Gilded Serpent presents...

Undercutting the Competition

A Problem of Ethics or Practicality?

Terry performing at Petra

by Terry Del Giorno
posted December 8, 2011

I think we can be assured that Randa, Dina and Asmahan do not  have a dialogue about what to charge (after they pay their teams of musicians, dressers, managers etc).  Nor did Nagwa, Mona, or Fifi share tea over the subject. They charged what they wanted, what their fans would pay. If they didn’t get what they wanted, I doubt seriously that any of those fanan, current or past, would fall below their own established rates.

I grew up in a time where we didn’t discuss our fees; it was a time when you didn’t talk politics with people you didn’t know or even ask them about it. It was also a time before one could look on line and find out incomes and pensions of county workers.  It was long before you could look online at a menu of prices on a dancer’s website. In theory, I concur with others who have written about this before:  yes, we should agree on a starting price.  Undercutting happens, and it is wrong!

 However, in the real world, I think that, as professionals, we shouldn’t dance for less.  In fact, maybe we should charge more!

Consider the budding student of dance who undercuts the professional at a restaurant gig.  If the restaurant or club stays open long enough, and she works there long enough, it will become obvious that she’s not a professional in so many ways.  She may pick the wrong music (such as using Debke for a Greek audience or a Loreena McKennitt song for the Lebanese Association Valentine’s dinner) …you get my drift.  She might call in at the last minute and cancel, or worse, not show-up, because something else “came up”.  She won’t know how to cover for the mishap that often can happen early in a performer’s career, making it part of her show …costume malfunctions,  customers who are out-of-line, music mishaps, musician misunderstandings. (Don’t ask; I won’t tell!) God forbid, she might even perform a second set without charging! She won’t be able to respond in a cultural context to her audience, etc. Eventually, it will become obvious. Even the costumers will be able to tell. If the establishment has a reputation of any kind, she won’t be there long.  In comparison, a professional dancer will help an establishment!  Her performance will encourage repeat business for the owners as well as develop her following of fans. 

Undercutting also occurs within the general public.

I recall an agency with which I used to contract. There was a fee schedule for women who looked like Belly dancers (They just dressed up like one and added to the atmosphere!) and a different one for “real” dancers. The agent was sensitive and savvy enough to realize there was a difference!  With the vast amount of online advertising that promotes Belly dancers today, I think the sharpest  web-page layouts and top search results, along with a cheaper price (and of course, the visual appeal) are what will appeal to mainstream.  For some dancers, this might be their most effective gig generator.  In contrast, the performer of yesteryear developed her following and reputation by working a lot, and hence, word-of-mouth was how her reputation was developed; it was not created by a website. This was the time (for me anyway) during which a dancer could charge and receive what she charged with ease–without  “shopping around” or “Googling” for a cheaper price that occurs today.

 The Internet presence has created a whole new style of “elitism” in the dance world.

Its standards are Photoshop, high-end graphics, certification, and merchandise. All of this requires an amount of assertiveness for  a dancer who has relied previously on talent, ethics, and authenticity to be considered valuable and command the attention of the general public as it surfs the web.

Like other industries–music, musicians, singers, comedians, sports and athletes (especially)–name their price and get it (…amazingly, even though more than half the world’s population lives in poverty).  You can engage a cover-band for approximately two thousand dollars to appear at a wedding and play Rolling Stones tunes, but you can’t get the Stones to come for that small amount!

In the San Francisco Bay Area particularly, yes, there has been undercutting.  For 20 plus years, I have not only had my own, long-established gigs, but I have “subbed” for my dancer friends and club owner friends.  My dance buddies like my track record because I would never steal their gigs, and club owners like it because they know they will get what they pay for.  There are some places for which I will no longer substitute; they are paying dancers the same (if not less) than what I have previously charged them.  (This is not just last year’s price, but the price of a dance a decade ago.)

Advanced students and budding professionals will work occasionally for significantly less money than established dance personalities. The consumer will pay what he wants, and will receive what he pays for.  There are some consumers with discriminating tastes who are happy to pay a professional dancer.

I think the “fananas” out there who have been working their art for some time and have cultivated long standing relationships with their clients, would be reluctant to keep within an “agreed industry standard”.

You don’t want to rob anyone of his or her hard earned dollars, but your art shouldn’t be given away.  Your prices for real dancing shouldn’t be less than “a walk-around” from an agency, or less than what you have charged in the past.  Therefore, teachers, tell your students.  Dancers, talk to other professionals in your area (…or check their websites)! Check the current rates.

Nowadays, there are a variety of venues to perform, with a variety of distinctions in the dance and the dancer. 

I say let the consumer beware….you get what you pay for.  If you want a 20 thousand dollar Scion Toyota, you can get one; if you want to pay more for a BMW you can get one of those.

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  1. Anthea (Kawakib)

    Dec 20, 2011 - 07:12:46

    Nice article. It wasn’t that long ago that “we didn’t discuss rates”! It’s only in the last few years that it’s been brought out in the open; at least around my area (Washington DC). I’ve retired from that gig scene; but when I danced, I was asked NOT to disclose my wages so I would’ve been in an uncomfortable spot. In fact I think that may have been common, but I don’t know. Now we have “local” rates posted online for everyone to see, which I think is fine too.

  2. Bellydance By Jennifer Inc.

    Jan 13, 2013 - 09:01:35

    Thank you for writing this article! Undercutting will be around for a long time more to come but the more we do to stop it in the beginning and to show the value of a professional against an amateur, the better it will get.

    I find that charging above standard if you deserve and work hard for it is a great advantage. You show your clients you are the top, and can offer the highest show standards.
    Having  a trusted community of dancers who follow a minimum price standard is essential to keeping those terrible $50 for an hour gigs away. It is appalling some of the things going on out there, but together, we can make a difference.

  3. Theresea Jade

    Dec 8, 2016 - 05:12:22

    Great article Terry.
    This undercutting issue has been going on since I started performing in the late seventies.
    I always asked for and received top dollar for parties etc.
    At the same time there was an agent, well known in Sonoma County, who would send dancers out to who knows what kind of situation for a fraction of what he would keep.
    Very frustrating and not really safe.
    Luckily I was trained by the best of teachers,Ginny Northridge, who taught me how to set up safe and well paying shows for the times.
    I pass on this information to my up and coming dancers
    I keep asking myself, why do we de value our dance like this?
    Theresea Jade

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