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Make New Friends & Keep the Old

Response: A Dance Perspective for Today

April Rose

by Miles Copeland
posted February 11, 2013

A response to comments made below Mile’s previous article here.

After living in the Middle East for 25 years and continuing to work in the region for music and dance, I have a pretty good idea of what talent and creative ideas exist in the region. Additionally, with the Bellydance Superstars, I have produced over 800 shows in 22 countries and a few festivals as well as Club Bellydance dates; so, at this point you could say I have a large body of experience about the business side of bellydance.

Whatever naivete I may have had at the beginning has long since been beaten out of me, and the world of reality (especially financial reality) has been beaten into me on a daily basis. So, replying to comments comes not from what I would like to have been reality but what reality actually is – as I have experienced it.

Sabrina

Regarding including a live band into the BDSS shows:

On the live band front, all I can say is: Add the cost of musicians, added crew, set up time, equipment, additional transport, hotels, salaries, etc. and you are talking about ticket prices more than tripling to pay for these added costs. Most likely, it would be a recipe for the company to go broke twice as fast! I am sorry to say so, but when I hear people make comments such as: “BDSS needs a live band”, for purely financial reasons, I consider them as a cuckoo-land critic.

It means one would have to restrict the music of the show to be what one band could play, meaning that all sorts of music would not be available to use in the show. A band that can do genuine Arab music convincingly would be out of their depth when it comes to what our Tribal dancers require.

Regarding incorporating folkloric dance into our show:

Although, on one level, one can appreciate so-called "folkloric dances" for what they are, at the performing arts level, in competition with major dance shows, I am sorry, but these dances are as boring as they appear easy to do; hence, they are called "folkloric". To the trained eye and those who are knowledgeable, folk-dancing actually may be difficult, but to the untrained eye they may appear too simple and easy, so why would I want to pay to see them? A juggler may juggle 4 balls while the average person can’t keep even three in play, but in a world of Cirque du Soleil, unless you can juggle 10 balls while riding a horse upside down, you are not in the game. There is not one Middle Eastern folkloric company that can compete and win before a Western audience–and none have ever done so! Perhaps a one-off date here and there has been successful, appealing to a largely ethnic audience, but certainly with no consistency, as a show like the BDSS needs.

So, I beg to differ on the opinion held by some that folkloric styles would deliver a large potential audience.

If one is talking about a small gathering of 100 people, this is minute in the world of the mainstream where 1,000 people in the audience every night 5 to 6 nights per week is a minimum to be in the game in any real way (and even that would not be considered a home run by most promoters).

Meanwhile, at the risk of offending some bellydance experts, I contend that bellydance, as it is performed today, is not a folkloric dance, and I would also contend that it did not stem from any folkloric traditions that I have seen. Today’s Bellydance is way too "sexy" to fit with what Arabs consider an acceptable dance for women to perform in public. That is why it is generally accepted in parts of the Arab world that it is a dance akin to prostitution. Of course, although I find this idea highly offensive and untrue for many, there is no doubt that it is the accepted idea for the majority of the Middle Eastern population. If you think I am wrong, just ask any of the Arab bellydance teachers who live in Egypt or Lebanon.

SabahFor those who live in the belief that there are "folkloric" roots to bellydance, I ask simply, “How do you equate the fact that Arab women are covered from head to toe with only eyes showing as a mark of correct morality and even ones wearing Western dress now almost all cover their heads with a scarf?” The entire moral thrust of that society is about control of women through "modesty", and let’s face it: Bellydance is not a dance of modesty! No Arab family would want their daughter or mother doing bellydance outside the home, which is why the dancers performing in the Middle East now are 99.9% non-Arab. Furthermore, it is not getting any better.

Let’s not forget that the first thing that happened in Cairo with the "Arab Spring" was all the clubs that had bellydance entertainment were burned down.

In short, as I see little connection between what is folkloric dance in the Middle East, and bellydance as we know it, I see no reason to feel that I need include folkloric in a BDSS show to somehow have more accuracy or credibility to my audience. If we develop a piece incorporating folkloric elements (and we have done so in past shows), just as we might incorporate ballet, Polynesian or other styles it has to be because it works within the piece and is there because it works and for no other reason.

Regarding expectation that our dancers have other dance skills besides Bellydance:

Finally, regarding what you need to be able to do as a professional dancer certainly means connecting with the audience and the music. However, for a show like the BDSS presents, you also need to be able to do complicated choreography accurately, which means absolutely that you need to be able to chaine across the floor properly. The idea that the basics of dance are not important has been a major factor in keeping bellydance from being taken seriously by other dance arts, and I know is a pet peeve many noted bellydance teachers have as well.

