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This article first appeared on Gilded Serpent in installments beginning 4 May 2007

Part 1- Booking a Party
by Yasmin

I recently read an article written for aspiring professional dancers on HIp Circle. It covered the four corner posts of our profession; Commitment (money, physical effort, time), Talent, Presence and Determination. These are indeed the very essence of what makes a good dancer great. But there are a whole slew of other details, The Devil's Details, that can make or break a dancer, once she arrives on the circuit. Those are the topics I would like to cover in this article; the dirty little details no one talks about much, but that should be discussed.

It is difficult for newcomers to pick up many of the nuances a seasoned performer learns the hard way over time. That is why I decided to put together a quick and dirty list - to help dancers just breaking in do justice to our profession.

I am also a great believer in Murphy's Law - if something can go wrong, it will. (You will see numerous references to it throughout.) It is better to be prepared than unwittingly succumb to Murphy's random whims. When a dancer looks good, she, or another, will get called back to perform again. When she looks bad, customers might be turned off to our lovely art form forever. Therefore, a bad dancer not only ruins things for herself, but for all of us.

Often, the amount of fun a dancer has when she performs is directly proportional to her business skills, not her artistic talent. During what can be stressful hours of over-enthusiastic partying, it literally pays to have mastered the business side of our beloved profession. Because if a dancer can translate one job into a steady flow of paying engagements, she can actually turn a profit instead of just dancing for fun.

I have broken up my words of wisdom into 5 sections;

  • Booking a Party,
  • Booking Agents,
  • Professional versus Amateur,
  • What Not to Do and
  • Beauty.

I didn’t originally intend for this to be so long, but once I got going I realized there was a lot to cover. For the professionals out there, if I have missed something or you don’t agree with me, please send me an email and I will add your comments to a future update.

PART 1: Get the information up front, at the time of booking:
Most ‘misunderstandings’ can be avoided if a dancer knows the right questions to ask in the beginning, when she accepts a job, rather than discovering unpleasant surprises after she has put her make up on and driven all the way to work. I have written these guidelines only as stream of consciousness tips and have not listed them by any order of importance:
  • Nationality of customers (Middle Eastern, Indian, Westerners, etc): Different cultures will have slightly different expectations from your show. You must learn what those differences are (a discussion far beyond the scope of this simple article). Knowing who your audience is can help you choose appropriate music, costumes, props, etc.
  • Place: Besides the location, ask about parking, directions and for a telephone number of the venue (in case you get lost, are late or have a last minute question). When you are in a rush, knowing where to park in advance can be a lifesaver, particularly if it’s a busy night or a crowded area. Do you know the area? Is it safe? Will you need to bring a companion/body guard? How long will it take you to get there? Add 20 minutes for Murphy’s Law.
  • Time window / flexibility: Do you have another place to go to before or afterwards? Do you mind sitting around waiting? Does your customer need for you to be flexible? How will waiting affect the price you quote? (Your time should mean extra money.)
  • Travel allowance: Is the place far away? Will you need to charge extra for travel or a hotel room to spend the night?
  • Type of party: Will it be family friendly, a birthday, wedding, shower, bachelor party, etc? Will you need to bring something special for the guest of honor (a fez or sultan hat, an extra hip scarf)? It saves embarrassment on both sides to mention up front (on your web site, etc.) whether you will or will not do all-male parties. 
  • Costume requirements: Are the guests conservative (religious considerations)? Will you be expected to change your costume for any reason (appear several times in front of the same audience, perform a complete Middle Eastern style show, etc.)? Do they have a color preference (the hostess is having a black and white party, she hates purple…)?
  • Payment: Don’t be shy. Now is the time to nail down the amount, method (cash, check, deposit), time of payment (at the time of booking, before you go on, after you finish, at the end of the evening) and who will be paying you (the booker, the restaurant owner, the customer, their best friend who hired you as the surprise for the party, the musician…). There can be any number of excuses if someone doesn’t want to pay, so it is important to set everything straight before you go anywhere.
  • Music: What will you be dancing to, live music or a CD?  If it’s a CD – ask if the customer has a country or style preference. Will you be using props in your show? Will you need special music? How long would the customer like the show to be (also a payment factor)? Will you be expected to do more than one set? It is always wise to burn an individual CD per show and put your name on it. Don’t leave extra tracks at the end that a DJ would have to scramble to stop. There may not be a DJ… If you burn your own CDs test them before you actually use them. Make sure they work. Always have a back up CD. (Most dancers I know bring an entire binder of music and check out the audience first before deciding on a final CD.) Use a sleeve to protect against scratching, cat hair or spilled soda. If there will be live music - ask what nationality music the band will be playing and for their contact information. It is helpful to get a possible list of songs from them in advance.
  • Written record of booking by email, fax or letter. The bigger the party, the farther you have to travel or the more dubious the club owner, the more important this becomes.
  • Contact info for the booker, who may not always be the customer or the one who pays you.
  • Communicate what you need for your show: a space to change, room to dance (including a floor free of hazards), a CD player (if using prerecorded music), a mirror and secure storage space for your things. If you use a prop, also explain how much space you will need to avoid disasters.

