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Miles Copeland, Dr. Hatem, & Sausan

Gilded Serpent presents...
The BDSS Experience and Miles Copeland;
Doing What He Does Best

by Sausan

Miles Copeland's name, along with the words "belly dance" and "super stars", initially came up for me about two years ago when an email from a colleague flashed across my monitor screen.  At first, I had no idea who or what Miles Copeland was or what connected a group calling itself, "Belly Dance Super Stars" to this fellow, so I began to peruse his name on and proceeded to do a little reading.

Like many of us in our advancing years, I sometimes reflect on the days of my youth, which offered me a gateway to California's exciting nightlife.  Such days - or nights as they were - found me driving on occasion to the private homes of Eastern Onion Singing Telegram Service recipients as the visual segment of a singing telegram or to San Francisco's Broadway belly dance cabarets or restaurants on weekends, shaking it up to local live Middle Eastern tunes for curious tourist-type patrons, where the miniscule income from these gratifying dance jobs supplemented mine of a nine-to-five secretary for the United States Postal Service and of a weekend warrior for the United States Navy Reserves.  And on those nights when I wasn't bouncing around on Middle Eastern cabaret stages or restaurant dance floors or for some lucky recipient of a surprise birthday belly gram, I fortified my stamina and kept up my vascular endurance by frequenting the San Mateo disco clubs and dancing to DJ-selected pop tunes of music personalities and groups of the day which included Blondie, The Sex Pistols, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, The Cortinas, The Police, and many more.  So, you can imagine how surprised I was some 25 years later while sitting in front of my Mac and clicking on a link to discover that the name, Miles Copeland, a rock/punk band manager/promoter of these DJ-selected pop tunes that saw me on the disco floor through much of my young adult life was now affiliated with the words "belly dance", a dance I had studied since the early 70s and performed throughout the planet during that part of my adult life; a dance I was now seriously teaching.

While perusing his name, several links popped up on assorted Yahoo! Groups regarding Miles Copeland and the Belly Dance Super Stars, and I came across one that told me of a belly dance "documentary" he had produced and was ready for distribution.  The word "documentary," with regard to belly dance, captured my interest, and so I sent an email to the Copeland Group.  You see, no one has really captured the history and evolution of this much debated dance form in a documentary, so while my email to the Copeland Group commended its efforts for taking on this monumental task, I was questioning its research insofar as Miles Copeland's background consists specifically of promoting and managing individual pop singers and rock/punk groups.

Quite surprisingly, I was answered with an email several days later signed by Miles Copeland, himself.  He addressed each point I had made in my initial email, adding a few of his own in his response, closing with a suggestion to meet me at my restaurant, Al-Masri, after the Belly Dance Super Stars show on Sunday, January 30th for a discussion about our different points of view.  I accepted his challenge and added that dinner and drinks were to be on me.

Having already seen the dancers his show was publicizing as well as the quality of dancing from the various and sundry videos on the market, I was not eager to go and watch the Belly Dance Super Stars show at Herbst Theater, and therefore had not planned to attend.  The only thing that interested me, as I had written to Miles Copeland, was this "documentary."  However, a couple more exchanges from him told me that it was important to him that I attend the show as prelude to our discussion.  I clearly indicated that if I were to attend the show, it would only be to enjoy the polish of a well-executed production and not for the dancing.  So, as Miles Copland's personal guest, I arrived with an escort at Herbst Theater and took my seat.

Although the show was well done - not surprising of a Miles Copeland endeavor as recognized in the music industry, the dancing itself lacked what I call "nephis", the "thing" or "soul" that makes the dance look like the Belly Dance Super Stars of Egypt's yesteryear. 

Additionally, there were far more numbers with Tribal and Fusion than I had wanted to see, and the cabaret dancers, although extremely beautiful and talented in their own right, looked more like Las Vegas showgirls or the showgirls of Ziegfeld Follies rather than the Belly Dance Super Stars I've studied in Egyptian film; stars whose video performances were scarcely obtainable up until about ten years ago and that are now readily available to the public on VHS or DVD via as well as the more popular belly dance web sites.  A somewhat psychedelic lightshow similar to the ones I had seen during the seventies and eighties music concerts with amoeba-like light spots moving about on a Moroccan tiled courtyard fabric print back drop augmented the show.  I guess I wasn't prepared to watch a belly dance show, albeit American belly dance, with a 70's or 80's or 90's American/British music concert flair.  But then, it was Miles Copeland, manager/promoter of many of the popular rock/punk groups and singers of the same decades, who had orchestrated this show. 

I met Miles Copeland after the show and introduced myself, thanking him for the show tickets and saying that I would wait until he could pull away from his adoring crowd.  And after about a 45-minute wait, he pulled up behind my car in a rental and followed us back to Al-Masri.  A few minutes later we arrived, and after a brief tour of the restaurant by Dr. Hatem, we all sat down for some serious discussion, but not before some appetizers, a plate of tantalizing food, and a show from Al-Masri's own repertoire.  It was after the meal and entertainment that I began to see an insight into Miles Copeland.