The truth is: a really good dancer (who is serious about dance) will be able to both connect with an audience and the music and also, be able to chaine accurately or whatever else is required. I would go so far as to say if a dancer cannot chaine across the floor, then she is not serious about dance.

If that offends, then so be it, but that is the reality. Meanwhile, if you want to be able to do a prestigious show with refreshing choreographic ideas, you need dancers who can execute those ideas, or all you do is limit the choreographer to work within the limits of the dancers. Why hire dancers with limits when you can find ones that have everything?

The whole point of the BDSS is to push this art form to excellence beyond what others have done; so why would I want to refocus on what bellydance has been: bellydance that you can see any day of the week and has been done repeatedly. Why relive old news as if that were something good? Been there, done that! I really don’t get the idea that bellydance has to live in a box with myopic rules set in the past. Any art that is worth anything will only blossom when new creative ideas are welcome rather than shunned out of hand. Of course, not every new idea and fusion works or advances the art, but some do and that inspires more to try. That experimental effort keeps bellydance interesting and makes the art ever more relevant to today’s dance world.

I believe in the idea of the song lyric: "Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other–gold."

I would translate this idea to dance as: “Keep the basic resource of bellydance as one’s ‘gold’ but add the new takes on that art as one’s ‘silver’.” Together, both make for a better show than only one.

BDSS does a fan dance

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   |       |    14 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Catherine

    Feb 11, 2013 - 04:02:54

    Well said! I agree with everyone you’ve said…it is first and foremost entertainment

  2. No Gravatar
    John Kalb

    Feb 11, 2013 - 10:02:36

    As one who for years has lamented the inability of belly dance to grow out of a niche performer-based audience into a mainstream audience I appreciate the reality of what Miles has to say. I’ve put a lot of time and money over the last 10+ years into organizing shows and tours for a troupe and never made a dime. It feels good to support the dance and my wife but as a business its a bust. Miles has done us all a service sticking with growing the audience for belly dance for as long as he has. I know it must not have been easy. Thanks Miles.

  3. No Gravatar
    Zumarrad

    Feb 11, 2013 - 10:02:31

    I would like to know why it is that, despite this “successful” model targeting the GP, the BDSS machine is only still turning over by tying itself to local bellydance communities and getting those communities to do all the work of publicity, ticket sales and backup performances. Surely the success of this non-traditional dance model should have no need of stick-in-the-mud bellydancers and folklore fans?

    I think of Yasmina Ramzy’s wonderful artistic shows, deeply rooted in folkore and the Middle Eastern context but with a powerfully individualistic take on the base material – and yes, with a band – and of similar creative works produced by other members of our community like Cassandra Shore, and I know which I’d rather shell out to see.

  4. No Gravatar
    Rahma Haddad

    Feb 11, 2013 - 11:02:06

    I need to disagree with one point Miles has made in his article. Bellydance definely has a folkloric root. Throughout the 20th & 21st centuries many other influences have shaped the modern performance art but the dance did not appear out of nothing. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s I attended family parties where Debke predominated the celebrations. Women would get up individually and dance with their hips, pelvis and arms. My maternal grandmother, born in a village in Lebanon in 1900, was the ‘queen’ of dancers. When I asked about this beautiful dance, I was always told it was the woman’s solo. I trained and performed in modern dance for 10 years before taking up bellydance as a performance art but I always retained the expression of that folkloric root. Since that time, this root has been demonstrated to me  through attendance at Arab parties and Tunisian weddings where the very young children are the first to get up and dance, imitating what they have seen adults do.

  5. No Gravatar
    Emma

    Feb 12, 2013 - 01:02:11

    I can’t decide which is greater: his arrogance or his ignorance.

