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The Telegraph published an article on Miles Copeland's involvement in the Bellydance Superstars, a 13-strong troupe now touring Britain:
The Bellydance Super-stars may be wearing Lycra tops and tracksuit bottoms rather than harem pants and veils, but they're still a distracting sight. They can swing their midriffs from side to side and back to front. They can be slow and teasing, or jack-rabbit quick. They can jiggle down to the ground, then wriggle right back up again, in seconds. As I watch the 13 dancers rehearse their stage show at the Salisbury City Hall, I feel I shouldn't be sitting in an empty municipal theatre in Wiltshire. I should be reclining on silken cushions, nibbling sweetmeats and sucking on a hookah pipe. I should be choosing which of the girls will be wrapped and delivered to my tent. Sadly, however, I am shortly going to be delivered to them.
I have been allowed to spend a Sunday with these self-proclaimed superstars - the creation of Miles Copeland, the former manager of The Police and Sting - on one condition. I mustn't just write about them, I must dance with them, too. Naturally, I have protested. Belly-dancing, I insist, is a celebration of strictly feminine sensuality. But then, to my horror, I discover that it isn't.
Issam Housham, the Bellydance Superstars' drummer, assures me that some of the world's best belly-dancers are male. While Arab men don't belly-dance on stage, they have always danced socially at feasts or weddings. "There are two types of men's belly dance," he explains. "One has more feminine movements. The other has male movements, with sticks." Male movements with sticks, eh? I think I can manage that.
The audience, luckily, won't be catching a glimpse of my gyrating belly, as I will be rehearsing with a quartet of dancers - including the troupe's artistic director and choreographer, Jillina - before they arrive. Jillina is leading the other dancers through a routine that involves the waving and twirling of silver batons, an unlikely fusion of belly-dance and cheerleading.
"How far are we going to go?" asks one of the girls.
"We're going to go ALL the way, baby!" cries Jillina.
That doesn't sound very Arabian. Nor is it. For, despite exotic stage-names such as Petite Jamilla and Amar Gamal, the Bellydance Superstars are all, in fact, Americans, who chanced upon belly-dance at gym or dance classes before taking it up professionally. "We have Italian-Americans, CubanAmericans, African-Americans, everything except Arab-Americans," says Miles Copeland, matter-of-factly. "I just can't find an Arab."
Paradoxically, this seems only to add to their cachet. Next year, the Bellydance Superstars will perform for three nights at the Cairo Opera House, the first belly-dancers ever to appear there. "The Opera House love that they're American girls dancing to Arab music," says Copeland. "It's a sign that we Westerners don't turn our noses up at their culture. I have Saudi financiers calling me up all the time. People in the Arab world want to create a bridge with the West."
The son of a senior CIA officer, Copeland, who is 61, grew up in Beirut, where his father was stationed. The idea for the Superstars came three years ago, when a band he was managing promoted a new album with a belly-dancing contest in Los Angeles.
He took one look at the gyrating girls and was convinced that they could provide him with another Riverdance, the Irish dance show that began life as the interval entertainment at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest.
It then went on to become a global brand, earning its creators an estimated £500 million. Copeland reckons that a 90-minute spectacular packed with belly-dancing beauties should be an even bigger hit.
So he and his girls have spent two years - and half a million of his dollars - trekking round the world in search of success. The signs are good: Copeland is about to form a second company of Superstars.
One will perform a two-month residency in Monaco, while the other remains on the road. Despite being a multi-millionaire, he is still out every night, selling programmes and souvenir T-shirts from the merchandise stand. He even watches every performance, which he says he never bothered to do with Sting or, as Copeland calls him, "Stung, since he's past tense."
"These dancers are incredible, I adore them," he says, rapturously. "Night after night, they've pulled off great shows in awful places on tiny stages. We played a place called Hairy Mary's in Des Moines, Iowa. We had to pick the broken glass off the stage before the girls could go on."
He stops before chiding himself: "Miles! Sorry, I shouldn't refer to them as 'girls'. They're ladies."
It's no surprise Copeland wants to keep the "ladies" on side. Thus far, the audiences for the Bellydance Superstars have mostly been white ("In Bradford," I am told, "the only Asian we had was the bloke who brought the curries") and female.
Wherever they go, the dancers also hold workshops where women - I am their first male recruit - from 16 to 66 can learn a few moves. Just this afternoon, a small, brunette Superstar called Sonia has led about 20 members of the Wessex Arabian Dance Association (imagine your local Women's Institute all dressed like Sheherazade ) through a "drum-and-dance" session at a dance studio.
Copeland has convinced himself that "belly-dancing is a symbol of women's liberation". "It's about empowerment and celebrating femininity," he says loftily. "It's a dance for all women, not just the young and slim. It's not sexual, it's sensual, and women appreciate that."
