As a former dancer who has performed in both flamenco and belly dance, Marisa Wright shares her understanding of professional dance gigs
Here are a few hard-hitting facts about being a professional belly dancer:
- You're unlikely to make a full-time living as a professional belly dancer.
- Hourly rates are high, but it's likely you'll be able to work only a few hours a week, usually on Fridays and Saturdays.
- You'll be expected to provide all your own costumes, props and music.
- The reality is that you'll probably need to work a day job, even if you offer belly dance classes as well as performing.
- Working in Egypt is a dream of many, but in reality, it's highly stressful and sometimes dangerous.
How Often Will I Be Working?
It's often said that if you work at what you love, it doesn't feel like work. So it's only natural that if you love belly dance, you'd like to earn your living at it. The obvious way to do that is to dance—but in belly dance, that's difficult. In ballet or theatre jazz, you could hope to join a company or land a part in a musical and be paid as a full-time employee. Not in belly dance.
If you want to make a living from your dancing, you'll get paid a fee per individual gig—and it will be up to you to find those gigs yourself (unless you are in the Middle East, where you'll have an agent). It's an unpredictable and precarious income at the best of times.
Good professional singers, dancers and musicians do command a high hourly rate which may sound impressive. But the reality is that they rarely work for more than a few hours each week—and that's especially true of belly dancers.
Where Will I Be Working?
Unlike a folk-singing duo or a pop group, you can't get work at just any pub or restaurant. You will be limited to Arabic, Greek and Turkish clubs and eateries. Most of those venues want a belly dancer on Friday and Saturday nights only—and no matter how many restaurants are in your area, you can't be in two places at once!
I know dancers who (with the help of a boyfriend or friend as chauffeur) manage to perform at three or four venues both nights, but it's frantic and exhausting. Even then, two nights' work isn't going to pay you a living wage, so you will need work at private functions too.
Private functions usually pay better than restaurant gigs, but you have to allocate a lot more time to them, which means you're less likely to fit other gigs on the same day. Apart from the extra time needed to discuss and agree what the client wants, private events are much less predictable, so delays are common. If the bride or the birthday girl arrives late to the party, you just have to wait. If it's in a private home, hitches with music systems and performance space are far more likely than in a function centre or club, and that can hold you up too.
Some dancers have a rule that if they're kept waiting for more than an hour, they won't perform, but be careful! It may be the client's fault that you had to walk away, but they're unlikely to see it that way and may bad-mouth you to guests and friends ("she ruined my party!")—so unless you are already well-established with a good reputation and can afford to brush off the odd unfair slur, you can't afford to be too hard and fast about it.
So, the fact is that if you want to run a belly dance business, you'll need to do more than just dance—unless you are extremely talented and extremely lucky! There are lots of ways you can use your belly dancing skills to enhance your income from performing: teaching is the obvious one, but you can also look at offering special packages as well as straightforward dance gigs—things like bellygrams or children's parties.
What Should I Charge as a Professional Belly Dancer?
When I first started performing (at gigs organised by my teacher), I was stunned by the amount being charged for my performance. After all, I was on stage for only 15 to 20 minutes—it translated into a higher hourly rate than a doctor or a lawyer! How could I justify that?
You'll find plenty of blogs by belly dancers (some listed below) justifying the charges on the basis of the years of training they've done and the hours of ongoing practice. They sound convincing on the surface, but let's be honest. Doctors and lawyers undertake several years of full-time study just to qualify, and then do ongoing professional development every single year.
The cost of costumes and props used to be a consideration, but prices have dropped dramatically. Also, in my experience, most belly dancers buy costumes for themselves rather than their audience, and could easily get by with half the number. Join any belly dance group on Facebook and you'll see dancers advertising their second-hand costumes for sale, usually in perfect or near-perfect condition. Unless they've changed size, they have no reason to sell them other than that they're bored of them. After all, very few dancers are dancing to the same audience week after week, so they don't need to ring the changes with their costumes.
Having ripped the cost argument apart, let's look at what I think really justifies a dancer's fees.
In my view, the only argument that makes sense is encapsulated in this little story:
One day, a lady was at an art exhibition. She approached the artist and said she wanted to buy one of his paintings, but it was much too expensive. She named a price which she felt was a fair value, taking into account the cost of the canvas, paint and frame. The artist thought about it for a moment, and then agreed.
The next day, the package arrived at the lady's home and she opened it—to find it contained a blank canvas, paints and a frame!
The moral of the story is that the canvas, paint and frame are only a tiny part of what goes into a work of art. What matters is the artistic talent and expertise that turns those mundane elements into something very special and magical. The ability to create that magic is a rare thing, and that's why society values it so highly and is willing to pay artists (whether they be painters, dancers, singers or musicians) a premium for it.
If you're good enough to be a professional dancer, your talent is worth a premium. The corollary to that is that if you feel your talent isn't good enough to justify that much, perhaps you're not quite ready to turn professional? It's just something to consider.
In fact, belly dancers charge about the same as other professional performers, and that will vary depending on where you live. Ask your teacher, or try signing up with a theatrical agency and see what fees they suggest. As an inexperienced newbie, you might be tempted to charge less, but be very cautious about undercutting the more experienced dancers in the area—if you do, you may find yourself in a bidding war which could drive down prices for everyone.
You can find a good guide to rates in the USA on Samira Shuruk's website here.
Michelle Joyce wrote this great article with tips on how to stick to your guns when negotiating the price for a gig.
Are You Ready to Dance Professionally?
This video clip is a cautionary tale which will strike a chord with many professional belly dancers. It's a cringeworthy "interview" with a woman who thinks she is ready to dance in public.
Unfortunately, it's not a rare occurrence. I think belly dance teachers can be their own worst enemies sometimes; because they place such an emphasis on building self-esteem and empowerment, they don't critique or correct their students as much as they should. Certainly, I've never seen a belly dance instructor give anything like as much correction as a jazz or ballet teacher.
That makes for a supportive class atmosphere, but it also means you can get an inflated idea of how good you are—especially if your teacher has encouraged you to perform early and praised you regardless of how well you danced—which, I regret to say, is the norm in belly dance circles.
The result is that I've seen many students accepting belly dance gigs after only a year or two of lessons—which does nothing for the reputation of belly dancing. However, that's a whole other subject.
The line that got me was the one about her costume—made from a bra from Target. I know I recommend shortcuts and easy solutions to home-made costumes—but even if you're going to make costumes at home, you need to set some standards. There's a difference between inexpensive and tacky!
There's nothing worse than dancing in something that's obviously underwear. There's also a difference between what's acceptable at an amateur performance and what's appropriate if you're performing in a professional show.
Please, please, if you are considering a professional career, ask your teacher (or another trusted professional) for a brutally honest assessment of your readiness.
For some more "reality checks" about becoming a professional dancer, this article by Carrara Nour spells it all out very clearly!
Also worth reading is Becoming a Professional Belly Dancer by Kiyaana, So You Want to Become a Professional Belly Dancer by Portia Lange and Why Do You Charge So Much For Only Fifteen Minutes of Dancing? by Shira.
If you're dreaming of working in the Middle East, Sabriye Tekbilek's article and Luna of Cairo's blog are good starting points for your research, but if you want to get a feeling for life as a belly dancer in Cairo, I recommend Fire in the Belly by Zaina Brown. It's an honest and gritty account of Zaina's own experiences, and if you love belly dance, you'll find it a real page-turner.
© 2020 Marisa Wright