Gilded Serpent presents...

The Unpleasant Truths

Ashiya of Lincoln,Nebraska

Part III of Being a Professional

by Ashiya and Naajidah
posted January 28, 2011

In our last article we discussed the look necessary for a dancer if she wants to be a professional Cabaret dancer.  Now that you have your look, there’s even more!

Over the years we have learned by observation and by trial and error what it takes to get gigs.  The following may not seem fair to you, but the entertainment business isn’t fair.  It’s a tough job involving dedication, hard work and a lot of luck!!  We’re not telling you these things to be mean, but to help you navigate the sometimes cut throat, and always competitive world of entertainment! You’ll need to toughen up if your feelings are easily hurt because believe us when we tell you that they will be.

If you really want to be a professional, first and foremost you must understand you are not so much a professional dancer as you are an entertainer.

The average person hiring a belly dancer doesn’t go looking for the dancer with the best isolations, the best zill technique or the smoothest spins.  They are looking for an image, a package.  Think of a tube of toothpaste at the grocery store.  Which tube gets noticed?  The organic/generic plain tube with the plain lettering in the bin at the bottom of the aisle or the tube in the shiny box with the embossed/metallic lettering and the promise of new and improved?  The public is fickle; they generally want a look or an image and if you want to get hired you better fit the look.

Angel with harpA number of years ago when Naajidah was still playing harp professionally an acquaintance of hers who was a nationally known harpist confided that she often got gigs where the customer was looking for “a blond with a gold pedal harp”  This woman is one of the top harpists in the country!  Did they care? Nope.  Did they ask about her repertoire? Nope.  They wanted a blond with a big shiny harp.  Of course they wanted her to be good, but first and foremost to get the job in the first place, she needed “The Look”. 

The public wants a look – they want a sparkly dancer in a beautiful expensive glamorous outfit, they want you to look like a model.  Oh yeah – they also want you to dance.

On the other hand, Ashiya is a blond dancer in a dance world which is looking for the western image of the dark haired harem dancer.  She’s been told to her face that she isn’t the image they wanted for a particular show because she is blond and blue eyed.  Hard to take?  Sure, but if you don’t fit the image they want, then you don’t get the job.  So, you work harder and move on to the next performance and you quickly learn you cannot take it personally!  Learn to accept that you aren’t always the perfect fit for every event.  As a sideline to that particular event, she was eventually hired because the gal who had the “image” wasn’t a good dancer and after seeing Ashiya perform, she was hired on the spot.  As we said earlier…..fickle.

Here is a hard and fast rule.  When you are dancing professionally you do not get to call the shots.  It may not seem fair to you, but the customer is in charge.

Ah, the wonderful, glorious sound of music.  This is where we have seen a lot of dancers fail horribly and not understand why they didn’t get the gig or didn’t get asked back.  The secret to
repeat gigs is to give the customer what they want (within the bounds of propriety of course). You may just love that 7 minute piece with drums and mizmar, but we promise you that unless you are performing for other belly dancers or people from a Middle Eastern country, about 32 seconds into the music you will have lost your audience. The vast majority of our potential customers are Western.  They don’t really understand Middle Eastern music, it sounds strange, and the really good stuff is not going to be appreciated by them.  Keep it short and keep your pieces under five minutes, unless you are hired for a full show by yourself. It’s much better to leave them wanting more rather than wishing you’d hurry up and finish.  Listen with a critical ear.  Your music must be pleasing to the ear of a typical person, not someone who is schooled in the intricacies of non-Western music. 

What sounds normal and cool to you might very well sound horrible to the average person.

But – don’t think that simply switching to western music is the right thing to do either.  You are an Oriental dancer.  If you are representing yourself as such, then the public expects exotic music.  It’s an extremely fine line to walk, finding music that is representative of the culture while still being pleasing to the western palate.  Listen carefully, listen to lots of music (be prepared to buy tons of music that you will end up never using because after listening critically you realize it won’t work).  The sad, sad truth is that you loving the music is not the criteria for picking performance music.  The exception, of course, is workshops where other dancers will understand.  If you want paying gigs, you must keep firmly in your mind at all times who is paying you.  It doesn’t matter what you like/want, what matters is what the customer will like.

Know your venue and do your homework.

Tartar community birthday partyAnd it doesn’t end there.  Do your homework!  Who is your audience?  Did you get hired by a local charity to do a Night on the Nile fundraiser event?  Then you better start looking for Egyptian music!  This is not when you pull out your favorite Gobsmack numbers!  Get hired for a Greek dinner at the local college?  Again, do your homework.  This isn’t the time to be using your favorite Lebanese singer!  Greek music is in order.  Don’t like the style of music needed for the gig?  Too bad.  Get used to it, learn to love it or pass on the gig.  You will do yourself no favors dancing to music that you hate.  It will show on your face, and be reflected in your dance and your chances of getting asked back are slim to none.

