author preps for the next shot
Photos by Michael Baxter
Gilded Serpent presents...
How We Got our Video Groove On
by Zari

The San Francisco Bay Area is a funny place to be a “sequin soloist”.

Although you can’t throw a rock without hitting a belly dancer, chances are she’s tribal. The tribal scene is flourishing, and the best tribal dancers in the United States are connected to the area. If you don’t belong to that scene, sometimes you get a little jealous. Non-tribal dancers want a social life too!

Sadly, work tends to get in the way of this laudable ambition since the work we do is generally solo, and involves running from place to place in order to make a living. Some venues feature two or more dancers in the same night, but by the time Dancer B arrives you’re already off to the next gig someplace else. We like one another, but scheduling constraints make it hard to coordinate facetime and, of course, chances for group activities are rare.

Due to the demands of soloists’ hectic weekend schedules, we can be found yapping on our cellphones between gigs, emailing YouTube clips to each other at 3:00 am after a night of shows, or surfing each other’s websites. When we can find time to visit one another in person, it’s like a slumber party. 

This is how it started: all of us were complaining that we wanted a DVD. I would be chatting on the phone with Michelle or Zaheea or Nanna. Whoever it was, at some point in the conversation, someone would exclaim “I want a DVD. Why don’t we do a DVD? We should all do a DVD together!” This idea would then be talked about as though it had never occurred to either of us before. I think the reason that it took so long to move to the next stage is that making a video seems pretty daunting.

Ultimately however, it seemed that getting a video is like getting a gig: sometimes, you have to create your own opportunities. Like creating your own venues, the beauty of making your own video is the prospect of creative control. No being filmed through a drum head! No pyramids or seagulls inserted in the foreground by editors with bizarre taste! No upskirt shots! Oh, the very idea was sublime.

But how to go about this? With an optimistic attitude, I decided to look into producing a DVD. Armed with samples of the Bellydance Superstars, the PeKo videos, the Natural Journeys series, and the videos of World Dance New York, I approach a “real” production facility. “I would like to know how much it would cost to produce a video like this,” I tell them. It couldn’t be too much, right?

A Lesson in Economics
A few days later, the estimate arrives, outlining the costs per day. Stage rental, $1000. Power usage, $100. Three cameras with tripod, $1,500. Audio, $450.00. DVD replication with cases and labels, $5330. And so forth.

Bottom line? The estimated total to produce 1,000 copies of a DVD of quality similar to the samples was $30,887.06. Not including video editing.

After conferring with the production studio, I give up a lot of my requests. The shooting time is reduced by 50%. I switch to the smallest possible shooting stage, promise to provide a volunteer sound technician, and remove all extra line items -- including one of the three cameras. The stripped down production will not be able to capture any long shots of traveling steps, and still the costs to produce a thousand DVDs are estimated at $17,182.06.

Meanwhile, Shira provides some interesting info when queried on Tribe: “An instructional video that gets favorable word-of-mouth buzz might be able to sell about 300 copies the first year. A performance video that gets favorable word of mouth might be more like 100 copies.”

Trying to remain optimistic, I call on the power of visualization. Unfortunately I have trouble envisioning the belly dance community shelling out $171.82 per copy to see my DVD. I forward these messages to my friends who have expressed interest, then eat a giant bowl of ice cream to console myself.

One day in 2006, a message arrives in my email inbox from Michelle Joyce:

Subject:  Hey, let's make a belly dance DVD
I think that I have talked with all of you at some point about making a DVD, but the cost and the many details prevented it from ever happening.  Well, the time is now! My husband is a TV producer and has lots of professional editors and cameramen for friends. These are REAL professionals with actual jobs in TV (not some Arabic guy who cleans carpets for a living but also makes movies, wherein he envisions you dancing in front of the ocean or something)…
There will still be some expenses (renting a crane, renting studio space, the packaging and duplication of DVDs). Here are the things that we need to sort out:  What is the compensation for the dancers?  What sort of financial arrangement seems fair?   Where will we film it?  Who has done research already?  I think it would be fun to perform on a stage somewhere with great lighting options.    

Well now! This sounds interesting. I send back a message of interest, along with some odds and ends of information that I have acquired in my research. Then with my fingers crossed, I hope that the project somehow manages to come together, although I can’t imagine how it might work. The next morning, I receive another email.  

Subject: DVD updates
Hello Lovely Belly Dancers,
I have talked with several of you and have decided to take sort of a different approach to this project.  The philosophy will be that everyone donates their time and resources, and everyone has equal rights to reproduce and distribute the video.

