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Michelle performing at a private party
Gilded Serpent presents...
How to Charge What You Are Worth
by Michelle Joyce

American belly dancers are at a distinct cultural disadvantage when it comes to negotiating price.  In the Middle East the price of everything is negotiable and it is not seen as an insult to present a counter-offer.  A Middle Eastern customer who calls you for a private party will have a lifetime of practice negotiating, while the dancer may be new to the process.

To American dancers, negotiating can be very intimidating.  Though our negotiation skills tend to get better with practice, I know of many seasoned professionals who still crumble when the customer applies a bit of pressure (you know who you are!). 

The first step to becoming an effective negotiator is to emotionally detach yourself from the outcome.  If you can’t walk away from the deal, you have already lost.

Start to view the negotiation process as a sport.  And YOU have the advantage because THEY are the ones who need your services.

Before going into specific negotiation techniques, let’s look at the reasons why dancers reduce their prices:

“But I really need the money.” This is a common one and we have all been there.  Of course, it is better to get more money for a job, but isn’t something better than nothing?  I have been guilty of this way of thinking at many times in my life. 

Experience has taught me that gigs taken out of desperation tend to end up being disasters.

  If I don’t command respect and dignity in the negotiation process, I am not likely to receive it at the performance.  Sadly, many dancers put up with horrible abuse because they need the money.  Bad gigs breed more bad gigs, and will make you hate dancing for money. 

“But there are too many dancers who will undercut me.” Yes, this one is true everywhere. 

I don’t see undercutters as a threat. 

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Summer performing at a wedding. This is exactly the sort of shot that should go next to your price list.

Michelle and Summer
Just because there is more than one dancer doesn't mean each dancer should get less. Dancing with others takes more preparation and each dancer should get the full, professional rate.

Even though this was Whitney's second private party, she still charged the full professional rate.

Sandra is the life of the party

Michelle at a private party

People who undercut are just helping to establish that there are two tiers of dancers: the professionals, and the non-professionals.  If your potential customer is concerned with quality in the least, they can easily be steered away from hiring a non-professional.

Now let’s have a look at some common negotiation strategies:

  • The ticking clock –  This one is appropriate for people who want to think about it and call you back later.  You don’t want to overtly apply pressure, but you should make it clear that you cannot tentatively put them on your calendar while they call around to get quotes for other dancers.  I usually say that I have another inquiry for that night and that they should get the contract back to me before I am all booked up. 
  • Appeal to higher authority – Pretend that you don’t have the authority to lower the price.  I have sometimes said that my husband would kill me if I performed for less (this works best with men).  Sandra sometimes says “the other dancers would string me up if they knew I was dancing for that amount.”
  • Buyer beware – This is a tricky one because you don’t want to sound like a jerk, but you want to warn them that all dancers are not equal.  You get what you pay for.  No need to beat them over the head with this one, just subtly mention it and move on.
  • Beware of the “nibbler” – This is a common tactic that the customer may use.  It is when someone adds terms to the deal once you have already reached an agreement.  For example, once you are booked for a party the customer may add “and you will do a costume change, right?”  Sometimes this will happen at the event itself.  Having a very specific contract will help with this.
  • Never let them know exactly how much work you get.  I always wonder why dancers put private parties on their online calendars.  That takes the advantage away when you are negotiating.  You always want the customer to think that you are booked to maximum capacity and that they are lucky to get you for their event.  If they know that you only do one private party a month, then they know they have the advantage because you are not in high demand.
  • Check the price list – I have my prices posted on my website, which helps to weed out calls from people who aren’t willing to at least consider the price range (I believe Zari was the first dancer in the San Francisco area to do this).  If I am leaving a voicemail for a potential customer, I always leave my website address and suggest that they have a look at the price list and other information about making the booking before calling me back.  Of course, right next to your online price list should be a bunch of fantastic photos of you with happy customers.  Having a nice website is a VERY important tool. 

Sometimes I get calls from people who haven’t seen the price list and I get some very interesting reactions when I give them a quote.  Below are some of the most common ones.  When you are confronted with these reactions to your price, it is best to say as little as possible.  Don’t engage the customer in a long explanation about this-and-that, simply say your price and then be silent. No need to get defensive, just stick to your talking points. 

If you talk too much you will sound desperate.

As I said before, you should always be willing to walk away from the deal. If the conversations starts going round in circles go ahead and calmly suggest that they start calling other dancers.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been ready to hang up the phone when the customer agrees to my price at the last minute.  If you aren’t serious about your price, a skilled negotiator will call your bluff.

Customer reaction #1 – “Oh my God!  That is too much!  Can’t you do it for less?”

My response: “I am booked out every weekend and I have the luxury of only accepting shows from clients that are willing to pay my full price.  I sympathize, but someone else will pay full price for that time slot.”

Customer reaction #2 – “But you will get many tips.”

My response: “Yes, the price takes that into consideration.”  Whoever speaks next loses.

Customer reaction  #3 – “This will be good exposure for you.”

I have heard this a million times and it is equally true of all shows.  In the end, if their friends like the show they will ask the host how much you charged and you will be stuck doing a series of cheap shows.  Wouldn’t you rather do a series of shows at your full price?  I just say, “Wow, that sounds like a lot of fun.  But I still can’t change my price.”

Customer reaction #4 – “But we are already spending so much just to make the party happen, we can’t afford to pay you that.”

This one is the most insulting. You can imagine how my blood starts boiling when I pull up to the house and realize that they must have spent thousands on the event when I have given them a substantial discount.  If they are spending money to hire a DJ and a caterer, chances are that you are the cheapest service provider at the party.

Customer reaction #5 – “What if you danced for 10 minutes less? How much would that be?” (aka: “But that is $10 per minute!”)  

My reaction: “The price is the same for any show between 25-45 minutes”. The reality is that they aren’t paying for a 30-minute show, they are paying for your primping time and travel time also.  What seems like a 30-minute show to them actually represents around 2 hours of travel time, primping, burning the CD, etc.  Not to mention the fact that you have paid for years of dance lessons, a professional costume, and professional make-up. 

Customer reaction #6 – “Don’t you know anyone cheaper?”

This is my favorite because I give them the number for my dance partner, Sandra.  I have her on speed dial, so I can always get her on the phone before the customer can.  She will always quote the exact same price, and if they ask her for a referral she will send them to someone on her speed dial, and so on. 

Sandra calls this “the ring of fire”.

Customer reaction #7 – “I just talked to a dancer who said she would do it for $100.”

My response: “Yes, I am one of the most expensive dancers in this area.  If price is your only consideration, you should hire that dancer.”   Seriously.  Don’t say anything more.

Customer reaction #8 “It is a small party, just for friends.”

I hear this one all the time also.  They are paying for your time.  If your audience is small it means you will make less in tips. 

When is it okay to lower your price?  The answer to this question is simple: when YOU want to.  Giving discounts to non-profits, students, and friends-of-friends is totally appropriate when you are in control of the negotiation.  Sometimes, if I am already in my costume and nearby I may do a show for a discounted price because it is much less work than a normal show.  But, lowering your price out of desperation or because you are feeling bullied is always a bad idea. 

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