Tour Diary Part 1 by Dondi Simone Dahlin
It is March 5th, 2004 and I am on a toiletless bus zig-zagging across America. With 15 other people and no privacy, the days are long. Creepy truck stops in the middle of the night become our oasis. Bottled water, a toilet, and a breath of fresh air can make the difference between total mutiny and tolerance.

We are the Belly Dance Superstars and Desert Roses. We all have
different reasons for embarking on this difficult journey. One dancer
likes being on the road, even when we cant find a vegetarian restaurant to suit her needs....even when we pass giant trucks filled with cows being taken to slaughter. There are other dancers at the height of their careers who dream of Superstar fame that might just put them on the map of belly dance history forever. There are several who teach and feel this will expose them to the various regions of the U.S. so they can continue booking workshops.

Some of us vend our videos and pass out fliers and business cards...this is the ideal venue for networking. For most of us who arent independently wealthy, the pay is decent. A big reason we dont catch the first train home is because we are told over and over by audience members that we are creating belly dance history. This makes us excited and the exposure of dancing for 200-500 people a night in 60 cities throughout Canada and the U.S. cannot be denied. Our producer and music mogul, Miles Copeland tells us that he has scanned the nation looking for the best, most beautiful dancers and we are some of the best that he has ever seen. This strokes our egos.

The tour started in L.A. with intense rehearsals under the direction of Jillina. Our first show was in San Diego and more like a dress
rehearsal. We hardly knew eachother then and were still getting used to the show and the management. We were all freaking out while we rushed into an abyss of the unknown...what would a 60 city Nationwide tour be like? Could we handle it? Husbands and boyfriends were being left behind as we stuffed our lives into two suitcases and crawled into a cramped bus.

The tour schedule is grueling. Put together by Ark 21 and Miles Copeland we quickly become aware of how different his perspective must be than ours. He has worked with and managed rock stars. Men mostly. Men who can pee behind trees. Men who can eat twinkies without gaining weight (or having an energy drop). Men who dont care about finding a salad...they can eat 14 oz. steaks in 15 minutes flat at the nearest greasy spoon. Men who dont need two hours to do their makeup and attach their glamorous hair pieces. Men who can sleep in pretzle posistions and dont care about weird smells and sounds on the bus.

But, we are women. We are adult women who are expected to look perfect, rested and gorgeous at our shows. We are women who are supposed to be able to ride in a tiny bus for 8 hours and jump off being able to dance a 2 hour gala show. We are women who gain weight when we dont work out. We are women who dont want to stop at the gas station for hot dogs and ding-dongs and call it dinner. We are professional belly dancing women who have menstual cycles, mood swings, sensitive feelings and egos. Surprisingly, we are women who are all getting along and giving eachother support that I dont think any of us expected. If there were catty tendencies and bitchy personalities before the tour began, they are gone now. We are almost one month into the tour and we are watching each others backs like sisters. We are becoming a tightly knit team. The mood swings still exist but, as women, we understand them and we allow for them. We dont pretend we are perfect and we dont deny our feelings. Communication has become a priority.

There is one man on our tour and we think of him as "The Worlds Greatest Tabla Player." As a musician, Issam is tops. As a man, he is one of the girls hanging out, laughing, joking and encouraging us to do well in every new city. His smile is contagious and his presence brings our audiences to their feet. He sits in front of me on the bus and talks on the phone to his wife and kids back home in California every single day. I call my family every day. Most of us do. What would we do without our cell phones?

The days on the bus are long and our bodies suffer. Our driver/assistant/helper Juan is totally understanding that we must make frequent pit stops. They mean everything to us because we can stretch our bodies and lubricate our limbs. Juan drives through the rain, sand storms, heat and cold while we fill the time with DVDs on our little bus television. Juan doesnt get to see the movies including our favorites like Dirty Dancing and Pirates of the Caribbean. We love recreating the Patrick Swayze love scenes and swooning over Johnny Depp. We sleep and eat and listen to CDs. We drive during the night stopping at hotels around 5 am for hot showers and a few hours in a normal bed. We leave just before noon and by 4 in the afternoon we all start doing our makeup.

Suction cup shelves and vanity mirrors line the windows of the bus as we try dilligently to attach our fake eyelashes while our driver Juan speeds around the curves of the road. We are mandated to wear fake eyelashes. Jillina, the artistic director has rules for the show and rules for us. The rules range from wearing eye lashes to no safety pins to no brown lipstick on the stage. I constantly have eyelash glue on my eye lids and have to literally peel my eyes open in the morning. This is a never ending battle with eyelash glue and I am afraid it is winning. Every day my eyes are swollen and red. Many of the dancers are losing lashes.

