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Establishing Yourself as a Professional, Part 2

by Naajidah and Ashiya
posted November 10, 2010

In our last article we discussed some of the aspects of professionalism.  We promised more do’s and don’ts.   Before we get started, there are a few things anyone aspiring to becoming a professional should know.

  1. Success doesn’t happen overnight, it’s earned.  It can take YEARS of working in freebies and low paying jobs to get anywhere.  There’s no promise of success, just lots and lots of hard work.  You need to understand that you have to give before you receive as good paying jobs are few and far between and you must be willing to spend the time necessary to achieve your goals.  Where you live in the United States plays a big hand in how successful you are going to be.  If you really want to be a top dancer, you may have to consider relocating.
  2. Even being a professional is an expensive hobby.  If you want to keep being a professional, be prepared to put all of your earnings back into costumes, music, accessories, props and marketing materials.  Be prepared to – if you are lucky – break even.  You’ll continue to need new and different costumes, replacements for props, more and new music.  The expenditures never cease.
  3. Take as many classes and workshops from as many teachers and instructors as possible.  Expand your knowledge and repertoire.  The more you know, the better you will be.  Network with dancers, not only locally, but regionally and nationally as well.  Attend events where other dancers are performing.  Be supportive of them.  You will gain immensely from the experience. 
  4. Always remember to treat other dancers fairly and the way you want to be treated.  No matter how much you want to dance, you cannot infringe on other dancer’s gigs. (There will be a future article “The Myth of the Sisterhood of Dance” to address this and other problems)

As a caveat – we didn’t come up with these arbitrarily.  As professional dancers we have, between the two of us, over 40 years of experience dancing professionally in night clubs, restaurants, stage productions, and festivals.  We have gleaned these rules over the years by observing what does and doesn’t work, both for ourselves and by watching other dancers.

Learn to be patient.  When you think you’ve waited long enough, wait some more.

Jobs don’t just fall into your lap.  They need to be earned.  Paying gigs don’t come knocking at your door.  Simply because you are a belly dancer, are cute and adorable and have one or two costumes doesn’t mean calls are going to start coming in.  Just because you’ve taken a year or two of lessons doesn’t make you marketable.  You need to establish yourself, make a name for yourself, market yourself and put yourself into positions where you might get noticed for better jobs.  There is no shame in starting out with non-paying gigs at such venues as ethnic festivals, nursing homes, schools, etc.  But, if you want to be taken seriously, you MUST treat these freebies as you would a professional job. 

If you want to get noticed, then every job you do, whether paying or not must include your best music, your best choreography, your best costume up to and including makeup, cover-ups etc.

There are several reasons for this.  First you establish your unique look, you earn people’s respect, and you meet people in the audience who might recommend you or pass your name on for better opportunities.  Remember there will be people who might be taking pictures of you when you dance.  We can’t even begin to tell you about the number of gigs we have been to where people have their cell phones out taking pictures and video.  We have no idea where those pictures and/or videos ended up. YouTube?  Facebook?  Shared with friends?  You must treat every job as if your dance career depended on it, because it very well might!  And while we’re on the subject, be careful of how far you reach when you are first starting out.  Those non-paying or low paying gigs at nursing homes are a great way to learn what works.  You need to polish your act, learn how to work with an audience, and discover what works and what doesn’t.  It’s better to learn on smaller gigs than to get yourself a big job right off the bat and fall flat on your face due to lack of experience.  Even if you have other forms of dance and performance experience, don’t be in such a rush!  Take your time to get it right, hone your skills before reaching for the stars.  Remember, the mega movie stars of today didn’t get there overnight.  They all started off as bit players and worked their way up.  They didn’t just suddenly spring onto the big screen.  That dancer in the restaurant where you want to be, paid her dues long before she got the “dream” job, so don’t expect to just walk in and have it handed to you.  It’s never ok to butt into someone else’s “job”. 

Choose your costuming carefully.  Like it or not, the general public has some very strong ideas of what a belly dancer is supposed to be.

  She is a glamorous creature, with beautiful sparkly costumes, beautiful hair, who looks like a movie star.  If you want a professional paying gig you are not going to get it wearing a cute coin scarf, a cheesy choli and some cute harem pants you whipped up out of a remnant on the sale table at your local fabric store.  If you have to save for months, learn to bead for yourself, and spend hours putting it together, you must have a professional, cabaret costume.  It must always be in good condition and it must flatter you and fit well.  

