Know Your Bellydance Audience
posted November 23, 2011
You’ve worked hard and now you want to put on a show. It goes without saying that you should strive for excellence in your craft, but for the moment let’s focus on something outside of ourselves – the audience.
Knowing your audience is extremely important. It can really determine the success or failure of your event. As you can see in the Venn diagram, there are three major types of audiences: your close friends and family, the bellydance community, and the general public.
Friends and Family:
When you start out on your bellydance journey, your primary audience will be your close friends and family. They will hopefully be supportive of you in your new hobby and come to student showcases and sometimes even haflas to cheer you on. If you want a successful student showcase, make sure a lot of students are involved so that they will have enough friends and relatives to fill the seats. And since there is a law of diminishing returns, the longer a dancer dances, the less often her friends and family will come to a performance. So that means that successful student showcases should primarily be for new dancers, with a few experienced ones intermingled, to ensure a good sized audience. Haflas are different than showcases because they include a broader pool of participants than just one school, and the audience is made up mostly of other bellydancers and also some friends and family. If you want a successful hafla, share the stage with a wide variety of others in your local community.
The Bellydance Community:
Throughout our journey, the bellydance community will often be our audience. Festivals like Rakkasah are an excellent opportunity to get up on stage and share your dance with your peers. But the important word here is "community".
Don’t just show up at a festival an hour before you go on and leave right afterwards. Be a part of the community. It’s not enough to be really great at what you do. You have to watch others, talk to people, and be a person who gives back.
Try volunteering back stage. Get to know your vendors. Cheer on other dancers – dancers you may not know and may never see again. The community is what WE make it. If you never take the time to be a part of the community then don’t be surprised if the community doesn’t know who you are.
The General Public:
When you’ve attained a certain level of skill, you might want to perform in public. The audience is often provided by the venue – in situations like restaurants, private parties and renaissance fairs. Depending on the venue and sometimes the ethnicity, the audience will have certain expectations. At a renaissance fair, try to dress the part with a lovely folk or tribal costume – don’t wear your most sparkly modern cabaret costume. At a restaurant, do wear your most sparkly modern cabaret costume, or perhaps even your amazingly put together tribal costume. If your audience is from a specific culture, learn their cultural expectations.
The general public isn’t always very kind about weight, age, and beauty, but be strong and understand that we all experience rejection. If your employer has seen recent pictures or videos of you and you got the gig, then just be the most polished and professional version of yourself.
There are some restaurants who expect you to provide your own audience out of your friends and family. How do you know if the restaurant has that expectation? By the day of the week. If they’re having you dance on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, they’re most likely providing entertainment on their busiest days to meet the expectations of their customers. If they let you perform during the middle of the week when they don’t get a lot of people, then they’re expecting the dancer to bring her own audience. There’s nothing wrong with that – dancers often want more opportunities to perform and it’s great that some restaurants are open to it.
Just be aware of it so that you don’t show up to perform on a Tuesday night without having asked your friends and family to come, and then feel embarrassed that no one was there.
The goal that a lot of us might hope for is to have an audience made up of our peers and the general public – like how Bellydance Superstars tour the world. Granted, their audience is primarily made up of the bellydance community, but they are performing in major venues and advertising through those venues to the general public. A rising tide raises all boats, and I will be very happy when the general public is more familiar with and appreciative of bellydance.
Avoid the “No Man’s Land”:
I think one of the biggest difficulties is that sometimes we get stuck in the "No Man’s Land" of bellydance. You’re too experience, and your family too over-tapped, to be a big draw at student showcases. You haven’t found the time to get involved in your local bellydance community. And for a variety of reasons you feel uncomfortable dancing for the general public on a regular basis.
A part of us may feel like we’ve earned an audience because we’ve worked so hard and perform a quality show. But the truth is that you have to win an audience every single time.
Though performance quality is important, it’s not enough to throw yourself into your art and ignore the needs of your audience. I’ve been to absolutely amazing shows that were stuck in the No Man’s Land, and more than half the seats in the audience were empty.
So where is your audience? That elusive, ideal audience that appreciates your skill and artistic interpretation (like the bellydance community), while being forgiving of any aspect of you that isn’t perfect (friends and family), but is large enough to fill the seats (general public).
That ideal audience may not exist. You may not be able to sell out the theater for your one-woman bellydance fusion interpretation of Hamlet, no matter how skillfully performed it may be.
So instead of expecting the audience to tailor itself to your event, tailor your event to your audience.
Know your audience:
Events need to be advertised. To advertise your event well, you need to know what audience type to focus on. And once you get that audience, you need to hold up your end of the bargain by meeting its expectations. The more you know your audience, the more successful your events will be.
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