Belly booty

It's an interesting juxtaposition.

You hear the word "superstar," and you think Champagne and spotlights, you think Jem and the Holograms, you think Molly Shannon's armpits. Hear the term "belly dance," and it's dish-sized sequins, middle-aged white women, tit tassels and a dimpled gut wobble. But when you're talking about the touring dance ensemble known as, well, the Bellydance Superstars, the confluence begins to make sense.

Thankfully, the Bellydance Superstars are lithe ladies who cavort onstage in a lavish fusion of traditional and modern belly dance. With impeccable technical training, their gyrating hips and serpentine, undulating torsos tend to exceed the laws of everyday human movement. They debuted in 2003 at Lollapalooza, and have since been on tour for about eight months a year with such destinations as Bali, Budapest, Monte Carlo and America.

"To me, it's more sensual than sexual," says Miles Copeland, the storied Los Angeles talent manager and label head who masterminded the show. "We don't mean to titillate — just express beauty."

Copeland — who is, you'll note, brother of Police drummer Stewart Copeland — says the popularity of the Bellydance Superstars has been likened to the Irish step-dancing sensation Riverdance. Indeed, this Middle Eastern tradition — which is actually considered a courtesan art form — has been marketed and mass produced to fit an almost-but-not-quite-Disney aesthetic. And it is beautiful. The costumes are sexy but whimsical, the movements suggestive but not obscene. The swivels and thrusts are in synch to the upbeat rhythms of a live drummer and catchy Arabic remixes.

The 15-member troupe performs a vast repertoire of styles, the choreography melding jazz, ballet and international dance forms into the routines: Belly dance is varied, and this variety show provides a sampling of different forms of the dance.

"We push the envelope, but we try to keep it as a predominantly belly dance show," Copeland says.

The cabaret belly dance, for instance, employs more glitz and Hollywood influence than the traditional elegance of Egyptian belly dance; and tribal belly dance, with its heavy jewelry and geometric tattoos, is fierce and frenetic — very "hands-off." The troupe also draws inspiration from Latin and Polynesian dance — and, no kidding, P.T. Barnum (one number is performed on stilts).

The dancers come from distinctly diverse backgrounds, with even more distinctly diverse names. (Try "Bozenka," "Moria" or "Petite Jamilla" on for size.) Interestingly, only one performer is of Arabic descent. This is largely due, says Copeland, to the social stigma in the Middle East against belly dance — many families disapprove of their daughters engaging in it. Belly dance has, however, been gaining popularity around the world, with women of all ages joining the ranks of navel-jigglers as a means of recreation and exercise.

"I was a jazz and hip-hop dancer for most of my life, but one day I signed up for a belly dance class," says Jillina Carlano, head choreographer of the Superstars. "I absolutely fell in love with it — the music, the movements, the self-expression. There's a lot of room for that in belly dance."

Carlano, like the other performers, is most mesmerizing during her solos, which allow the eye to fixate on each movement. Each hip isolation, each torso contraction, each dervish twirl is worth individual attention. And it's just so sexy.

In fact, because of the dance's beautiful nuances, some of the group numbers fall short. Sometimes overambitious in their attempts to incorporate an entire spectrum of dancing styles (the Bollywood-themed dance, no longer in the show, was particularly embarrassing), the viewer can get distracted from the graceful technique. With the colorful costumes and trippy mood lighting it can become sensory overload — making the overall effect appear watered-down. So are these women really "superstars?"

"Miles came up with the title," Carlano groans. "It's not necessarily something I'm comfortable with, but it kind of stuck, and now it's out there. We do have some of the top belly dancers from all around the U.S, though. It's not just one lead dancer — just, the best of the best."


At 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10, at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-399-2980.

Meghana Keshavan is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]