Date: March 8, 2006

Miles Copeland knows a good thing when he sees it. Whether it's his early entry into the mid-1970s punk scene in England, his longtime management of singer Sting's career, or his latest venture, the traveling dance troupe the Bellydance Superstars, scheduled to appear next at the Jane Mallett Theater in Toronto tonight (March 8).

While the latter might seem like a longshot, Copeland has managed to develop his scrappy group of dancers practicing the ancient Middle Eastern art into a legitimate touring force in the United States and Europe over the past two years. And with word-of-mouth growing, he's steadily booked them into increasingly larger venues that some of his old rock bands would give up their favorite guitar to play in.

They play the Royal Oak Music Theater in Detroit March 9 and have a packed schedule of performances and workshops through a June 18 performance at Olympia in Dublin, Ireland.

“The idea, really, is not that strange if you think of the template of 'Riverdance,'” said Copeland. “Look at the essence of 'Riverdance': obscure music and obscure dance put together to make a commercial show and phenomenon. One does not hear Irish music on the top of the charts, but we all like it. You don't hear Arab music on the top of the charts, but when you hear it, you like it and when you're exposed to the music, it works. If the public is loving it and tapping their foot up and down, the music works and it doesn't matter what the lyrics are saying.”

After experiencing the cross-over success of Sting's 1999 hit “Desert Rose,” which featured Arab singer Cheb Mami, Copeland was convinced of the potential for American audiences to embrace Arab music and culture, even, especially, in light of the state-of-the-war-in-Iraq world. In 2003, he put together the Superstars and secured them a booking on that year's Lollapalooza tour. After seeding the market with high-quality bellydance DVDs and a movie called “American Bellydancer,” Copeland booked a 58-city tour of North America in late 2003 and early 2004, followed by a European tour.

By the time Copeland was plotting out the Superstars' 2005 tour, word had spread about their potential to draw. “I said, 'My god, bellydancing is beautiful girls dancing sensually, which you've seen in a restaurant, but not on a big stage in the context of a show,'” said Copeland. “Plus, there's a huge movement in America of women who have adopted it as a means of self-expression and exercise.”

Aside from the interest among women of all ages, Copeland said the tour has also drawn teenagers, who are inspired for the same reason a previous generation was by rock and roll: easy entry. Just like any teenager in the 1960s seeing Jimi Hendrix could buy a guitar and start a band, any 15-year-old who sees the Superstars can buy a bellydance instructional tape and try it themselves and get together with friends and do it.

“It's also helpful that the Middle East is so much in the news and such a dominant factor in our foreseeable future,” admitted Copeland. “People are intrigued because they are making an assumption that this is not a good time to do this, but at a time when our two worlds are in collision, this is the only art that bridges the cultures.”

Among the other factors working in the Superstars' favor: a low average ticket price ($32 in advance, $38 at the door, vs. the $60-$100 average for competing shows), a low overhead and minimal production/set-up needs. The major cost is the salaries of the 14 dancers (who save by doubling up in hotel rooms), as well as that of the drummer and a four-man crew. Copeland said the break-even just for the show is $30,000-$35,000 a week. “That's lower than most dance shows and most of the money goes to the dancers, who are well paid in terms of the dance community,” he said.

The staging requirements are also lean, with a 20-by-30-foot space preferred, as well as room for a 30-by-40-foot backdrop for projections. Given the minimal requirements, the crew can set up the three microphones for the drummer and sound check them in five minutes or less. The full set-up takes a few hours and there is a two-hour tech rehearsal at every venue to allow the dancers to get a feel for the stage.

Jim Farley has been presenting shows at the Marin Center in San Rafael, Calif., for 20 years and said he's never seen anything like the Bellydance Superstars. “It's definitely the superstars of bellydancing,” said Farley, who hosted the show on Feb. 3. “It's theatrical, spectacular. The audience enthusiasm is akin to a rock concert. We present in the San Francisco Bay Area, so we have a very eclectic lineup of performances from around the world, but as soon as we heard about the tour, we signed up right away without even seeing it.”

Farley said he suspected the show would play well at the Marin Center and it drew better than he expected, nearly selling out the 2,000-seat theater. In fact, the Center has already submitted a bid to have the Superstars come back in March of 2007. “I actually learned a lot about the different styles and culture and music from the show, which I think has a really bright future. I think he's onto something,” Farley said. “I've been doing this for a long time and I'm always looking for the next trend and what was interesting was that the audience was all ages, all cultures, men and women, lots of young people and they all really connected with the artists.”

In addition to the surprisingly strong turn out – which has ranged from near sell-outs at 2,000-seat performing arts centers to multiple night sell-outs in 400- to 500-seat rooms since the tour kicked off in late January – Copeland said solid merchandising revenue has helped keep ticket prices low and salaries paid. “This community buys programs, DVDs, CDs, hip scarves, everything,” he said. “We do better on a per head basis than any dance group in the world. I'd say a minimum of $10 a head and we've had shows where one woman spent $900.”

While the audience for the hour-and-45-minute show tends to be 70 percent female, mostly over 20 and averaging 35, Copeland said he's seeing more husbands, young daughters and families attending. “We're the only troupe like this in the world and we're proving that this art form has legs,” he said.

Interviewed for this story: Miles Copeland (323) 512-4095; Jim Farley (415) 499-6400