On the bus we also have drills. Our drummer, Issam takes us through tabla drills and lessons until our fingers are puffy. Often times we run Belly Dance drills. The middle aisle barely fits one person, let alone 14 dancers, but we manage. Each dancer leads her own drill and the others follow. We have three tribal dancers and I find their drills the most challenging. Most are from their studies with Suhaila Salimpour. Sometimes I do squats on the bus. My fanny gets pushed into everyones face but no one cares anymore...we are trying to stay healthy no matter what it takes.

Most of the women on the tour are thin and beautiful. They have svelte bodies with perky breasts and bottoms. They resemble models more than a cross-section of dancers that the Belly Dance world represents. I am one of the only ones with flesh that shakes like jello and weight that demands I buy size 8 pants on our Walmart runs. Most of the others buy size 1-4. There are a few exceptions, like Bozenka (who is still thin) but has shapely hips and a curvy bottom. There are also the tribal girls. Besides Rachel Brice, we have two "Glamazons" who demand attention from the most uninterested of people. Sharon and Meloldia tower over me at almost 6 feet. They are statuesque and trim but do have some supple curves and few people can take their eyes off of them.

Miles says that he wants women who are "proportionate" and he claims that he will hire bigger women and "older" women if they are physically proportionate, attractive and talented. Still, the average woman in America is supposedely 5'4" and 145 lbs. Most of the girls on this tour are at least 5"6" and below 115 lbs. This is the toughest part of the tour for me. I usually love my body, but with this company I have been made to feel that, at 125 lbs I need to lose some weight.

It is refreshing when women from the audience come up to me after a show and tell me that I am their saving grace. They shower me with compliments about my voluptuous body and tell me that I resemble a real woman. They say that if it werent for curvy bodies like mine, it would be more difficult to accept the show. These words comfort me. Without them I might just fall apart. The pressure to be thin on this tour is
overwhelming. I am the only one who is seriousely dieting. The other girls pack their pockets with Snickers bars and butter cookies...they have not gained a pound.

A luck-out for me is my roommate, Petite Jamilla from Alabama. She is a god send. She is the youngest member on the tour at 21 years old but is amazingly evolved and extremely knowledgable about the dance, its history, styles, music and technique. We get to our hotel rooms at 4 am with the rest of the crew but never go to bed right away. We spend endless moments laughing, crying, complaining and counting our blessings of being on such a phenomenal tour. The sun rises and we finally fall asleep only to be awakened a couple of hours later so we can get back on the bus again and travel to our next desitnation.

Petite Jamilla's mom who she was named for, Jamilla Rasa joins the tour as several venues and is a mommy to all of us. She makes sure were fed and smiles at us from the audience during the show. Ansuyas mom, Janaeni joined us in Miami as did Amar, Bozenka and Yasmins mom. My mom arrives today. I know I will not be able to withhold my tears when she arrives. All the dancers are happy that there will be more mommy energy for the next couple of days. We cant help but feel more taken care of when the moms arrive.

The producers from ARK 21 are taking turns with us. For the first two weeks we had our tour manager, Stevo on the road. He had to endure the long bus rides, truck stop dinners and venues that were below adequate. We are happy that he experienced the hardships we are going through. Stevo paid us our salaries on time (every Wednesday) and convinced us that in future tours we will have red-carpet treatment. He persuaded us to believe that we are trying to convince the normal public that belly dance is legitimate and exciting and can pack venues. Not all promoters believe this.

ARK 21 has had a hard sell with the Superstars of Belly Dance. This is why we have had to dance at places like the boxy Rhythm Room in Phoenix where we changed in power tool closets with nails sticking out of the wall and ripping at our expensive costumes. However, we have jumped for joy when arriving at theatres like the South Broadway Cultural Center in Albequerqe and the Workplay Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama. We had food and wine waiting for us on arrival and staff asking us our needs.

Our needs can be summed up in one word: Starbucks. This is our
pleasure, our delight, our fantasy as we pass through towns of pop.48 and dream of soy chai lattes. At home most of us rebel against conformity and corporate greed, driving out of our way to patronize the small town coffee houses. But, on the road, we all love Starbucks. And, we all worship Walmart. Again, in our home towns we might go to Walmart once or twice a year, but on this tour shopping for razor blades, deoderant and eye lashes at 3 am are the norm for the Belly Dance Superstars.

Presently, our producer Miles Copeland is with us. He has an ironic
reputation. People respect his power in Hollywood and the music
industry.People speak of his intelligence. But, people are scared. He has a firey presence that is doesnt always seem to be focused. On a closer look, it is incredible what he absorbs in terms of conversation and interpersonal experiences. The moment you tell yourself that he hasnt heard any conversations around him, he proves you wrong and and is able to repeat information that you spoke of months before that you thought he never heard and certainely wouldnt remember.

