“We don’t really like tradition,” is the motto of the Bellydance Superstars, the latest cultural dance group to spread its expansive wings and propel itself into mainstream American entertainment. Although the troupe’s style originated in ancient Egypt — where it is known as raqs baladi — it could possibly be Westernized to the point of cultural extinction.
The Bellydance Superstars has a certain appeal that has enabled them to rise above any other bellydancing troupe in the world. According to the troupe’s manager, media mogul Miles Copeland III, the dancers’ appeal radiates from a combination of structure and fusion.
“It’s not really an organized dance form,” Copeland explained. “[I was the one who said] lets put it to mainstream, let’s professionalize it, let’s get dancers together to present themselves the way they’ve never been able to do before on a big stage with proper production and training, and that led to the Bellydance Superstars.”
With Copeland — who’s most famous for managing popular musician Sting — at the helm, the Bellydance Superstars is in very capable hands. Having been involved with the entertainment industry as an agent, producer and manager since the late 1970s, Copeland knows better than anyone how to produce a show that will entertain the masses — even if it is at the expense of tradition.
“We were the first to mix the tribal and the cabaret style in the same show,” Copeland said. “Tribal dancing has tattoos, heavy jewelry… it is more ominous in a sense. And the cabaret style is what you imagine traditional bellydancing to be.”
Although bellydancing is primarily an individual dance form, Copeland was able to collaborate many different dancers into a systematic production.
“Wherever you have an individual dance, there’s going to be individual elements added to it,” Copeland said.
He was also able to develop his vision of an organized group and to provide greater opportunities for the women in the troupe. This vision, he insisted, has only been made possible because of American influences.
“In the Arab world, [bellydancing] is still stuck in restaurants and it’s a tacky tourist thing,” Copeland said. “Here, it evolved into women’s empowerment and it’s almost spiritual.”
In restructuring and revolutionizing bellydance, however, it appears as though the culture of the dance may have suffered casualties, despite Copeland’s insistence that it is necessary to “look at it in the standpoint of there [being] no traditional bellydance.”
But Copeland’s description of his troupe is littered with credit to America, in particular the West Coast and Hollywood.
“The best dancers were actually American, which was surprising because one imagines bellydance coming from the Middle East,” he said.
While Copeland is certainly the expert on the topic, one wonders if this oddity is simply because Middle Eastern women were not given the same opportunities and exposure to mainstream bellydancing as American women were.
“The original bellydance costume was not two-piece,” Copeland continued. “[Egyptians] started seeing that in Hollywood movies and they took the idea.”
Copeland believes that his American dance troupe is a leading innovator when it comes to re-creating the image of bellydance, transforming the style of dance from mere entertainment to a viable art form.
“We have given [bellydancing] prestige by putting it in the context of professional arts such as ballet,” Copeland explained. “Whereas in the Middle East, it does not have prestige.”
Copeland maintains that bellydancing is a metaphorical bridge between the cultural divide that plagues our world today.
“From a cultural standpoint, an Arab in the US doesn’t see very much relating to his culture,” Copeland said. “If it is dance that brings interest in a culture to us, then so be it. And music is a great cultural bridge.”
It is through this cultural convergence that the Bellydance Superstars have been able to incorporate other influences and create a fusion dance style.
“I think what happens is if an art form is interesting enough, it will translate beyond its borders,” Copeland explained. “And as it goes across borders, it picks up other influences.”