Belly dance stars entertain, gain respect for Arab culture

Miles Copeland, who has promoted such rock groups as The Police, REM, Blondie, The Sex Pistols and S
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Sept. 11, 2001, changed lives, in big ways and small.

In the case of rock ’n’ roll promoter Miles Copeland, the terrorist attacks toppled his latest business venture — championing Arabic music. After 9/11, the exotic sounds from the Muslim world became a pariah to Western concert producers.

But not to belly dancers.

“After the success of [Sting’s] Desert Rose, I saw a lot of potential,” said Copeland, who has promoted such rock groups as The Police, REM, Blondie, The Sex Pistols and Sting. “But I found that the only people interested in Arab music were belly dancers. So I put up a $1,000 prize for a belly dancing competition at the Knitting Factory in L.A. to the music of Oojami, a band I was promoting. Eighteen hundred dancers showed up from all over America. I was taken aback by the response. Watching these ladies dance, I thought: The way people can learn to appreciate the music is through the dance.”

Belly Dance Superstars

WHERE: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

HOW MUCH: $24, $20 senior and $12 children

MORE INFO: 473-1845 or theegg.org

So with 13 of the best dancers, he formed the Belly Dance Superstars. The ensemble, which has since performed more than 500 shows in 20 countries, has been called “the next Riverdance” by the Sunday Times of London. And for belly dancers, like 25-year-old Petite Jamilla, the Superstars prove that the art is not a sexual act, but a thing of beauty.

“It’s a family show,” said Jamilla, who joined the show in 2004. “It shows the body as naturally sensual, not sexual. It’s very entertaining.”

Bridging gap

But for Copeland, the Superstars, who will be onstage at The Egg on Saturday, bridge the gap between East and West.

“We are fed such negative views on the television of the Arab world,” said Copeland, whose brother Stewart was the drummer in The Police. “I want to cultivate a general appreciation for the Arab culture. It’s made Arabs appreciate Americans because we are showing that we respect their culture. And then Americans say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know about this music and dance.’ The Superstars inadvertently create this connection.”

The connections go deeper than just the Middle East. The Superstars thrive on going beyond the folkloric. The belly dancers are trained in ballet and jazz, They fuse their choreographed numbers with other styles such as Latin, Tunisian, Algerian and Indian dance. For example, one dancer wears a grass skirt for a Polynesian-style blend. Another dances a nod to Bollywood.

Jamilla, for her part, takes cues from the whirling dervishes of Turkey. She spins for a mesmerizing five minutes as she manipulates four veils that rise and descend around her like billowing clouds.

There is also a belly dancing ballerina. As she skitters along en pointe, she undulates her stomach and waves her arms as an exotic dancer.

“We are not traditionalists in any respect,” said Copeland. “We take the best and fuse it.”

Of course, no belly dance show would be complete without some straight-up cabaret-style dancing, with beaded bras, colorful split skirts and sparkling bangles. The Superstars also stage some tribal numbers, which are distinguished by dancers swathed in layers of luxurious gossamer fabrics.

The show has been a hit through Europe and the U.S. Yet since it is the first and only concert-style belly dancing spectacle, Copeland said producers were skeptical. The Superstars got their first big break in 2003 as part of the 45-city Lollapalooza Festival tour. The Superstars were a sensation, named the best act on the festival’s second stage. That gave the company the boost it needed to continue on its own.

“When people finally see the dancers, they come around,” said Copeland.

What surprises most viewers is that the troupe is composed of American dancers only. That’s a fact that Arab viewers don’t believe — insisting that the dancers must be Arab-American.

Jamilla, for example, is half Irish-American and half American Indian. She began dancing with her mother, Jamilla Rasa, a practitioner of the art form. Jamilla, whose mother named her Petite, said she embraced belly dancing because it “accepts all body types. And it’s wonderful for keeping in shape.” Better still, she said, “It’s an art form for women, by women.”

Jamilla said the great thing about the Superstars is that audiences begin to understand the value and intricacies of belly dancing, which leads to respect.

Copeland agrees, adding the dancers’ artistry and devotion is matchless.

“I’ve worked with so many musicians,” he said. “But to see these ladies, the amount of time and effort they put into dancing every night — they work harder than musicians. To be able to deliver every night, they way they do, is hard work.”

In the end, the Superstars accomplish Copeland’s original hope — to promote the music that audiences can buy in the theater lobby after the curtain comes down.

“It’s an entertainment show,” said Copeland. “But it’s also a political statement. When we were in Barcelona, an Arabic man came up to me and thanked me because he was so happy to see the music and the dance of his country, the culture that he loves, onstage. It shows that his culture has relevance. It’s about winning the hearts and minds on both sides.”

Categories: Life & Arts

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