There is more irony...women all over the country want Miles to make them Superstars and bring new exposure to the dance, but they wish he would have never broken in to our tightly woven community.

Fear reigns that Miles Copeland will change the face of the belly dance world for the worst. Maybe he will force all women to believe that they need to be 100 lbs. and 25 years old to belly dance. Maybe he will not care about the seasoned dancers and teachers who pioneered the way for the rest of us to be respected as belly dancers and part of the reason why Superstars are getting the recognition that they are.

Maybe he is money hungry and doesnt really care about the girls as long as they are youthful and beautiful and making a good buck for him. I have had all of these fears. Most of all I have feared that he doesnt really value our skill but only our looks. I have feared that he will perpetuate the myth that women have to be 22, thin and gorgeous to be successful...the exact opposite of what is so incredible about this dance form.

Most of us have spent years in bliss that we found a dance where we dont have to have boob jobs and tummy tucks to perform and shine in public venues. We can be women and it has been honored in this dance. There is fear that that will all change. I have also feared that I am the only one really talking about this...that other dancers and teachers across the nation are still biting their tongues so they wont get on the bad side of Miles Copeland. There is a lot of butt kissing going on.

Thankfully, many of my fears have subsided. I have had real visits with Miles and heart-to-heart talks about concerns and issues with this tour. Tears have streamed down my cheeks with exasperation in my voice. Through it all he encouraged me to speak and he listened. He has given me quality time in voicing my opinions. Though he may never change his views about what a womans beauty is and can be, I feel like I have been heard and that feeling can make the difference between me leaving the tour in anger and staying on with pride. That is what I am doing now.

Miles Copeland and ARK 21 still look for new dancers around the nation and have regular auditions in Los Angeles. At every venue we dance in there are girls/women who want to meet Miles Copeland. Since I am not only a dancer but the host of the show, people think I am in charge and many approach me with their tapes and photos. They ask me how they can become a Superstar. Some wear short skirts and high heeled boots asking me where they can find Miles. When they do find him, they pour it on.

Many have seasoned dance experience and some are new students of the dance. Some come prepared with DVD's and 8x10 glossies and others just smile with sacharrin warmth looking at all of us with big doe eyes of hope and exitement. It spins my head. I wonder if it spins Miles head or if he is just so used to it. I am relieved that these glamorous hopefuls dont seem to affect or impress him just because they are pretty or young. He seems to be sincerely interested in talent, skill and unique dancing, gladly accepting video tapes from dancers who want a shot at being a "Superstar or Desert Rose."

The dancers on the tour are Bozenka (Miami), Colleen (Los Angeles), Kaeshi (New York), Amar Gamal (Massachusetts), Rachel Brice (San Francisco), Melodia (San Diego), Jillina (Los Angeles), Sonia (Los Angeles), Petite Jamilla (Alabama), Sharon Kihara (San Francisco),Yasmin (North Carolina), Ansuya (Miami), and myself from San Diego. One dancer already left. We dropped of Julianna at the airport in Atlanta and she flew home to her established dance career in Los Angeles.

We have been hired as either a Desert Rose or a Superstar and have talked at length amongst ourselves about what the differencs are. Certainly not skill. Certainely not beauty. Experience? Perhaps. Fame? Perhaps. The Superstars seem to have established more of a name for themselves and are better known in the Belly Dance world...at least before this tour began.

Before the tour began I wondered if all of the dancers had enough experience and training to be on a tour of this magnitude. All of them do. We have been told that there isnt a weak dancer in our show and I firmly believe that. I was also skeptical about these dancers as women...would we fight like cats on the road? Would we sneak into closets and cry into cell phones with loved ones back home? No. We all cry in front of eachother, as well as laugh in front of each other...out loud and bodly. We are comfortable in knowing that we are accepted here and no matter how competitive we are in our normal dance lives, on the road we are a team. These women are incredible. They have far exceeded my expectations with their insight, intelligence and wit.

We have two roadies. One is our male model, Keili who is Rachel Brice's boyfriend and runs around making sure we are fed and in possession of all of our props, bags and costumes. He wears sexy clothes and makes us sigh at the love and care he has for Rachel and all of us.

The other is Brian or Bunny who is Colleen's boyfriend. With a too long goatie and grunge light way of dressing, I totally underestimated this man. I first saw him as a boy that I could disregard. He was the merchandise boy selling CDs and DVDs at intermissions. I sit at the back of the bus...he sits at the front and I have had no real moments to have to get to know him. A week into the tour I realized what a fool I was for my snooty judgement. He has been our sound engineer, played manager when we havent had a manager on the road and he has proven himself through pep talks, encouragement and overall understanding for twelve belly dancing women. We are lucky to have Keili and Brian.

