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American Bellydancer
Film Review by Gregory Burke

American Bellydancer (2005)
Director: Jon Brandeis
Producer: Miles Copeland

Video Rating:

First, as we begin a discussion of this video, let's get our terms straight. A documentary film or video is made up of "real" images constructed in such a way to reflect the point of view of its maker. A documentary film is a fiction, especially when financed by its key subject. That being said, let's consider American Bellydancer. Directed by Jon Brandeis and produced by Miles Copeland.

Mr. Copeland is certainly the man of the hour, with his entertainment units: The Bellydance Superstars and The Desert Roses, and his commercial approach to the bellydance world through CDs, DVDs, accessories, and the very video we are discussing. He has elicited much ire from dancers and dance critics alike for his liberties with sacred elements of performance ethics and musical choices. Are they correct in their take on Mr. Copeland? Is he just a sanitized Bill Graham? Or is he someone bigger of heart and mind? Let's look at the history: Mr. Copeland comes with a background in music production, distribution and management, producing certain bands, that by all accounts, are better off forgotten. But also, he worked with some very influential and excellent musicians, starting more than a few trends along the way. He has a unique cross-media and cross-cultural background. And also, he is not a man to turn a good thing down, especially if it comes knocking on his door.

The documentary video American Bellydancer chronicles a remarkable journey both for the producer and the dancers involved. We wander along with them (at its current length it seems like a slow wander), as the fabled golden finger of heaven points down at him and says: find a need and fill it. Apparently, by his own statement, he is an admirer of Arabic music. And distressed by the shabby state of the bellydance community, he set about to make matters right. To fill our minds and living rooms with visions of pulchritude and the jingle of golden coins, in a semi-Arabic free environment, an all-American environment. I am sure individuals of power and notoriety told him it could not be done.

The world at large will never be ready for bellydance and this pack of squabbling divas cannot be prime-time candidates. One of Mr. Copeland's greatest assets is his thick skin. Abuse rolls off him like droplets of water on a well-waxed vehicle.

Mr. Copeland sets about his task with an amazing tenacity. The video follows him as he searches for the requisite amount of women with the precise talent and temperament, and they must be beautiful. The film is the semi-linear line of time as the group(s) take shape, intercut with the usual B/W ancient beginning, dance footage from DVDs, and the wise talking heads commenting. In this area, Morocco, with her stake-through-the heart attitude, shines. He auditions the women, selects them, and fills their heads with visions of sugarplums to come, (see S.Coleridge, Kubla Khan). More important to dancers, he shows them respect and he pays them. He puts his money where his mouth is. One possible rationale is that he sees himself as a caretaker of the art form, now that it is under severe repression in the lands of its beginning and flowering. And the other is that he's the right man in the right place at exactly the right time. And he is either going to reap a whirlwind of debt or a ton of influence and money. A sure sign that someone means business is when they hire a competent staff, and recognize among their dancers who is good at what and place them where they help not hinder the momentum. Jillina, as choreographer is the perfect choice. Anyone who thinks Miles Copeland bears a likeness to a cartoon or is not to be taken seriously, please go to his "Ark 21" website and read his semi-mythological autobiography.

Mr. Copeland and team carry on about bringing bellydance "to another level," it's not quite that. It's another place. The entire video resembles exactly one of those cable shows concerning the creation of a Las Vegas production. And there in the middle of it, is a Copeland-like fellow who has an evangelistic vision of it all. He's dreamt the whole show. A giant waking day dream. On TV, where many of you reading this will probably see the video, there is always conflict in the creation of the show. In this case, it's provided by Suhaila Salimpour verbally sparring for the psychological upper hand.

Key points of the video are the Lollapalooza tour and the discovery that, yes, The Superstars can dance on stage with the Rock and Roll band, thus another spin-off idea to MTV. And the "big picture" prep talk by Mr. Copeland to perspective dancers, watching their eyes and minds grasping the fact that it's real. It could really happen. Up to now, bellydance has been a war on the dancers. A career of limited hope. It was a wonder seeing the women getting a recognizable visual image in their minds and realizing that it could all come true: the respect for the art, the tours and the money.

As the video progresses, we see Miles Copeland realizing exactly the same thing as he learns from the dancers, and in turn, gauges the overall audience response. It's a case of what you preach becoming manifest before your very eyes. A sort of Ali-Baba allegory. Remember this is a record guy, a demographic guy. He knows when folks like something. And if they don't he'll change until he gets the formula right.

Mothers of America, throw away your ten-year old daughters' glittery top hat and tap shoes, dump the tutu, here comes pre-adolescent hip-shimmies. Crank up the DVD, it's training-for-Superstars time.

So, are the Bellydance Superstars and Desert Roses the Twelve Apostles of the Antichrist? And is Miles Copeland that Antichrist? Is this video their gospel? Nope. Not likely. Sorry to get your hopes up. He's a businessman and they are "folk dancers." However skillful, well upholstered and anointed they are, those facts will not change. How long will the phenomenon last and how far will they go? That is the future, and the future is a mystery.

What is no mystery is that the profit from a venture such as this appears on the back-end. That is, years from now.

Of the video as reality or entertainment, who can say if it's a demented vision if everyone claps on cue? Why don't we take the obvious success of the Superstars and draw our own conclusions. As for myself, there is room in my world for everybody.

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