So You Want to Be a Professional Belly Dancer…

A couple of the baby-bellies in my life have asked me for advice, opinions and stories about “going pro.” So I thought I’d take a moment to sound off.

Certainly, many of us are dazzled by the prospect of getting paid to do what we love. After all, you can’t wear your Bella to your 9-5, nor do most of our day jobs involve livening up some swank events or making people happy.

Allow me to state up front, however: it’s not all sunshine and bunnies.

To be a successful professional dancer, you will need far more than good technique, great looks and cute costumes. After all, the seasoned pro is not only an entertainer, but also her own accountant, marketing department, publicist, boss, makeup artist, personal assistant and most difficult client, all wrapped into one. An entepreneurial spirit is a must. And so is a thick skin.

Let’s delve a little further into the skill set and the prerequisites, shall we?

  • You Sensei, Me Grasshopper Without Mr. Miagi, there would have been no Karate Kid. (That, or the Karate Kid might have grown tired of traditional martial arts and opened up his own Extreme MMA studio after watching a cage fight on TV!) This being said, who’s your mentor? If you don’t have a teacher or a trusted friend to help pave the way to your success, then now’s the time to see if somebody might take you under their wing. Many professional belly dancers transition confidently into their careers under the guidance of a great teacher. As a baby-dancer, I went along with my teacher to all of her gigs, learning firsthand what to charge, how to foil difficult party guests, how to plan my sets for all different circumstances, what to wear (and what NOT to wear). True, I could have figured this all out on my own, but my teacher saved me from many lessons learned the hard way. If you’re not sure where to start, begin by taking private lessons, voice a possible interest in establishing a dance career, offer yourself up to give your teacher a hand when she goes on gigs – and be prepared to back off if she acts a little gun shy. Reality: some dancers view emerging talent as competition. Nothing you can do about it but be aware.
  • Know Thy Audience, Know Thy Self: Remember those classroom haflas when you could dance all kinds of wacky fusion in blue jeans to AC/DC if that’s what your little heart desired? As a professional dancer, fusion is all fine and good in haflas and select alternative venues. But be prepared to give your audiences what they want, whether or not you’re feeling it, or it tickles your fancy as a fine artiste. As you progress, you’ll become an old pro at putting together a set for an American 60th birthday party, versus an Egyptian wedding, versus a promotional event at some slick ultralounge downtown. It’s a marketing thing, it’s an intuitive thing, it’s anything but selling out – even though hamming it up with the birthday boy to the Arabic version of “Happy Birthday” for the umpteenth time in one month certainly feels that way sometimes! (Rachid Taha’s Arabic version of “Rock the Casbah” is a great compromise!)
  • Major “Props” to You: Speaking of “delivering” to audiences, you BET they want to see props! This is especially true of American crowds. Finger cymbals, sword, veils, wings, candle tray (if you’re up for it, and check the venue’s fire policies first) – you name it! If you’re not feeling up to snuff in any of the above areas, start taking workshops, practicing with DVD’s and asking your teacher for extra help. Proficiency is a must. While it’s true that Arabic audiences and fellow dancers don’t tend to lust after props the way the general public does, foregoing zills or sword for select gigs is a choice you can make after you’ve sharpened your skills with props.
  • Build Your Wardrobe from Scratch: You probably had an inkling that belly dance is not a cheap hobby. If you don’t already have some idea of how much it costs to support your “addiction,” wait until you start buying costumes! This is why I recommend starting simple. Get a basic, well made silver, gold, black or white professional-quality bedlah that you can pair with virtually any type of skirt, and build your performing wardrobe from there. Once you start gigging regularly, you may feel free to “graduate” to higher end ensembles.
  • Image, Image, Image! No, you don’t have to look like a Vegas showgirl to be a successful professional belly dancer.  It’s imperative, however, to make sure your look is up to par with the specific fantasy your audiences are paying to see. Start brushing up on flattering hairstyles and makeup application. Watch YouTube tutorials, read the inspiring works of the late Kevyn Aucoin, go to the MAC counter and pick the consultant’s brain – have fun, bring your dancer-friends and make a day of it! Save the fresh-faced look for a day at the office. Gigs are your time to play and have fun with makeup!
  • Develop a Teflon Hide: Let’s face it. Your dance sisters are now technically your competition. While this is no valid reason for you to actively change your relationships with any of them, there’s always the possibility that some may act differently toward you – especially if you’re young, attractive, and/or talented. The encouraging reality is that most of your friends will remain your friends at all stages of your career as long as you keep them close. There is always that “minus one,” however, and many talented, friendly, well-adjusted established dancers have been the object of rumors, hate mail, gossip and other unsavory actions from jealous dancers. You can’t control other people’s behavior, but you can control how you react. (And please don’t react by stooping to their level or withdrawing from your entire community). In addition to fielding the occasional bout of scene drama, there is also the fact that you will always be too old, too young, too skinny, too curvy, too white, too dark, too American looking or too exotic for somebody out there. How do you cope? You just simply cope. On the flipside, there will always be somebody who hires you specifically for your uniqueness. This is the reward at the end of the day.
  • Money, Honey! This is the one class at Belly Dance University that nobody can afford to sleep through. Know what other dancers charge in your community for restaurants, bellygrams, private parties, weddings. And don’t settle for less. I know what you’re thinking: “But I’m not as experienced as the other dancers. Can’t I do myself and my client a favor by charging a little less?” Girlfriends (and boyfriends!), if you don’t think you’re worthy of the regional minimum rate, you should not be dancing professionally – yet. True, more experienced dancers can get away with charging more. But nobody can get away with charging less. Once one dancer lowers her standards, then it becomes a slippery slope. It can take years to get a going rate back to where it should be, once it starts to fall. So please do yourself and your fellow dancers a favor and start asking around about money. Other dancers won’t get weirded out by this – in fact, they’ll only respect you more.