As it turns out, Michelle is the perfect person to coordinate this project – far better than I would have been. Gifted with boundless energy, a supportive husband, and advanced degrees in psychology, she somehow manages to wrangle everyone into being in the right place at the right time with grace and charm.   With a skeleton crew, we quickly realize that everyone on the cast needs to pitch in and help. Allocated a puny shooting budget of $500 (contributed from money the Joyce family had earmarked for down payment on a house), we roll up our sleeves and get to work….   ·       

  • Location -Sandra is on it! Magically producing a Moroccan temple from thin air, we are amazed by its dome ceilings, theatrical stage, beautiful tilework and multiple fountains.
  • Camera crew - Michelle’s husband is drafted last-minute, when one of the camera men suffers an emergency family situation.
  • Video editing- Post-shoot, Michelle logs 160 hours in front of the computer before giving up on tracking her time, declaring that she’d “rather not know.”
  • Promotional materials Check. Zaheea produces several website designs to choose from, and also creates postcards and flyers.
  • Sandra designs the box-cover.

Things just keep coming together... and at every possible problem, one of us is there to help out.

In an interesting twist, once we have begun to work on our own project, other things start to happen as well – Mira Betz and Sandra are both tapped for PeKo videos in Hollywood, and IAMED contacts Michelle regarding possible dance slots in an upcoming show. Two of the dancers will be dancing in Turkey during the proposed weekend. Another will be in teaching workshops out-of-state. And Zaheea has begun work as a field archaeologist, which requires that she stay onsite at digs. Are we ever all in town at once, I wonder?
Although the shoot is originally set for summer 2006, it becomes necessary to push it back until fall, and then till after the holiday season. Time flies, and suddenly it’s 2007.  

January 1, 2007. 1:33 pm
michelle joyce
Subject: DVD filming  
The dancers who are confirmed for the DVD shoot on Sunday, January 21 are me, Zari, Luna, Nanna, Sandra, Mira and Zaheea.  I am so excited about this powerhouse lineup!!
  What to expect at the shoot: Each dancer will be performing for about 6 minutes.  We will each dance through our set twice (back to back)... but if you feel you need to do it a third time, that is okay.  There will be 2 cameras there, so the first time they will be filming a wide angle, the second time they will be shooting close ups and medium shots.  

“Huh,” I say. “I guess it’s really going to happen!”    

…To Be Continued

Michelle and her husband

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
1-13-05 The Grand International Bellydance Tour or How We Fled India at Midnight, Eluding Our Captors and Evading our Go-Go-Dance Responsibilities. or What Would Fifi Do? by Michelle and Sandra. ...
It may not have been such a problem for us had the prostitutes not been posing as bellydancers!

2-5-07 Tips on Getting Tips by Zaheea
Some audiences don’t know that they are expected to tip. Don’t take it personally.

3-9-03 The Joy (and Pain) of Collecting Tips by Sandra
I've been collecting tips for almost 10 years now, and it's only in the last 2 or 3 years that I've really felt confident about it.

10-24-06 Adventures in Turkey 2006 by Michelle Joyce, photos by Michael Baxter
I am not exaggerating when I say that Sandra actually threw herself into Bella's arms and wept when she first laid eyes on her. 

7-27-05 Calling all professional dancers! How much do you charge? by Nanna Candelaria
Over the years, we dancers have unwittingly kept the general rate ridiculously low in restaurants and nightclubs.

4-18-07 Antique Textiles: Renewed Life for Dance by Najia Marlyz
In fact, we often danced for many little luncheon gigs in offices and other places as a surprise birthday gift—to the music of our own solo sagat. Now, that is a skill that I have never seen anyone repeat since the early seventies!

4-17-07 A Marriage Made in North Beach by Amina Goodyear
The stage was alight with the flames of the candelabrum’s candles and the eerie glow of her costume. Fatma’s costumes were always comprised of material that glowed in the dark as her show began with no light—except for “black light”.

4-17-07 Finger Cymbals by Melina of Daughters of Rhea
Above all this cross-cultural cacophony soared my mom’s perfectly paced zills, right left right, right left right, right left right left right left right. If you put me in a room blindfolded, I could distinguish her playing from any other dancer on earth.

4-14-07 Randa Kamal in Cairo The Photos of Susie Poulelis
I was fortunate to travel to Cairo on business in April '06, and managed to take some time to see a few sights and, at least, one dance performance: Randa Kamal at the Marriot Zamelek's Empress Nightclub



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