Music Desert thorns

Rock entrepreneur Miles Copeland brings bellydance to Western concert halls

In his pre-fame memoir, Broken Music, Sting recalled how much he instantly liked Miles Copeland when the two men met in the 1970s.

Copeland, the brash rock-impresario brother of Police drummer Stewart Copeland, and the man who would go on to manage the Police and form I.R.S. Records, took a while to remember Sting’s moniker, supposedly referring to him as “Smig” for a good stretch. Nonetheless, the Police’s charismatic frontman couldn’t help but be impressed by the way Copeland cross-promoted his various projects, using his promotional skills to advance his management career, using his management ventures to bolster his record label, and so on.

Bellydance Superstars: A troupe formed as an Arabic answer to the success of Riverdance.

It was the kind of skillful pop-market puppeteering only found in natural-born entrepreneurs.

Nearly three decades later, Copeland, 61, hasn’t lost his touch. As the manager of the Bellydance Superstars, a dance troupe he organized three years ago, he’s banking on Western audiences’ eagerness to hear Arab music in a flashy theatrical setting. To help build that eagerness, Copeland has produced a documentary called American Bellydancer and recently launched his own XM radio show devoted to — you guessed it — Arab music.

As the son of one of the CIA’s earliest operatives, Copeland traveled the world as a child, and he rattles off insights about international affairs and cultural politics the way other music-biz types spew out Billboard chart positions. He reveals, however, that he never gave bellydancing much thought until Sting experienced massive success with the 2000 single “Desert Rose,” a duet with Algerian singer Cheb Mami. The popularity of a song with such an explicitly Middle Eastern flavor convinced Copeland to begin releasing Arab records in the United States. Attempting to find a novel way of marketing those records, he decided to produce a show in which bellydancers performed to Arab music. After auditioning 180 dancers, he settled on a group of 13, and was stunned by the quality of their first performance together.

“It’s sort of like when MTV started,” Copeland says. “All of a sudden you’re watching rock ’n’ roll on a screen as well as listening to it. That sort of was the spark. I thought, ‘Wow, I guess Riverdance was pretty obscure music and an obscure dance form. They put the two together and it became a world phenomenon. Why not Arab dance and music?’”

Copeland says he was surprised to discover that there are more bellydancers in the United States than in the rest of the world put together, and these dancers have formed an impassioned underground community. This community both helped and hindered his efforts to put a troupe together:

On the one hand, it enabled him to find a pool of talented dancers with little difficulty; on the other, it made him the target of criticism for allegedly co-opting a traditional dance form and perverting it for mainstream acceptance. He compares the attacks from bellydance purists to the scorn initially heaped on the Police by punk purists in the late 1970s.

“I look back at the early days of the Police, when we were all into the punk thing, and I remember that even the punks were against us because they all wanted it to be their thing, and because of the fact that our band was a little bit older,” Copeland says. “But once we started succeeding, they all jumped on it and said, ‘See, we’re happening.’”

The most contentious issue surrounding Copeland’s bellydance troupe concerns the perception that he wanted his dancers to be young and thin, in an attempt to lure a leering male crowd. Much of the furor arose from an e-mail sent by one of Copeland’s assistants in 2003, seeking women under 23 for auditions. Copeland says the e-mail was sent because the Bellydance Superstars had been booked for Lollapalooza, and he decided at the 11th hour that the troupe needed to bring in a couple of young dancers to make it more relatable to Lollapalooza’s audience.

“So immediately, the entire bellydance community decided that the Bellydance Superstars were all in their teens,” he says. “The reality is that our youngest dancer just turned 23 and the oldest is 37. The Bolshoi Ballet, for instance, ranges from 18 to 39. At 40, they throw ’em out summarily. So we actually skew older than a ballet would.”

Copeland also denies that weight was an issue for him, but argues that a world-class dancer, by nature, tends to be fit and well-toned. He also puts a curious twist on the subject of female stereotypes. While women often argue that popular culture force-feeds us unrealistic and unhealthy standards of female thinness, Copeland suggests that he’s fighting the opposite battle with his troupe: the stereotype that all bellydancers are fleshy women with big stomachs.


Tue, Feb 14
$32 (advance);
$38 (day of show)

Carver Center for the Arts
215 N. Hackberry

Copeland never pretends to be anything other than a hard-nosed, bottom-line businessman, and he says he makes decisions purely based on what the audience wants. But as the best possible salesman for his own ventures, he also makes the case that by selling out theaters across America, the Bellydance Superstars can ease tensions between the United States and the Arab world.

“There is a subliminal message that we’re delivering: One, that Americans do like other cultures, and, two, when we put Arabic music in front of an American audience, they’ll say, ‘Wow, there’s something more to these people than being terrorists.’ It has that message, although we’re not preachy about it.”

He says most bellydancers have come to accept — and even applaud — the Bellydance Superstars, and he maintains little patience for his critics. He insists that bellydancers are treated poorly in the Middle East, primarily relegated to dancing in restaurants and receiving minimal pay for their efforts.

“Bellydance in the Middle East is not respected,” he says. “Bellydancers are not respected. You would never let your daughter become a bellydancer and you would never marry one. Yet, people are saying we’ve got to be true to the culture. Why be true to a culture that looks upon it the way we look upon strippers?

“Is art supposed to be in a little box? Wow, what a bore. So, to the purists I say, ‘You’ve got your head right up your ass.’”

By Gilbert Garcia

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