On the flip side, if you are primarily interested in doing ethnic festivals, renaissance fairs and the like, then this cabaret look isn’t going to work.  Harem pants, cotton skirts, coin belts etc will be the norm for these events.  Know your venues and dress accordingly.  But no matter the venue, you still need to present a professional appearance.

Always check out your costume before a gig to make sure everything is right.

We went to see a dancer perform at a Greek restaurant not too long ago, and it was obvious she was new to this kind of performance.  While she had on a beautiful professional cabaret costume that would have been great on stage, it wasn’t fitted correctly for up close table dancing in the restaurant.  No place is it more important to have the top fit well than when you are dancing in a restaurant.  Unfortunately the cups were a bit larger than she was – and she shifted slightly as she moved.  She didn’t expose herself, thank goodness, but it was sheer luck.  The day before a gig always try on your costume.  Make sure that the belt fits correctly, and doesn’t ride too low.  Look in the mirror, stand with your feet apart.  Is the skirt so sheer that you can see your legs?  While that might be ok in a nightclub, it probably wouldn’t work in a family oriented restaurant.  Be very careful about not offending families.  Do a turn in your skirt.  Does the skirt open up too much during a turn?  Lean forward slightly and make sure that your top continues to cover you.  You will be standing and your audience will be sitting.  Will they be getting too much of a view if you lean over to speak to someone?  What you don’t see at a distance on stage is very apparent when you are table dancing.

Is your costume in good repair?  We once attended a hafla where a dancer new to the area was hoping to make a good impression and perhaps become a substitute dancer at a local venue.  She knew that people would be there that could help her in her career, and she knew this was in essence a bit of an audition.  Her costume was terrible.  The skirt was torn in a couple of places, the bra and belt didn’t fit her correctly and there were sequins and beading missing.  She frankly looked tacky.  Not a good impression to make.underwear

Without the extras you just don’t look professional.  Your look needs to be from the top of your head to the tips of your toes.

So many times we have seen very attractive women in beautiful costumes that must have cost hundreds of dollars and……..that’s it!  No makeup, hair flying around, no shoes, no jewelry.  A beautiful cabaret costume is just the beginning of your polished glamorous look.  Your audience will be looking at and judging you as an entire package. 

Makeup is a must.  And not the kind of makeup you would wear to go to the office or even on a date.  Depending on the gig, stage makeup is needed if you want people to see you from the back of the room.  You can’t just throw on some blush and eye shadow and call it good.  If you don’t know how to apply makeup, invest in yourself by going to a salon or makeup counter and having someone show you how to do this.    We also strongly recommend that you learn to apply eyelashes.  They enhance your eyes and let the audience see your expressions. 

It doesn’t stop there!  Look at pictures of top dancers, the really glamorous ones.  Their hair is beautifully coiffed.  Can’t do your own hair?  (Believe us; we empathize because we are horrible at doing our own hair).  Invest in yourself!  There are many beautiful hair pieces that can be put on to polish your look.  On the day of a gig run down to your local cheap haircutters place and have them wash/style your hair for you.  Even if it’s just blown dry and curled, flat ironed or styled and hair spayed, it will give you a much more professional look for not a lot of money.  And what about an outdoor event?  You can still look professional with the hairpiece or with your hair in a ponytail “I dream of Jeanne” style. 

You’re still not done!  You need jewelry, and not a cute necklace in the back of an Avon catalog that would look great on a date.  We’re talking major bling!  Necklace, earrings, bracelets, a headpiece if you can.  You need jewelry that can be seen and sparkle clear at the back of the room.  A little chain from the sale table at Wal-Mart may look great with your sparkly top on date night, but it’s not going to match the rest of your glamorous outfit.

