Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Bellydancer’s Guide To Gigs

After an extremely unpleasant experience with a recent show, I found it helpful to refer to an old article of mine as a reminder to always stick to your guns and demand fair treatment; from the very first contact with the client until you leave. I hope this is helpful and that some of you can avoid unpleasant situations in your future! And for you potential clients, perhaps this could clarify a bit of the industry for you.

A Bellydancer’s Guide To Gigs
How To Make A Living And Still Like Yourself In The Morning

Originally published in Mid-Bits Magazine, Winter 2009. Edited Sept 2010.
By Laura Selenzi

After my last article about the Arabesque Pro Course (published in Mid-Bits, Fall 2008), I began thinking about how much I had learned about the business of bellydance. Four years later, I now perform and teach regularly in Toronto and many of the issues discussed have come up for me. Although it was intimidating at first, I’ve found that insisting on respect and high standards has left clients pleased and impressed. Yasmina Ramzy’s resolve to change the public’s view of bellydance to that of an art form has stuck with me as I attempt to make a living in this industry.

The profession of bellydance is a highly misunderstood one, to say the least. When I inform people of what I do, “I study Middle Eastern dance” (because, to say I’m a bellydancer right off the bat always sends eyebrows through the roof and evokes much nudging and tittering, of course…) the reaction is usually one of intense curiosity and surprise –and occasionally shock or skepticism. “What do you actually DO?” they ask. Well…besides teaching and dancing with Arabesque Dance Company, the sort of shows I do are vast in range.

The classic is of course the Arabic wedding. Then there’s the usual restaurant show. There are also bridal showers, birthday parties, children’s parties, baptisms, fundraisers, corporate events, television and movie appearances and more. On the other hand there are dancer-created events such as stage and theatre shows, studio “hafla’s” (parties) and gala events. However, it’s the events where the general public hires us that I’m interested in discussing.

How do these people find me? Many find me through the Arabesque Agency, which is where I gained an understanding of fair pricing, professional ethics, and more. I also receive a number of requests from my website and other sites where I list myself. Some come from recommendations from previous clients and other entertainers. One of the main things I find myself doing is educating clients about hiring a bellydancer. I would say at least 95% of clients have never done this before and are looking to the dancer for guidance.

The major hurdle I run into at this point is price. I will absolutely not go below my standard rate unless there is a very compelling reason, ie: for charity or an event that will absolutely lead to a significant amount of future business. This is why most dancers charge less for recurring restaurant bookings – they promise a reliable weekly income and the prospect of contact with new clients. Private events are a one-off and do not give you as much exposure, so charging more is appropriate. Standard rates (charged by professionals and popular agencies in Toronto) are $125 and up for a recurring weekly show, and $200 for a private event downtown. Most of my shows are farther outside of the downtown core, and normally run at about $250-$350 depending on location. Arabesque lists the pricing scheme very clearly on the agency website.

So why all this talk about pricing? As I mentioned earlier, this is the biggest hurdle in booking gigs and dealing with clients. I lose about 50% of the potential clients who call me when they hear my price. “Oh ok…I’ll talk to my husband and get back to you.” And…they’re gone. Or “Well my friends niece said she’ll do it for $50, why do you charge so much more?” I feel its important at this point to mention that you are a seasoned professional who takes the dance seriously and have put years of time and money into your training, and it shows. People often thank me profusely after shows, mentioning another event where a non-professional danced (often a family member or friend who has taken a couple lessons, people have too often been embarrassed by hiring someone like this) -they are thrilled to see a real pro. If people want something decent, they will pay for it. I’m not going to argue with clients here. I pleasantly state my case, and thank them for calling. There have been many times when I could have really used that $150 to help pay the rent, but I have stuck to my guns.

I’ve overheard Yasmina Ramzy’s struggles in the Arabesque Agency as she attempts to convince clients no true professional would charge $150 for a private event and yes, her dancers are educated about Arabic music and culture, and yes they are stage-worthy and attractive. Clients have had way too many bad experiences with inexperienced dancers who use inappropriate music, props and costuming, etc. and are now nervous about hiring again. As I mentioned in my last article, one of the wonderful things about bellydance is that it is welcoming to all women; but in the case of commercial gigs, most clients want a dancer who is young, fit, and attractive.

