Samir breaks taboo, becoming first gay star in Bellydance Superstars’ “Bombay Bellywood”

SAN DIEGO – When you think of belly dancing and Bollywood, you certainly don’t think of gay men in a starring role.

Samir shatters that myth – and sets the record straight, so to speak.

“I am not a belly dancer per se,” Samir said, noting that he fuses ballet, jazz, Persian dance and other classical dance moves into his performance in Bellydance Superstars’ “Bombay Bellywood.” The high-energy dance program, crafted along the lines of a “Stomp” or a “Riverdance,” will be staged at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 3, at Balboa Theatre downtown.

Samir, aka Arthur Gulkarov, is the only male in the large cast of dancers. The Bellydance Superstars are touring the world, showcasing the art form of the belly dance and pushing its boundaries to greater heights. The show has been performed more than 700 times and in 22 countries.

The cast also features San Diego native Kami Liddle.

Samir was previously a principal in the Las Vegas Cirque de Soleil production of “O.”

“I came to the audition for ‘Bombay Bellywood’ and I was the only guy to show,” he said. “I said to myself, oh my God, what did I get myself into?”

Not only was he cast into the all-female show, but he also is featured in two of the acts. One is the “Peacock and Snake” act, featuring Samir and the female dancers. The other is a third-act solo dance accompanied by percussionist Issam Houshan.

Samir says his dancing style, which is neither masculine nor feminine, causes some confusion with some dance critics around the world. He says some aren’t even sure if Samir is male or female.

“I am not a drag queen,” he emphasizes. “I don’t wear high heels and a wig.”

Despite the androgynous appearance, Samir says he always gets a positive reaction from critics and audience members.

“When I got out on stage, I give them a look,” he said. “That is the moment that I capture the audience.”

Samir is openly gay, but not always. He grew up in Dushanbe, the capital city of Tijikistan, formerly part of the USSR. The mountainous, landlocked nation in central Asia borders Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China.

During his youth, Samir enjoyed the good life in Tijikistan. His mother, Malika Kalantarova, was a famous folk dancer in Tajikistan and the Soviet Union who held the coveted award Official Artist of the USSR. His father, Iskhak Gulkarov, was a well-known musician who plays on the doira, a Tajik instrument.

Many Tijik people are of Persian (Iranian) heritage, and so are Samir and his parents. “We are Persian Jews,” he said, adding that they are also Russian speakers.

Samir was deep in the closet growing up in Dushanbe. “I never have been a very masculine guy,” he said, adding that he hid his sexual orientation even from his parents.

He embraced dancing as a youngster, and developed a reputation internationally. At age 10, he represented Tijikistan and the USSR at a world culture festival in Israel.

But the fall of the Soviet Union meant independence for Tijikistan, and a civil war erupted within the country, lasting from 1992 to 1997.

“We became refugees from the civil war,” Samir said. In 1993, the family fled to the United States, and settled in New York City. “Thank God for America!” he added with considerable emotion.

Living in America also brought a newfound freedom, and Samir was able to embrace his homosexuality.

“I wasn’t allowed to be myself in a country like that,” he said of Tijikistan. “But here in America, I can be me.”

Samir is an emotional guy, and he encourages young people who are fearful of admitting who they are to come clean with their family and friends.

“To every gay kid in the closet, do not kill yourself,” he said with a lot of emotion in his voice. “Be yourself. Love yourself.

“I came from an old-fashioned culture,” Samir said. “I always knew I was gay as a kid. I was called gay, called a girl. I was feminine in my ways. … I hid my true self while growing up. It’s not healthy.”

Coming out did not go so well with his family, however.

“My Mom is still not accepting that I’m gay,” Samir said. “It was shocking to my parents when I came out. My Mom is a celebrity in her own right. She says it is embarrassing to her.”

Friends vanished at first. “Little by little, people are coming back into my life,” he said.

Yet, Samir has no regrets. He says coming out has not harmed his show-biz career. “There is no prejudice in the dance world,” he said.

“If you are already gay, from the beginning, it doesn’t matter,” Samir said. “It seems to only matter when you come out after you have already become a star.”

Samir acknowledges that he has never been in a long-term relationship.

“I have a strong personality,” he said. “I am very confident. I know what I want. That scares people.”

Samir said he usually gets bored after dating someone for a few weeks.

“I’ve just never found somebody I clicked with.”

If you go

Tickets are $30, $40 and $50 at www.SDBalboa.org.

Balboa Theatre is at 868 Fourth Ave., San Diego. (619/760/858) 570-1100.

Paid parking available in the NBC Building Garage at 225 Broadway. Enter Broadway Circle from Second Avenue and Broadway; to garage entrance down-ramp on the left, directly across from the Levi’s store.

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