Gilded Serpent presents...

Finding Your Gigs

Debunking the "Golden Age" of Bellydance, Part 2

Najia with Camel in Big Sur

by Najia Marlyz
posted September 2, 2011
Part 1 here

Are you curious how anyone ever made a living by Bellydancing back in the so-called “Golden Age of Bellydance”?  The answer is that most dancers did not (at least, not a comfortable living).  Dancers of the late ‘60s and into the mid ‘70s had to have a day job to support their addiction to their “art-that-wasn’t-really-considered-an-art”, and the truth of the matter is that Bellydancers still must secure a supplementary job in order to support their love of the art–or choose to live in poverty. If they don’t have a”real” job, they must live a poor lifestyle and scratch out a living by hawking costumes, guiding tour groups, teaching at YMCAs, parks and recreation departments, and grange halls, produce and sell CDs and DVDs, or open their own dance studios in which to teach in addition to performing at their glorious gigs. (Unfortunately, I have known some dancers who went on the welfare rolls as a bogus poor.)

Teaching dance may seem venerable but most dance instructors who travel to teach workshops and seminars these days, often find that there is no convenient, affordable hotel available for miles! (Often the sponsor cannot, or will not, pay for a hotel room anyway.) Sometimes, big-name instructors find that they have to sleep on their sponsors’ lumpy sofas in endless burgs and villages where all the restaurants and shops are closed, and sidewalks are rolled-up by 10 p.m.

Probably, this would not fit your description of a desired professional career in dance anyway, had you realized your sponsor would accommodate you in a child’s bed in their basement recreation room where they usually do the family laundry and store the broken toys!

I am not telling you this just to discourage you or to complain like our parents, “When I was your age, we walked twenty miles through the snow to school every day!" Instead, I am hoping to give you a new perspective, some food for thought, and new direction for the creation of your own career in professional dance.  I hope you understand that since you have chosen to involve yourself more fully in Bellydance, you must consider making your own new and never-before-imagined opportunities – today, just as we aspiring professional dancers did back then, thirty or forty years ago! No matter how pig-headed, ignorant, and money-hungry you believe that producers of large dance and variety shows are now, or have been in the past, at least, these entrepreneurs have attempted to create for you a new, viable glamorous venue in which Bellydance is included as a valid, respectable art form rather than excluded as a foregone conclusion.

Nevertheless, you don’t have to wait for someone else to hire you; you can hire yourself!

In show biz, everything seems infused with excessively high personal competition. The best way to get well-paying dance jobs now (just like it was then) is for an agent to accept you into his or her clientele. That was (and still is) not always easy, either. You must dance exceptionally well, be considered beautiful in face and body, smell good, be popular and personable with people, understand what makes memorable entertainment, have recorded or live music ready and easy to drag along, and own at least two clean, durable costumes in good repair. 

In the past, costumes usually had to be homemade because the only easily accessible costumers were in Hollywood or Las Vegas and everything purchased there cost way above most dancers’ means. Now, however, you have easy access to incredible sparkling, designer costumers via the Internet!

(You never need to develop finger blisters from sewing, designing and fitting your own tough costumes, forcing needles threaded with waxed button-hole thread through several layers of stiffening, felt, and brocade, using a pair of pliers.)

Nevertheless, problems still abound: both agents and employers often regard children, pets, husbands, and boyfriends as additional trouble, or anchors, so give it some thought before you commit yourself to beginning a career in dance at all. Can you afford the inevitable strain on your marriage, children, and parents or your education?

I have seen so many dancers launch, but within months or a couple of years, it all goes up in smoke as wedding bells ring or cuddly babies ruin that hour-glass figure.  

Usually today, what you will need is not just a place to dance – but a place to earn a steady or significant paycheck.  We dancers will always have to do more than just compete for a few previously existing jobs. I was fortunate to have my mentor, the late Bert Balladine, guide me to a decent agent who was able to get me many professional gigs in places to which performers ordinarily would have little access.  One afternoon, when I was dancing on the beach at Big Sur, California, (for a large corporation that flew its guests in by helicopter) a larger agency offered to put me on their roster for additional gigs outside my general area. Through the two agencies, I was nearly able to disappear myself from needing to dance in local restaurants, Arabic clubs, and Greek “tavernas”.

If you feel unhappy or unfulfilled about doing sound-byte dancing in front of hoards of other dancers, and dance students, I would advise you to work toward connecting with an agent also. Don’t expect your teacher to be your agent or even to find you one; he or she is busy teaching and finding his or her own gigs.  Put together your portfolio (including a DVD of your dancing) along with a concise gig resume, and personal references. Contact the legitimate entertainment agents in your general local and ask for a brief audition. You will soon learn if you are skilled enough at the art of entertainment to impress a professional agent. The agency will find you more interesting gigs where you can dance and earn better money than in restaurant gigs and, usually, those gigs will lead to additional bookings. For me there were: veteran’s hospitals, naval officers clubs, golf clubs, tennis clubs, country clubs, corporate business promotions, anniversaries and celebrations of all types, children’s parties, fund raisers for churches and private clubs, variety shows in ethnic communities, art openings, parades and so many more.  Not every one was an abject winner, but all were adventuresome and unforgettable experiences!

There is no need for you to hang back and settle for dancing in narrow ethnic restaurants, in front of the swinging kitchen doors and to be hopped over by waiters carrying plates of food or working for bosses who resent having to pay you when they notice that their customers shower you with tips.

Additionally, although a title may impress your mother or your fiance, you do not really need to win a trophy or a fancy title in a competition, either. If you have a competitive spirit and believe in both your dance technique and your people skills, you need not spend excessive time and money on Bellydance competitions and festivals where you are allowed a whopping 3-5 minute set, dancing without pay (or paying to dance) to canned music, or worse, weak live music, primarily for an audience of other dancers and their mothers. That, you can do for fun on your time off!

I assure you that you will be treated in a more professional way if you have a competent agent or gig manager, and you won’t have to go ask for your paycheck when the gig is over.

However, you do have to have your gig-bag packed and be ready to roll. You must be amazingly flexible in schedule, dependable, reliable, and have formed solid contacts with musicians who are willing to play for you. Those same musicians, if they like your personality as well as your dance, will also be able find you some exceptional gigs along with them and they will insist on including you. Remember to graciously share your tips with them and to praise them when they are helpful to you.  Little gestures of appreciation mean just as much to them as they mean to you.

I shouldn’t need to remind you, but I will: Think outside the box–and don’t quit your day job!

Najia dancing in Big Sur with Sirocco

Part 1 here

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  1. Sadira

    Sep 4, 2011 - 01:09:44

    It’s true that an agent or entertainment agency is the way to go if you want good gigs and good money.  Remember though that they are very inflexible, you are not there to be part of the party, do your schtick and leave, you may not have any of the food laid out for the guests, you must be young, great body and beautiful.  HOpefully you can truly dance.

  2. Sausan

    Sep 5, 2011 - 02:09:05

    “There is no need for you to hang back and settle for dancing in narrow ethnic restaurants, in front of the swinging kitchen doors and to be hopped over by waiters carrying plates of food or working for bosses who resent having to pay you when they notice that their customers shower you with tips.”
    I never experienced this in any restaurant or nightclub I ever danced in.  And certainly it doesn’t happen in my restaurant.
    -Chef Sausan

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