The real problem with pricing is when other dancers charge below the standard rate. Some state they love to dance and would happily do it for less or for free (some even go so far as to suggest that being paid for your art implies you love it less). Some say that they are still inexperienced and don’t feel right charging the standard rate, or are simply trying to beat the competition and get more shows and experience. The issue here is that this devalues us as artists and professionals. If one dancer charges $100 for a private party, the client then feels that this is the “real” price, and the next time they or their friend tries to hire a professional, they think we are trying to rip them off. So no one wins here, the public will now insist on a lower price for everyone. So when you are “ready” to charge the full price, no one will want to pay it. (This of course goes for teaching rates as well.) If you are just starting out and don’t want to charge the full rate, dance for charity events, fundraisers, students gala’s etc. until you do feel ready. Performing for the public before you’re prepared not only lowers the bar of the entire art form, people will remember you as such and you want to present yourself at your best.

In many cities bellydancers charge much less due to factors such as high competition and low market price. Arabesque ran into the same problems in Toronto originally but began to slowly raise the fee, encouraging others to do the same. Soon it was clear that those clients who were discerning were willing to pay for the best. In price checking other dance entertainers such as hip-hop and bollywood, you may notice that the rates start around $300 for private events. Why do we charge less?

Another issue I have come up against, and that the Arabesque Agency has to deal with frequently is the client who wants to hire dancers as “ambience”. They want a pretty girl in a costume to dance around behind musicians, on a podium at a club or to hostess an event. Now while this may sound like easy money, and maybe even fun, it is an area in which to tread cautiously. Why? The problem is that we are being treated as a backdrop, like a prop. In this case dancers are rarely treated with respect. If they want a model in a costume, they should hire one.

The issue of being treated as artists is a big one. Of course a major part of our role is as entertainers and not always as a serious artist, but we still need to represent the art form fairly. Interacting with the audience is one of the joys of bellydance, however it certainly brings up its share of problems. A good example is tipping. I personally don’t feel comfortable with strangers tucking money into my bra or belt, or touching me at all for that matter. My way of dealing with this is to smile and take the tip in my hand and tuck it into the side of my belt myself. It is a difficult subject as the tradition of tipping the bellydancer is a part of Arabic culture and most people have the best of intentions. Usually they just want some sort of interaction and to compliment you. My issue is that the most well known image of a dancer accepting tips in her costume is…you guessed it, the “exotic dancer”. And we have fought for too long to separate ourselves from this image to risk appearing as something we’re not. I find that people are often relieved that you have saved them from not knowing the appropriate conduct here.

In the case of audience members who are intentionally disrespectful, lewd, or distracting it is best dealt with swiftly. You may need to talk to the owner before hand, making it clear that you will not continue your show if such behavior occurs. It is a challenge to keep the polite patrons happy and appear cheerful while attempting to tell off a drunken letch. If the organizers are not dealing with this for you (as they should) the best approach here is to make a bit of a joke out of it, embarrassing the jerk and making the rest of the audience laugh. Slapping a wayward hand and wagging your finger is a simple example. People love to see that you can stand up for yourself. I think it’s important to mention that if you ever feel threatened or uncomfortable it is fully within your rights to leave. Never stand for that kind of treatment as you are setting an example as well as looking out for your own safety. While it’s sadly true that some organizers may be upset with you after this, do you really want to work for people like that? Most will be overly apologetic and embarrassed.

In conclusion, I believe we should dance with a conscience and an awareness of the greater affect of our actions. Obviously none of us can be perfect and may occasionally find ourselves in less than ideal situations. A good question to ask ones self is, will I feel proud or ashamed after this choice? Will showing up for a surprise “bellygram” at this office make me feel proud of my art form, or humiliated? Is allowing this person to shove a $5 bill into my bra cup going to make me feel uncomfortable or gracious? Is charging less for this gig going to make me feel badly, or is it appropriate? If you are honestly asking yourself these questions it is hard to go wrong. For whatever your answer is, if you are being true to yourself, then you are being true to the dance itself.

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