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Nightclub and Restaurant Gigs

Paid Auditions or Justified Entitlement

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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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