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Jill & Miles at the San Rafael auditionsGilded Serpent presents...
The Bellydance Superstars Show
In Perspective

by Miles Copeland

Ed note- The following article is a reponse to a review by Dondi and a commentary by Najia published on this magazine this last month. The Bellydance Superstars has been produced by Miles Copeland since 2003. Its tour has generated an extraordinary volume of both heated and supportive responses from the Bellydance community as have the last month's two pieces.

Miles CopelandWhen I watch each BDSS show, I am constantly looking for things that I would improve, modify, cut, or expand.† If I were to critique the show myself, I would offer a far more blistering critique than Dondi (for instance) would ever dare to.† I know what this production could be and what these dancers are capable of.† I have worked with them long enough to know I am very lucky to have such a crew as this.† I know what a major production can look like.† I have done this before after all, not in dance, but in rock and roll, which when you get right down to it, is entertainment where you have to win an audience and keep them. The rules of one entertainment medium are not that dissimilar to another.† Meanwhile, you also have to satisfy the individual needs of each of the performers and keep them inspired to want to be involved or you donít have much of a show in the first place.†

There are many factors to balance, and ANY show can be improved.† The point is to also know the limitations that one faces in doing all the things one would like to do.

That means my critique (and hopefully that of others) must be kept within the bounds of what we can afford, the available time, the available talent, and the realities of the marketplace.† Obviously, not every dancer is available exactly when we want her, so we have to be flexible to individual needs.† All our dancers are not young and unattached, footloose and fancy free.† Some are married and/or find three-month tours too tough, so we have to work around their schedules and needs. That makes it really tough for any choreographer and show planner as anyone could imagine.†

The biggest factor of course is the cost of everything.

Itís all very well for me, or Dondi, or anyone else to imagine fancy lighting, live musicians, better effects, and all the whistles and bells of the "big boys" until one adds up the cost.† Letís start with ticket prices.† We have tried to keep them well below $40 offering big discounts for school and group sales so that we can make sure high ticket prices are not keeping people away.† We even chose a ticket agency that charged less than Ticketmaster for this reason (though we are coming to the conclusion the convenience of Ticketmaster may outweigh the savings to the customer).† Consequently, our prices are far below the shows we say we are in competition with, such as Riverdance, or Lord of The Dance, etc.† In most cases, we run at half the price.† Any major improvements in our production right now would have to go hand in hand with raising ticket prices to much higher levels.† If we did not do that, the tour will lose money.† We lost $80,000 on the last tour, not including my overhead and home office staff costs, and this on top of an already substantial investment. We just could not consider another loss. Of course, there is also the consideration that if we raised ticket prices, there would be no assurance we would still be doing sellout business. We would probably receive angry calls over it. 

Itís all a matter of balance between what you can afford to do and what you want to do.† I hope it will not be long before the two meet nicely.

A production must also achieve balance between conflicting technical realities. For instance, Dondi complained about bright lights.† Another complained about the volume.† At the same show, we could have people at the back of the hall complaining they could not hear or see properly.† The person at the front will ALWAYS have a different experience from the person at the back.† A trained critique would presumably take that into consideration.† Another cost consideration would be my answer to Dondiís point about Issam playing to a recorded track.† In fact, this is a common practice in the music business even among big groups who play to a click track so recorded music can be added to their live sound.†† Singers regularly do "track dates" where they sing live to a recorded backing track.† This is done for practical reasons as well as financial ones.†

For us, we canít very well rush an entire band onto the stage for just one song. Adding a live element to a recording is a solution that is perfectly normal in this business.

TheatregoersWe are trying to please two separate audiences at the same time: bellydance aficionados and mainstream theatregoers. The pure bellydance crowd may want certain things and be forgiving of other things, whereas an arts mainstream audience demands something else and may be less forgiving of "insider elements.Ē† I have to determine what this balance should be.†Not only do I see it for myself at each show, I also read about it on posts, hear about it from audience members, and get feedback about it from venue managers, promoters, agents and dancers.† When I see a negative critique, I evaluate whether it is given in an honest and constructive manner or it is prejudiced or misinformed in some way.† Some negative criticism is valid, some is not. Other critiques are valid, but as yet are unaffordable to act upon.† It would be impossible to incorporate the array of conflicting positions into even two shows, let alone one.  Everybody wants us to be all things to all people. Dondi appears to want us to be an educational show for instance.  Others want more tribal, less or no tribal.  Then there is the "authentic" crowd, the "push the envelope crowd" and of course the biggest crowd of all the "do what you are doing crowd.Ē 

