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In Sharp Comparison

Dancing in Lebanon and the US

Author Neena Nour

by Neena Nour
posted October 25, 2012

When Farida Mazar Spyropoulos, who was born in Syria in about 1871, first appeared at the Midway “Street of Cairo” of the World’s Columbian Exposition back in 1893 as Little Egypt and Fatima, she stole the show and became a sensation. Even though the dance was dubbed the “shimmy and shake” or the “hoochie-coochie” for lack of better wording and vocabulary, the United States was introduced to the art of belly dancing.  Today, there are thousands of belly dancers in the United States–from American Tribal to Egyptian to Turkish and to Lebanese styles! Mostly, dance students learn and enroll in classes and workshops and then begin working in their local towns and cities. However, a good few invest and travel to belly dance festival overseas–especially to the Middle East where the dance form originated. Some of them even make their move permanent–in order to gain expertise, after finding work and renting an apartment. 

Sometimes, it is shocking what these dancers encounter; so I am writing this article to give belly dancers a little insight about the current state of belly dancing in the Middle East and, specifically, in Lebanon compared to the dance as it exists currently in the United States.

In the United States, we dancers all know the big Arabic restaurants from the Armenian and Turkish ones. Probably, we know also most of the small cafes and hookah bars in our city. A lot of us dancers perform at parties, weddings, and corporate events at a higher price than our restaurant shows. The price of both fluctuates from coast to coast depending on the city where you perform.

There are some general or common courtesy rules that apply that we call “good dancer ethics”:

  1. Keep your reputation high, do not go drinking or go home with the customers.
  2. Go to your show dressed like a star.
  3. Also, respect other sister dancers; if a dancer has a gig you want, you respect her and try to negotiate  through her for the gig.
  4. You even have to make sure that your pictures are not too sexy or provocative to keep the dance an art. 

The “sisterhood”  of other dancers does not apply in the Middle East. In fact it can be quite cut throat. You are pretty much on your own.

In Beirut, there are some similarities. I understand that in the big restaurants, not all the places have a dancer in their program. It features also the same sized bands as in the US. Some places have a one man show, a keyboard player that sings–or a DJ, while other places have a set of around 5 musicians; sometimes, even famous musicians that live close to the restaurant. Dancers’ shows last about 30 to 45 minutes, and sometimes, a live band who will play. In smaller restaurants, they may have the musicians take a break, like in the states, and dancers perform to an arranged CD of their favorite music. Concerning how many nights dancers do their shows: it is around 3 nights per week in about 90% of the places. The pay is in between $100.00 to $150.00 a night in a restaurant, depending on the place.

When looking at the quality of restaurant, there is not a big range of levels. There are restaurants in 5-star hotels with a dance show, and there are medium level restaurants outside of the hotels. Of course, the plum venues for dance are the restaurants in the 5-star hotels. Next desirable are the restaurants outside the hotels; then, the cafe restaurants that have a program. What we refer to as “hookah bars” are no different than a small coffee shop. They do not offer entertainment other than a flat-screen television, and they do not have either a singer or a dancer. 

Lebanon has something called “super night clubs" which are, basically, strip bars or cabarets. The term “nightclub” can be misunderstood easily–so it is best to tell them that you work at a 5-star place and not a cabaret.

For the party scene, people still hold house parties with a live band or they will rent and reserve a restaurant. Because of the way in which  the world is changing, in today’s market, the price is around $300 to $500. Ten years ago, dancers wouldn’t go for less than $500 per show in the main cities. (However, nowadays, there are dancers from Syria who will come here and dance for $100.) Weddings have changed also. A lot of people hire belly dancers for the entertainment. It is not quite as often that they hire a belly dancer in a Beirut wedding; they prefer to have a group show of folklore and or a Lebanese Dabkeh group. However, once in awhile there is a bride that loves Oriental dance and requests it. (Personally, I perform at quite a few.) There are large dance companies that book weddings and they take a big percent of the show and normally offer a base-pay around $200 to $250 to the belly dancer. Sometimes, there are  event-planners that will call dancers directly, but most of the time, the planner will work with a company for a better package price. There are almost no corporate events or parties that hire belly dancers here in Beirut. It is very rare; while in the United States, often we believe in “work hard and play hard” in the workplace. Some of the best paying parties in the US are the corporate ones.  Here in Lebanon, dancers sometimes receive a request for a show at a Christian’s First Communion or a Baptism.  

