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Don't go to tonight's Bellydance Superstars performance at Playhouse Square with your mind in the gutter, says Miles Copeland, who created the troupe. Rather, think of the exotically clad, salaciously gyrating women onstage as an ensemble like Riverdance, bringing a little taste of ethnic culture to America's heartland. "It's sort of sexy, but it's wholesome," says Copeland. "It's like looking at Vogue magazine — you don't feel embarrassed, looking at it. It isn't Playboy. This celebrates women."

We'll trust Copeland's opinion and instinct — they've served him well over the past 30 years. He managed the Police (his brother, Stewart, was the band's drummer), founded I.R.S. Records (which was one of the '80s most reliable labels, with a roster that included R.E.M. and the Go-Go's), and helped shape Sting's solo career. In fact, the belly-dance idea grew out of Sting's Middle East-accented 1999 song "Desert Rose." "We were told it would never get on American radio, because it started out in Arabic," says Copeland. "It became his biggest hit in 15 years."

The subsequent video and tour both featured belly dancers. Copeland formed the troupe a few years later, launching it at various Lollapalooza stops in 2003. Within two years, it embarked on its own world tour, playing legendary venues like Paris' Folies Bergere. But that's about it for cultural legitimacy. The Bellydance Superstars — which includes a revolving group of dancers — doesn't contain one Arabic performer. "I don't give a damn about authentic," says Copeland. "The best belly dancers in the world live in America. It's been adopted by women here as an art form, for and about women."

The plan, says Copeland, is to keep the group on the road with a fresh production every year. The troupe's latest show, Raqs Carnivale, features more than a dozen women onstage with a live percussionist (all the other music is recorded). "It's like Riverdance, or the ballet," says Copeland. "That's what we're going for."
Sat., March 11, 8 p.m.

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