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Friday, May 8, 2009

Bellydance Superstars
Dance magic dance: Music impresario Miles Copeland handpicked dancers for Bellydance Superstars, bringing the Middle Eastern art to a wider audience.


Pop impresario turns Arab dance belly up

Miles Copeland works his magic with Bellydance Superstars

Special to The Japan Times

There surely aren't too many people out there who can talk about hanging out with The Sex Pistols in one breath and taking calls from then-United States Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the next. Miles Copeland, however, is one such person.

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Petite Jamilla

Older brother of Stewart Copeland, drummer in The Police, Copeland has a rock 'n' roll resume as long as your arm — promoting tours by The Sex Pistols, Blondie and Lou Reed; managing first The Police and then Sting; breaking bands such as REM and The Bangles on his label IRS; and much more. But since 2002, his main focus has been on a new project: Bellydance Superstars.

Formed in 2002 and immediately booked for the ever-popular Lollapalooza touring festival in the United States, Bellydance Superstars feature a bevy of top-level Oriental dancers assembled into one jaw-dropping show. While bellydance, a traditional Middle Eastern art form known for its sensuous movements, had long been an undercurrent in American subculture, Copeland had the rather obvious idea of taking the scene's most striking dancers — women such as Sonia, Rachel Brice, Ansuya and Suhaila Salimpour — and promoting them like rock stars. Copeland — on a stopover in Tokyo last January to promote the upcoming Bellydance Superstars tour in Japan — told The Japan Times that, "Yeah, it was an obvious idea. But nobody had ever done it!"

The silver-maned 64-year-old breathes "impresario" from every pore: He doesn't talk, he booms; he has no fear of hyperbole, stopping just short of claiming the Bellydance Superstars will bring about peace in the Middle East; and he has the unerring ability to turn every question back to the product at hand. Copeland is a bit over the top, but you can't argue with his methods: Bellydance is everywhere these days, when only a few years ago you'd have been hard-pressed to find a bellydancer performing outside of a Turkish or Lebanese restaurant.

Copeland was the son of a CIA operative and grew up moving around the Middle East. When asked if that was when his love of bellydance originated, he replies, "Not really. Living in Lebanon, Egypt and Syria, I was certainly exposed to Arabic music on a daily basis. It's in my brain somehow. But being an American kid overseas, you tend to be more American than Americans.

Miles Copeland
Miles Copeland

"It wasn't until much later, when I was in Paris one day listening to the radio, and I heard this merger of Arabic music and Western music that the Algerian expatriates were doing: Khaled, Cheb Mami, Rachid Taha. And 'bang,' it was like a light bulb went off in my head."

Enthused by the desert-funk rhythms of North African rai music, Copeland encouraged Sting to record with rai vocalist Cheb Mami, and the rest is history. Their collaboration, "Desert Rose," became a massive international hit, and Copeland formed a new label, Mondo Melodia, dedicated to Arabic pop and fusion. One of his more successful releases was by U.K. fusion group Oojami, with their album "Bellydance Breakbeats."

Copeland promoted this with a contest at which he invited bellydancers to perform to tracks from the album for a $1,000 prize. Copeland imagined 12 contestants, and was surprised when 180 dancers flew in from all over America.

Says Copeland: "We finally chose 13 dancers, and it occurred to me — everybody's loving this show, the music really works, the dancers are great . . . There was just a magic about this — the beauty and femininity and color. I started thinking of "Riverdance" (the wildly successful Irish step-dance revue), and I realized it was a show with pretty obscure music and dance, yet it kind of transcended those elements. I mean, you never think of (traditional) Irish music as chart-topping material, but when you hear it, you like it, y'know? And I figured Arabic music and dance would be the same."

Copeland took the best dancers from the Oojami auditions to form Bellydance Superstars, adding dancers as he went along. To date, he has auditioned more than 3,000 dancers, from whom he has picked fewer than 30. The Superstars have done over 600 shows in more than 20 countries, including many of the finest venues for the arts. The name may have been a bit of a boast at first, but, as Copeland puts it, "It's been a self-fulfilling prophesy."

