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Sandra collecting tips at Pasha

The Gilded Serpent presents...
The Joy (and Pain) of Collecting Tips
by Sandra

While wages for most occupations have increased steadily over the last few decades, salaries for bellydancers seem to have fallen through the floor. The dismal pay for a performance in San Francisco makes collecting tips from generous customers a necessity for most performers - and the practice is nothing new. In ancient times, single, attractive women of marriageable age but of little means would dance publicly for their dowries. Coins tossed by onlookers were then sewn to the costume of the dancer, simultaneously advertising the abilities of the dancer and the dowry to be had by any forthcoming suitor. Two thousand years later, a lot has changed, but the fundamentals are the same.

If you're trying to eke out a living by performing, you learn to count on tips. However, in today's world, tipping can be a tricky issue. Some people are comfortable with it, some are not, and many don't even know that it's appropriate (and appreciated!).

Everyone seems to think about tipping the dancer in a different way. Reactions can be as varied as the people themselves. In most places I have seen dancers perform, tips are collected in the dancer's costume. This intimate interaction - the act of putting money around the hips of an unknown woman while friends, family and a restaurant full of people watch - draws mixed emotions from both restaurant owners and dancers alike. For example, the owner of one Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco doesn't allow the bellydancers to accept tips while performing. He feels it cheapens the dancer and his restaurant, while the owner of Kan Zaman on Haight Street takes charge of the sound system to loudly encourage diners to tip the bellydancer. Pasha's has a waiter come forward to kick-off the tipping session by ceremoniously putting a dollar into the dancer's belt as an example to everyone. In restaurants or clubs where the clientele is mainly American, this gesture may be necessary to inform the audience of their option to tip. For example, a dancer at Cafe Amira now dances through the tables with an urn for collecting tips balanced on her head.

This solution was worked out after months of trying to communicate to the audience that the dancer had left the stage and was now in the audience for the purpose of collecting money. Without the urn, all the dancers received were appreciative smiles or quizzical stares.

Nanna Candelaria keeping tips in the tray
at Cafe Amira

The reaction of patrons runs the gamut as well. In restaurants where a stage is provided for the dancer, using a prop (like an urn or basket) to collect tips is an easy way to let diners know that the time to tip the bellydancer has formally begun. After a preset performance time, the dancer takes her bow, grabs her urn and heads out into the crowd. Clear enough. But in venues where the dancer is continuously performing among tables, the distinction between the performance and the post-performance cash-collection is blurred. If audience members are eager and waiting for the dancer (and this sometimes actually happens), they may be ready and waving the money around and insist on tipping during the intro. If one patron does this, it often kicks off a flurry of hands reaching for wallets during the first 5 minutes of the program. This makes putting a basket on your head at the end of the show to solicit additional tips seem a little rude or unappreciative. I usually just trust that someone, somewhere in the audience has seen bellydancing before and is willing to intrepidly get out that first dollar bill. Not infrequently, this just doesn't happen - and in such cases, the owner of Yaas, where I perform regularly, will mercifully come over and put a dollar in my hip. She and her family are my tireless supporters and they absolutely make sure that I earn at least one dollar every time I perform.

I recently read an article here in the Gilded Serpent that described the alternative tradition common in clubs on the East Coast and in the Middle East of fanning money out and throwing the cash at the dancer's feet. [ed: In Greek clubs, dollar bills are sometimes woven into a garland, which is placed around the dancer's neck.] I thought to myself - that would be wonderful. If people would just toss the money to me, I could daintily watch it flutter to the floor, and then some unfortunate employee (other than myself) could crawl around after the show and pick it up from the stage and under the tables. They could even count it for me and deliver it to me in a nice little bundle. How nice for me! No more tugging on my costume, no more wandering hands, no more glares from spouses whose husbands linger a little too long over the process.

But after considering for a while, I must say that I really prefer accepting tips in my costume. In my opinion, it gives even the most timid audience member a few seconds of interaction with the dancer.

Only the most gregarious diner will want to get up for a dance, but through tipping, shyer folks get a smile and a "thank you" and a bit of fun as well. In my experience, a trained eye will detect which nervously clenched fist is holding a dollar and which is merely empty. Once the dancer makes it clear she is heading in a diner's direction, he has just a few seconds to collect himself, quickly decide where he wants to add his dollar bill (invariably he is drawn to insert his dollar into the belt just over the hipbones, where the belt is tightest and the most difficult to get the money in) and act, and by the time the blush has crept up his neck and spread across his cheeks because the whole family is looking on while he struggles with this seemingly simple process, everyone is laughing and having a good time. When done well, it's an excellent way to engage individuals in the show - and it also gives the dancer a short break from non-stop dancing. Patrons may end up leaving the restaurant saying "what a great dancer!" simply because you were friendly and engaging.

Michelle Joyce having a good night
at Hozkhouneh

Of course, there will always be the rare and distasteful man or woman (yes, women too) who has no idea of what is appropriate behavior in a family restaurant or public place. We've all met at least one - the fingers a little too low down the front of the belt, a little off-target trying to put a dollar in the bra. I wish they were one in a million, but in my experience, they are closer to one in 50.

If I feel uncomfortable, I just give up the dollar in favor of twisting away and sparing the embarrassment to myself and everyone watching.

My teacher tried to prepare me for everything. She taught me how to dance, how to make a costume, how to get a gig, how to talk to Middle Eastern restaurant owners, and how to collect tips. I still call her to complain and rant when I have a bad night, and she listens sympathetically because she's seen it all before and almost nothing bad that happens is actually new. 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. It is a skill unto itself, nearly as complicated in other ways as learning the dance. But with practice and a little confidence it can be an engaging, friendly, playful and often the most entertaining part of a performance, if you don't mind having your bare stomach scraped with folded dollars!

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