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Nightclub and Restaurant Gigs

Paid Auditions or Justified Entitlement


by Sausan
posted January 12, 2012

I’m a belly dancer – have been for 40 plus years. I’ve done the gamut – danced in every nightclub and restaurant I could get my hands on, took my costume to every place I traveled in hopes of dancing there, traveled around the world and added countries to my dance resume (including Antarctica), worked for entertainment agencies, and promoted myself on my own to my friends, family and co-workers.

Pay is an interesting subject.

All well-known and celebrated entertainers have traveled the same road that the up-and-coming “wannabe” entertainers are now traveling. Some hit the big lights, others stay for the fun and involvement, and the rest go on with their lives better for their experience. Singers, musicians, actors, and dancers alike, all start their career paths with one thing in mind – to become well-known at what they do and to be sought after enough to demand the kind of compensation they feel they deserve.

Entertainment is subjective.

Belly dance entertainment is no different. What’s good entertainment to one person may be nothing more than an eyesore to another. So, we seek out that one person who deems our form of entertainment worthy enough to get the kind of compensation we feel we deserve, or at least some form of compensation.

There’s a little restaurant called Le Bel Canto in London, England, where the waiters not only wait on tables, but also sing for their supper. At Le Bel Canto, the pay is £12 (roughly $18) an hour for waiting tables as opposed to the regular £6 (roughly $9) an hour that other restaurant owners pay. But the pay isn’t just for waiting tables. The pay also includes one hour’s rehearsal, plus four hours of table-waiting and aria-singing. Google up “Sing for Your Supper Restaurant” and you’ll find that Le Bel Canto is not the only one where waiters are singing for their supper. Don’t Tell Mama in New York City offers something similar. And these waiters are good at what they do – singing – or they wouldn’t be waiting tables at Le Bel Canto.

I’m also a restaurant owner – have been for over 12 years.

Al Masri StageTo coin a proverbial phrase, the shoe is now on the other foot. Having donned my chef’s coat and hat in place of my belly dance bedlah, I look at restaurant and nightclub entertainment from a whole different perspective. Like other restaurants in the city of San Francisco who offer live entertainment, I too must pay an annual license fee to the City to keep live entertainment in my restaurant. The fee is not small, so to feel justified in paying it, I insist on good and accomplished entertainment.

There used to be a time back about 20 years ago when Middle Eastern and Greek restaurants with performing belly dancers proliferated in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. Many of them don’t exist anymore, and only a few of the ones that do exist, and offer belly dance entertainment, often come under the scrutiny of the current reigning belly dance performers. How much do they pay? How much should they pay? Can we ask for more? Do they pay more for an extra show? I know; I get asked these same questions by curious non-affiliated dancers looking to make a little extra cash.

Belly dancing in any public venue, like a nightclub or a restaurant, for compensation is a privilege.

It should be treated as a privilege along with the respect due to any regular sought-after employment position. Being hired to dance in one of these establishments regularly, is even better. What greater reinforcement to one’s ego as a “good enough” dancer than to be asked to dance regularly in an establishment for compensation?

Let’s examine this pay issue. Compensation comes in two forms; money or trade. A nightclub or restaurant does not have to nor does it need to hire a dancer; it wants to hire a dancer with the hope that such entertainment will bring in more customers.

But it is not solely up to the restaurant owner to provide an audience for the dancer. It is a two-way street, which often leans more toward the performing dancer.

Always keep in mind that, while both may lose in the end for not supporting each other, the restaurant owner never stands to lose as much from not providing entertainment as the dancer does. This is where pay becomes an interesting subject.

You are looking to get hired. What exactly is “experience” worth to you? Are you looking for hard cash or are you looking for more? Are you willing to work with the owner? Will you "dance for your supper" in the beginning to prove yourself worthy as a competent dancer if it means having a place in which to dance regularly? Are you then open to re-negotiating terms after several months have passed and perhaps adding some trade allowances, such as complimentary dinners for your friends and family on a base-by-base pre-approved agreement as part of your compensation? During the time you’ve danced at this establishment, will you have brought in enough loyal customers – a following – say after several more months to warrant asking for an amount of money? Will that also include your already negotiated trade terms?