This is a true story: A local dancer who was new to restaurant dancing was hired by a Greek restaurant to do two shows.  She was specifically told to use Greek music.  For the first set she did and it was well received.  For the second set she didn’t (she said she wanted to use her music that she liked) and the owner literally had a meltdown in the middle of the restaurant.  He yelled at her about the “horrible Lebanese music” and told her to “never use such garbage again”.  Needless to say, she has not performed at the restaurant again.

Your job is to entertain the audience.

For the average gig… you are wallpaper.  They truly don’t care how fast you can shimmy, or if your dance moves are Lebanese or Turkish.  For the average restaurant gig or party you are somewhere in importance between the quality of the food and the décor on the walls.  You are a small part of a very big event.  Don’t ever forget that.  Your job is to make the guests feel important, the host to feel special, and the customers to be glad they came.  People will remember the event… “oh yeah, the food was great, and the desert was to die for…… oh there was this belly dancer in a beautiful red costume with a sword on her head….did we mention how good the desert was”? 

You need to do your best, you need to make them glad that they hired you but you also need to not take it personally that people aren’t watching your every move, and are sometimes ignoring you.

Several years ago one of our student dancers performed with us as a guest dancer at the restaurant we worked at.  She had a beautiful gold costume, and had worked on her solo for months getting ready for her big chance.  When she finished she was visibly upset.  During her solo one of the customers was celebrating their birthday.  The table was right in front of the stage.  They brought out the cake with candles while she was dancing.  She was very angry that people ruined her solo with their party.  But – she missed something vitally important!  The customer or guest or person paying the bill was the most important person there, not her.  She could have turned this to her advantage.  Danced up to the guest of honor, made a fuss “oh, it’s your birthday… get up and dance with me”, draped her veil around them and made them feel special.  The restaurant owner would notice this, believe me.  The host would notice.  People would remember what a wonderful job you did making them feel special.  That is how you get gigs, not with a 10,000 mph shimmy, not with perfect hip lifts.  An attractive dancer who is good (not great) will trump a beautiful dancer who is a great dancer if she knows how to make the customer glad they came, and the host glad they hired her.  If you make your customers your number one priority you can’t go wrong!

Keep it changing!  If you have a longer gig don’t just use one kind of music.

spanikopitaThe average person watching you dance is easily bored.  Rather than using one long song, no matter how beautiful, you are better off with two or three short numbers.  Something fast and bouncy to start out with, a slow and very short middle (maybe with a veil) and finish it up with something fast.

We went to a restaurant in another town several years ago.  The dancer was very good, and had even brought her own drummer with her.  For her entire half hour show she danced to nothing but drumming.  Now, the drummer was excellent, and played many different rhythms – Baladi, Cheftitelli, Ayoub, etc.  But the average westerner in a restaurant doesn’t know an Ayoub from a Spanikopita.  They get bored easily.  Sure, use a drummer if you can because live music is always a big plus, but intersperse it with taped music if you are doing a long performance.  Also, you may do Cheftitelli beautifully, you may be able to hold a backbend rock solid for minutes, but the audience doesn’t care.  They’ll glance at you and go back to their dinner.  Keep it light, keep it bouncy, mix it up, and keep the slow stuff to a minimum.  Think MTV – flashy, fast, constantly changing.  Our western world is used to ordering at window 1 and getting it at window 2.  They are not a patient audience.

Believe it or not, you still have to be a good dancer. 

Yes, we’ve been talking about other stuff, but the bottom line is… if you can’t dance you aren’t going to last long in this business!  Practice, drill, attend workshops, keep learning, and keep growing!  We’ve been doing this for years and are still taking lessons and practicing.

And last but not least, what do you charge for you?

Pricing is going to vary depending on the area of the country.  We can only speak for what is standard where we live in the Midwest.  The important thing to remember is to not undervalue yourself, but don’t price yourself out of the job either.  Is that vague enough for you?  Our best advice is to talk to other dancers, find out what they charge and then charge accordingly.  We have a price guideline sheet that covers everything from Bellygrams to full shows.  When dealing with a potential client, you need to be confident enough in your skills as a dancer to ask for adequate pay for your performances.

One word of advice.  DO NOT UNDERCUT OTHER DANCERS.  If you are good enough to call yourself a professional dancer, then you deserve the same pay as other dancers in your area.

Coming next time…..Part IV:  Now you have arrived….What It Really Takes to Stay There

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  1. khadija

    Feb 19, 2011 - 12:02:38

    Thank you for writing these much needed articles for dancers; you address so many points that we teachers would like to impart to our students without being preachy. I regularly forward the site to my classes and hope they read everything. Great work!

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