We all have found our special positions for sleeping on the bus. Ansuya does an "open lotus" position so both knees are supported on surrounding seats. Sonia "tents" herself and cocoons into her own little world. Amar makes it look so easy by simply leaning against her seat with a neck support. Keili and Rachel take turns laying down in the center aisle. The glamazons struggle with their long legs but manage to fall asleep anyway. I find solace in being 5'4"...that in two small seats I am able to curl into a fetus posistion and comfortably doze off.

I dont know how Yasmin can sleep in her seats or "bedroom" as we call them because she has lined every empty space with bags, trays, shelves, hooks, hats and photos of her cats and troupe back home in North Carolina . The strangest of all the "sleepers" on the bus is Kaeshi who sleeps with her eyes open. I am in direct eye view of her seat and as her head gently falls back, she starts to resemble a vampire. Of course, when she awakens she is beauty and light. Then there are those who never seem to sleep like comical Colleen who's infectious laugh and pleas of, "Hey Bunny..." never seem to end.

We have very few days off. There are 67 days on the road. I think we get 7 days off. It is vague because they are not true days off. We spend them in the bus travelling hundreds of miles from one place to another passing through different time zones, weather patterns and geographical landscapes. We arrive in the dark of the night feelings like pretzles, barely able to straighten our legs.

It is March 8th and we are leaving Virginia. We have a night off tonight which means no eyelashes! We can do our laundry and get some real sleep. Last night we danced at The Norva, an old theatre with hot tubs in the dressings rooms, fresh fruit and pasta in the coolers. The Norva sees the likes of The Indigo Girls, Bob Dylan and Train. Now it has seen the Belly Dance Superstars.

This old Civil War land that it stands on is rich with history as is all of the South that we have been travelling in for the last week. All of our shows did well in the South with receptive audiences. In Alabama, we not only sold out, but had to send 100 people away. We are getting rave reviews about our strong, exciting, sensual and classy show. Dixieland has been good to us. The people are warm, friendly and well-mannered. It will be a joy to come back to the South next Fall. But, for now we are on our way to the North East and into Canada.

We are watching the movie, The Princess Bride and sleeping. The road is bumpy (literally) and Miles Copeland sleeps in the seat behind me. I am secretly happy that Miles is enduring this 8 hour drive to Pittsburgh. He is going through what we are going through, including carrying heavy bags, hauling boxes of merchandise and working as hard as the rest of us. He does all of this as a "matter of fact." Very cool.

March 10th arrives after dancing at the Carnegie Lecture Hall in Pittsburgh which was strange. The audience was obediant and acted as if we were giving an educational lecture. We drive into Washington DC and Miles informs us that the next nights DC performance is sold out with 500 people. He hires a massage therapist to come to the hotel for us. Plus, the local "Sahara Dancers" are putting aside their day to drive us around and get our hair, nails and errands done. We are thrilled.

So, what is it like to be a Superstar? It is fun, hard, strange, meaningful, exhausting and wonderful. We have a technical rehearsal every single day and never stop practicing and trying to improve our show. We all have to be flexible because there are often changes in music, routines and line-ups. When dancers get sick or injured, others have to fill in to their spots. Some dancers are rotating with eachother (Bozenka and Jillina) and some will leave the tour early like Amar Gamal while the dancer Adori in Los Angeles takes her place. We must all be "easy going" no matter what the changes consist of until the Spring tour ends on April 18th in Los Angeles.

All of us on the tour know women who could easily be in our spots. There are beautiful, talented dancers all over America and the world who would jump at the chance that we are having. There are few dancers in the U.S. who wouldnt like to be known as Belly Dance Superstars even though we are all a little uncomfortable with the title. When it comes up, we often refer to women who have danced before us and who have been our mentors and Superstars like Morrocco, Carolena Nericcio, Sahra Saida, Cassandra and so many others. We talk to Miles about the future with ARK 21 and become overwhelmed. There will be a feature film, more CDs, DVDs, a European tour and more U.S tours in the future. The next U.S tour promises to be "bigger and better." There are already clothing lines and jewelry.

As for me and everyone on the bus, we have intense highs and intense lows. Not one person hasnt had her day of tears. When our bodies ache, our cell phones dont work, and we cant find nutritional food or answer our emails it takes every ounce in our being to not act out in stress and anxiety. But then there are the shows. We dance in front of hundreds of people on big stages with bright lights, while audeinces cheer and clap. We are greeted by crowds who want us to sign autographs and take pictures.

Many of us book future contracts. After the shows there are night
drives on the bus while drumming with Issam, telling ghost stories and laughing until we almost pee. At those moments we feel very lucky and it takes every ounce in our being to not say, Lets never let this tour end!