In the decision making of how to construct a show, it is either a plus or minus (depending on oneís point of view) that I am not a dancer and have no dance "agenda.Ē† My chief guiding light is what works, what I can see for myself working or what I instinctively feel will work not only with bellydancers, but also with the big world out there.†

I also have to take into consideration the feelings and creative desires of the dancers in the troupe in order to keep them.† Yes, I do compromise when I think we can get away with it.† Itís not easy to do this when I feel it is essential that we keep the show tight to not exceed two hours including intermission.† Each of our dancers could do more, but then how would a three-hour show work?† Certainly not in the mainstream world.† Then again I am not out to promote "authentic" or "tribal" or other specific dance style to the exclusion of creativity within those styles. Nor do I have the agenda to "educate" or promote Middle Eastern culture or any other ulterior motive.†

Our primary job is to entertain. In doing so, we also know that we must open peopleís eyes to the possibilities of this art form generally.† We NEED to see public interest, acceptance and respect of bellydance grow, for our own sake as well as for others.† The bigger bellydance becomes, the bigger it is for us, and indeed for all within the bellydance community.† The fact that it also opens a door between two cultures in conflict is a side effect that we appreciate and value and play on to a degree, but it cannot be our stated purpose.† We are not a political show and should not be.

Polynesian piece at the BDSS show in  Feb 06More than anything, and I think where Dondi may have forgotten her experience with us and a common misunderstanding among others as well, is the fact that I have called this troupe the Bellydance Superstars. which in simple terms means itís about the dancers themselves more than it is about bellydance as dance.† Itís about their particular contribution to the art and how they have fun and create around it.† Dondi herself was a major contributor to this idea with her Marilyn Monroe bellydance routine which was as far away from "authentic" as you could get† (and I continue to get grief over it), but it was funny, it worked and it was a great aspect of our show.† It showed off her creative skill at comedy as well as showicasing her bellydance in a unique way.† Sonia is a naturally gifted and creative dancer with amazing grace and femininity.† When I learned that she had regularly worked in a respected Polynesian troupe, I suggested she should try to come up with something mixing her Polynesian abilities with bellydance to create something new; "bellynesian," if you will.†

Regarding the Polynesian number, it was the fusion that interested me, not having "authentic" Polynesian in our bellydance show.† It was also interesting that halfway across the globe, another culture had came up with a similar dance (also of great femininity though apparently originally done by men) and I thought it would be fun to see them together.† It also allowed her to be creative in her own right and gave added variety to the show.†

Sid ViciousHer new bellynesian piece in this show is exceptional (far more difficult than the previous piece) and a big winner for us.† The same thought process was involved in the Latin piece which starts with a song featuring a Lebanese singer singing in Arabic over a Cuban band (hardly authentic anything).† It allowed our "Latins" in the troupe to play with their heritage as well as inspiring Jillina to do something new.† I think she likes wearing that head piece.† Therefore, I would stress that judging it as an "authentic" Latin piece would be to completely miss the point.† It would be like criticizing Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols for not singing "My Way" the way Frank Sinatra did.† Besides to my way of thinking, there is no such thing as wrong in ART.† (By the way, the Sid Vicious version of "My Way" is the best rendition of the song ever recorded:† take that you purists!)† This is why I never get upset when people say "they are doing it wrong" or itís "not authentic.Ē† My answer would always be: "Of course, and proud of it!Ē† "We do it our way," and if Sid were alive, I'd try to get him to sing it for us as "We Did IT Our Way."

There has been some comment on the use of the word "Carnival."† I guess people have different understandings about the meaning of the word.† It is typically used to describe a collection of interesting or colorful activities or festivities, such as a a traveling fair or a circus.† As a traveling troupe performing an interesting and colorful selection of dances, I would think that we qualify.† The word "Carnival"†infers fun and mixing it up, rather than serious organization and regimentation.

