Interview & Show Preview: The Bellydance Superstars Presents Bombay Bellywood @ the Showbox Market, Sat. 2/12

The Bellydance Superstars are coming to Seattle on Saturday, February 12th. The dance troupe, which began in 2002, will perform as part of their latest show, Bombay Bellywood. The show includes classical Indian dance, Bollywood themes, and of course bellydancing! On tour with the troupe is dancer Petite Jamila, whom I spoke with last weekend, and master drummer Issam. I also talked with the mastermind behind the Bellydance Superstars, Miles Copeland. Copeland, who has worked as a band manager for such artists as the Police and Sting, and also worked as a record label executive, came up with the idea to bring the art form of bellydance to the people on a big scale. I was curious about how the troupe got going, what Copeland and Petite Jamila thought about bellydancing’s feminist interpretations and popularity, as well as what we might expect in the show.

Miles Copeland

When we started off our talk, Copeland mentioned he just picked his wife up from the airport. She’d returned from Argentina.

Do you go to Argentina a lot?

Miles Copeland: I have not been there for five years but we’re actually working on a new show called Tango Superstars, and that will be our next venture. I’ll probably be going there quite a bit towards the end of the year. What we’ve sort of done with the Bellydance Superstars is we took an art form that had never really been in the performing arts world and put it in the context of saying, okay let’s make this a real show that could compete with Riverdance, that could compete with the ballet, that can compete with STOMP. Let’s get the best of the best, give them the facilities to be great and put them on a real stage. That had never happened before. In the case of tango there are shows that tour, but they’re fairly insular. They have very little production and haven’t really thought about expanding, so in a sense we think we can do the same with another genre. The interesting thing about bellydance is that it’s so popular among women and there are so many schools and things going on and it’s a pretty active community – especially in Seattle, there’s a lot of big teachers up there.

How do you select dancers for your shows?

MC: We have a basic core of dancers that have been with us. Over the years they kind of change and for this particular show we were looking for a couple of new people that would have an Indian flavor to them. So we brought in Meera and Samir. They both are kind of Indian style dancers, but other than that we do auditions all over the world. We’ve auditioned over three thousand dancers. We look for dancers who have a great ability at bellydance but are also accomplished dancers in a broader art form. Many of the bellydancers we come across are fine at doing a solo but they can’t do anything in a group. We have to find dancers that are actually really dancers. Bellydance is great because it’s a solo art form so you can take a few lessons and go out and bellydance, but to be a professional dancer on a professional stage competing with ballet, you better be good, you better know how to do choreography, you better know how to learn quickly – which means for us it’s very hard to find dancers, because they have to be not only great bellydancers but they also have to have their chops as dancers.

The Bellydance Superstars

What was behind the choice of a Bollywood theme for this tour?

MC: We always look to create a new show when we go out because we actually have a fanbase. It’s like when I was managing Sting or the Police, every time you go out on tour you add new things – new music, new songs, new whatever . . . You can’t keep doing the same thing because otherwise why would anyone come back? This time we decided to make a big change and we brought in more Bollywood than we have in the past and we eliminated some things. We eliminated the Polynesian piece and other things to leave room for Bollywood. Bollywood has quite an affinity with bellydance anyway so it seemed a natural marriage. It gives the show a different flavor. We’re always changing and improving.

You’ve got your first male dancer, Samir, on this tour. Did you decide you needed a male dancer?

MC: We don’t hire male dancers. We hire dancers. It happened that he was a male. In Bollywood there is always that aspect, the male/female thing that you always see in films. But we didn’t all of a sudden say, we need a male. He did an audition and he just blew our minds.

Miles Copeland – photo from the Gilded Serpent

What are the differences and similarities of managing a dance troupe or a band?

