Developing Your Skills
Be humble. You will never be done learning. – Alexandra Taggart
In order to get to a professional-quality skill level, you need to develop a solid relationship with a teacher you respect. If you’re not already taking regular classes or private lessons, yesterday was the time to start.
Video classes and DVDs are great for practice, but they’re not sufficient for professional development. You need feedback – direct, sometimes painful, personal feedback about your strengths and weaknesses – in order to become a competent pro.
If there are no teachers in your immediate area who can give you what you’re looking for, consider taking Skype lessons from someone in your region whom you admire. Better yet, travel to meet them for private lessons on a regular basis. In-person instruction is generally much more useful than video instruction.
As a pro, you have a responsibility to your fellow dancers, the arts community, and your clients to present yourself in a professional manner and to be honest about your skill levels and knowledge. Going pro too soon can ruin a promising career by alienating the communities that you will be relying on to hire you. - Mahsati Janan
Keep in mind that your teacher or mentor may advise you to hold off on going pro until you’re further along on your dance journey. If this happens, don’t take it as a personal insult, and don’t assume that they are trying to sabotage your dreams. Most likely, it’s exactly the opposite. Your teacher is risking something – their professional relationship with you – to give you advice you need to hear. It would be easier, and possibly even more lucrative, for them to throw you out into the world before you’re ready.
If you are not ready to listen to constructive criticism even when it hurts, you’re not ready to be a pro artist of any kind. The marketplace will be far crueler than your teachers ever will.
Learn to accept criticism with an open mind, and always keep working to improve.
Don’t forget to drill. In the hustle and bustle of the professional world with all the marketing and mingling, some forget the basics. Stay in class, remember your basic drills. Don’t get sloppy and careless just because you have more on your plate. Remember what you are capable of taking on and don’t overwhelm yourself. - Mya Nirvana.
Think about the last time you saw a bad musician, or a bad stand-up comic. You probably felt uncomfortable for them, or maybe even resentful that they wasted your time and money.
Audiences can spot an amateur. Unfortunately, many audiences don’t know what good bellydance looks like. If they see a subpar bellydancer, they may assume that since they dislike him or her, they dislike bellydance as a whole. Do you want to be the person who turns someone off from bellydance – permanently?
You must have good technique in order for your audiences to take you seriously. In order to have good technique, you need to dance all the time. You need a regular home practice, and you need the input and advice of decent teachers.
You have a responsibility to continue your education through whatever means necessary to make sure that your dancing continues to evolve and grow. Being a pro doesn’t mean you have stopped learning; it means that you are willing to take on a whole new area of learning in addition to what you have already. - Mahsati Janan
But while good technique is necessary to be a well-rounded performer, it isn’t sufficient. You must also learn to feel comfortable on stage, to be able to engage with audience members in an appropriate way, and to put together an act that commands interest and attention.
Cultivating these performance skills doesn’t happen without practice, which is why I suggest getting as much amateur performance experience as you can stand.
Do not rush into becoming a pro! Take classes, workshops, dance at haflas! - Faaria Lynch
Many bellydance communities offer a wide range of amateur performance opportunities, such as student recitals, “haflas” or dance parties, and stage shows. These types of events are an invaluable way to refine your performance skills while making connections within your community. There is no stigma attached to dancing at these events; in fact, many pros continue dancing unpaid at haflas and stage shows for their entire career.
If there isn’t a bellydance community in your area, you may need to travel to participate in these events. You might also consider performing at non-bellydance arts events, like street festivals and fairs, in your own backyard. Many of these kinds of events accept amateurs.
Get a video of your dancing from every event you can, and photos too if possible. If no one will be taking an official video, ask a friend to tag along and help you record the event. Watching your own videos is absolutely essential for artistic growth, and if a video presents you in a good light it can also be a marketing asset.
Listen to your dance elders. They have done this before and may be able to help you avoid the worst pitfalls of being a new pro. If possible, find a mentor or a peer group of pro dancers who can act as a sounding board for you. Remember, your fellow dancers can be a valuable resource as well as great friends. - Mahsati Janan
Even if you aspire to become a solo dancer, participating in a troupe or collective can be a great way to learn the ropes. The support of a troupe, even a relatively new or inexperienced one, can save you from having to figure everything out on your own. Moreover, there is safety and power in numbers.
If there are no professional troupes in your area, consider asking a dancer (maybe your mentor?) who does professional gigs at restaurants, nightclubs or parties if you can tag along as his or her assistant.
If there is a professional organization for bellydancers in your area, join it. Use it as an opportunity to learn from experienced dancers.
Developing Your Niche
Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society. - Mark Twain
Once you’ve got the skills to be a professional performer, you need the equipment. Performing in anything less than a professional-quality costume sends the message to your audience that you do not take yourself seriously. And if you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will.
What constitutes a professional-quality costume? In the end, it’s up to you: how do you want your audience to perceive you? Do you want them to think you threw something together at the last minute, and that your dancing will be just as shoddy as your outfit? Or do you want them to be entranced from the first moment they see you, ready to be blown away by your dancing?