As in any employment opportunity, long term or short, these negotiations are strictly between you and your employer and should not ever be discussed with anyone, least of all with colleagues and co-workers, outside the office or dance floor.

As I did years ago in traveling around with my belly dance costume, asking of restaurant and nightclub owners to do a show in their establishment, I now get requests from time to time from belly dancers traveling to the Bay Area who want the opportunity to dance in a San Francisco restaurant. I fully understand that doing so adds to a dancer’s resume and experience. For the most part, I will agree to showcase a guest dancer along with my regularly featured house dancer at Al-Masri Egyptian Restaurant; and more often than not, I would not have heard of the guest dancer. Pay is a subject that always comes up.

Unless the name of the dancer is someone who can draw in customers, pay comes – as I had earned mine years ago – only in the form of “dancing for your supper”.

I can almost hear the gasps and guffaws of speechless and surprised breaths coming out of the mouths of those who are reading this article. How dare I, the restaurant owner, not pay the traveling guest belly dancer?! How dare the traveling guest dancer not receive the demand of $100 – or more – for her performance at my restaurant?! Don’t I know how much has gone into lessons, costumes, time, energy, and other feats related to the dancer’s plight? The problem with these questions is that, indeed I do. And the answer is still the same. Unless someone has made a name for herself and can guarantee a draw to my restaurant in the form of at least a half a house with paying customers, dinner – along with priceless experience – is still all I offer.

Dancing in a restaurant or nightclub for some form of compensation may be your ultimate goal. But these performances should be thought of only as paid auditions because that is what they are.

Forget about dancing regularly in these kinds of venues with the intention of making a living.

In fact, I have my own thoughts, opinions and conclusions as to why some restaurant owners don’t offer belly dance entertainment any longer. And, personally, I can’t blame them. So, where is the big money to be made in belly dancing? From the private engagements or events negotiated between you and the customers who come to watch your performance at the restaurant or nightclub.

Securing dance employment with more than one establishment only provides you with more paid auditions and more opportunities for the big money in private engagements and events.

The singers who wait tables at Le Bel Canto may be singing for their supper, but they also know that there’s a better chance at catching the eye of a producer who might venture in for some relaxing dinner looking for a specific voice for his new opera. These professionally trained singing waiters don’t demand anything more of their employer for their participation other than an hourly wage of roughly $18 an hour – on their feet for four hours waiting tables and singing. Belly dancers should take note of these professional entertainers. At least belly dancers aren’t made to wait tables between performances.


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  1. Barbara Grant

    Jan 12, 2012 - 06:01:15

    Supply and demand at work here–many talented dancers, few opportunities for performance. Should any be surprised that dancers are paid a lower wage than in the heyday of the bellydance era? Or that those who wish to perform (for exposure for higher-paying gigs) are dancing for a meal?
    Honestly, I don’t like the idea of dancing for a meal. I want to be paid for my talents and training. But the economics do not make that possible for many dancers, today. In addition, I wonder what Sausan is getting from the City for her substantial payment for continuing to offer live entertainment. Are they providing advertising? Subsidizing her costs? I doubt it. If we understand the larger economic context at work, it’s difficult, for me at least, to quibble with “dancing for a meal,” and wider exposure.

  2. Roshanna

    Jan 18, 2012 - 04:01:18

    I am not convinced by the ‘paid audition’ argument. This probably varies by region, but restaurant work does not seem to be a very effective way to get private party gigs these days. Experience, yes, which is why I am currently happy to dance at restaurants despite the local going rate being far below that for a private party. But for getting further work, there are far more effective ways to advertise. You are more likely to get spotted by agencies or festival organisers etc by dancing at showcases, haflas, competitions, than at your local Arabic restaurant. Given the effort and time, usually on a Friday or Saturday, that goes into a restaurant gig, you would need to be getting private parties through it very frequently to make it worthwhile without pay, and this does not seem at all realistic.
    Perhaps I would think differently if the restaurant in question had a reputation for featuring excellent dancers, and a clientele who actually came to see and appreciate said dancers. On the other hand, this type of restaurant is clearly gaining more custom by having dancers, would lose custom without them, and so it could reasonably be argued that at least the regular dancers should be paid.