MC: It’s different in several ways, but similar in others. It’s different in that I effectively have created the show, and am the boss in the sense that I hire under the concept that I’ve created. I have more input in it. When you’re working with a band, it’s their music and it’s their thing. Unless you’ve created a Menudo or the Monkees. If it’s the Police, or Sting or REM, it’s their thing and you work with them. In a sense you’re working for them. In this case the dancers, in a sense, are working for me. Unlike other dance companies though I look to the dancers for inspiration. I try to make the show work for them as dancers. In other words, if they have a particular ability, we use that, as opposed to the New York Ballet or something which says, we’re doing this piece and we’re hiring you to do this, you do it – end of story. We do very much ask our dancers, what do you have that’s special – let’s use that in the show and then we figure a way to do it. We’re very much artist oriented in the sense that we work with our dancers but we are, in the end, the ones that decide what we put in the show and what we don’t. In a sense I have more control doing this. It’s similar in the sense that you’re dealing with people, you’re getting from point A to B, they get tired, they have issues between them, you have to deal with personal things . . . all the human stuff. You take fourteen girls and put them on the road for two months and issues pop up. I will say that I have found working with dancers, in many ways nicer and more pleasant than working with rock bands, who can sometimes be outrageous.

Why do you think bellydancing is such a feminist movement?

MC: This is something that I did not appreciate at the beginning. I’d grown up in the Middle East and I sort of thought of bellydance you go to a restaurant and you see it or it’s at a wedding or at a tourist spot. In America, the west and Japan and China, it’s become sort of a woman’s art form about women. Unlike in the Middle East, where the audience will be predominantly men, here it’s predominantly women. That very fact means that if you’re a woman dancing to a woman you dance differently than if you’re dancing to men, trying to get a tip. In America it’s become very much a feminist art form, where a woman can express herself, the beauty of being a woman without having to throw sex in your face, whereas in the Middle East it tends to be, I gotta throw some sex in your face so I get a bigger tip. That’s just reality. In this part of the world it has become a feminist movement, and also it’s quite a welcoming dance. If you’re older or younger, or bigger or smaller, you can still get out and dance without feeling that this dance is not for you. To be on a professional stage of course, doing real choreography, then you do have to be a real pro dancer and you tend to be physically fit. But there are many dancers out there doing plenty of work that are older and larger or whatever, and that’s great.

What’s your favorite dance style?

MC: I don’t actually approach it that way. I simply sit back and say, okay, impress me. Don’t let me get bored for a second. That’s basically it. I put myself in the place of an audience and I don’t want to hear music that’s obscure, that I can’t get into, that I can’t tap my foot to – so make sure the music works. I don’t really care if it’s in a foreign language or not because, hell, half the rock songs you can’t understand the words either. So, let me just get off on the music – number one – my body’s grooving, I’m loving the music. Now entertain me on stage. I approach it very much from that standpoint. That’s why I consider myself a better judge than any dancer would be. Dancers tend to be purists. Same way as when I was dealing with Sting. I would be a better judge of a hit single than he would be, because he wrote all the songs and he couldn’t really separate them. It would be like choosing which children he likes best. In most of the arts you have somebody on the outside who is making a judgment as the audience. Bellydance has not really had that before, which is why the Bellydance Superstars are so good is because I am not a dancer, none of the girls on the stage are competing with me. I don’t look at any of the girls on the stage and think, she’s prettier than me, she’s better than me, therefore I’m going to put her in the back. I say, you’re good, I’m putting you in front. Because I’m a novice, and I just want to be entertained, I choose the best from the standpoint of the audience. And it just so happens that actually works. You can’t be too purist. The really pure arts never succeed because they’re too insular. They only appeal to a very small minority who knows the ins and outs of something.

What have the responses been to the Bellydance Superstars in countries where bellydancing is traditional?