I met another dancer in Beirut who said the following about her experience: “The dance in Lebanon is not like [it was] before. It is very rarely on TV programs. In the ‘90s it was much more popular. Belly dance is not only for fun, in fact, [it] is real art like any other dance form, and it needs care and practice and [for you to] apply yourself. The foreign dancers take it more seriously.” ~ Jeanine Khoury

Depending upon to whom you are talking, the Lebanese think of belly dance as an art. It looks best if you have a manager, and when you go anywhere to negotiate, you bring your manager to meetings as well as to your shows. Managers normally take a cut anywhere from 10% to 25% maximum. While an agent is not necessary, having one will tell the owners right away that you are professional in your work.

Once a dancer told me: “Well, if you want to work in Beirut, you will need hair extensions and a nose job.”  This is not true!

Lebanese culture may be seen by some as superficial in general, because they pay heavy attention to small details. For example, I have never seen a Lebanese woman walk around Ashrafiya (the affluent section of Beirut) with chipped nail polish. It is very common for agents to ask you about your surgeries, your age, and even check your passport for verification. This kind of scrutiny about age and beauty, I have never encountered in the United States. There is a lot of plastic surgery here but not much more than when I was living in Hollywood. There is also a great deal of pressure to own and use the best of the best, sometimes even down to one’s blue jeans. So, yes, nice clothes or designer clothes do help and having an in-shape body helps too. Nevertheless, beauty is also how you hold yourself, how you represent yourself, and acting the part of a professional dancer by all means.

Overall, definitely, there are more work options in the United States. Depending upon where you live and how you are marketing yourself, there is more money to be made in America. Dancers end up paying the same amount of money for living expenses that one would in California–and you get to deal with the electrical power being disconnected between 3-6 hours every single day as a bonus! Besides that and the unstable political situation, the thrill of working in Lebanon and the Middle East is worthwhile. The experience you will receive as a Beirut dancer is priceless.

Neena Downtown Beirut with a Starbucks

Neena Downtown Beirut with a Starbucks

Waterfall in Jezzine in the south of Lebanon

Waterfall in Jezzine in the south of Lebanon

Rouche Sea Rock

Rouche Sea Rock

One of Lebanon's beautiful little mountian towns, Falougha

One of Lebanon’s beautiful little mountian towns, Falougha

iGemmayzeh, a street in East Beirut

Gemmayzeh, a street in East Beirut

Relaxing at one of Lebanon's Beaches

Relaxing at one of Lebanon’s Beaches

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   |       |    5 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Zoe

    Oct 29, 2012 - 02:10:16

    The photos alone make me want to move to Lebanon!!! Thanks for the article!

  2. No Gravatar
    Helena Vlahos

    Nov 1, 2012 - 01:11:05

    Good job Neena! That is a very helpful article to let the dancers know what is going on in Lebanon. You should write another article about the style of dance, the predominant movements, what style they think they are doing (Egyptian, Lebanese or whatever else) and who are they emulating? Who are the most popular Lebanese dancers right now?

  3. No Gravatar
    Selena Kareena

    Nov 2, 2012 - 02:11:42

    Awesome Article Neena!Thanks for the Information, and Yes as Helena says You Must do another article! Thanks for this ONE! Best of Luck You are an inspiration to Me here back Home!
     

  4. No Gravatar
    Melissa McClure

    Nov 4, 2012 - 11:11:42

    Great article Neena. Thanks for sharing.

  5. No Gravatar
    Naj of BellyDanceShoppe.com

    Dec 18, 2012 - 02:12:28

    Hi Neena;

    Great article. You have always been a lady. So glad you are sharing the importance of being ethical and holding to high standards of reputation. I really love your writing and am looking forward to more articles.

    Naj

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