Fifi Abdo Actually, I have learned that semantics is a large part of the debate within bellydance.† There is not much general agreement on much of anything it seems.† For instance, I was glad to hear Dondi so categorically defining Jillinaís style as "Modern Egyptian."† On another site, I have been debating a lady who totally disagrees; preferring to say Jillina is a fusion dancer and NOT a bellydancer at all.† She goes so far as to say NONE of the BDSS are bellydancers (neither are most of you who are reading this article). I'd say those were wildly differing opinions.† Then there is Fifi Abdo who apparently thinks only she is "authentic."† Maybe she is and we are ALL a bunch of phonies!

There has also been comment on "smiling."† My only answer is to remind everyone that the medium is often the message.† In a restaurant where intimacy and virtual one-on-one is possible, plus a certain informality as the obvious result, a smile is indeed a winner.† On the big stage, this is not necessarily so, and can actually be distracting.† One would not see a ballerina dancing around the stage with a great big grin on her all the time (itís ART, man!).† The point is that if one expects to see what you would see from a dancer in a restaurant, you could well be looking for the wrong thing, as the big stage offers something different that you can not get from an intimate setting.† It should be appreciated for what it is; it cannot offer what it is not (and it works the other way round also).†

If a dancer is not sporting a big smile, one shouldnít assume she is not having fun.† Believe me, these ladies work hard. Touring is tough, but they love to dance and thatís what they are all about.† And thatís what the BDSS is all about too. All I can say is that for a group this big to get along so well, they must be having fun.

As a side note, while we were doing our 26 shows in Barcelona over a year ago, the venue promoters actually took me aside to talk to me about "all the smiling."† I was told that Spanish audiences didn't like this and they advised me to curtail it.† I chose to say nothing to our dancers about this, but I guess this is why we so rarely see a smile on a Flamenco dancer.

The BDSS is not yet three years old. We are still a work in progress.† By March 29, we will have completed 350 shows in 16 countries.† By the end of 2006, it will be 425 shows in 24 countries.† The success of this North American tour has encouraged us to do more U.S. dates from September to October and hit cities we missed on this tour.†The next tour will have more "whistles and bells" than this tour, as will the one after that, and the one after that.† But in the end, the BDSS is not about the effects, itís about the dancers.† Itís about these stars, the new stars in the making and the new additions we bring in.† And itís about bellydance once and for all, attaining the respect and status it has so long deserved and so many of you out there have spent a lifetime working for.†

If any ART is to succeed, it is through the momentum created by a multitude of committed people each with their own unique contribution.† One show cannot do it alone.† One show cannot represent the diversity contained in this dance and its various offshoots.† But, if one show can be a very visible success in the big world of entertainment, it makes it easier for others to follow with their own version.† Success breeds success.†

Riverdance spawned over 5 Irish dance troupes that I know of; each with multiple troupes.† When the Beatles reached number one in the U.S. charts, the entire U.S. music business rushed en masse to England to sign up everything that could sing in tune (and even some that could not).† That brought us the "British Invasion.Ē† Meanwhile, success does not mean ART suffers, it simply means there is more to choose from- more bad AND more good.† It is the "more good" that I hope we can all stay focused on.

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
2-17-06 Belly Dance Superstars ~Raks Carnivale! Review by Dondi Simone Dahlin
Am I jaded because I was part of the company for so long? Am I unable to view the show from unbiased lenses? How I yearn to have virgin eyes, seeing belly dance for the first time.

2-17-06 This is Not a Review: Bellydance Superstars Commentary by Najia Marlyz
Herein lies one major flaw concerning the concept of superstardom in Bellydance: choreography. While choreography is a form of quality assurance, it is also assurance that the quality attained will be less than stellar in Bellydance!

1-17-06 Bellydance Superstars, Our Plans for 2006 by Miles Copeland, 2005 Photos by Monica Berini
There is nothing like consistency and constant pressure to deliver at your best each night to weld a group or troupe together.

9-16-05 How to Analyze Dance Styles by Meissoun
For a long time, the term “style” was something that I didn’t really understand.

8-18-05 Re-defining Belly Dance and Middle Eastern Dance by Tasha Banat
The fact is that “Middle Eastern Dance” is not an acceptable definition for Belly Dance and let me explain why.


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