MC: There were several responses. Number one is they were shocked. I actually almost had fistfights with people who insisted that the girls had to be Arab because Americans cannot dance like that. Well, actually they all are Americans. The only man of Arab descent in our show is Issam, who is our drummer, who was born and raised in Syria. Other than that all the girls are from all walks of American life. The other [response] was that they were really excited to see how bellydance could morph to incorporate other things and be a lot more interesting. All they get to see in the Middle East are the typical girls who come out and shake their breasts and are after tips. Which is understandable, but nobody there has an incentive to try to make it an art form and put it in a big theater because there are no big theaters to put it in. They see our show and they go, oh my god, who would imagine Americans would come up with something like this? Three, the other thing, and this happened in Morocco especially, I had women coming up almost with tears in their eyes saying thank you. I was thinking, what is the motivation behind this comment? This is not just oh I loved the show thank you very much. I think it had to be that here they were watching women being sensual without having to bare their bodies, and that it was fine, and that it wasn’t something to be embarrassed about. In other words it was women being free to be women. I think in that part of the world women are afraid of that. There’s the pressure of society toward conservatism. Seeing something like we do was a revelation and it made them feel good. I even had an older man in Marrakesh come up to me [telling me it was] fantastic, beautiful, and it’s very important what you do. It really was a celebration of femininity. In America I get a similar reaction, which has always surprised me. When I managed bands people would come up [saying] great show, and that’s expected. But when people come up to you and say thank you with a [particular] tone, that’s a little different. When it’s a man I think it’s because what they’re seeing is something beautiful without having sex thrown in their face. Britney Spears – is she trying to sell herself as a prostitute? If she was, she’s doing a good job. The pressure on women to push their sex in entertainment is huge. Britney, I’d rather just see you come out and sing and be pretty. You don’t have to show me all your body parts. I can actually be interested in the fact that you’re a pretty girl singing a nice song, which country music sort of does. For women I think the same thing, they see women being sensual without being forced into what we all think is necessary. It’s refreshing. I think that makes us unique in the world of dance. Ballet is very sterile. The girls are asexual in a sense. It’s beautiful but sterile. Bellydance is not sterile – Bellydance is like rock and roll. I think that’s why it’s captured the imagination of American women. It’s a women’s art form about women, for women, where women can be women. There’s not a lot of places where that happens.

There’s a live drummer, Issam, in the tour as well?

MC: He’s the top guy in the world. He really is a master drummer and he’s also trained a lot of our dancers. They drum also. We also incorporate the music abilities of any of the people in the show. Petite Jamila plays bagpipes, so I thought, let’s have bagpipes in the show. At the very end of the show she comes out playing her bagpipes. She and Assam end the show playing bagpipes and drums. When we found out that Sabah was a really great ballerina, I said how about doing a ballet bellydance? Musically we get the best. We do use recorded music but we also have live music.

Do you still have a castle in France?

MC: We have the girls there. We do a yearly workshop there. I used to do a songwriter retreat there and actually we’re resurrecting that at the end of this year. ASCAP came in and said they would fund it. We’ve had a lot of hits come out from there. Keith Urban wrote his big hit [“But for the Grace of God”] there actually. He met Jane [Wiedlin] and Charlotte [Caffey] from the Go-Go’s there and they wrote the song.

You met Bill O’Reilly. Do you watch him at all?

MC: I was on a show with him, Politically Incorrect. I do watch him because I watch all the people I agree with and the ones I don’t agree with. Otherwise you can get lost in your own little world. What’s interesting about O’Reilly is – number one, he’s a giant, the guy is six feet five or something. In the green room I asked him how he got his facts. He said, “I have ten researchers that’s why I never make a mistake.” I thought, he’s got a bit of an attitude. So we went out it just so happened that he said something that was not correct and I kind of went for him. He turned around to me, in the show and said, “Shut up.” That kind of won favor with Bill Maher. He invited me back. O’Reilly – I found him arrogant, but he’s not as bad as some of the others who you just know what they’re going to say before they say it. Hannity. You could turn the sound off and know what he’s saying. One of my favorites now is on Sirius, it’s called P.O.T.U.S. It’s pretty well-rounded. The best network of all is Al Jazeera, which people are just discovering. They hire top journalists from everywhere and they do not have a point of view.

Petite Jamila

(Petite Jamila – photo courtesy of MySpace)

Your mom was a dance teacher?

Petite Jamila: My mom was a bellydancer – she performed and taught.

That’s awesome. You worked with her?

PJ: I started teaching with my mom at a university through a continuing education program when I was fifteen. I started teaching on my own when I was seventeen. I had two years of being her assistant. I’m really fortunate for that experience too. A lot of people just get thrown into it.

Do you do other types of dancing?

PJ: Before Bellydance Superstars my mom was only into folklore dance, so she taught me bellydance and Polynesian dancing. After joining Bellydance Superstars I started training in jazz and ballet for the company. Now I’ve expanded to ballroom.

