The Bellydance Superstars are in London and I've arranged to meet the founder and manager of the world's most renowned belly dance ensemble. I bump into Miles Copeland in the basement of the Bloomsbury theatre where he is scrutinising the plethora of Superstars branded items in the temporary souk. His attention to detail encompasses every aspect of the business, from identifying appropriate performers to product control. He is experienced enough to know that the merchandise sales are just as important as the show itself.


This experience is born from 40 years of managing and promoting talented artists ranging from Gary Numan to The GoGo's. He'd spent most of his career working with rock bands, The Police being the best known, so I was intrigued as to why he had made the change from one of the pillars of 20th century Western culture to a Middle Eastern art-form that remains contentious in it's homelands. Is he interested in culture with subversive themes or does he approach projects from a more personal perspective?


I delved into his past and was intrigued to learn that he grew up in the Middle East. His father was a CIA operative and his mother worked for British Intelligence. Their work took them around the Middle East and Miles spent his time in Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. Was it this environment that provided the catalyst, many years later, to immerse himself in the world of belly dance? I wanted to know.


He leads me into the empty auditorium and explains that I'll have to conduct the interview during an audition. The selection process was an aspect I wanted to ask him about. Fortunately, I was about to witness it. A blond girl from Eastern Europe takes to the stage looking a little nervous in her glittery yellow costume. Watching are some of the dancers, Miles and Issam Houshan the drummer. She undertakes her routine and she seems a pretty accomplished performer, but I'm no expert. Issam and the other dancers seem impressed and are also very encouraging, imparting confidence with claps and Zaghreets. Sonia then clambers onto the stage to take the girl through some choreographies. Everyone is impressed with her performance and her ability to remember the choreography at the first attempt. It appears that a good memory is equally as important as good technical ability. Miles tells me that dancers are auditioned on recommendation, not videos, and the decision making is pretty much a group process. The audition lasted no longer than ten minutes and I was under the impression that a new troupe member had been found.

He then turned his attention to me and my first question.


Maani:

After many years of producing Western artists you began to focus on world music, belly dance in particular. Was this inspired by your upbringing in the Middle East?


Miles:

"I feel connected to the music. I enjoyed listening to Sabah and Fayrouz. I was a US kid buying a mixture of rock and Middle Eastern music. What really interested me was when Western and Eastern music were mixed, for example, Rachid Taha. They set the groundwork, created the right catalyst. Then, my collaboration with Sting and Desert Rose, and ideas grew from there."  

        

      

Maani:

What are your thoughts on how the Superstars have progressed since inception and what does the future hold?  


Miles:

"Over the six years of BDSS they have had to perform at the very top level every night. They are three times better today. We have the creative environment where the dancers can be professional every night. In the Middle East this does not happen, they are dancing for tourists, for people in a restaurant. How good can you be?"

"Instrumental in disciplining to deliver on a big stage versus in a restaurant where you are dancing 5 feet away from people, where you can dance 5 feet away from people and be impressive. Whereas on a stage, where people are in row 60, it's more demanding. There is an art to playing on a big stage. Developing the dancers to understand that is very important. Providing an environment, that never existed before, has enabled the art form to progress. We are the only platform that does that."


"The other thing is the challenge of taking the marketplace and educating them to the fact that art form could be on a major stage. Whereas most of the promoters thought - "BD on a big stage! You must be kidding." So that was an education process that we are still in. We have succeeded at that level 70%, there are still venues that don't quite get it, they do ballet. But, 70% is better than 0. I have no doubt it will go a long way. We've done Morocco, and we are about to do it again next week, we've done Dubai, but Egypt, they won't let BD into a major theatre, no matter who it is."


Maani:

Is that for religious reasons?


Miles:

"It's the reputation of the art form. They are much more likely to let us do it than any Egyptians, the Egyptians they don't want to know. So we've seen the progress, one, of the dance itself, two, in convincing the mainstream marketplace that this dance can hold it's own amongst ballet, Riverdance and other things.


Maani:

How many years for the remaining 30% to be established?


Miles:

"I think it really has to be TV. If you think about Riverdance that's appropriate. We've finally got on PBS in the US. I think we are about a year away."


Maani:

Do you feel that the general standard of BD has improved since BDSS?


Miles:

"First we scared the hell out of everybody when we started because a lot of the ladies thought they'd be discovered as being bullshit, and that it would simply be young pretty girls. They figured that's what I'd be going for, they did not realise we were looking for the best. It has forced everybody to get better. You can't get away with what you used to be able to get away with. It's still a problem for most of the dancers that they don't have the format that we have, where are they ever going to dance? That's why they are all desperately trying to get into BDSS. People fly in from all over the world to have a chance, and even the ones who audition put it on their credits."


Maani:

Do you think accreditation is the way forward with regards to your desire to create a symbiotic relationship in the community and achieve the status that BD merits?


Miles:

"The problem at the moment is that there isn't any. A lot of people are trying to create an accreditation situation mainly because they want to make more money and that everybody wants one. So the dancers will create some sort of accreditation thing but who are they to say. For example there is a girl in San Francisco that the girls in New York think "well, she's crap". And the girl in San Francisco will think the same of the girl in New York. Nobody wants to accept someone else. You don't have a universal acceptance. The one in England for example, the level is so low. But, in the world of zero..…."


"The best belly dancers in the world are in:


1 United States

2 Argentina / Brazil

3 Russia


You have to really dig to go beyond that. And for a number of reasons, which I think are a great shame, the Middle East is not a contributor. The top dancers there are old now and cannot deliver, and there are no new girls going into it because of social pressures, so they are no longer contributing to the art form. You have a few in Germany, France, Belgium, we have a girl in Hungary that's really good who we are interested in, a couple in Slovakia. There are some bright lights on the Horizon. But in terms of a mass you've got to look at the USA, Argentina and Brazil but the majority in the USA, because the USA has more belly dancers than the rest of the world put together.

