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Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010

Belly Dance Extravaganza Comes to Milwaukee

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Midriff-baring Middle Eastern dance isn't uncommon to Milwaukee, but a unique approach takes the stage at the Marcus Center's Vogel Hall (929 N. Water St.) this Thursday, Nov. 11, when Bellydance Superstars (BDSS) makes its Milwaukee debut.

Erstwhile music impresario Miles Copland is as likely a proponent as any for the sensuous, gyrating style of entertainment proffered by BDSS. Copeland was the mind behind 1970s-‘80s new wave label I.R.S. Records; his record company career led to the revue that's coming to town this week.

"Initially, it was about promoting the Arab music I was releasing on my record label," Copeland explains. "I soon discovered it was belly dancers who were the main market, so, I decided to promote directly to them. That led to a contest where dancers were to dance to the music I was releasing. At the contest, I was converted to the possibilities of making a belly dance show along the lines of Riverdance."

If his comparison to the Irish dance sensation seems a bit of a stretch—Riverdance focuses much more on the feet while belly dance draws the eye higher—it really isn't as Copeland sees it, "Riverdance was indeed an inspiration, as it represented both an obscure dance and music that was not normally in the mainstream but we liked when exposed to it."

Regardless of belly dance's relative obscurity in the U.S., BDSS has a great potential market. "The U.S. has more belly dancers than the rest of the world put together," Copeland declares, though Japan and China are catching up.

Copeland should know of the culture he's promoting, too, what with his upbringing as the son of a C.I.A. agent whose family traveled through such countries as Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. He also knows how to make an ancient art form commercially viable without sacrificing its traditional underpinnings. Says Copeland, "Because we are a show, not a sideshow while people eat their humus—the pressure to be great is intense. We push the envelope both artistically and in skill.

"We also are fully aware that a series of belly dance solos will put anyone to sleep, no matter how good they are. So, we deal with a three-minute attention span and make sure we create a fast-paced, varied show with great music that will appeal even in a foreign language, lots of costume changes, etc."

And whereas Riverdance has remained an essentially unchanged show since its inception, Copeland sees the value in mixing things up to keep an audience returning. "We change our show every two years, so people will come back again and again."

Of his current show, Bombay Bellywood, he says, "We have always introduced other styles into the show and fused them with belly dance, much as rock’n’roll has absorbed from other music styles. Bombay Bellywood also includes ballet, tribal, dervish, etc. The point is, it has to be entertaining not only to a belly dance audience, but to a mainstream audience."

The attitudes of some Americans toward the Middle East has presented something a challenge in marketing the show, which has toured over 20 countries. That's nothing Copeland sees as a liability that can't be overcome, though. He says, "Eventually the word gets out that it's a quality show, and the audience loves it. It's a long build, but we are getting there.

"This is a show for people who want to see beauty, expertise and lots of variety," Copeland offers. "Women love it, of course, but men do, too, because it represents pure beauty and sensuality without shoving sex in your face. We think of the audience foremost in putting the show together, not to show off, but to deliver great entertainment that can open people's minds to the beauty other cultures have to offer and how we can use that beauty ourselves. It's all about enrichment."