  6. No Gravatar
    Anthea Kawakib

    Feb 13, 2013 - 06:02:45

    I disagree with Miles view of “boring” folkloric dances, but I certainly do appreciate the fact that he’s obviously popularized bellydance WAY beyond what “the community” had been able to do all these years –

  7. No Gravatar
    Dallas Martin

    Feb 14, 2013 - 03:02:03

    I TOTALLY disagree with Milers Copeland about the dance not having folkloric roots. The dance comes from a dance that is called “Raqs Sharqi”, which is a folk dance. For Miles to discredit the folkloric styles such as the Ouled Nail, Berber dances, Ghawazee, Banat Mazin, Saidi and many others is disrespectful. This is why I personally don’t attend BDSS shows. I think until he includes men and folkloric genres he will be more successful in innovating the dance. It seems like Miles has one impression of the dance which seems to be common in the Western world. At least Sol Bloom acknowledged the Ouled Nails and folkloric forms before Little Egypt was brought into the World’s Fair. Also, belly dance is up to one’s interpretation. What makes Miles Copeland an expert in the definition of it? Yes people have associated it with prostitution in the Eastern countries, but that is why BDSS needs folkloric dance in there. Instead of a “sex sales” attitude, he needs to be thinking about a few things……. Am I doing justice to these dancers and people in the East where this originated from? Am I being fair to EVERY aspect of this dance?…….. I think he needs to think about the culture and not the money. Folkloric will sell if it is done the right way, but it will take the dancer’s to work hard in making the dances work. I hope one day BDSS will incorporate all styles of Middle Eastern Dance and not just ones that just “sell well”.
     

  8. No Gravatar
    Pauline Costianes

    Feb 15, 2013 - 11:02:10

    I will echo those who have chided Miles for his unwillingness to incorporate folkloric dances into the BDSS shows. NO it is NOT boring at all. My troupe, Troupe Ta’amullat in Ann Arbor MI, which uses as its base, Egyptian orientale, performs folkloric dances, obviously adapted for stage presentation, from the Maghreb in the west all the way to the Silk Road and it’s anything but boring. We get kudos from the native populations we perform for, whether they’re Moroccans or Egyptians or Persians.
    It’s BORING to see ‘Bellydancer after Bellydancer after Bellydancer’ in cabaret style with other styles thrown in, and don’t get me started on what I think of Tribal. Groups like Cassandra Shore’s of MN and Laurel Gray’s Silk Road Troupe in DC also get raves for their folkloric dance.
    So it just appears to be an excuse to put very modern style cabaret smashed together with acrobatics, tumbling, ballet (no chene turns in Orientale, hate to tell ya, fella) Vegas fan showgirls out there to bring in as much of the public as possible. Guess ya gotta do what ya gotta do,
    but don’t dismiss folkloric as boring. It’s anything but, and it would be
    a breath of fresh air in the cabaret/tribal recipe now being used.

  9. No Gravatar
    Barbara Grant

    Feb 16, 2013 - 02:02:05

    Every year, at the S. F. Ethnic Dance Festival, we see various demonstrations of folkloric dance from many traditions. They are very interesting for me to watch. I think we are seeing adaptations of a particular culture/tradition/ethnic group’s dance forms designed for a modern stage and a modern audience. From this perspective, folkloric dance is exciting for me to watch and definitely not boring. When I watch these presentations, group dance is far more interesting (in general) than soloists–unless those soloists arise from my own Middle Eastern dance tradition. Bottom line: Folklore, done well on a modern stage, has excitement of its own.

  10. No Gravatar
    Carpediem

    Feb 19, 2013 - 03:02:57

    Miles says: (paraphrasing)
    – Folkloric is boring to most uninitiated audience members: OK, perhaps he’s right.
    – It’s too expensive to have a live band at every performance: OK, I’ll buy that
    -If you’re going to tour the world and perform on the big stage, you should be able to chaine across it: Ok, I’d say that’s a pretty reasonable requirement.
    -Many Arabs are rejecting belly dance these days because of religious conservatism: TRUE, but does that change the fact that it’s Arab in origin?
    -Dancers should have a varied skill set beyond “been there, done that” Raks Sharki to keep the BDSS show fresh: allright, but…WELL…. Don’t you think there are some LIMITS?
    With stilt dancers, contortionists, etc., BDSS might as well stand for the BELLY DANCE SIDE SHOW!!!
     
     
     
     

  11. No Gravatar
    Rasha Nour

    Feb 21, 2013 - 04:02:26

    I have been skeptical about the BDSS for a while for various reasons, but willing to give them a chance should they happen to be in my part of the world. However, this article has turned me right off the whole project. The entire attitude is one of remarkable arrogance, and not much respect towards the amazing cultural dances of the Middle East which Miles claims to know so much about and yet dismissed as ‘boring’. How come Saiidi or Turkish Romany is boring, but Hula is exciting? Is it somehow more exciting purely because it is not Middle Eastern? And if Middle Eastern culture is so boring, why produce a bellydance show at all?
     