There is no system of accepted accreditation - zero."


Maani:

Is it impossible to have one?


Miles:

"No. I'm interested in creating one. But I would not do one just with the Superstars, that would offend people. I would go to 6 other top teachers and say - "Why don't we finally create something we all respect". Create a format, get everybody to agree, and do that. I think that's a possibility and I've talked to a number of teachers about doing that. If you created something that wasn't just me and my vision but six other visions and we have a plan where they learn enough. For example, with Issam, they learn arabic rhythms, they learn all sorts of stuff, it's a year course."


"I was asked to create a school in China but they wanted it to be a 10 day course and then they get a diploma saying they can teach. We'll I'm sorry I cannot put my name and the name of my dancers to that. Suppose she isn't very good? Who chooses who gets the diploma? They suggested the dancer would choose after she teaches the classes. So I'm supposed to put my dancer in the position where somebody pays a lot of money to take a 10 day class and then to be told no. You can't do that. You don't go to Harvard and get a degree in 2 weeks. You gotta pay your dues. I backed out, I said no.


"I'm toying with the idea of doing something with six other teachers who are respected when you put them together in a group. Whereas, if one of them decided to do alone people would say - "We'll, that's her thing". In  a way, it's the same for me. I would annoy too many people. I know that to be accepted it has to part of a community thing. If you have six teachers who know what they are doing, you have to say - "You know what, that's at least real". I'm smart enough to know that if it was just me doing it I would be in the same bag as everybody else thinking they are doing it. We will not go and do classes and sign certificates afterwards. We know people take those certificate and say that they can teach."


Maani:

What are the challenges you face in maintaining the general public's image of belly dance that you have already helped to enhance and refine? Having read your interview with The Times I noticed the interviewer began with issues of BD and eroticism. Is this narrow perception one that you are constantly battling against? If so, has that battle become any easier?


Miles:

"I take the position that if belly dance was starting from the position of ballet, where people know that it's a classy art with deep training, and one girl wanted to be a bit wild and do a nude thing, it would not taint every other ballerina. The market has already accepted it as a status dance-form. Belly dance, coming from the bottom, it's too easy to pull back down to the bottom by some girl that goes out and goes a little wild. There's a girl on the internet (name removed), she was kinda outrageous at Rakkasah and went out a did a lewd dance that was a little bit too much crotch in your face. And now there is a thing on You Tube, she did a nudie thing in the back of a taxi showing her bits a few years ago for HBO. She signed a release form and now it's on You Tube. So a lot of people in the belly dance world are up in arms. That's one of the ways to get famous, to be outrageous. But in belly dance it's dangerous because it's too easy to be classified as a sexy dance to entice men, and I've had to battle this from the beginning."


"The promoters all thought that the audience would be all Arab and men. I said no, there would be no Arabs and no men. Now we do get Arabs and men, but it's predominantly non-arab women.


Maani:

So do you think the perception has improved over the years?


Miles:

"Yes. 99.9% because of what we've done. We are religious in ensuring none of our girls are wild. They understand that there is no weird stuff going on. We are very careful who we choose.


Maani:

You were a very influential part of the punk movement and now a very influential part of the BD evolution at a time when the maneuverings between East and West are at a hiatus. Are there aspects of social and political commentary in the projects that you tackle?


Miles:

"The projects that are the most fun are ones that have an impact beyond just being another bit of entertainment. When I have Arabs who come to the show, almost in tears because they have seen something that they can relate to, being done by Westerners. When they feel proud of their own culture in a Western context you realise that you are doing something that is profoundly important to people who get shit on every day because people keep calling them terrorists. You are also in a position of educating westerners who have no clue about the Arab world that there is beauty in that culture as well and that there is more to them that just being terrorists. So, a little message like that has a value, and even though it's small, but it's still a value. From a publicity standpoint people are interested in it. So that helps, but the fact of the matter is that we do have a social service that we are inadvertently doing because of what we are doing. We have American girls, and one Argentinean and one Slovak, they love Arabic music, they are dancing to an Arab influenced art form. Also, it's women and the fact that it's women who are educating the westerners into the beauty of Arab art is a very interesting mix because in the Arab world women are not treated with the same respect. So in a way we are a subversive organisation. In the sense that if the Arabs want to claim the glory of their art for and their music starting to succeed in the west via our troupe, as one of the major vehicles, they have to admit that women have a role to play and I think that is good for women back in the Middle East. We are in  a way, a woman's movement, without intention."    


It would be easy to simply perceive Miles as an impresario who is solely interested in making money and promoting his interpretation of Arabic culture, more specifically, belly dance. Although this may be true to an extent, one gets the impression that there are a number of other, more fundamental issues, that drive his work. He has an affinity to the culture, he appreciates the positive impact it has on ill informed perceptions of Middle Eastern culture, he notes with pride the empowerment it gives women, and he is very keen to elevate the dance to a point where it is as respected as ballet.


Within the belly dance community there are many opinions, passionately voiced, on the impact of the Bellydance Superstars. Opinions range from utter disillusion to adoration. What is clear is that the BDSS have brought belly dance to a wider audience within a format that improves it's tainted image. Whatever one’s views of the dancers, the performances, the interpretation, or even Miles himself, one must be roused by the prospect of belly dance making it onto the stages of the big theatres around the globe.   


Copyright 2007-2013 Maani Photography

All Rights Reserved

Copying is not permitted

Miles On The Road

An interview with Miles Copeland of the Belly Dance Superstars


Copyright 2007-2015 Maani Photography

All Rights Reserved

Copying is not permitted