendencies are what make her more than just a belly-dancing librarian.
“You know,” she says, pausing to point out that she’s currently pursuing a master’s degree in library science at the University of South Florida, “I’m not alone. There’s a belly-dancing-librarian Web site. There are at least a dozen of us out there. Look it up.”
Arabic music is different from Western pop music. It demands your attention. It stimulates you. Mandel says belly dancing has made her smarter.
Did you know?
Egyptian folkloric belly dance costumes are less revealing than cabaret costumes. For her performance at Out-of-Door Academy’s annual talent show, Alyssa Mandel wore a modest, traditional, folkloric outfit — voluminous harem pants and a sheer dress.
“If I had been dancing in a restaurant or at a party I would have worn a bedlah, which is the bra, belt, skirt and veil arrangement,” Mandel says.