And don’t forget your feet.  You have no idea where you will be dancing at some gigs, so you’ll need a good pair of dancing shoes.  If you are in a restaurant or nightclub, they are a must!  From flat sandals to higher heels, you’ll need good shoes.  Not the Capizeo dance sandals for class, not the flip flops you wear to the beach, or (gag!) ballet slippers, but good, quality, nice looking shoes.  Imagine a lawyer arguing a case in a courtroom.  She’s wearing a high powered executive suit, her hair is perfect, she has tasteful jewelry on, nice makeup, hose and nice pumps.  Now, picture the same lawyer but instead of the pumps imagine her in tennis shoes.  Does it look professional?  Of course not.  Too many dancers skimp on footwear thinking nobody will see their feet.  And they probably won’t, but wear ugly or inappropriate footwear and they WILL notice.  Watch Dancing with the Stars and look at those ladies.  Stunning blingy shoes, blingy costume, blingy accessories.  They bling from head to toe and everything in between.  That is what you need.  You can’t cut corners in any of these areas – not even the shoes! 

One last thing.  Gloves and arm covers.  Some dancers love them and some don’t, but they are not only a glamorous accessory, they help hide a number of arm flaws. 

Getting the idea?  Every gig you do you must consider that the public is seeing you, and judging you, and evaluating you based on your look.  Dress your absolute best! Dress as if your dance career depended upon it – because it just very well might.  You need to be the professional dancer from head to toe and everything in between.

Right or wrong, the average person hiring dancers has certain expectations. 

I’m sure that this next part will cause a lot of controversy.  And believe us when we say we hate being judged for the way we look.  We didn’t make up these observations; we have discovered them over the years.  It may not be fair, it may not be right but it’s the truth.  You can be a little overweight, a little older, a little short, tall, etc.  But you aren’t going to get good, recurring jobs unless you are attractive.  Is it fair?  Of course not, but the person paying the bill gets to call the shots, and the general public has very, very strong opinions about what they want.  They want someone pretty, they want someone glamorous, and in addition they want someone who is a good dancer. 

If you are older, kind of a plain jane or obese you simply are not professional material.

  If you really want to be a professional dancer and you fall into any of those categories, then we strongly urge you into considering a good diet, a good gym and a good image consultant to help you. Almost any woman can learn to look more attractive.  Through diet and exercise, hair and makeup, whatever it takes.  If you are truly serious about wanting to dance professionally, then you absolutely need to work to make yourself look the best that you can.  Unfortunately that’s the way the world works.  We’re sorry but it’s true.  We are living examples of this bias.  As we have gotten older we have been passed on for any number of gigs for the younger, newer versions.  We don’t like it, but it’s a fact of life. 

Now, there is also an additional point to this.  Just because you are young, beautiful and have a great costume doesn’t make you a professional either. 

The look is a huge part of this.  You can’t get by without it, but you can’t get by just on looks alone.  Your looks will get you noticed, but what will get you hired and recommended is a solid dance ability.  You can’t have one without the other – and get professional gigs.  Some of the gigs we were initially passed on we wound up getting.  Why?  Because even if we were “older” we had the dance skills necessary for the gig.

Another controversial item, but we’ve found over the years that it’s true. 

If you want to dance professionally, you must dance cabaret.  You must learn zills, and veil, and using props such as cane, sword, candle, tray, etc.

We love to watch good tribal dancing.  It’s definitely a beautiful art form.  But it ain’t gonna get you professional gigs.   We have had guest dancers at our regular restaurant gig in the past, and have invited tribal dancers to perform with us.  The reaction?  The customers didn’t like the music or the costumes.  The general public doesn’t understand.  Like it or not, if you want to get hired for certain jobs you aren’t going to as a tribal dancer.  If your passion is tribal dance, then be prepared for not dancing at certain venues.

In our next installment we’ll discuss choosing music, picking dances, and other fine tuning for turning yourself into a professional

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Ready for more?

