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Gilded Serpent presents...
American Bellydancer, the Film
Review by Karin Haerter
April 10, 2005

On April 8, 2005, I had the opportunity to view the much ballyhooed film by Ark Enterprises and Miles Copeland, a venture that is part of his efforts to promote his views of the American "bellydance" scene in conjunction with the troupe of his creation, the "Bellydance Superstars." I have never met Miles, but I have seen 2 shows in person of the Bellydance Superstars in performances in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I am also familiar with the debates in the Middle Eastern Dance community about this project from the start.

In some ways, the film was better throughout than I expected (less T & A, and more about the business of show business).  I see very limited market appeal for it though; we dancers would likely see it (just once) to watch people that we recognize.

The film was being shown twice in an art house location in the East Village with about 200 seats, and neither showing was more than half full (This is in New York City!). Miles makes much (in many of his communications with the dance community as well as in the film) of his intentions to reach a wider mainstream audience with his BDSS franchise, and supposedly this film is to be a vehicle for such a crossover. But this film is certainly not something that I see Miles' supposed target audience- the mainstream- running out to see or telling their friends to see. It has a very insider feeling, and much of it would be hard to understand outside the context of the dance scene.

I do like how he allowed himself to be put on the spot, perhaps as a deliberate foil, but the film fails to fulfill his promises of showing why the mainstream should appreciate this dance.

If I were not already a dancer, I am not sure that seeing this film would convince me that I needed to see this dance in any venue.

The film got off to a fairly good start and was on its way somewhere with all the great up-front quotes, the depiction of a 90 year old dancer and some footage of heavier dancers, but then it just left that great opening in the dust and diverged to some of Ark's internal debates. In the same way, the later introduction of male dancers (besides the fact that the first cross-dressing male shouldn't even have been shown, as he was in no way representative of males on the scene) was just left hanging after the clip with Tarik Sultan.

The film had a major identity crisis: is it a documentary? an ad for BDSS? an exoneration of Miles? BDSS: the tour??- and did none of those things well. Mile's film did not address any of these possibilities with clarity!

In any case, what exactly is "American Bellydance" and, as opposed to what? The film didn't address that either. The MTV/ home video style that dominated throughout made much of it hard to watch- that stuff works great on shorts, or for shorter sections of longer films but here it was overused. Some very good, on-target footage was clipped too soon and some "artistic pauses" were senselessly placed, seemingly emphasizing irrelevant or tangential stuff to the detriment of more substantive stuff. Also the one thing that would have helped the film a lot, more actual dance footage, was in short supply- perhaps so people will buy the DVD? The one continuous section of dance footage toward the end was actually clips of several different dances strung together to an altogether different soundtrack that sometimes made the dancers look out of sync with the music.

There was way too much extraneous, irrelevant footage for my taste.  One sound bite of the suicide was enough for me.  I did not need the additional 30 seconds.  All of that bs about security in Bali seemed too long; having shown clips of the bombing was sufficient to set the stage.  Overall, there was too much footage of that "dancer-in-the-woods" and besides what relevance is the fact that Mohamed Atta was in one audience? They could have made better use of more of the fast motion effect of the getting-on-and-off-the bus sequences which would have conveyed the hectic goings-on and could have eliminated some of the chit-chat.

Although the Suhaila footage was good and added spice, the context and reasons for the importance to the dance community of that particular debate are not made clear to a non-dance audience because the nature of the dance and its origins are never delved into. Basically, it's insider stuff.

Aside from some quotes here and there about the dance, real authorities got short shrift.

It would have been far better if Morocco, for example, had not been restricted to short sound bites only; I'll bet she contributed plenty more useful context in that interview that ended up on the cutting room floor.

The limited effort at context relied instead on cobbled together images and unsupported statements and was awkward at best. Some jarringly inappropriate political footage did nothing to enlighten the viewer as to the real political or cultural issues underlying the dance, or how the dance could possibly serve as a cultural bridge. Especially with the later discussion regarding the dancer-as-prostitute stereotype, a viewer not already familiar with Middle Eastern culture would likely be confused as to why anyone would think this dance could be a cultural bridge.

I recently got, along with Rashid Taha's new cd, a free 40 minute promotional DVD all about Rashid's Mexican Tour; it was boring to watch the first time & only had a few good scenes worth watching so it was certainly not worth watching twice. This BDSS film reminds me a LOT of that, now that I think of it. Basically in both cases, the filmakers failed to make their content relevant to the audience. And neither one succeeds as a documentary.

As far as documentary goes, anyone who would like an excellent behind the scenes look at the BDSS tour can read Dondi's excellent series on the subject, written while she was on the road with the troupe, which is hopefully still up on her website.

A lot of the dance footage, while scarce, was great, and would have added much to the movie if more had been included. How could it have hurt to show a full 30 seconds of Morocco's fabulous shimmies, or Rachel's incredibly sinuous moves, or Bellyqueen's tight synchronicity instead of the occasional 2 second clip? The enchantment of the dance is in the marriage of the movement and the music, and this movie is so busy doing everything and anything else that the enchantment got lost. It is my sincere hope that Miles will re-edit this film to recapture the magic and to develop better context before he allows a general release of a film that currently does not do justice to the Superstars or the dance.

Miles and Suhaila mug for the camera yet again. Here at the BDSS show in the winter of 2005 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco
September 10, 2005, Post Script:
Since the foregoing review was written, I have had the opportunity to view the resulting DVD, which is currently being released. Seeing the movie a second time only reconfirmed my original views. I was looking forward, though, to the promised "40 minutes of bonus footage," hoping to see more extensive interviews with some of the experts presented in the feature. However, Miles chose instead to include a bit more road footage, likely excluded from the film due to sound quality & other issues, and interviews with others, such as Marta Schill, percussionist Mary Ellen Donald, and Fahtiem, that had not made it into the feature.

The interview with Mary Ellen Donald is the standout here- nearly half the extra 40 minutes of footage is an in depth interview with her telling how she got started with the dance and Middle Eastern rhythms. Delightful as this interview is, it's presence on the DVD only serves to highlight how little of this sort of thing made its way into the original feature to provide much needed context. Most missing in action are fuller versions of interviews with prominent experts in the dance, most obviously Morocco with her 45 years of immersion in the history and culture, Tarik Sultan regarding men in this dance (a subject I actually got the feeling that Miles was trying to avoid), and Jamila Salimpour, who only had a cameo in the film and could certainly have shed light on the development of American forms of the dance.

On the bright side, there is a bonus compilation CD including tracks by Hakim, Oojami, Khaled, Rachid Taha, Cheb Mami, and others.

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Ready for more?
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