Gilded Serpent presents…
This is Not a Review:
Bellydance Superstars
Commentary by Najia Marlyz
February 3, 2006 Marin, CA

In lights on the billboard located up beside Interstate Highway 101:


I enjoyed the show almost as much as I enjoyed the early morning detox session of my thoughts the next day over a cappuccino…  A student of one of my teaching/dancers called me a day before the show and offered to host me to the show on Friday.  I accepted her offer quickly because I had seen several DVDs of the Super Stars and was so impressed with Amar Gamal and Rachel Brice on the DVDs that I was anxious to feel the amazing energy that I knew must be present in a live performance.  Of course, I also realized that it was possible that neither of them would be in this show, but it had to have some of the same excellent qualities as, say, the Reno lounge shows featuring the outlandish Cher or Brittany “too old to be cute anymore” Spears.  Am I right?  Yes, my dear self, dream on…

On this lovely semi-warm California winter Friday evening, all of the tickets for the Superstar event at the amazing Marin Civic Center (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) were gone, and had been—for days.  “Miles Copeland must be doing something right!” I thought to myself.  I would guesstimate that 90% of the audience was comprised of Bellydancers or those who love one, and for once, they were behaving and dressing with unusual dignity.

With ease, Peggy, who was my student’s student and designated driver, found a parking place, and we walked into the foyer crowded with dancers speaking in excited tones.  She treated me to a glass of champagne in the refreshment bar, and we found our designated seating without the hassle that usually accompanies so many of these events in Bellydance. Numbered seating eliminates the obnoxious Seat Dragons with their coats and personal belongings or other seat savers draped over large blocks of seating. (Seat dragons guard all the good seats for their friends -- those late comers, who step on your feet, or elbow you out of their way as they move in front, dashing any hope you may have harbored that you would have a good view by arriving 45 minutes early.)  Grateful for my invitation to this show, and to Miles Copeland’s efforts at placing the event in a fine venue with designated seating, I settled in for an evening at what I dubbed…

L’ Cirque de Faux Dans du Ventre!

hiphopActually, one who had not seen a ticket for this event, like me, could not be sure what was the actual theme of this show; printed on the tickets must have been: “Raqs Carnivale,” but I did not see the tickets. As I watched the first act, I decided that it must be some kind of dancing circus. Other than that, I had no clue!  As for displaying superstars: it did not seem to make anyone look like a star, let alone a super-star, among any of these lean, lithesome lasses, but these cabochons shown as brightly as real gems nonetheless—in spite of the nearly indistinguishable dancing doo-wop girls, executing the exact same choreography behind them most of the time. 

However, before I completely irritate too many tender sensibilities, please note: There was not one little shard of paper distributed that listed the line up of acts or the actual names of the performers except for the slick $3 souvenir program that was on sale somewhere in the lobby. Evidently, I missed that sales event when I was slipping through the crowd visiting in the entrance.  Whenever I attend a stage play or concert performance in San Francisco, Berkeley, or Walnut Creek, there is always, at the very least, a book of advertisements with a page of tiny font print inserted somewhere in the middle crediting the actors, and production staff and also listing the acts and scenes of the presentation.  I am sorry, now, that I ever muttered a naughty word, or two, as I had to drag out my reading spectacles to decipher these “programs.”  Having something to guide one is certainly better than having nothing!

Nope, no such guidance existed here; at least, not to my knowledge at that moment.  I would have to rely on the Master of Ceremonies. Nope, no help there, either.  There was no Master of Ceremonies—just a recorded circus-ringmaster-voice announcement at the beginning of the show saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen: The Bellydance Superstars!”  (Even in old days of Vaudeville, the audience at least could see an easel with the name of the individual acts on a card.)  On this evening, we would have to wait until the final gathering on stage before Superstar Jillina would introduce each dancer along with some supercilious, uninformative statement about each.

The curtains opened and a large backdrop of some sort of old palatial architecture suggesting Arabic culture lined the entire back of the stage.  These over-large renderings do lend some courtly atmosphere, but tend to dwarf the performers, losing dancers in the perspective of their massive scale, bright colors and over-sized landscapes.  I am accustomed to the colorful fabrics that the Egyptians use for their party backdrops that mock the elaborate appliqués of old, but these palace renderings are enormous by comparison!  

