Dalena's ancestors are Scotch-Irish. Her hair is blond, her eyes blue. She was born in Indiana and grew up in Florida--a long way from Southeast Asia. She didn't utter a word of Vietnamese until three years ago, just before she decided to debut at a nightclub in Anaheim, singing Vietnamese songs with incredible clarity for a Westerner.
Now, with three albums out and a video collection of her songs in the works, "the American girl with a Vietnamese soul" has become enormously popular as a cabaret singer in Vietnamese communities around the world.
Her fame has even reached Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where music lovers behind the Bamboo Curtain listen to her pirated cassettes and want to know more about this Anglo woman who sings in their mother tongue with only a hint of an American accent.
"I didn't think I'd make a career out of it. I was just having fun," said Dalena, who uses only her stage name and refuses to disclose her age for professional reasons. "I always knew I'd be singing, but I always thought it would be in English."
What is unique about Dalena is that she cannot speak or understand Vietnamese, a complicated language in which words have different meanings depending on the tone with which they are spoken. Her success, she says, comes from a keen ability to mimic Vietnamese words after repeatedly hearing a song.
Dalena, who was in Orange County recently to film her first video album, said her love for singing began when she was 3 years old in a church in Orlando, Fla., where her family had moved from her birthplace.
"They stood her up in a chair so people could see her and she sang 'Jesus Loves Me,' " said Darlene Arenberg , who is the singer's mother and manager.
At age 13, Dalena taught herself to play the guitar, but has never learned to read music. Yet, she began writing songs and repeatedly performed at churches, nursing homes and parties as a teen-ager.
Her ability to sound like a native speaker of foreign languages did not surface until she worked at Disney World in Orlando. From 1982 to 1991, she sold tickets there and learned to say "hello," "goodby" and "thank you" in a dozen languages, from Spanish to Korean to German to Hindi.
"She would say things so well that people would immediately go off into this long conversation with her in their languages, thinking that she's fluent," Arenberg said. "Then she'd have to explain that she only knew a few words."
At the time, Dalena began listening to Hebrew and Spanish music and found that she could sing along. Then one day in 1988, she walked into a Chinese grocery store in Orlando and, for the fun of it, bought a Chinese music cassette. She did not know it would change her life.
"I found it was really haunting," Dalena said. "There was this one song that I listened to over and over again. I wrote down how I thought the words sounded to me. I was so excited about it because I picked it up relatively easy."
Later, she returned to the Chinese store and sang the song for the manager, who just looked at her baffled. He complimented her for her Chinese accent.
Encouraged, Dalena next performed the song for the Chinese-Vietnamese owner of a restaurant. He was not only enthusiastic, he also had a band that played Vietnamese songs. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Dalena performed regularly at the restaurant on weekends and soon her appearances were requested at weddings, dances and fund-raisers for refugees.
In 1989, a nightclub owner in Canada heard about her through the Vietnamese grapevine and invited her to sing. He sent a videotape of that performance to the owner of Ritz Dancing , a Vietnamese nightclub in Anaheim.
In February, 1990, Dalena appeared for the first time in Orange County, the headquarters of Vietnamese culture outside of Vietnam. Even Vietnamese singers living in Europe and Australia have to come to Orange County to record their songs.
"I was scared to death," she recalled. "Everybody kept saying, 'Go to California.' This was like the test for me to see if I could really sing Vietnamese and if they were really going to accept me."
Judging by the response of the club's audiences, Dalena was a success and word of her performances spread through California, Arizona, Texas, and back to the East Coast. She was summoned back three times in 1990 for engagements at the Ritz.
So many concert offers came in, she eventually decided to quit working at Disney World and devote her time to developing a professional singing career. She began work on her first album in September, 1991.
During recording sessions, Vietnamese music companies translate her songs into English for her. Then she listens to the Vietnamese lyrics over and over, writing down how the words sound phonetically.
She has to work particularly hard to prepare for a show or a recording session. But "being so well-loved, it's worth all the trouble," Dalena said. On average, it takes about two days for her to learn one song.