  • Where Have All The Cover-ups Gone?
    What happened to professionalism? Mystery? Decorum and good taste?
  • The Ethics of Fusion
    If the culture that you’re borrowing your moves from objects to your fusion, does it matter? Are you being respectful or exploitative if you borrow steps from a culture that doesn’t want their music and dance used that way?
    • Part 1- Booking a Party
      When a dancer looks good, she, or another, will get called back to perform again. When she looks bad, customers might be turned off to our lovely art form forever. Therefore, a bad dancer not only ruins things for herself, but for all of us
    • Part 2- The Cross Cultural Factor
      Warning. There is a great deal of passive aggressive face-saving behavior in this profession. It is not always woman friendly either. Respect is not a given…
    • Part 3- Separating the Girls from the Women
      If a performer conducts herself as a professional she is much more likely to obtain repeat engagements and referrals. No one wants to be seen knowingly hiring an amateur. It is bad for business and a customer’s image.
    • Part 4 – What NOT To Do
      Show up drunk or stoned. No more needs to be said
    • Part 5 – Beauty
      For new dancers, mastering the art of glamour can be daunting. But take heart, while internal sensuality requires character work, external beauty is easier to fix
  • "That’s a little risque for you to be doing as a momie!" Belly Dancing and Resistance to Cultural Discourse
    Thus, while the pregnant woman symbolizes maternal potential, she also becomes aesthetically problematic. She is both an admired subject and a physically unappealing object, according to contemporary standards of beauty. As such, the postpartum torso is to be modestly clothed and/or masked according to culturally appropriate standards.
  • Our Desert Roses, Photos from the Floralia Festival 2010
    Held April 29-May 2, 2010 in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, Produced by gleaming ray of light Selena Kareena, the Floralia Festival is held annually in TorC, (Truth or Consequences) New Mexico, and features a wide spectrum of dance and dancers from throughout the southwest, South America, and beyond.
  • The Dumb and the Restless: Fire! A Lighter Outlook on Belly Dance
    Yes, the audience was eating out of my hand when someone from the back of the room yelled “Hey lady! Your hair is on fire!”
  • The Physiological Effects of Oriental Dance, Excerpt from Health and The Oriental Dance, Chapter 1
    There was no information subject available like "the technique of Belly dancing". I had to construct it myself. It took a lot of research in regards to both its theoretical and its practical sides.
  • Ergun Tamer on Saz,
    Ergun is one of the organizers of the Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp held in Mendocino, California, each year in August. Ergun plays many instruments. In this video he tells us about the Turkish saz. The saz has many names depending on the country, such as bazouk or bazouki. This instrument also comes in many sizes.
  • An Intro to Tribal Fusion
    Since Tribal Fusion Belly Dance is a relatively new dance form, it is especially important to treat the genre with a level of professionalism, or else one runs the risk of discrediting the work of dancers who have dedicated their lives to creating and elevating Tribal Fusion Belly Dance.

   |       |    12 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Pauline Costianes

    Nov 15, 2010 - 08:11:58

    I agree with you totally about the expectations  figure-wise. And there’s not a thing wrong with saying so.
    The previous article about dancing while pregnant is a perfect example of folks who completely ignore the fact that we need to make a good impression all the time,  acting like the viewing audience has to accept them on their (the dancers’) terms.
    Big bellies, whether pregnant or not, need to not be exposed in a bedlah (2 pc costume) . We get enough crap about not being considered “real dance” or “real art”,  and then I see pictures, including on this site, of women performing in costumes that are totally inappropriate for their body types.  What did those audience members think, especially if they are not part of the dance scene? I’m a dancer and teacher and I went “yuck”.
    Unless you’re at ideal body weight and in shape, wear a full dress-type costume!  Respect yourself and the dance!

  2. No Gravatar
    Barbara Grant

    Nov 15, 2010 - 08:11:03

    Very interesting article; the only quibble I had was with one part of this line: ” If you are older, kind of a plain jane or obese you simply are not professional material.” My quibble was with “plain jane.” Makeup works wonders, even on “Plain Jane” types. I’ve not seen the woman for whom a good makeup job will not work…it may not make her look like Ava Gardner, but with false eyelashes, good attention to detail and playing up her natural feature assets (everyone has at least one) Plain Jane can become Gorgeous June.

  3. No Gravatar
    Jasmine

    Nov 20, 2010 - 01:11:53

    There were some things about this article that I really enjoyed and agreed with. Specifically, about being professional with your technique, costuming, make-up, and presence. That is so important and the lack of it that sometimes occurs gives all the other, professional belly dancers a bad reputation.
    However, I need to disagree about not making any money as a tribal belly dancer. There is definitely money to be made, even if you don’t dance cabaret. The trick is expanding your idea of what a belly dance venue is. A lot of tribal fusion dancers perform with bands at nightclubs, for example. Or as part of a variety show. Or circus show. The list goes on. The other benefit of being a tribal dancer is that you also know traditional forms of belly dance (and if you don’t, you better read my next article!!!) and can do both cabaret and tribal performances. If anything, you can make more money as a tribal dancer because you are more versatile.
    The other benefit of dancing tribal is that people are more accepting about your looks- big, small, old, young- it doesn’t matter in a lot of cases! It’s a much more accepting environment in that regard.