If I had had a program under my spectacles, I might have read “Ancient Ruins by Paul Dinletir Featuring Issam.”  However, the huge backdrop did not depict a ruin, and it was not showing a carnival – or even a circus either, for that matter.  Also, I would have read  “Choreography by Jillina.” Herein lies one major flaw concerning the concept of superstardom in Bellydance: choreography. While choreography is a form of quality assurance, it is also assurance that the quality attained will be less than stellar in Bellydance! 

Bellydance, in its most spectacular form, consists of spontaneous choreo-composition envisioned and accomplished by individual dancers.  One dancer cannot hear and interpret music for another. 

Even though a dancer’s music may be pre-recorded, we dancers generally strive toward realism with fidelity in playback and should attempt to dance as if the music were live.  The utmost element of artistry in Bellydancing is its spontaneity, direct simplicity, and believability in the personification of the dancer’s individual musical interpretation.  I am not claiming that a pre-set and rehearsed choreography can never be outstanding, but unequivocally, I must tell you that they must be precious few and with a long time between!  I have never seen one that I thought could match the magical interaction between a spontaneous dancer and her musicians, in the moment, and speaking the language of life and music.

However, Superstar Bozenka was lovely, Amazonian in appearance, and did nothing very memorable or amazing.  Perhaps that was the point.  How would one know? If she had anything of humanity to communicate, we would hardly have seen it through the filter of Jillina’s choreography.

Sharon Kihara, Zoe, Kami and Moria (Tribal stylists) were stunning with their controlled movements in unison.  Such discipline is awe-inspiring, but I could hear people nearby who were confused by their black stockings, garters, and high-heeled shoes! (I think these dancers were the ones wearing them… oh, it all became such a blur after awhile!) I felt thunderstruck by a longing for the “good old days” of Bellydance when such movements were de rigueur as part of every dancer’s taxim.  Nowadays, it seems that dancers of Raqs Sharqi purposely omit using movements requiring flexibility of the body and dramatic content.  They appear to favor feverish interpretations of movements and procedures that adhere to only whatever the current crop of Egyptian top dancers does.

Gone is the mandatory “floor-work” in which one became exotic, athletic, and artistically reptile-like. Gone are those whom teachers used to caution, “Girls, take care not to turn your prone dance into a lousy floor-fuck!”

Except, wait a second, one of these dancer babes did get down on the floor!  Hummm—it is not in the list, here in the program—which I did not have in hand that night.  However, I can tell you that once she got there, she did not do anything exotic or skillfully eccentric either...  At that point, I would like to have become a floor-hump voyeur!

Syrian drummer Issam Houshan, apparently dressed in mourning, played his intricate solo accompanied by Superstar Sonia with her display of dispassionate ability to match his riffs.  Wait! I must have that backwards:  it was Superstar Issam, costumed all in black, accompanied by Sonia, who was pretty.  No, …who was beautiful. I think. I cannot remember how she costumed for this act—so overpowering was Issam’s presence!

I was irritated that Issam took on the role of teaching the audience, demanding that people clap completions to certain rhythms that he initiated.  It was annoying and condescending.  Yet, he was the only male personality on stage and the only live musician.  Perhaps that is precisely why I was so irritated with his performance; he was the only on-stage person who said anything during the performance.  Where was Fifi Abdo with her silly jokes when this show so badly ached for comic relief?  Indeed, this circus must have fired all its clowns in a fit of missionary attitude wishing to teach artistry among the bourgeoisie.

There was a group number dancing an unimaginative choreography with a Hispanic theme.  Why was it there?  The music listed was Ya Raitone by Tres Mondos. This dance was not a very distinguished attempt at a Latin rhythm crossover and the dancers seemed to lack enthusiasm for its dull fusion.  Why was it there? This is not Road to South America 1940! However, all the girls were young and beautiful.

There were some group dances: “Oriental Dreams”, and “Behind the Veil” that in spite of their suggestively titillating titles, appeared to be pointless sojourns into filling the stage with pretty girls.

Jillina danced to “Laylet Hob” and looked happy and star-like and comfortable, almost smug, in her own choreography.

“Tribal Baila” was a number for Zoe, Sharon Kihara, Moria, and Kami. These girls must rehearse in their sleep—they are so precise and smooth.