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"If you think about it, there are very few famous dancers. Most people can't name one. So when I say to people the Bellydance Superstars are in the top 20 most famous dancers in the world, I'm right!"

Copeland met some initial resistance from the close-knit bellydance scene in the U.S., with people afraid he was going to Hollywoodize it and only hire women with hourglass figures. Yet for the most part, Copeland has offered a multiracial, diverse group of dancers, where the dark, muscular minimalism of tattooed tribal fusion dancers such as Rachel Brice or Sharon Kihara has coexisted with the languorous, glamorous stylings of Oriental dancers like Sonia or Rania.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Bellydance Superstars is an emphasis on American dancers. Copeland says that bellydance is as American as rock 'n' roll now, yet, although he emphasizes that this is a good thing — showing the Arab world that Americans respect their culture — one wonders why he hasn't included any top-level dancers from the Middle East.

"We can't find any," he says bluntly, perhaps not meaning that to sound as culturally imperialist as his comment sounds. He mentions the need to work in a group and learn choreography quickly, and it's true that many Turkish and Egyptian dancers can be divas. But still, the symbolism he desires is lacking something without them.

The group's success has defied the many nay-sayers who thought, especially after the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, that selling Middle Eastern culture to Americans was a doomed proposition.

"I had a lot of people who laughed at me, who thought I was out of my f-cking mind," says Copeland. "But I think the public has a lot greater appreciation for a broader range of things. . . . They're just told by the gatekeepers that, no, no, no, they won't go for this. Because people are afraid to take a chance. But in my career, I've tended to like those challenges! I had very much the same experience with The Police as I had with BDSS, (or with) people saying, 'Punk rock will never happen, it's three-chord music by people who can't play.' Now look."

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Speaking of punk, the conversation turns to Copeland's booking and organizing of The Sex Pistols' only European tour. Copeland says it was crazy, because "the guys in the band really thought they were a group; they wanted to play. But for Malcolm (McClaren, the band's manager), they were a stunt. He didn't want them to play! He called me one day, yelling and screaming at me — 'I get more press saying that they can't get booked than I do if they actually play a gig somewhere, and you're f-cking it up by getting me gigs!' "

It may still seem strange that an American promoter is capitalizing on bellydance, rather than, say, Egyptians, who originated it.

"The Egyptians had sort of lost the plot, in terms of recognizing their asset, probably due to social pressures. It was considered a lower-class dance, one with some unfortunate associations, given the fact that men would go to these shows and throw a lot of money to some girl and say 'come meet me.' Also, the conservatism creeping into the Middle East has affected all sorts of fun, music and dance included.

"I met the minister of culture in Egypt, and he actually said to me, 'We don't really want bellydance equated with Egyptian culture. We're embarrassed.' And I think that's a tragedy. The Arabs need to understand that their culture actually has a lot of relevance. Instead of feeling that the world is doing them an injustice and that they're disrespected, (they should) understand that part of respect comes from respecting your own culture. I think as we make bellydance (more) acceptable in the world, the Arabs will at some point realize that this is something they can be proud of and encourage."

And that's not far from the advice Copeland says he gave Mr. Rumsfeld's office: "If you really want to win hearts and minds in the Arab world, make sure that we get a No. 1 Arab record in the U.S. charts. It will make them proud."

Bellydance Superstars perform May 15 (6:30 p.m.), 16 (12:30 and 5:30 p.m.) and 17 (1:30 p.m.) at Yuu Port Hall in Gotanda, Tokyo; and May 19 at Hyogo Performing Arts Center, Kobelco Hall in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture (6:15 p.m.). Tickets are ¥6,000-¥15,000. For more information, visit www.bellydancesuperstars.com Ansuya, one of the Superstars' dancers, has a solo show and workshop on July 4 at Cay (Spiral) in Omotesando, Tokyo (7:30 p.m.; ¥5,000; www.kervanserai.com).

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