That being said, here are some general guidelines.
- No fraying seams and no stains.
- Nothing that looks like store-bought underwear. Replace your bra straps if you’re making a costume from scratch. You are not a stripper.
- Quality-looking embellishments that are securely fastened to the costume base.
- A correct fit. Tops should be supportive without being too tight. Bottoms should be neither too long nor too short. Belts should fit around the hips snugly, without gaping.
- Nothing that risks potential overexposure. Wear color-matched underwear under your skirts!
If you want a new costume, plan on spending at least $500 for a full set of decent quality. You can economize a little by buying costumes used from other dancers – try bhuz.com to start – but remember how important a quality costume can be.
Know your abilities and skills at the level you are at in your training, and maximize them instead of trying to do moves that your body isn’t ready to do yet. Also, learn your natural talents (how your body moves best naturally) and be creative with those things. - Kim Infiniti
Watch your own videos. Be honest with yourself about what you see. Learn what you do well and work it to your advantage. Your strengths, combined with your interests, will eventually become your personal style.
Ask the other dancers in your area how they perceive your dancing. Is it playful? friendly? emotive? dramatic? Try to be open to what you hear. Brainstorm ways to work with their image of you, not against it.
Start to develop a niche around your own performance energy and style. What audiences and venues might be interested in what you have to offer? How can you grow relationships with them? Understanding your niche is the first step in developing a successful business plan.
Do not put blinders on and do what everyone else is doing. This goes for artistry, but it goes triple for business, venues and marketing. Treat yourself as every bit as important as any other, more established dance form, art form and business, think outside of the box, and partner like hell. - Natalie Brown
What do you have to offer your area that no one else does? If you can’t think of anything, maybe you need to continue working on your skill set, or perhaps you should seek out a creative coach.
Why? If all you can offer is a less-polished version of what somewhat else in your area is already up to, the only way you can compete with them is on price point, and that is called undercutting. There’s more below about why undercutting is not only beyond uncool, it’s not in your best interest.
Moreover, if you understand your niche, you can create a marketing campaign that has more soul than flash. What colors, forms, and fonts represent your unique aesthetic? Your entire marketing presence, from your costume (yes, that’s part of marketing) to your business cards and your website (yes, you need them), should visually reflect your niche.
Get photos taken by a professional photographer. Choose someone whose portfolio suits your niche. Just like your costume, your photos speak for your dancing before it begins. Poor quality photos can easily deter potential clients.
When people don’t want to hire you it could be for any number of reasons: the budget isn’t there, you don’t fit their idea of a dancer for their venue (yes, here’s where being not young or thin can get thrown in your face … be strong), or your style, whether tribal or nightclub isn’t what they’re looking for at the moment. - Romilly
Why would someone want to hire you, rather than another dancer or performer? Be ready to answer this question through your marketing before your clients have the chance to ask. What types of clients may not want to hire you?
You won’t be a good fit for every client, event or venue. It’s better to bow out gracefully ahead of time from events that really don’t suit you then to end up with a disappointed client. When would it be wiser to refer a potential client to another dancer, or even another type of performer?
What kinds of gigs will you not accept? What kinds of gigs are you actively seeking out? Include this information on your website.
Developing Your Business
Don’t undercut. The standard rate is the minimum to charge in a given area rather than the maximum. All pro dancers should charge at least the minimum to maintain the respect of their peers and of the clients hiring them. It doesn’t do you any favors to become known as the untrustworthy undercutter (to the dance community) and the bargain basement dancer (to the clients). - Mahsati Janan
Once you’ve figured out who wants to hire you and how to convince them to do so, you need to decide how much to charge. If there are other dancers in your area, find out what they are charging. (If there are none, find out what dancers in another town or city of the same size and demographics charge.) You don’t have to charge the exact same rate, but try to keep your wiggle room to a maximum of twenty percent. Charging three-fourths (or less) of the going rate is, in my opinion, undercutting.
Undercutting makes you look cheap and will reduce the amount of respect you can command from your clients. When your clients don’t respect you, get ready for some extremely questionable behavior, which could include any or all of the following:
- not getting paid your full rate
- not getting paid anything at all
- being asked to dance longer than you indicated you would, or to stay later waiting to perform
- being asked to do stupid or humiliating things on stage
- harassment of all kinds, including sexual harassment
Undercutting is also a quick way to make your local dance community shun you. While this may not bother you on an emotional or ethical level, consider the financial implications. Do you want to mortgage that potential support system for a few hundred dollars? Are you really that desperate for cash? If so, you’re in the wrong line of work!
Think of all the things you would expect a professional to do. Imagine you’re hiring a plumber: you expect him to show up on time, have up-front prices, be accessible for questions, and do the job right. Just because you’re an artist doesn’t mean you don’t need to do those things. - James Fitch
When you’ve decided on a fair and ethical rate, put it on your website. There’s no real point in being coy. Think about it – if you were on the other end of the exchange, wouldn’t you want to know how much you should budget for?