Baby-dancers, please read this post as a healthy dish of positive encouragement with a good peppering of reality. The transition from student to pro is simultaneously exciting, awe-inspiring, intimidating, confusing, disillusioning, empowering and crazy. Even under the absolute best of circumstances, there will be setbacks. There will be rejection and the occasional lesson learned the hard way. Some people will set you up to succeed and, yes, some might even hope that you fail. But there are huge milestones and amazing experiences that await you.

Are you still with us? Want to learn more? I recommend the following articles on professionalism, business ethics and getting started as a professional belly dancer:

Samira Shuruk’s Business Ethics Page – Check the “local rates” section to find out the rates in your neck of the woods!

And, of course, Shira’s Advice Page

Comments · 3

  1. That’s a great guide, but I slightly disagree about the props. I don’t disagree that they’re important, just about how important they are.

    Finger cymbals and veil are expected parts of a standard show, and you should be able to use them proficiently in whatever way is appropriate to the style in which you perform. (ex: egyptian style veil entrance vs. american style lyrical veil song)

    However, other props are just extras. They are cool, they can spice up a show, and they can be good marketing, but they are there only to add spice to your dancing.

    *Especially* in your newer professional days, your energies are better spent improving your dancing and stagecraft. No matter how well-prepared you were before you went pro, there is a LOT that you don’t learn until you step out on the dance floor.

    Until you do, you probably don’t have the judgement to use your props judiciously.

    There is a real tendency (especially for advanced students and newer pros) to over-prop the show.

    I saw a show last week where the dancer used wings, finger cymbals, double veil, double cane, and a sword. She used them all very proficiently (her double cane was especially strong), but after the second prop, I got bored with them. I can barely remember her dancing – and that was 7 days ago!

    But if you learn to entertain the audience without specialty props, you’ll be able to judge when to use them, and how to use them to best effect.

    Again, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t learn to use props or use them in your shows. Just that your most important task is to develop your dancing and stagecraft.

  2. How bizarre….WordPress gobbled up the entire novel I just wrote you in response to your great post!

    I do appreciate all of your points and counter-points. My most influential mentor was the local Prop Diva, so she made sure I was versed in the entire spectrum of props (I’m including veils and zills when I say props, FYI) before she sent me out on any gigs. She was also big on showmanship and stage presence. Everything she taught me has made me a versatile performer, and a hit at American parties, where they expect a little “ham” and “cheese.”

    Of course, you bring up some exquisite points about the potential for props to become a crutch. After mastering the basic props, there was a brief moment where I wondered, “Now what?” Took some time and some exposure to Egyptian style to feel 100% confident that audiences would like me, whether or not I had a tray of candles burning on my pretty little head ;)

    I’d totally agree that musicality and stage presence are far too important to have become the auxilary topic that they’re sometimes approached as. I wonder why so many teachers don’t instill those values from Day One. Are we afraid of losing students who are just in it for fun rather than culture? Do some teachers not feel like their own musicality and showmanship are up to snuff? Thinking aloud, here, since I don’t teach and I’m legitimately curious.

    Yes, I’d have to agree that the show you attended sounds excessive. Any time you do a “wow” prop, that should be the main focal point of a show. I recently had to explain to a prospective client why doing sword and candles wasn’t a good idea!

    In terms of necessity, I think veil and zills are a MUST. Sword, candles and cane? I suppose they’re not mandatory, but I wouldn’t procrastinate on learning those, either. Many audiences actively request one of the above. If you do a lot of stage shows, cultural events, Arab weddings or nightclubs, or dance shows for dancers, I’d say mastering the full spectrum of props is a secondary or tertiary concern.

    Of course, I think the demand for certain props is also highly market-specific, too. The majority of my clients are American. Even Arab audiences sometimes enjoy sword.

    Now, I’m also beginning to wonder if beledi and cane should be part of this Ultimate Toolbox, too. We all know they’re a “must” when performing for most Arabic audiences!

  3. And to add to these thoughts on props, I was just thinking the other day how badly I want to do some cane or perform beledi to Tahtil Shibbak.

    Unfortunately, the feedback from my “civilian” friends is that cane is for tap dancers and Fatme Serhan’s voice is like nails on a chalkboard. So I only really go all beledi on those who I think will “get” it :-P

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