    The last show I went to for a GP audience was the Arabian Dance Theater company in London, who included Iraqi dance, Debke, Saiidi, Tannoura and shaabi dance with knives, as well as traditional bellydance, breakdancing and  contemporary dance fusion in their show. The majority of the audience seemed to be members of the local general public rather than dancers, the theatre was packed, and the audience were on the edges of their seats throughout. It is possible to put on a thrilling show for a general audience without writing off the culture from which bellydance originated as ‘boring’, and the fact that Miles isn’t able to says more about his attitude than about the dance itself.

  12. No Gravatar
    admin

    Mar 4, 2013 - 12:03:38

    So – you won’t do folkloric, but you’ll put in stilt walkers, gymnastics, Hula and other south sea FOLKLORIC dances, and Goddess only knows what else; and call it Belly Dance?

     Right.

    -Zorba

    (posted by admin for Zorba)

  13. No Gravatar
    Patrick Duclos

    Mar 19, 2013 - 11:03:25

    I do agree that having a live band on tour would be way too forbiding.   As for the rest, well, I can only agree with those who disagree with you and your other opinions in this article. 
    You may have many years of experience that many of us don’t have in Show Business.  You are not a dancer, you produce them, like you produced other artists before, and that’s fine.  But not including the more traditional forms of Middle Eastern dance is a choice YOU have made as a businessman, not as an artistic director.  You want to bring Belly Dance to a more general audience and make it more mainstream.  That’s a noble thing to do and people have appreciated it for years (as I have).  However, times are changing and now it seems that you want to produce more and more BDSS shows to bring it to even more people, except that you find it necessary to leave behind the gold in exchange for more silver and glitter. 
    You have chosen to go the route of Cirque du Soleil style shows instead of continuing to educate the GP about what the many styles of Middle Eastern dance (Raqs Sharki, Saïdi, Debke, Rom, etc, etc) are.  That’s your choice and I don’t question that, however what is/are the need(s) you were trying to fulfill by excluding other arabic nations traditional dances and going towards more “modern” and fusionistic shows? Comparing what people want to see in a belly dance show with what is being done with Cirque du Soleil is not a very good choice according to me because they are very different in nature. 
    And let’s be honest here…I’m sure that the majority of the audience in those 800 shows were already dancers of the local BD scene who invited friends and family to see the BDSS shows.  If you had said to the venues to sell tickets only to the GP who knew little or naught of belly dance, you would not have survived the first or maybe the second year as a franchise!  So what’s disturbing about your comments is that it feels like an insult to those who are in the “belly dance” community (the GP would probably not be reading this article unfortunately).  And thus, it is with incredulity that we hear you saying all of this about what should be a successful BD show!
    So why did you mention the Cirque du Soleil?  Wouldn’t it better fulfill your needs to produce Cirque du Soleil shows instead of trudging through BDSS shows which are not as successful as you wish they would be (I am referring here to last fall’s series of cancelled North American shows and this spring’s and even last summer’s cancelled Australian tour)?  It may have been working for you for many years, but it doesn’t seem to be enough now.  Do we still need the BDSS?  I don’t know; the quality of local belly dance shows everywhere has gone up and the GP in many localities can have access to top notch performances.
    I, for one, am not going to any more BDSS shows and many people I know aren’t either because we have seen better, much better, “bellydance” shows, with or without live musicians with an excellent balance between the folkloric aspect and the modern-fusion aspect, and that’s despite the talent and hard work of the dancers of the BDSS troupe, past or present.
    If you plan on continuing to want to bring belly dance to the GP and choose to ignore the origins of the dance, so be it.  But I feel, and I’m sure MANY people feel this way too, that it will be at the expense of what the dance style is.  Unless you decide to change the orientation and call it something else!
    Best of luck to you!
    Sincerely yours,
    Patrick Duclos

  14. No Gravatar
    Jennifer

    Mar 26, 2013 - 05:03:57

    I appreciat ethe honestly of Miles in this article. Entertaining an american audience is very different than entertaining an Arabic crowd and eh touches on certain key points about that I appreciate.
    I disagree with a couple details but all in all from a business standpoint here in America I completely see where he comes from. America is different, and while we all want to change certain negative connotations surrounding the dance, it is a step by step process.

    While Miles might not have every belly dancers ideal “authentic” show, it is an entertaining show that has brought belly dance to the main stream and for that we should all be thankful.

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