Miles Copeland shares the same vision as everyone else in the belly dance community.  He proved this by saying that he is in the market to elevate the dance form and take it to the general American public and abroad via his production know-how.  His mission is to liberate it from the hands of the fundamentalists who would want to see the dance eliminated altogether, and place it on the stages of performance theaters across the globe.  He wants to see the words "belly dance" included in the dance dictionary along with the words ballet, tap, and jazz.  He stated that belly dance was not getting the respect it deserved, so in a word, he wants to make belly dance a "respected" dance form. 

Like the bottom lines of all event managers and promoters, Miles Copeland also has his bottom line, and that bottom line is money.  And, why not?  As any belly dance teacher and promoter knows, the bottom line for any business endeavor such as a workshop, a hafla, or just classes, is in making enough money to cover expenses, salaries, and rents with a little left over.  Without a market in which to produce his show, Miles Copeland, like many of us teachers and promoters offering workshops, haflas, and classes, would loose the shirt off his back.

Keeping the American public foremost on his agenda, Miles Copeland picks, from the vast numbers of auditioning talented belly dancers, only the slender ones similar to the showgirls of Las Vegas or the Ziegfield Follies.  Why?  Because, from his experience in show business, this is what the American public wants to see, he says.  And it is no wonder.  Florenz Ziegfield's affair with the beautiful young female figure set the standards for the modern American female stage dancer, as did producer Don Arden who followed suit by introducing glamorous showgirls to the Las Vegas Strip thereby maintaining and upholding these standards.  And frankly, to a certain degree, I would agree with him.  I wouldn't expect any less from a Copeland production, much less any by Ziegfield or Arden with female dancers as its main attraction, and would rather see young beautiful slender bodies on a theater or super stage, rather than old sagging and wrinkled ones like the ones we are destined to become. 

Like Ziegfield and Arden, Miles Copeland has discovered another entertainment cult venue as new and exciting, readily available and eager to be marketed as only he knows how, only this time it's not about the modern pop music of today; it's about a dance taken from the annals of Egypt

Our discussion did not wane over the hours.  At times it sounded more like a heated debate rather than a calm discussion during which he emphatically stated that since the term "belly dance" is an American term then perhaps the words "Raqs Sharki" would better define my dance curriculum, insisting at the same table where Egyptian born and raised Dr. Hatem was sitting, that the Egyptians should refrain from using the American term, "belly dance" and stick to the Egyptian term, "Raqs Sharki" and to leave "belly dance" to the Americans.  In other words, his dancers are American belly dancers, hence the appropriate term, "belly dance"; my students are pupils of Egyptian belly dance, hence the appropriate term, "Raqs Sharki."  I'm still not sure if he was insisting we use the Egyptian term "Raqs Sharki" specifically to describe an Egyptian dance curriculum or venue or that the entire Egyptian population - let alone the rest of the world - should refrain from using the American term, "belly dance" in their performance description.  And if "Raqs Sharki," according to Miles Copeland, should be used only to describe Egyptian style belly dance, then what term would he use to describe those American belly dancers in his show who claim to dance Egyptian Style?

Our conversation with Miles Copeland lasted into the wee hours.  He inquired to my knowledge what made American style belly dance different from Egyptian style belly dance to which I explained the obvious differences even though he had lived in the Middle East for a good part of his life and had visual access to these differences.  We discussed "cultural expression" as opposed to "performing arts."  He suggested that I was closed minded when it came to the "new and exciting" Tribal or Fusion style of dance, and proposed that these forms were the way the dance was evolving, maintaining that only in America could the dance change and evolve this way.  I pointed out that although Tribal and Fusion may have evolved from American belly dance, which evolved from "Raqs Sharki," it looks nothing like belly dance and should be promoted as a separate dance altogether and not linked to the term "belly dance."  Dr. Hatem asked him that since American belly dance evolved from Egypt and not from America, why not look at the dance from an Egyptian's point of view, and asked him how Tribal or Fusion might appear to the Egyptians insofar as these American off-shoots are connected to belly dance - I mean, Raqs Sharki. 

But then, Miles Copeland is known for his individuality as further exemplified by his popular Hakim and James Brown song called "Leila" as well as one soon-to-be released with Hakim and Sting.  And, that discussion was just that, a discussion, and nothing more. 

We were talking to Miles Copeland, innovator, marketing guru, and producer of the next public sensation - in this case, American evolved belly dance.  An extremist, Miles Copeland, also presented Indian and Hawaiian style dances along with Tribal and Fusion in his "Belly Dance" Super Stars program.

