The Gilded Serpent

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Professional vs. Amateur:
What is the Difference?
by Nisima

All through my 15 plus years of belly dancing, I have observed the wide range of opinions on two categories of dancers: “professional" vs. "amateur”. Early on, the differences were clear: you were considered a “professional” belly dancer if you made your living at it; you were considered an “amateur” if you performed for free or not at all, and that was that! "Professional" dancers were by definition considered to be proficient in their technique and polished in stage presence and costuming, while the beginning dancer who probably did not have much performance experience “under her belt”, so to speak, was considered an "amateur"! Yet, there were plenty of very, very beginner dancers who were working at clubs or restaurants and plenty of very, very skilled “amateurs” who performed unpaid at events and contests. There are dancers of every gradation in between the two labels of “professional” and “amateur”: dancers who work at dance jobs intermittently, or have part time jobs in addition to regular performances.

It is long since time we shed these two narrow labels and look to redefine dancers by artistic standards and skill rather than by whether they are paid or unpaid.

Personally, I performed both as a solo working dancer in clubs and restaurants and as an amateur with troupes, at fund-raisers, etc. I found there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to each type of performing. “Working” dancers do develop a high level of technical skills, polished stage presence and fantastic improvisational dance ability, but can also get quickly jaded with the same music and feel trapped in their same choreography. “Amateur” dancers may not be as polished in their technical skills, but bring a raw vitality to their performance that is very engaging to an audience, because they have the flexibility to keep attending classes and workshops and keep growing in their dance. In between my “working” stints at various clubs and restaurants in the Bay Area, I always returned to classes; I thought of it as “rejuvenating” my dance art. Plus, a working dancer needs to repair those costumes some time!

Another important aspect of the term “professional” is that it evokes an expectation of high standards of conduct, as well as skill, in any given profession.

Here are a few standards that relate specifically to belly dancers performing in whatever venue they choose:
1. Keeping commitments, and on time. Dancers who are consistently late for performances, rehearsals, or who cancel at the last minute quickly become known as unreliable; who wants that reputation?!

2. Choosing costuming which is flattering to body type and appropriate for the performing environment. Dancers should avail themselves of guidance from teachers, directors and other more experienced dancers, as well as books and articles on the Internet to avoid a “bad” costume choice. If another dancer offers you a tip about your costume, LISTEN to her! There is no reason whatsoever that every single dancer, of every body type, weight and age who wants to perform publicly, paid or not, should not be encouraged to do so! But we need to be supportive of all performers by helping them present themselves appropriately, with choreography also appropriate to their skill level.

3. Remember that whatever style of dance you choose to perform, belly dance is in essence family entertainment. Authenticity is not the issue here. For the sake of theatrical interpretations, choreography “inspired” by an authentic Middle Eastern dance leaves plenty of room for artistic license, but there is no excuse for sleaze, bad taste and shock techniques in performance as a way of getting notoriety for any dancer or group of dancers.

4. At all times when visible on stage, stay in dance character! An experienced performer knows that keeping a dance posture, appropriate facial expressions and polished stage presence during lulls in the music avoids jarring the audience with non-dance type body posture and expressions that distract and then detract from the overall performance quality.

Belly dancing, as oriental dance is known here in the West, has over time evolved and borrowed from many other more classical Western dance forms; that’s healthy. However, it still does not have the layers of structure inherent in those more traditional dance forms. Perhaps that is part of its charm; Najia once called it “the charming beggar”. But we can all benefit and grow as dancers if we decide that it is more important to ascribe to artistic standards and performing ethics rather than limit ourselves to a couple of terms that describe what is someone’s profession as opposed to their experience of oriental dance.

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