Is ballroom dancing difficult?

PJ: To me it is because it’s the first time I’m learning to dance with a partner in that kind of close contact, so it’s completely different because I’m used to having that personal space and keeping my distance. Now I’m having to trust somebody else and physically placing my weight on somebody else. I think it’s trust issues more than anything.

Do you remember what your first dancing appearance was like?

PJ: I actually just watched my first performance; it was a duet with my mom. I was just rubbish. I was scared the whole time, but over time you get used to it. By the time I was a teenager, about fourteen, I started performing because I wanted to. My idea behind it changed. I remember being very nervous but happy when it was over. It felt successful.

How did you join the Bellydance Superstars?

PJ: They have an audition process. When I joined they had sent out an email list looking for dancers to tour for Lollapalooza. I was twenty at the time, and I thought, I can’t think of anything that I want to do more than that. I flew out to the audition and I think there were eighty people there and it got down to fifty, then thirty and I kept getting closer and closer. I got down to the top three but I wasn’t picked. But I got to guest dance for them whenever they came through cities close to me. I kind of treated that like another audition process. I got to dance with them on two or three or other occasions before they called me and asked me to go on the tour.

You’re now a principal dancer. What else has changed in the company?

PJ: Every time we do a new show it has a new theme so we also try to bring in new elements. In this show it’s Bombay Bellywood, so we’ve brought in an Indian choreographer who also dances with us. We’re trying to learn the style of Indian dance as well so that we’re not just bellydancers doing Indian dance.

Do you like Bollywood movies?

PJ: I like more of the modern ones. The costumes in them are amazing. I liked one with Chris Kattan. It’s a spoof actually, Bollywood Hero. That’s so cute. I saw it when I was first learning the Bombay stuff.

Do you have any input on costume designs?

PJ: I don’t know anything about Indian costuming, but our Indian choreographer worked with a designer, so she came up with the Indian costumes. It’s kind of left to the choreographer of each piece to come up with the concept for the costume. It’s done individually.

You studied at the University of Montevallo. What did you study?

PJ: I was studying Communications Studies with a focus on Feminist Criticism.

Why do you think bellydancing has hit such a feminist chord?

PJ: The freedom of expression is what keeps me in it. It’s a great way to get everything out. It’s a good therapy that also keeps you in shape. It tends to attract women that are looking to release emotions. It’s very empowering for women as well.

I looked at your MySpace page and you mentioned liking Led Zeppelin. Are you still a fan?

PJ: Oh yeah. I’m a big nerd – I like doing karaoke too so I always karaoke Led Zeppelin. songs. I love Led Zeppelin. I have my own karaoke equipment.

Led Zeppelin’s a brave choice!

PJ: There usually aren’t a lot of words; it’s mostly guitars.

You also listed Johnny Depp movies in your film section. I’m a big fan of his too. What do you like about his work?

PJ: He picks really complex roles, aside from Pirates of the Caribbean – he was just attractive in that. I saw him in the Jack the Ripper movie – have you seen that? He was really intense in that. It was done really well.

Yes, that was great! Do you get to look around much in the cities you visit?

PJ: It depends. I’ve been to about thirty countries with the company. Sometimes we’re super busy, we’ll get to a country and we have to do press, and interviews, and shows and workshops. I’ve also been very fortunate. Monte Carlo – we were there for three months, we had apartments. It was literally like living there, it was amazing.

What’s your favorite food?

PJ: I love Mexican food. It’s not that exotic but I love it.

You do a whirling dervish dance in the show?

PJ: It’s whirling dervish inspired. Sufism, from Turkey, is what most people know of the whirling dervish. My solo in the show, which has now become a group piece, is me spinning like a whirling dervish for four minutes. I’m spinning for four minutes solid, and I have two pieces of fabric to begin with, and then people come out and give me more as we go along. Then there’s four people on stage with me who are doing hula-hoops. The whole show is a really big theatrical production. Bellydance has always been really isolated, and we’ve tried really hard to elevate it and take it that step further and make it visible on a huge stage.

interviews by Dagmar

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