Their costumes, tattoos and body piercing are exotic and I hope their mothers love them anyway.  …because, well, …they are beautiful.

The closest thing to a carnival atmosphere happened in “Baila Belly” in which, apparently, all hands had to appear on deck. Jillina, who looks as if she might be fun, funny, and nice in real-life, appeared as a Brazilian Carnivale dancer at one point. I hated the number over-all, believing that it did not belong on the stage that bills its dancers “Bellydance Superstars.”  I think that if Miles Copeland insists that he must trot out this ridiculous little costume with its high plumage headgear perched upon the head of a pretty girl, he simply should find some eighteen-year-old street waif, clean her up, let her smoke dope, and push her out on stage to dance.

Act Two:
The same flow of purrty girls on and off stage fairly well expresses my opinion of the entire second act.

In some hapless attempt at variety, it opened with a piece of music called “Yella Saidii,” utilizing the un-crooked, heavy martial arts walking stick; it was yet another one of Jillina’s choreographies featuring her interpretations but danced by  …the beautiful girls!  They manipulated canes, mimicking the men’s martial arts sticks, but in this case, the sticks were showy metallic silver rather than cane pieces as the Saidi men use.  They bounced them off the floor with manly aplomb, and caught the opposite end of the stick.  Nice skills, girls… but, would it not have been more appropriate, and more memorable, to have presented the Saidii piece costumed with a bit more ethnic obeisance?  Nonetheless, the girls were beautiful.

I cannot remember which beautiful girl did the number called “Bellydance Solo,” but her costume was innovative and her body was …uh, huh…beautiful.

Sharon Kihara, Kami, Zoe, and Moria performed a goth-like dark tribal number to some sounds that were supposed to take the place of actual music called Creature Comfort.  It was outstanding and unique within the show parameters.  I would have liked to have seen more of it, in spite of that terrible music by 4 Ton Mantis because the movements were chosen and timed to enhance the sounds…errr, music.

This may have been the one set in which the lighting level of the over-lighted stage darkened somewhat and the tribal babes were bathed in an eerie red atmosphere.

(I could be wrong about that though; I was not taking notes because I had not intended to write about my evening at the show.)

“Escape to the Pacific”  Wake me when it’s over.  Next time, get some real Pacific dancers, or forget it.  This number did not touch the heart.  It was dull, duller, and dullest.  Its costumes were uninspired.  Granted, yes, the last minute of Tahitian drums was fun—but not fun enough to save it!  However, the girls were …beautiful.

 (My head was abuzz with the constancy of the bright lighting on stage and my ribs were playing like marimbas from the concussion of the overly loud music blasted to distortion in my direction.)  Somewhere along the way in this program, there was a number that I felt was exceptionally ill conceived.  Starred, was a lovely dark-haired dancer who had only two speeds available in her dance: fast and faster. She executed the double veil routine like a hasty pudding and wasted none of her precious time or energy on any hint of nuance.  It was an all American, Chevy to the Levee, double veil routine.  It was showy though, I admit.  What was ill conceived about it was the mixture of two dancers in Dervish-like costuming who turned relentlessly and manipulated the skirts somewhat like the Whirling Dervishes.  Since true Dervishes are religious in nature, I felt it was socially and politically incorrect for the choreographer to place them on stage, flanking a dancer performing in a bedlah. Surely, I cannot have been the only person in the audience to whom this juxtaposition appeared offensive!  

This show needs:

  • A discernable plot, focus, or theme.
  • A bit of handsome testosterone on stage—beyond the irritating lone drummer.
  • A free paper hand-out program.
  • A better sound system that does not distort the music at high volumes with someone at the switch who can still hear.
  • A set designer with imagination who can build a ramp to a high-rise portion on which one might see a full-tilt good old American floor wallow.
  • A handsome and/or funny Master of Ceremonies.
  • more variety in lighting, perhaps, even a spotlight on a darkened stage!
  • to either lighten-up and send in the clowns, or get rid of the stilt-walking act.  Better yet, Miles could combine the two, letting the stilt dancer appear in clown-face.

I look forward to seeing them again when they return …as true Bellydance stars.

Make no mistake, though: these superstar girls were skillful and …beautiful.

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