In spite of our vocal differences, I thoroughly enjoyed my evening with Miles Copeland - a very engaging man, as did Dr. Hatem.  I was particularly amused when he stated that his dancers were not allowed to dance in any restaurant or nightclub saying that, if he found out they were, that they would be fired on the spot.  How odd, I thought.  There he was sitting in a restaurant - my restaurant - had just dined on the house, and watched my graduates dance.  Was he trying to tell me something about the quality of my establishment and its dancers that his dancers would be fired if caught dancing there?   In fact, hadn't Chafiqa Al Qobtia and later Badiya Masabny availed this dance to the Egyptian public through their own nightclubs and restaurants where the Egyptian Greats were discovered and had gone on and made names for themselves in Egyptian film?  And, what is so terrible about all the other belly dancers that enjoy dancing in Middle Eastern or Mediterranean nightclubs and restaurants?

Miles Copeland said that the Al-Masri dancers - who were there to entertain and not to audition - did not fit the image or dance criteria he has set for his Super Star Belly Dance show, to which Dr. Hatem responded that Mile's dancers did not pass the image and dance criteria we have set for Al-Masri dancers.  So, my guest invited me to produce a show of my own to which I responded that I already had; it was called Al-Masri, and he had just seen my Egyptian style dancers performing in my restaurant just like I had seen his American belly dancers perform earlier at the Herbst Theater.  And so, it went on like that throughout the evening.  At times it was comical, and at times it was testy; I found myself keeping my internal primordial instinctive reactions in check during some of our discussion - after all, he was my guest and we were all professionals.  All in all, it was very educational.  Like I, Miles Copeland never faulted from his views, and he readily admitted as he had done earlier in the show that he enjoys working with young, beautiful, talented, slender women.  What normal heterosexual American male wouldn't?

Miles Copeland is a very experienced and serious business savvy minded person.  Like Ziegfield and Arden, he has found a niche in a primarily female dance sector, has seized it with a passion, and is doing what he knows best with it, and that is to market it and place it on stages across the country for the rest of the world to enjoy.  A successful businessman, it is apparent that Miles Copeland is taking from his vast show knowledge and using his experience in the making of his Belly Dance Super Stars show.  But, as is true of any business venture with such a global mission paralleled with an equal global lack of relative knowledge, there is a price to pay.  What makes his Belly Dance Super Star show appealing to the American public, Miles Copeland says, is aesthetics first, then showmanship, and then the dance. 

And, while I understand why this may work for him, it employs foremost that which is ideal to Miles Copeland and the American standards of beauty and theatrics and does not take into account the cultural expression or the root of the dance, which is essentially the soul itself as performed by Egypt's great Belly Dance Super Stars. 

No one wants to continue to elevate this dance to its proper and well-earned status more than I.  Taheyia Karioka was first to do just that followed by Samia Gamal, Na'eema Akef, Nagwa Fouad, Lucy, Fifi Abdou, and every other Egyptian dancer in between; and in America I can think of several respected female teachers including myself who are on that same quest, as well as the vast majority of us who have studied this dance seriously for some time.  Dancing in restaurants and nightclubs for customers can be just as prestigious and rewarding as dancing on a theater stage for the general public; it's all the same.  It takes management to set down the rules and to enforce them for the safety of everyone - including the dancer, within the environment.  It is evident that Miles Copeland provides that for his dancers in his production of Belly Dance Super Stars like Dr. Hatem and I do at Al-Masri.  And, while I can say that the majority of restaurants and nightclubs, who employed me during my young adult life, followed a similar set of rules, I do recall a couple (theater stage dance productions included) where I neither felt safe nor respected as a belly dancer, American or otherwise.  Later, the following day, I scanned the web sites of some of his Belly Dance Super Stars and noticed one of them is still advertising her performances in a couple of restaurants.

Even though Miles Copeland's vision is similar to that of mine and the majority of belly dancers I have canvassed in my lifetime, he and I differ in our mission approach to elevating the dance, and this is where the discussion became a heated debate.  As I see it, Miles Copeland approaches the dance as a commodity - an American product made specially for the general public to enjoy, employing talented, young, beautiful, slender women in the dance entertainment field and marketing and promoting them with the same methods he used in promoting singers and pop groups; I approach it as a field of study - a way to inform and educate the general public about Egypt and its culture, and to empower my female students with the tools necessary to dance this dance the way the Belly Dance Super Stars of Egypt's past Greats did; it is what I have studied all of my life to do.

As I told Miles Copeland, I will be first in line to see his "documentary"; however, I know now that his documentary may have little to do with the actual history or evolution of belly dance beginning with Egypt or of the lives and performances of Egypt's past and present Belly Dance Super Star Greats but rather a documentary on American belly dance and his personal involvement and participation in it which is effected in his own rendition and ideals of American belly dance and thus produced an end result called the Belly Dance Super Stars show.  And perhaps one day, someone with the financial backing, with the status of someone like Miles Copeland, will step up to the plate and deliver a historical documentary on belly dance as it was and is celebrated in Egypt worthy of National Geographic or the History Channel commemorating the Belly Dance Super Stars of Egypt and acknowledging the belly dance teachers around the globe who have dedicated their lives with passion to the study of the most expressive, beautiful, and time honored dance form.  Perhaps someone may already be doing just that.

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