From the London Sunday Times Magazine Oct 10th 2004
Shake, ripple and roll
Belly Dancing has burst out of the harem, into exercise classes around the world. And a stunning new troupe of international hip-wigglers - the Bellydance Superstars - are poised to be the next Riverdance. Robin Eggar meets the middle women. Photographs: Barry J Holmes.
Brice starts to belly-dance. The ethnic jewellery on her costume begins
to shake, her stomach ripples from her pelvis up to her ribs, the
Miles Copeland intends to change that. He says he will make Rachel and her sister Bellydance Superstars into his new Police. To equate the post-punk trio with 16 gyrating Levantine lovelies does require a leap in entrepreneurial logic, but Copeland's vision is that they will rank alongside Riverdance and Cirque du Soleil, with touring troupes and bases in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
And more. So much more. "Bellydance Superstars is the most important dance company in the world today," states Copeland, sitting in the garden of his pink Hollywood mansion. "We are the only ones doing something that has a social import. Given that the most important thing in the world today is the conflict between Muslim world and the United States, anything that creates bridges between those two cultures is incredibly important."
Miles Copeland III is prone to gradiloquent statements. However, he does have a history of achieving the unlikely. He was the "ugly American" who surfed English punk rock to global success. He managed the Police, then Sting, and Squeeze. He owned I.R.S. the record label that discovered REM and the Bangles. In 1981, Copeland's artists were responsible for 2% of the United States' record market, which all helped buy him his LA home, a house in St John's Wood in London, and a castle in the Dordogne.
His career has come full cirlce. His first foray in show business was putting together a group of go-go dancers in Beirut in 1968. Now he's 60 and happy to leave his wife and three young sons, and get back on a rickety tour bus. Last year the Superstars performed for 650,000 rock fans at the travelling Lollapalooza festival. This year they have already completed a gruelling 58-city US tour, and next month they will be in Dubai. This week they are in Lond. Antoher Europeon tour is planned for next May.
"Belly dancing," Copeland says, "is similar to the punk-rock business in the early days, I was told categorically that punk would never happenin America. Nobody would touch it, because they thought it was a one-chord music genre, whichis why I had to get my brother Ian to book the Police and Squeeze. I figured out that punk rock was not aboutmusic; it was about a new generation who had their own thing to say. They were going to say it, come what may." In 1977, punk was a thriving subculture, with its own media, distinctive music and fashions ready to be tapped by the mainstream. True, belly dancing does have a network of teachers, websites and magazines selling instruction videos and Arab music CDs across the US. In 2002, Time magazine decreed that belly dancing was America's fastest-growing women's health exercise. But is this really the new zeitgeist?
Copeland thinks so. In 1998 he set up Mondo Melodica, a world-music label specialising in Spanish and Middle Eastern artists. He first used belly dancers to promote an album, and was so astounded by the audience reponse that he asked the top dancers to choose their favourite songs for a complilation album. The timing was critical. Mile's 25-year relationship with Sting had just come to an end and he was looking for a new challenge. "I've moved on," he says. "I'd much rather be in a place where I can institute my own vision and create something from nothing. Opening new doors is much more thrilling than signing another big act."
The Riverdance phenomenon informs his thinking. If people can be excited by dancers with their hands clasped to their sides, what couldn't be achieved here? "Belly dance has a whole lifestyle element; it's a vibrant art. In Birminham, Alabama, and Boise, Idaho, there are women learning belly dancing." By "lifestyle element" he means merchandising sales, and lots of them. He ushers me into an Aladdin's cave in his house, packed with hip-scarves, coin belts, finger cymbals, drums, $200 costumes, CDs, DVDs and tote bags to carry it all away in. He has a healthy respect for merchandising: after he nearly went bankrupt in 1975, he stayed alive flogging posters at gigs.
Copeland is unashamedly patriotic, a preacher for free-enterprise capitalism and a ruthless negotiator. His late father was a co-founder of the CIA, which still conntects him to US power. However, his gung-ho image is only skin-deep and self-created. Having grown up in a foreign culture, he made himself into an all-American boy. In fact, he was born in London in 1944 and spent most of his first 25 years in the Middle East. His mother, Lorraine Adie, was in the British Special Operations Executive. His father, Miles Jr, was a jazz trumpeter who sneaked out at night to play with Woody Herman. In 1948 Miles Jr was sent to Damascus as "cultural attache" and engineered the shortlived coup that brought Brigadier Zaim to power. In 1952 he moved to Egypt to set up the Egyptian intelligence service. The family were so used to having dictators and presidents for dinner that Milles III, in between learning Arabic and cycling around Cairo digging up antiquities, answered the phone with "CIA, how may we help you?"