  4. No Gravatar
    Mielle

    Nov 20, 2010 - 04:11:05

    Great article, especially when it comes to hair and make-up and costume.  And if we’re talking about head to fingers and toes, I feel the need to add this: professional style manicure and pedicure.  I come from the barefoot school of thought (I would break my ankle dancing in shoes) and I think having pretty feet is a must; the audience loves it, too.  Thanks for the props to the pros who work so hard to look the part.  Cheers.

  5. No Gravatar
    Katherine

    Nov 20, 2010 - 05:11:48

    This article made me a little sad. Of course it’s true, as for most female performers in the commercial arena, that we’re seen as things rather than people, and need to look fresh and appealing, like superior produce.
    Where I live, though, and probably other places, there are also audiences who want to see a range of expression and maybe even something about the human condition; I know because I’m in them. And it always makes me happy to see a woman who isn’t beauty-compliant shine regardless. Subverts the designated order a little.
    I wonder too if one day we’ll move beyond what the dominant culture expects of us. Like the bebop musicians who rejected the shuck and jive the day demanded, and made music that changed the way people saw reality. I believe it could happen. I’ve seen it done. I think it’s possible.

  6. No Gravatar
    Leyla Janan

    Nov 28, 2010 - 04:11:05

    Can’t thank you enough for this article.  It’s what every dancer needs to hear.

  7. No Gravatar
    Andrea Lyn

    Dec 1, 2010 - 05:12:46

    This is a great article!  It definitely is a motivator to be the best you can be! 
    In addition to the physical aspects of becoming a professional, I would also add a social aspect of being professional to this list.  Which is – always be kind and generous to your fellow dancers and respect everyone’s time and effort, regardless of dance level. It is amazing how far your great attitude and respect for your peers will take you in this community. If you have the amazing costume, all the bling, all the makeup, beautiful hair and great body but treat others poorly and condescendingly, you will never be seen as a professional dancer.

  8. No Gravatar
    Julie

    Dec 27, 2010 - 12:12:02

    This is the kind of wakeup call that aspiring dancers need to hear. Yes, we can be supportive of out-of-shape or older dancers – but like wanting to be a model or actor, being older and out of shape does not help anyone achieve their goal of dancing professionally. It is this insistence from those starting out dancing that we accept everyone  “as” is which has led us to accept overweight dancers in bedlahs representing the professional belly dancers in restaurants and giving the public the idea that we have no standards or expectations for appearance or professionalism. It is not professional to insist on wearing an outfit which does not flatter your body, simply to make a point about having a confident body image. It is selfish to the rest of the community to expect to be welcomed and accepted as a dance professional when you clearly do not treat your body like a temple, particularly to those dedicated individuals who have spent countless hours keeping themselves in shape and working out to maintain their fitness, agility and figure. There may be some hurt feelings from reading this article or my comments, but it is also high time for the students to start realizing that they are not where we are skill-wise, and that they are only hurting themselves by insisting on being labeled professionals before their time.

  9. No Gravatar
    Jalilah

    Feb 18, 2011 - 06:02:35

    Great article! So true! I have forwarded it to many  dancers and my students.

  10. No Gravatar
    Erica Datura

    Mar 22, 2011 - 04:03:18

    There’s alot of good information in this article but I very much disagree with Tribal Dancers not getting gigs. Here in Sacramento Ca, we have an ATS troupe that has been performing at Kasbah Lounge since they opened over five years ago. And Unmata has danced at a Morroccan restaurant here (hairy pits and all) for a number of years. Just sayin’ there are exeptions to the rule.

  11. No Gravatar
    Being Neutral

    Apr 27, 2011 - 10:04:55

    I have to agree with Jasmine. Not everyone is into the same looks and dances so why would someone not get paid as a professionals? They are in alls aspects of the community as well. I mean some even travel the world and get paid for it.
    Everyone has different tastes.

  12. No Gravatar
    Being Neutral

    Apr 27, 2011 - 10:04:54

    Oh but the first part of your article is faboo, thank you!

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