Plan to exchange multiple emails or phone calls with each potential client. Get back to clients promptly. If you’re exchanging emails in any professional capacity, there is a fun thing called spellcheck which can make you look more literate and competent. Use it.
Learn how contracts work and use them. - Mahsati Janan
Besides spellcheck, the other thing you should always use is a contract. Contracts don’t just provide some degree of legal protection, they’re also a great way to iron out important details before each event, and they make you look legitimate.
You don’t have to be a lawyer to make your own contract. You can find many different bare bones contracts online. Pick one and edit it to suit your needs. What do you expect out of your clients or venues? (sound systems? floor space clear of debris? a safe performance area? a backstage area? water? parking?) What should they expect of you? Include these details in your contract. Putting this information, in addition to things like the agreed-upon rate, performance time, and location in writing can dramatically reduce bad client behavior.
Asking for a retainer (a non-refundable deposit) in advance of each performance provides an extra layer of protection in case your client cancels on you at the last minute. It’s fairly standard to ask for a 50% retainer, but you can always ask for more or less if you find it appropriate.
Remember to bring a printed copy of the contract with you to each gig, and trot it out if you feel like your client isn’t respecting it!
Ask yourself why you want to be a pro. If it’s for attention or to fill some need of yours, maybe you should rethink. If it’s to entertain, carry on a beautiful dance form, and make others happy by making THEIR event shine then, yes, go for it. - Faaria
Your clients’ happiness should be important to you. Put time and effort into understanding what music and which costume would be the best fit for their event, and for God’s sake rehearse what you plan to do ahead of time.
Gigs are work. Show up on time (or early), sober, and ready to go. Bring your cell phone and your client’s contact information (it should be on the contract!) in case an emergency prevents you from arriving on time.
Not all clients will appreciate the time, artistry and effort you’ve put in to your performance. Still, as long as they adhere to the terms of your contract, be polite and pleasant.
Understand that being a professional dancer means that your dance can no longer be all about you, your art, and your desires. - Mahsati Janan
Your artistic vision and the demands of the marketplace will not always mesh. As a creative entrepreneur, you need to learn to strike a balance between being marketable while still enjoying your work. A great way to do this is to continue performing for free.
As I mentioned before, many professional dancers continue dancing at amateur events forever. As a professional dancer I look forward to the creative freedom these events provide. I don’t have to worry if not everyone in the audience “gets” what I am doing or enjoys my music, because I participate in these gigs for my own self. As long as I don’t make myself look bad with poor technique or a flimsy costume, I can take risks, experiment and push myself as a dancer.
Professional gigs are not appropriate venues for this kind of exploration. At a pro gig, stick to what you know and what you do well, even if you’ve done it a million times before. Use music you know will appeal to your audience. Their enjoyment is the bottom line.
Present the dance in the best light in all of your performances to the best of your ability. Aim to be audience-appropriate, music-appropriate, costume-appropriate, and just all around appropriate for your style, location, and audience. Give it your best every time. - Mahsati Janan
Depending on who lives in your area, you might get the opportunity to perform for audiences of native Arabic, Turkish, or Greek speakers. If you have no interest in learning about the kinds of music, movement or costuming they would appreciate seeing, pass the gig off to someone else who would.
If you don’t know what the lyrics to your song mean, don’t perform to it. That goes triple if your audience will understand the lyrics! Don’t run the risk of offending someone.
Ask every client what their preferences are in terms of music and costuming. Many clients won’t have a preference, but some will, and they’ll be glad you asked.
Educate yourself now about the basics of being an independent contractor and taxes. Don’t let April catch you by surprise. Save receipts like a demon. - Amy Leigh Brown
If you are getting paid for performances, then you’ll need to pay taxes on that income. Keep track of all your performance-related expenses, such as costuming, marketing, and training, so that you can write them off come tax time. If you don’t read up on taxes, you may need help filing them, which is an additional expense.
Have fun. Always remember that. - Oracle
Being an artistic entrepreneur of any kind is a hard road to hoe. You’ll need years of training and preparation in order to be ready for the most basic gigs. You’ll spend time and money buying costumes and creating a marketing presence. When out at a gig you’ll need to endure unsolicited opinions and comments of all kinds, from creepy to cutting. Months or even years may go by before you make a decent amount of money doing the thing you love – or, sadly, you may never make much money at all.
Your sense of humor and your sense of enthusiasm are two of your most precious professional assets. If you don’t genuinely love performing bellydance for its own sake, there is no reason to do it, professionally or otherwise. There are easier ways to make a buck.
Remember what got you into bellydancing in the first place. Most likely, you saw someone else perform, on screen or in person. Think about how much that performance changed your life.
Your love for your art has the power to do the very same thing. Never forget that.
I wish you the best of luck!
Got a question about bellydance you’d like to ask Sara Beaman? Post it in the comments!
Sara Beaman; is a professional eccentric living in Raleigh, NC. Her various pursuits include teaching and performing bellydance, writing vampire novels, making jewelry out of weird old things, and playing tabletop roleplaying games. You can find out more about Sara at her website, www.sarabeaman.com.