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How I Accidentally Became a
Successful Belly Dance Teacher
(and you can too!)

by Michelle Joyce

After a five year professional belly dance career, I started feeling like I would enjoy teaching the art of belly dance to others. However, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is practically impossible to compete with the fabulous line-up of teachers. How could I, an impoverished part-time belly dancer, find the resources to detract attention from the propaganda machines of Suhaila Salimpour, Fatchancebellydance, or Jill Parker?

As an ex personal trainer and aerobics instructor, my first instinct was to approach the gyms. At first, no one was interested because I was asking them if they would consider adding "belly dance" classes. However, once I started approaching them about "belly dance aerobics" classes they became enthusiastic.

The rest was easy: the gym took care of everything! They paid for the advertising, they announced the start of the class to all their aerobics students, they provided the fabulous space, and they answered all inquiries. Now mine is the most popular class, which led to a snowballing of other gyms adding belly dance aerobics classes.

Here is a simple step-by-step guide to selling belly dance aerobics classes to your local fitness center:

Choosing a Gym:
Of course, you will want to approach places with large group exercise rooms and giant mirrors (because your class will be wildly successful, it is important that there is floor and mirror space for all of the participants). You will be making commission off the drop-in students, so it is important that your gym allows drop-ins. Also, you should look at the location. Ideally, you will be close to a college campus or somewhere where there may be a high concentration of potential belly dance aerobicizers.

Don’t forget that the giant gym chains are not the only places that offer fitness classes. Fancy hotels and resorts can be a gold mine! Plus, you will usually get a free membership to the place you end up working!! One of my classes is at an expensive tennis club near my home that has a pool, steam room and massages.

Approaching the Gym:
This is the tricky part. I called the gyms I was interested in and asked the name of their Group Fitness Manager. Then I sent her a packet of information. A few days later I called her to make sure she had recieved it and asked if she was interested in conducting a pilot class.

My packet consisted of fabulous flyer (complete with clip art) explaining just what belly dance aerobics is. The purpose of the flyer is to assure them that belly dance aerobics is a craze and that you have a well thought out lesson plan. I also included a resume listing classes taught, workshops attended, performances, and fitness qualifications (more on this later). Plus, I threw in a photo of myself in costume (they later used this for advertising).

Your flyer needs to be in fitness lingo, so you could say something like: "The student will get a thorough workout and achieve tone, balance, posture awareness, and strength." You can mention that the class has a cardio component and that it is a low-impact, safe workout for all ages.

I quoted TIME magazine in my flyer, as they recently published a very positive article about belly dancing:

In the current resurgence of belly dancing, its reputation as a seductive art is played down. Rather, it is promoted as a way for women of all shapes and ages not only to tone their oblique's but also to deepen their souls. The success of this message explains why sales of belly dance aerobics by "belly twins" Neena and Veena are soaring and gyms in New York City and Los Angeles are scheduling belly-dancing classes during hours once reserved for Pilates. It's why dance studios from Omaha to Anchorage can't accommodate everyone seeking to enroll. (TIME, Oct [October]2002)

Formatting Your Class:
Generally, an aerobics class is one hour long and has at least 30 minutes of non-stop cardio. My class has a 10 minute warm-up, 30 minutes of cardio, 10 minutes of slow movements, and 10 minutes of sit-ups, butt toning exercises, and stretching. Keep in mind that during the 30 minutes of cardio you should not stop moving! I generally do traveling hip bumps, egyptian walks, shoulder shimmies, etc. We walk the moves in all directions (sometimes we get in a giant circle) and put
together simple combinations. Keeping the arms up will increase heart rate, as will doing the movements on different levels (on toes or lowering to the floor).

Negotiating Your Paycheck:
Here is the bad news: the typical fitness instructor only makes about $30 - 50 per hour. Here is the good news: you are not a typical fitness instructor! You are a specialty dance instructor that offers a unique service and can attract new members to the gym. If you have a web site, a yellow pages ad, or perform regularly, these are all opportunities to promote your class and should be taken into consideration.

Gyms hesitate to commit to a large hourly rate, but they are certainly willing to discuss giving you a commission. For example, at one gym I make $50 per class if there are under 12 students, but for every student after that I earn $5. Your commission is where you will make the money. I post flyers at universities, tell all my friends, and hand out flyers for classes at every performance. As a result, I usually have at least 25 people in each class.

Fitness Certifications:
Many gyms now offer dance classes, meaning that the instructors are not certified aerobics teachers. If you are not certified, you will need to be careful about how you sell yourself. On one hand, you want to convey that your class is a great aerobic workout, but you will want to call yourself a dance instructor. You will definitely need to get your CPR certification (available at the Red Cross for about $40), but the fitness instructor certification is optional. However, having the certification will certainly make you more marketable. If you do decide to get your certification, make sure you get it from somewhere reputable (the American Council on Exercise offers the certification test for $225).

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