Arabian Exchange

This Thursday, the Mid-Eastern Dance Exchange (MEDE) is hosting its seventh annual Orientalia festival, a yearly event that draws hundreds of people to see belly-dance performances and participate in workshops with the featured dancers. But this year Orientalia comes with a twist. The event will also kick off a nationwide talent search for Miles Copeland's Twelve Desert Roses, a troupe he is putting together; this will be the basis for a film documentary capturing the essence of the "American belly dancer" in the Search for the Twelve Desert Roses.

"I want to build a great troupe of twelve girls," declares music industry veteran Copeland from his London home. "A Chorus Line-type show that's a musical extravaganza of music and dance." Copeland makes things happen. With his new venture into the world of belly dancing, he just may put this underground and misunderstood art form on the map.

Why belly dance? "It has all the elements: the music, costumes, the exotic element. It's sexy, beautiful, and artistic," explains Copeland. More important, "Sex sells!" he exclaims. "It works for Shakira and Britney Spears."

Though prejudice and fear toward all things Middle Eastern is at a peak, the demand for belly-dance classes at MEDE has never been higher. Culturally, it is a dance that women have passed down to women through the centuries, a movement steeped in family tradition, preparation for birth, and spiritual healing. The movements used are liquid yet precise and follow the lines and subtleties of a woman's body. It is sensual, yes, because the dance awakens in each dancer this connection to her emotions, her body, her collective past.

The dance is an internal dialogue that transcends age and geography. It is mind and body control in a world where women are taught to be powerless. It is self-nurture, womanhood, tribal power. The dancer is timeless. Ageless. Flawless. So the attraction to it runs deeper for most than learning to dance like Shakira or the women in the telenovela El Clon. "He [Copeland] thinks that belly dancing can be the next big wave," says MEDE director Tamalyn Dallal.

Copeland is no stranger to the genre, thanks to his unique upbringing. As a child he spent time shuttling between the Middle East and Washington, D.C., and learned to speak Arabic during a stint in Damascus. Later, while earning his master's degree at the American University of Beirut, he promoted his first concert in 1968, a self-described "psychedelic" happening. Several years later, Copeland became a central figure in the record industry's promotion of punk rock and New Wave, serving as an agent for the Sex Pistols' 1977 European tour and managing best-selling acts like Squeeze, the Bangles, and brother Stewart Copeland's band the Police. In 1979 he formed the now-defunct I.R.S. Records, a hugely influential label responsible for key recordings by Oingo Boingo, R.E.M., the Go-Go's, and countless others.

It wasn't until recently, when Copeland found himself listening intently to a Euro-Arabic track on the radio while busking around in a Paris taxi, that the idea of merging soulful Arab music with Western pop-rock came to mind. "Although I grew up in the Middle East ... I had not thought a lot about [the music]," Copeland explains. "I thought 'Wow, this is pretty cool.'"

This discovery led him to research the music. He gave some of the records he found to his long-time friend and client Sting. "I told him, 'Here, this might inspire you,'" he remembers. The duo checked out some modern Arabic performers before choosing North African rai artist Cheb Mami for a collaboration. The result was Sting's "Desert Rose," a monster hit he would later perform with Mami at the 2000 Super Bowl and Grammy Awards. It was the first time Arabic was heard at either of these events, a significant stride in American pop culture at a time when foreign matters, especially Middle Eastern, were strained.

"I found myself a bridge between two cultures at a time when a bridge is so important," Copeland recalls of the song. "9/11 was a double-edged sword. There was a lot of fear in the marketplace, but at the same time there was an amazing amount of interest in Middle Eastern music. It quadrupled in sales." A 2002 tour by Hakim and Khaled, two Arabic stars on Copeland's new label Ark 21, six months after September 11 was welcomed with almost all sold-out shows. "There was no hostility, no built-in feelings," says Copeland.

In November 2002, Ark 21 released Bellydance Superstars through its world-music subsidiary Mondo Melodia. The sixteen-track CD features a cross section of the most influential Arab singers and composers from past to present, including the aforementioned Hakim, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Oojami, Warda, and Ihab Tawfik. What made this belly-dance compilation different is that the label asked established American belly dancers (Jillina, Sonia, Tamalyn Dallal, Rania, Amar Gamal, Suhaila, Ansuya, Veena & Neena) to pick two favorite tracks for the CD, grace its cover, and tour nationally to support the album with a full-fledged show.

"They are a cross section of dancers with a lot of credibility in the field," offers Copeland of the lineup. Each woman's name is included on the CD jacket alongside her selections, reflecting the different styles of the dancers. There's the classic sound of Dallal's selection, a self-titled track by Warda, and the more modern-sounding selection by Ansuya, Oojami's "Chicky." "I picked them for the energy level," explains Ansuya, a second-generation belly dancer who recently moved to Miami from Los Angeles. "It is a very dynamic, fast-paced, high-energy piece."

After learning of the Desert Roses project from Ark 21, Tamalyn Dallal suggested they use the Orientalia event as a venue for the talent search. "I was actually a little bit pushy about it," Dallal says; she promised the label, "I can make sure you see a lot of people." Although she did not "audition" girls for the show, Dallal remains confident that the right faces will be seen. "I didn't advertise per se," she says, "but the word is out there."

Even though there are a lot of belly dancers "gigging" out there, the Orientalia main stage will be reserved for the most qualified. However, there will still be some variation in expertise at the show. What some lack in experience or authenticity, they might make up in novelty by using props, gimmicks, or dramatic license. Dallal says, "I want to accommodate anyone who approaches me with qualifications. I would make room for [them] in Orientalia no matter what."

The significance of a festival like Orientalia has a broader scope than just sequins and shimmies. It can offer a positive view of a culture that often provokes Americans into a fear of the unknown. With the threat of war lurking, this performance could be an opportunity to broaden the scope of human understanding. "It is so easy to develop a one-sided view of another culture," concludes Copeland. For him, an empowering act like belly dancing "comes out of the same culture that veils and silences women. It's the exact opposite, and that juxtaposition is very interesting."