In 1968, when Miles III was studying at the American University in Beirut and wondering what to do, his brother Stewart was playing in a band. "I owe a lot to my little brother. He was on stage playing the drums, and people were paying money to see him play. All of a sudden, the distance between me and the entertainment business evaporated." When the family moved to London, Miles followed them, determined to break into the music business. Having an American accent meant "people took me more seriously. It was time in England where if you showed up in a taxi, people thought you were rich. The next thing I knew, I was managing Wishbone Ash and Curved Air". He had ups and some serious downs until 1977, when Stewart introduced him to Sting. Sting, he says, was only half a star until he wrote Roxanne, when everything clicked into place.
From the beginning, Copeland knew that the Bellydance Superstars would not be an easy sell. After September 11, anything that reeked of the Middle East was Box-off poison. He was an outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq, but in November 2002 he took an intriguing telephone call from Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defence for public affairs at the Pentagon. "I guess I shouldn't have been surprised," he says. "My background meant I was pretty much the only choice they had. Despite the govewrnment's fundamental lack of knowledge about the Middle East, they were at least concerned that we need to do something to create a postive feeling between cultures."
At the meeting, Clarke and her team asked Miles to go through various programmes aimed at creating a cultural bridge with the Arab world. "I was first horrified, then appalled. Their major idea was to take one of our cultural icons - a rock star - to the Arab world, give a big concert and thereby show, 'Isn't our culture great!'" To Copeland, sending Bon Jovi or Britney Spears to Saudi Arabia showed an ignorance and disrespect that would have played into Bin Laden's hands - "His whole thrust is the invasion of Arab culture by our culture." What Copeland proposed was the opposite: to invite big Arab stars into the US for a concert, and film it so that the Arab world could see "Americans - blond-haired, blue-eyed, Asians, blacks - all freaking out and loving their music". The Pentagon never called back, but it did cancel sending Bon Jovi to invade Saudi, which may have temporaily saved the planet.
For Miles, the meeting was a catalyst. "The belly-dancing idea was already evolving, but what that trip added was a new dynamic and a realisation that the path I was walking had an importance beyond entertainment. America is now the omnipotent power; nobody can stop us. So, more than ever, we need to have a lot more wisdom and thought about other cultures. If we don't learn more, we will make bigger and bigger mistakes. There is also," he grins, "a subversive angle to it, which I really like. Having grown up in the Middle East, I have a great affinity and affection for it. But I have absolute opposition to the whole concept of suppressing women, because it holds that society back. Arab society will never be competitive with the West, never have what we have, until they accept the equality of women to men. What this troupe does is popularise Arab culture. Arabs are very proud people, so they will want to claim this glory - but to do so they have to accept that women did it."
Miles could never have made the show work without Jillina and Ansuya. Both were already stars. Jillina still runs her own troupe, dances, teaches, makes videos, which have bought her a large house in Burbank, California, and a top-of-the-line Mercedes. She lives and breathes to belly-dance, is learning Arabic and travels to Egypt every year to study. Her dream was to take her dance into the theatres but until Copeland came along, she couldn't see how to do it.
Ansuya, 28, has been dancing since she was four. Her mother, Janaeni, was a famous belly dancer in the 1960s, who worked seven nights a week to feed her children. Ansuya is half-Indian, a graceful dancer who charges $200 an hour for teaching seminars - but they don't happen every week. Most of the 16 girls, like Rachel Brice, have to struggle to survive. Each week, Rachel performs two-nights in a club and teaches dance and yoga classes.
Copeland pays his girls royalties from DVD sales, and now the top half-dozen are on a salary, so they don't have to work in clubs. "I want the girls to be wealthy, to share in the success," he says. In return, he demands certain standards. "We have been approached by Playboy and turned it down. It is the wrong message. I have told the girls, 'If any of you do nudity, you are instantly fired.' The girls all want their art form to be respected." To Ansuya, belly dancing is a vocation. "Sometimes when I share belly dancing with another woman," she says, "it's as if they have stumbled upon the missing aspect to their creativity and their wholeness as a woman, which they have been looking for all their lives." Saving the world? Who knows? In the meantime, a little shimmying can't do any harm.
The Belldance Superstars appear at London's Bloomsbury Theatre from October 5 to 10 (24-hour ticket hotline: 0870 735 5000)