  3. yasmina

    Jan 19, 2012 - 11:01:12

    I disagree with the article. Dancing is a profession and deserves compensation. Maybe the dancers would be in a stronger position to bargain if they waited for the owners to come to them.

  4. Maura Enright

    Jan 21, 2012 - 11:01:04

    I agree that that dancers need to understand that restaurants are not patrons of the arts. However, I feel that Sausan has some misleading statements in there are to why a serious dancer should be willing to work for nothing. When a good dancer associates herself with a venue, she is not just building up her OWN following but also the venue’s reputation for providing good entertainment. What does she receive for this if /when the owner decides to replace her? The comparison between the singers and a professional dancer is also misleading. THe singers are opera STUDENTS who are singing for their supper, and I suspect their uniforms and equipment are provided by the restaurant. Sausan is surely experienced enough to know the difference between a student and professional DANCER, and is certainly not providing the costumes and props required for a professional show. Also, the statement that a restaurant pays the dancer with valuable exposure to other potential customers… Really? I suppose that depends on the area, and on the restaurant. Most places around here don’t showcase the dancers as classy, high-end performers, but rather as amusing entertainment shimmying in between the table and dodging the waiters. The potential customer gets the idea that since a $5 tip is a really big deal, $50 for a party puts stars in the dancers eyes.She also seems to wobble about the kind of dancer she’s talking about. The one-show dancer who is passing through town, or the person looking for a steady gig?And seriously, what about this statement, ‘As in any employment opportunity, long term or short, these negotiations are strictly between you and your employer and should not ever be discussed with anyone, least of all with colleagues and co-workers, outside the office or dance floor.’ Why? Why WOULDN’T a dancer discuss pay with other dancers? Sausan has no problem quoting the pay that the singing waiters are getting. No problem with THAT not being hush hush. Or are the singing waiters and the professional dancers really not equivalent after all?

  5. Kamala Almanzar

    Jan 21, 2012 - 12:01:44

    It’s sad that the professional Belly Dance scene has come to this in the US. Now to make a living, a dancer must move to or get a contract in the Middle East it seems. It wasn’t always this way, & I realize how fortunate I was to be dancing in the boom times ( ’70s early ’80s). I never would have considered auditioning for free, at a time when the owners or musicians would seek you out for their club, nor would I travel around with a costume hoping to dance for supper. I would travel with contract or plane ticket in hand. The handful of pros in the biz did discuss the rates of each club so that we wouldn’t undercut. So yes indeed, supply & demand, and because dancers are so anxious to dance they will trade their services for a Kabob, the profession in the US is no longer respected or profitable, except for the handful of entrepreneurs who create their own work.

  6. Barbara Grant

    Jan 21, 2012 - 04:01:21

    Many interesting and valuable comments, above.
    As in any business, but particularly in a small business (where it is assumed that the owner is deeply involved in the finances) there is a book-to-bill ratio. If an owner’s expenses exceed her intake of revenue for too long a period of time, she goes under, the business closes, she liquidates her assets and the chance to dance at that establishment is eliminated, for all.
    Reduce the taxes and “privilege fees” levied on an establishment that provides live entertainment, and more money will end up in the owners’ pockets. That, in and of itself, is not a one-touch solution to the problem of a meaningful wage for dancers, be they regulars or guests, but it is a step in the right direction. If a city wishes to support the arts, doing so at the most local level–the individual business–seems to me to be better than the way things are handled now.

  7. Julia

    Jan 23, 2012 - 11:01:14

    I’m not buying Sausan’s excuse for not paying new dancers. She claims to pay her regular dancers a normal working wage (though how much is not specified), but expects new dancers to dance for free until they “prove” themselves. She is perpetuating the same “free audition” mistreatment that dancers have been trying to get away from for years. Broadway directors do not make their new cast members work for free until they “prove” that they have a following – they get paid too, though perhaps not the same as the stars of the show. As a former dancer and a current restaurant owner, Sausan should know better and have dancers submit videos for performance consideration or do an audition outside normal business hours. Anything less just makes her seem like another restaurant owner trying to take advantage of dancers and trying to justify it with the excuse that she’s been a dancer too.

