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Bellydance Biz, Finding Musicians, Certification

Yasmina dreams

Ask Yasmina, #10

by Yasmina Ramzy
posted November 3, 2009

Question #1:What do you find is the most profitable part of the business of Bellydance? Selling merchandise? The academy? Teaching workshops? Performing? What is the most rewarding for you?

Answer:I am not sure I am the best person to answer these kinds of questions. I am REALLY bad at business and embarrassed to attempt answering as I have a very small grasp of what it is about. I am sure if you look closely at my record, you will conclude that it is a miracle that Arabesque and I are still around. But I guess I am lucky as I have made all of my income solely as a Bellydancer for 28 years. The most rewarding part of my career is creating choreography for Arabesque, my beloved baby, as well as other dance ensembles, amateur or pro, Bellydance or otherwise. I absolutely adore creating choreography and the fountain of ideas and inspiration never stops – even at 4am. I had a wonderful experience setting choreography for the Bellydance Superstars earlier this year. However, considering the number of hours that I put in for the choreography process, which includes rehearsing, it is probably the least return financially unless I am commissioned. (Miles Copeland paid me a good mainstream industry rate). That being said, I would even give up all my assets and savings (which I have done) in order to have good dancers to set choreography on because I enjoy it so much.

Concerning ventures such as selling merchandise, the academy, teaching workshops abroad and performing, each have had their turn at being the most profitable aspect of my business.

When I first started in 1981, I made all the money I needed and then some extra for fancy cars and designer clothes just by dancing in Arab night clubs and weddings (in Canada and Middle East). The only overhead I had was keeping a good collection of costumes – approximately 20 at any given time which were sold and traded in for new ones every 6 months. Those days are over for me. I am too old for this kind of commercial career that demands a young and shapely aesthetic and where there was once only a handful, there are now thousands of awesome dancers all over the globe. The competition would be fierce

Teaching became the next source of income. For a while, I could not keep up with the demand – that was when Arabesque was almost the only Bellydance school in town. Eventually competition landed on the doorstep and is still here and always in a flux of growing and waning. This demands much of the profits to be used for marketing which was never an issue previously so teaching workshops abroad became the major source of income and, in fact, paid the rent for the academy and company. Part of this income was merchandise revenue at the workshops. Just when I figured out video, DVD and CD sales were our most profitable venture because of the mark up and decided to rely on this, then the market was flooded with DVDs and CDs and many times were sold at a third of the price they were originally. Similarly the same can be said for workshops as well to a certain extent. Teaching workshops can be a good venture as it does not demand any overhead. However, in my case, I have had to make a choice between staying at home and building Arabesque or being on the road. It is very lonely on the road. One of the original reasons I created a dance company was so I did not have to perform alone anymore. That is where it is at for me in the “business of Bellydance”. I have no idea what to do next.

I’m very sorry that I have no great business advice except to advise you to keep doing whatever aspect it is that you love because it makes you happy. You are usually good at what you love and if you are good, then others will want to be part of your world and they might actually pay to do so in one way or another….and then you can pay the bills while being happy. If you want to make money, I highly recommend asking someone else for advice.

Village musiciansQuestion #2: Do you have any advice for finding musicians to work with in a smaller city? Would you attempt, as a dancer, to "train" musicians who play the appropriate instruments but have never played with dancers? I find musicians can have a hard time accepting that they are not completely running the show and that it can be a partnership. 

Answer: It is a partnership in terms of sharing artistic talent while working together. However, I am not a musician and would therefore never assume to tell a musician how to do his or her job just as I would never listen to a musician explain to me how to demonstrate a hip kick or create choreography. Only a more accomplished musician can “train” another musician. Perhaps you are referring to the cues dancers and musicians give each other in an improvised performance format. You may have learned some of these methods and wish to share them with the local musician(s) in question.

All I can say in this case is that a student searches for a teacher. Teachers can only teach those who are looking to learn.

It sounds like you may not have great resources for musicians but all you can do is respect and work with what is offered to you and hope the musician(s) is inspired to learn more one day. That being said, I am sure you could inspire the musician(s) to seek out the approriate teacher or lessons and/or ask you for advice. You can drop hints about the exciting things to learn out there perhaps by showing a video clip.

Try never to let an artist feel they are inadequate.

Instead, get them excited about other possibilties and new horizons and all the cool stuff you can do together if… In other words, it is all in the approach.

Question #3: Certification, it is everywhere lately. Do you believe this is a good path for the art form?