His dancers take up the theme. Rachel Brice leads the Superstars' "tribal" group, whose costumes are much edgier. She has a gypsy-punk look, complete with porcupine quills and boar tusks in her hair, and a floral tattoo that winds enticingly from her lower belly over one hip to her backside. "There are so many levels to belly-dance," Rachel says. "It's great if you're into performance, fitness, costume, make-up, anything."
"Or just if you're into good-looking women," I suggest.
She stares pointedly. "That's my least favourite element. That's one of the reasons I like to perform a little strangely. It takes that whole 'Yeah baby!' thing away. It puts a bit of fear into the audience."
If it's any consolation, I'm already quaking with fear. My belly-dancing debut is drawing near. I have settled on a costume that combines a pair of loose, fleecy, drawstring trousers and a rather dashing summery shirt. The latter will be left partly undone to give a tantalising flash of my flabby white stomach, while a proper belly-dancing scarf will be tied around my hips to add authenticity.
I march onto the stage like a man trying to face a firing squad with courage and dignity. My spirits are raised considerably by the appearance of the four dancing girls. Jillina is a vision in blue. Sonia has been transformed from a pretty, but perfectly normal young woman, into a picture of exotic Levantine loveliness. It's her job to tie my scarf. She reaches around my waist and begins to tie a knot just south of my navel.
"Put your arms up," she purrs. It's only when I lower my arms that I realise I've been horribly tricked. Jillina has tied my shirt behind my back, creating a sort of mini-bolero that leaves my chest and stomach completely exposed. "Well, we want to see your belly, right?" she smirks.
The girls line up on either side of me, in a glorious display of tummy, thigh and breast that makes me want to take Miles Copeland aside and tell him that if he thinks belly-dancing isn't all about sex, he must be either blind or mad. Unfortunately, the so-called male movements, with or without sticks, will not be in my repertoire. "Let's just start with a hip-drop," Jillina says. "Push off one foot. Isolate your hips. Don't move your upper body at all. OK, now give me a shoulder shimmy."
The dancers start shimmying with sensuous, feminine grace, while I thrash around like a harpooned walrus. My efforts are greeted by raucous laughter from the watching male stage-hands and condescending giggles from the girls. Before I can recover the tattered shreds of my dignity, Jillina is talking me through another movement.
"Lift your chest and release your bottom. Push your stomach out, now pull it in. Pull it in!" "I AM pulling it in!" I protest. But it's no good. I may be Britain's first male belly-dancer, but I will also be the last. Middle-Eastern men may belly-dance if they wish. I say it's strictly a girl thing.
When the Bellydance Superstars finally perform before a small but wildly enthusiastic crowd, they put on a terrific display that entertains both men and women alike, albeit in different ways. The costumes vary from harem seduction to tribal wildness; the soundtrack combines Arabic wailing with hip-hop beats and North African rap.
Miles Copeland's girls - sorry, ladies - will conclude their UK tour with an appearance on the main stage at the Glastonbury Festival. And that could do for them what Eurovision did for Riverdance. These belly-dancers might yet be a worldwide hit. Which is, let's be honest, more than can be said about me.
A belly-dancer shares her secrets
By Jillina Carlano
1 Get into the spirit of it. I name all my costumes - one's called Caramel Macchiato, and another Ice Princess. Each has a personality, a story.
2 Pick the music you like. Mostly we use Middle-Eastern, but fusion is trendy at the moment. I was asked to dance at the rap star Usher's party recently and had to belly-dance to hip-hop.
3 The best body shape is voluptuous, with a long torso and curves. No one's ever been turned away for being too big.
4 Have a favourite move - mine is the 'drum solo', which is a shimmering, vibrating, sharp movement that makes me feel very vital.
5 Balance is important in belly-dance - I imagine a tray of drinks on my head. There's also a move called 'The Camel', which is a kind of stomach roll - imagine a jewel nestling in your belly button.
6 Do it for the love of it. It took a while for belly-dancing to catch on and at the start people would boo; but then some people in our troupe were asked to dance at Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's wedding, which was obviously very exciting.
7 Don't dance when drunk. I was once asked to dance at a wedding. When I got up to dance, the bride unfortunately tried to join in, but Champagne had got the better of her, and she ended up collapsing in a heap.
8 You can practise the moves anywhere, while putting on make-up or shopping at the supermarket.
9 Advice to men who want to get into it: start doing ballet and practise yoga positions such as the 'Downward Dog' to open up your hips.
10 Very important rule: high chest, big smile!
The Bellydance Superstars' UK tour begins on Thursday. For details of performances and workshops see www.bellydancesuperstars.com