  8. Anthea Kawakib

    Jan 31, 2012 - 09:01:30

    Isn’t she saying she considers the guest dancer (who’s visiting & wants to dance there) an “audition” slot in addition to the regular (paid) dancer? Also that most of the time she’s never heard of said dancer? I can understand her point of view, even tho I personally never did unpaid auditions – but then I never went to look for a paid restaurant gig while visiting out of town either. I would hardly expect a restaurant to hire someone who walks in the door from out of town & wants to dance & get paid.

  9. Samira

    Feb 2, 2012 - 04:02:13

    If a restaurant NEEDS the dancer to bring in clients- it’s going down.
    There is a difference between “dancer popularity” and general public “dancer draw.”
    Dancer popularity may mean she’s wildly popular with the dance community or he/she has a large family and friend base to draw from who will come see her… but this rarely translates to long term commitment to supporting the dancer at a regular venue. People will see her more in the beginning and they will come to the haflas etc.
    General public draw means people who don’t know the dancer come to see the dancer. He/she develops regular patrons at her regular venues AKA fans, I suppose. THIS is useful in the working dancer world. Combine this kind of draw with social media, website, email addy list etc and a dancer CAN help support a restaurant… but she will not save a drowning restaurant.
    If he/she HAS that kind of draw and web visibility/promotion… she should be paid properly, not in peanuts.
    In addition, the author herself said she traveled, ousted dancers from their nights and danced for her dinner- so she may have different ethics than others who would think about the local dancer who she may be ousting or who may choose not to undercut.
    If one’s “need” for performing outweigh ones thoughts of long term relationships with other professionals in ones field- well… that already brings questions about the individuals professionalism, ethics and trustworthiness.
    Now this person takes those same kinds of values and is a venue owner and writes about it.
    The kind of dancer who would undercut to take others’ gigs out of town… became exactly the kind of owner to play dancers against each other etc. This should not be a surprise.

  10. Anna

    Feb 15, 2012 - 11:02:45

    As a belly dancer and a musician professional, I have prepared students for classical recitals, booked and promoted rock concerts at local venues, and danced at haflas and at festivals.  Granted, I have never been a restaurant owner, but I have put years of effort into every aspect of performing, from teaching and preparing it, to organizing shows, to actually performing myself.

    Yes.  Any up and coming performer should be prepared to perform for peanuts at his or her (or their) first few gigs.  Not their first few gigs at YOUR venue, but their first few gigs, period.  If they are an established professional with a fan base of some sort (even if they are from out of the area), they deserve decent pay.  Not just food.  Actual money.  Do you pay yourself with food from your restaurant?  I don’t think so.

    But how can I know if a professional from out of town is worth my time, you might be asking.  Well, Sausan, there is this little thing called the Internet.  I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.  Any performing professional can put together some semblance of an internet presence through this new thing, called websites.  They can also use tools like “twitter” and “facebook” to connect with fans and promote shows.  They can also use this new invention to upload videos or audio files to their own websites or to this other site called “youtube” to showcase their previous work.  So you, as a venue owner can check out these new-to-you performers to see if, yes, they actually know what they are doing. 

    The fact that you think a performer, regardless of his or her experience, needs to start at ground zero with you, is inexcusable and insulting. 

  11. Jessica

    Feb 17, 2012 - 08:02:11

    Is it any surprise that Sausan advocates undercutting and not paying dancers when she comes from the school of Jodette? Her mentor has a horrible reputation in Sacramento for undercutting the professional dancers in town by sending out student dancers with only a few months or even just a few weeks worth of lessons under their hip belt. I can’t say that I’m shocked at all to read this.