Part 2 - The Cross-Cultural Factor
Middle Eastern vs. Western Audiences, Party Bookers, Restaurant Owners, Musicians, etc

Knowing how to navigate cross-cultural waters is an essential skill for any successful belly dancer. Differences in communication styles, attitudes and traditions can affect every aspect of your job. Sometimes it can mean the difference between getting hired or not, paid or not, or called back or not. Understanding your audience’s reactions can turn a lousy show into a great one. Why did all those women stare at you with daggers in their eyes? Why did someone try to stuff dollar bills down your bra or stick one on your forehead? Were they trying to cop a feel and/or smear saliva on you? Have you carefully watched the audience, how they interact with you and each other? If a certain type of behavior is annoying (on or off the stage), think through an appropriate way to discourage it without offending anyone.

The information you obtain up front will usually depend on the nationality and type of booking agent. Private parties booked directly by the customer will always be more straightforward than those booked by an intermediary DJ, musician or club owner. These people may not actually know all the details when they book the dancer, other than the date and how much they are willing to pay. It is best to be laid back if you want the job and finalize things the week before you are due to perform (but NOT the night of the show once you are already there).

Being detail oriented, efficient and organized comes across well to Americans but not necessarily to Middle Easterners, who take a more ‘go with the flow’ attitude.

My approach has usually been to settle the money right away and take the rest as it comes, unless I have multiple bookings that night and time is an issue. Then it is important to communicate this lack of flexibility to the booking agent so they can’t come back to you on the night of the party and say, “You never told me you couldn’t wait around for an hour…”

Warning. There is a great deal of passive aggressive face-saving behavior in this profession. It is not always woman friendly either. Respect is not a given…

In times of trouble it can be helpful to remember the saying, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Know that it is NOT selling out to be sweet but firm in the face of adversity, especially with Middle Easterners. Tempers flare, stress happens, but it is foolish to end up on an eternal blacklist for one hotheaded remark. That is not to say don’t stand up for yourself. Just try to leave your emotions out of business conversations. It is after all only a job. Perhaps you will wake up the next morning with a different perspective. One more thing, if a situation turns into a question of honor for a Middle Easterner, things can get blown all out of proportion. It doesn’t matter who is wrong or right. Saving face is what is important, and if the dancer is not careful she will often find herself turned into a scapegoat.

The best advice I have ever read about the double talk in our profession is an article written by Artemis Mourat entitled Top Twenty Club Cliches, about what owners/bookers say when they don’t want to tell dancers the truth.

Musicians as Middlemen
These are hiring agents worth their own paragraph. It is important to remember that they are also colleagues and in the same boat as you when something goes wrong.  But their priorities are different. They will be at a party all night instead of for one 30 minute show. They may have to play for several acts without a break. As the night wears on alcohol can get the best of reason. The musicians may have to deal with inebriated customers, which adds stress to an already high-adrenalin situation. If a dancer doesn’t get paid for half an hour’s work it is extremely annoying. But if the band doesn’t get paid, the booking musician and all the people working for him are out an entire night’s work - that the musician will have to reimburse the others for whether he collects or not.

That musician is under far more pressure to please his customers than you are.

Musicians tend to assume that all dancers know the ins and outs of performing to live music. They take for granted that she understands the musical cues, pauses and band interaction common to dancer/musician communication. Musicians also do not take kindly to being ridiculed in front of an audience. Remember that there are infinitely more ways for them to make a dancer look bad than the other way around. In the West, dancers are a dime a dozen. Musicians rule. If they don’t want you to work, you won’t work. It is better to stay on their good side, even if it means putting up with occasional frayed nerves and flaring tempers. If something is important to you, say so, but it’s better to settle things at booking, rather than on the night of the performance