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Thursday, March 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Bellydancers shimmy their way to stardom ... and Benaroya Hall

Special to The Seattle Times

Mention bellydancing to most people and they think they know what it is: a zaftig, not very athletic woman lazily gyrating to strange music full of microtones and additive rhythms. The venue is more likely than not to be a cabaret or restaurant and the dancer plays second fiddle to drinking, eating and talking.

Miles Copeland is out to change that. In 2003 the founder of I.R.S. records and manager of the Police and Sting formed the luminous touring company Bellydance Superstars & Desert Roses, which will bring its extravagant show to Benaroya Hall on Saturday.

His idea of a "Riverdance"-style bellydance spectacular met with immediate success, playing Lollapalooza in '03. Since then they have performed all over the world, including runs at the Folies Bergère in Paris and the Monte Carlo Casino in Monaco.

A second troupe is forming; there is a documentary, "American Bellydancer," about the group (financed by Copeland); there are performance and instructional videos, CDs, and other merchandise available under the Bellydance Superstars brand.

"The Bellydance Superstars have taken bellydance out of the cabaret and put it onto the big stage, where it can be perceived by a wider audience as the art form that it is," says Katia Sahar, Seattle-based professional bellydancer and member of Fleurs d'Egypte Dance Co.

Her troupemate and three-time national dance-title winner Nadira agrees: "The Bellydance Superstars have done a lot to place a spotlight on this dance form. They have brought a widespread awareness to it that didn't exist before."

This showbiz approach to what was once almost a secret sisterhood is not without controversy in the Middle Eastern sector of the dance world.

Coming up

Bellydance Superstars & Desert Roses

8 p.m. Saturday at Benaroya Hall. Tickets: $25 at Information: Workshop with Jillina; for workshop information:

Bellydancers like to talk about how inclusive a dance form it is, meaning you can even be a woman of a certain age, with hard-earned wrinkles and flab, and not be hooted off the stage. Some of the buzz is that the Superstars are just too young, too thin and too beautiful to possibly have the soul of a more mature dancer.

The Superstars are indeed lithe, gorgeous and young. They are also intimidatingly technically skilled and ferociously good performers. Perhaps they are lacking the liquefaction-style shimmying that is seen in longtime accomplished dancers, but the boost they've given to bellydancing's street cred among "legitimate, serious" dance aficionados more than makes up for it.

Bellydance traditionally has been considered the visual embodiment of the music. A magical synergy can occur between dancer and musicians that is admittedly missing from performance to recorded music — which is largely what the "Superstars" shows are.

To compensate, Jillina, artistic director and main choreographer for the troupe, is a master at closely interpreting the music with intricate, entertaining movements.

This incarnation of the show, titled "Raqs Carnivale," includes bellydancing on stilts, as well as the always popular sinuosity of American Tribal and Latin- and Polynesian-influenced numbers, including a dance to reggaeton/Arabic fusion.

Add some whirling (think dervishes), some acrobatics, and a piece performed with big transparent "Isis" wings and there's something there to delight enthusiast and layman alike.

Mary Woodring has been dancing since 1974 and lives in Seattle:

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




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