  12. Sausan

    Nov 28, 2012 - 02:11:04

    Dear Readers and Commenters:
    WOW!  But I’m really happy my articles get read.  🙂
    Just to make it very clear…..I never said, or claimed to have said, that my new dancers dance for “free”.  “Free” means dancing for absolutely nothing.  My new dancers — as any dancer that dances at Al-Masri, graduates and/or non graduates alike — dance for an agreed upon form of compensation, which is thoroughly discussed — at length — by both/all parties involved.  In fact, just to disclose on this public forum one form of payment compensation agreement which I offer, guest dancers who come in a teacher/student capacity on a given Sunday night at Al-Masri always get at least a minimum of complimentary dinner valued at $25 or more.
    I’ve also never advocated undercutting anyone.  What I stated was the the price agreed upon should be ONLY between the employer (restaurant owner/hirer) and employee (dancer).  This is simply acceptable and agreeable general business practice, which has been always practiced in the public/private workforce.
    Additionally, Jodette has never undercut anyone to my knowledge; I know her well.  Jodette has personally contracted with the many restaurants in her area to certain contractual agreements, which, under contract, made verbally or otherwise, are agreed upon and adhered to with a strict cultural ethical code of conduct with which she has also contracted with her students who work with/for her.  Anyone going against these contractual forms of agreements — verbal or otherwise, which are made long before the student is sent out to dance — are immediately dismissed, as agreed upon, from her employ.  This business practice is similar to that of many corporations.  It falls under the general auspices of, Conflict of interest.
    No one performs for peanuts.  Experience is not peanuts.  To be frank, I go out of my way to publicize my Sunday events often time spending money to bring in an audience for dancers I hardly know.  I know the importance of that.  I also teach all of my students of the importance of bringing in their own audience to fill the house, so that the house can continue to offer these priceless venues.  I seriously question the dancer who comes in to my restaurant with no support of her own and assumes/expects me to provide her with an audience, and then be expected to be compensated for that.  It simply does not work that way.
    While I appreciate all comments; and yes, I have heard of the Internet (don’t know why I was asked that, but, oh well…), I write from both ends of the spectrum and from experience as a dancer and restaurant owner.  Not a single solitary dancer — guest, student, or otherwise — has ever left my employ unhappy with what form of compensation she/he received for his/her performance.  All one (like these seemingly unhappy readers) needs to do is ask those dancers. 

    That, my dear readers, must tell you something.  🙂

  13. Rasha Nour

    Sep 23, 2013 - 04:09:43

    Sausan, your excuses are pathetic. A complimentary dinner? Seriously? Worth a *whole* $25? That’s downright insulting. If I thought my performance was worth that little, I wouldn’t even be dancing in public. For most gigs, free dinner wouldn’t even cover my bus fares. If you think that dancers are worth so little to your business, it’s not clear to me why you ‘hire’ them at all. Eexcept that actually, I think you do see the value of dancers, but have realised you can get away with getting their services at below a sustainable market rate because so many people are desperate to dance, and you are willing to be an unethical employer and make disingenuous arguments like the above to save yourself some cash.
    The purpose of hiring a dancer is to entertain your patrons so they have a great time and are more likely to return often, not to drag their friends and family along to prop up a struggling restaurant. If you aren’t able to fill your restaurant and can’t afford to pay a dancer properly to entertain the customers, then it’s not the dancer that’s the problem… It is not a dancer’s job to ‘provide an audience’. She is a professional entertainer who you are hiring to entertain, not a promoter. You are not doing her a favour by ‘providing an audience’ if she isn’t compensated fairly for her time and effort.
    Frankly, your attitude disgusts me, and I’m glad that you and your unethical business practises are on a different continent to myself.

  14. Julia

    Apr 15, 2014 - 05:04:54

    Anyone who would waste an entire evening dancing for just “dinner” must be really hard up. Any other entertainer who works at a venue would expect to be paid fairly. Fairly is a rate that more than compensates for their mileage and hourly rate. You might be able to expect students to dance for a meal, but to expect a professional to dance for that rate is insulating and degrading to dancers.

  15. Amber Skye

    Oct 7, 2018 - 07:10:40

    Opinions aside…Sausan, you said, ‘As in any employment opportunity, long term or short, these negotiations are strictly between you and your employer and should not ever be discussed with anyone, least of all with colleagues and co-workers, outside the office or dance floor.’

    Cafeful. I know someone who just filed a legal suit and investigation with the National Labor Bureau over their former employer breaking a federal law in regards to her employment. It is in fact illegal on the federal level (and also in the state of California) to bring disciplinary action against a non-supervisory employee for discussing fair wages for the betterment of all workers. Any contracts verbal or written do not supercede these state and federal laws.

    Law aside, as a professional dancer, I highly encourage dancers to discuss fair rates for the benefit of the consuming public and the benefit of other professional dancers.

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