Badia Star of CanadaAnswer: This seems to be the question of the year. I am thinking the subject of certification would be a great panel discussion for the upcoming conference (IBCC). It makes me remember that fabulous Australian movie I adore called “Strictly Ballroom” where the point of contention was “proper steps” versus “new steps”. The movie was more about standardization as opposed certification but I do believe there is a relationship as one can lead to the other.

One day back in the late 80’s a “dancer” turned up on my doorstep looking for work with a letter from the night club in the Hyatt Regency in Cairo signed by the manager stating that she had performed there. (In the 80’s, almost all the hotels in Cairo had a major full time working nightclub featuring every night a well-known Bellydancer and a singer each with their own orchestras – at one point that included my Canadian Bellydance idol Badia Star). She called this letter a certificate and gave the impression it was very important and really meant something. I thought it was kind of strange that such a letter was ever created but not listening to my gut and in my naivety, I believed she had actually performed with the usual 20 piece band to a discerning Egyptian audience after being auditioned and approved by the signing manager. It also never occurred to me it might have been a one time show. I had assumed the letter meant something like a 3 month contract at least, much like I used to work under in the Middle East. So without auditioning her myself, I sent “the dancer” off to perform in an Arab Night Club with live musicians.

Wow, what a disaster. Quite strong and derogatory language was used when the club owner yelled at me. Turns out, this letter practice was a way to get money out of Bellydance tourists back in late 80’s. This experience has made me very wary ever since of people with certificates.

I think there is a huge difference between a certificate for simply attending a course or workshop and a certificate for passing a thorough testing and exam process. As for the first, think of it this way; if your neurosurgeon was given his or her credentials based on enrolling in a university instead of demonstrating proven capabilities in major surgery, then you would be in pretty dangerous hands. It seems though, that a certification process based on comprehensive testing and auditioning would help further the quality and general caliber of the art form and the effectiveness of its teachers. I am wholeheartedly for this obviously. However, there is a part of me that cringes at such a prospect only because of the nature of our art form and indeed all Arab art. For example, standardized Ballroom Samba and Salsa is a far cry from the real thing.

I personally have always been the kind of teacher who believed it was detrimental and stunting to the growth of a student to teach them a completed choreography let alone an identifiable curriculum. Needless to say, I have had many irritated and disappointed students. However, I do believe that for the many students who managed to bare the irritation, I have helped speed up the process for them to become their own artist without need of a teacher or someone else’s choreography.

Perhaps certification is a double edged sword. I do insist on an audition in the application process to attend my Pro Course. So many times it is the ones who tell me they have studied with so and so and taken such and such a course who are the ones I have to turn away as they are not ready for the course. Then another girl will be a perfect candidate for the course after having learned Bellydance from Youtube and of course some kind of previous dance training not necessarily Bellydance.

In other words, the proof is in the pudding, not in the certificate.

Many students keep asking me these days for certificates. I will sign a letter for them stating that they attended the course if they need it and ask. My opinion about whether they passed the course or what grade I should award them will be revealed to them at their next performance when the audience reacts or when they start getting requested more and more for great gigs or not. Obviously, one type of validation is if and when I ask them to join the company or the agency or teach for the school. The senior teachers at Arabesque and myself are currently undergoing a renovation of our curriculum that has not changed in 10 years. We call it the Arabesque Black Book and only Arabesque teachers who trained at Arabesque have access to this book. It helps the teachers stay the course and keep within the same frame of difficulty for each designated level. That way any teacher can replace another teacher at any time and the student will feel nothing except a personality change. We keep this book very secret because we believe that it is detrimental to the development of an artist to have a check list of steps.

There are some teachers out there that I highly respect and if someone were to say to me that they passed some kind of exam to get a certificate of some kind from one of these teachers, I would believe that they have received and absorbed some great training. However, before I send them out to perform in an Arab Night Club, I would still audition them. In conclusion, I am on the fence about this one. I see pros and cons and can not wait for the debate at the conference in April.

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  1. Tracy

    Nov 4, 2009 - 01:11:06

    Great to see such thoughtful writing on the subject of certification. It strikes me that there are so many “schools of thought” on the subject of bellydance that I don’t see how any particular certification is useful. For example, Well Known Dancer X certifies Student A. Student A moves to another city and wants a job at the local hookah lounge and gives her certificate to Local Dancer Y. If Y is not a fan of X’s style, what has that bought the student? Nothing, except perhaps rejection out of hand. Better that the student simply auditions for the job and lets Y draw her own conclusions.

    I suspect those most likely to be impressed by certificates are the new-student-public, who see a certificate on a dancer’s web site and are therefore more comfortable thinking of her as “well trained.”

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