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Miles of Belly

Legendary music promoter Miles Copeland presents the Bellydance Superstars.

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M iles Copeland, brother of the Police drummer Stuart Copeland, has lived a life most folks would consider positively surreal. His father was an American spy and his mother was a British spy during World War II. He spent the first 20 years of his life moving back and forth between America, Great Britain, and the Middle East. He started his career as a music promoter during psychedelia's last hurrah in the early 1970s but distinguished himself pushing punk rock and new-wave music. In the 1980s, he founded IRS records and hit it big again promoting a bubblegum punk act called the Go-Go's. Now, as unlikely as it seems, Copeland is promoting the Bellydance Superstars, a Riverdance-inspired stage show featuring Middle-Eastern music and miles and miles of undulating tummies.

Flyer: Before we start talking about belly dancing and Middle-Eastern music, I have to know what it was like growing up in a family of spies during the Cold War?

Miles Copeland: Back in those days, the spies were all friends. My father knew the Russian agent, and the Russian agent knew my father. It's not like what you see in the James Bond movies. [All the spies] related to each other because they had the same job. They were just working for different governments with different agendas, and since foreign policy reflects domestic policy, there was a lot of stupidity on both sides. It wasn't as "us vs. them" to the degree that one imagined.

And now the obvious question: How does someone known for promoting acts like Sting and the Police, the Sex Pistols, and the Go-Go's end up pushing Middle-Eastern music and belly dance?

Well, it's not so strange really. Rock-and-roll has always sought new influences and absorbed the sounds of other cultures. It all started with white folks getting into black music in Memphis. Elvis' music was cross-cultural. Now rap artists sample Arabic music. Rock-and-roll's just a big sponge soaking up everything it can. It's always looking for a new vibe or a fresh inspiration. The Police, for example, brought punk energy to a pop sensibility and added elements of reggae. Why reggae? Because there was a vibrant Jamaican culture in England, and so English musicians naturally ripped off bits and pieces.

Did you develop an affinity for Arabic music while you were living in the Middle East as a kid?

I grew up with Arabic music playing on the radio, but when I went to buy records, I was buying Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and the Doors. But I do think it made me more interested in Arabic music.

You started promoting more world music after the success of Sting's Desert Rose album. How did you move from focusing on world music and world-music hybrids to promoting a belly-dance revue?

I had to ask myself, How the hell do I promote Arabic music to Americans? The answer was to spice it up: to bring in belly dancers. Whenever Michael Jackson or Madonna put a show together, there are always lots of dancers involved, right? Well, once the dancers were involved I saw the music differently. Immediately I thought of Riverdance. That's an example of a small world-music thing transcending ethnicity and going mainstream.

Are Americans -- who don't seem particularly inclined to embrace Middle-Eastern culture these days -- lining up to see the show?

What I discovered was that belly dance is a phenomenon among American women. It's become a way for them to celebrate their femininity, and it's also a health-related activity.

It turns out that 90 percent of the belly-dance paraphernalia in the world is sold in America. In fact, it's almost an American form now. It's sort of like how the Beatles adapted American musical styles, regurgitated them, and sold them back to the world. That's what's happening with belly dance in America.

And I'm guessing that's why you've also developed a line of belly-dance costumes and supplies.

The U.S. has the best belly-dance teachers and dancers in the world, but it's under the radar and a little amateurish. The best a dancer can hope for is doing one big show a year and dancing in restaurants. My aim was to make a high-end product to help expand the form.

Have you felt comfortable moving from rock-and-roll to wiggle-and-jiggle?

[Gaining credibility] was my first job because I could just hear people saying, "God, Miles is doing belly dance, and he's going to pervert the art. He's only looking for pretty girls." Yes, we have a requirement that all of our girls look good, but that's a secondary consideration. The first consideration: Are these the best dancers we can find?

So when [British punk impresario] Malcolm McLaren was throwing you out of his office for actually getting live gigs for his bands, did you ever once think, Hmmm, maybe I should consider belly dance?

If somebody had told me two-and-a-half years ago that my life would be immersed in belly dancing I'd have said, Whaaaaaaa? But now it all seems perfectly natural. n

The Bellydance Superstars take the stage at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale Street on Friday, November 12th, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door.

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