The Gilded Serpent

 

The Gilded Serpent presents...
Holding on To Integrity -
The Difficulties of A Beginning Dancer
by Heidi Hannah
February 1999


I set out to learn belly dancing as a fun and exotic hobby.  I had always loved dancing and thought that this would be a wonderful way to combine my passion for learning about other cultures with my love for dance.  Little did I know that I would find myself completely amazed and wanting to learn more in order to perform whenever and wherever I was able.  At the same time, I had no idea the struggles I would have to cope with when starting out. 

The first day of class was definitely memorable.  I soon realized that simply moving different parts of my body to the music was not as easy as I had once thought.  The isolations seemed strange and the beat of the music was unlike any I had heard before.  But here I am, less than a year later, caught up in three different costume projects while I'm creating with three more in my head, and yet another on layaway for what seems like eternity.  Simultaneously, I am learning sword, zils, veil, costume making techniques and different rhythms and I'm taking as many classes per week as my budget will allow.  What is interesting to me is that I have never been so caught up in one passion before in my life.  I have always been the type to dabble in several areas and learn a little of everything.  I'm not even on belly-dance overload, if you can believe it. I'm beginning to realize though, that the dancing is not the most difficult part.  I have had a handful of small performances, and at only two was I actually paid cash.  I loved them all and have learned something new from each one.  Because it is such a great feeling to perform I would do it for free - if I could.  But honestly, this is a truly expensive hobby!  There are group classes, privates, costumes, props, music, not to mention baby-sitters for all events, etc.  So in order to subsidize the "hobby" and allow a dancer to keep her dignity and integrity, a dancer should be paid what she is worth, or at least the going rate for dancers in her area (because we all know that we're worth much more than anyone could afford!)

One of my most recent performances was an audition for a small, local café.  I had met and spoke with the owner on various occasions and therefore had built somewhat of a rapport.  When the Saturday night dancer, who is also a good friend, moved to another restaurant she told him I might be interested in a job, and he in turn said to have me give him a call.  We spoke on the phone and arranged an audition where he asked me to dance once with a tape and once with live music. I replied that I was happy to do one normal audition with taped music or the musician, and if he would like to hire me to dance a second or third set, I would be more than willing.  Not wanting to actually pay a dancer that night, he had me come in for my audition only.  Before I left that night we spoke a little and decided to meet and talk later that week.  I went in to see him, a little shaky and ready for him to tell me how new I was and that maybe I should come back in six months. But after sitting through an hour of small talk with sweaty palms, he offered me the job, saying he would call me with details such as hours and specifically what he was offering.  I was completely ecstatic, unable to believe that I was actually getting my first regular job after only taking lessons for six months. Before he called me I had done some research into past dancers and how much he paid them so that I would be prepared with how much I was willing to accept.  One was earning $40 for two sets and the following dancer accepted $30 for two, sometimes three sets.  As a result, I knew that I wouldn't want to accept less than $30 for the night, although because I wanted to dance there so badly I might consider $25. 

When he called me, he offered me $20 a night for three sets.  I was flabbergasted.  On the one hand, here was an offer for a job that I had wanted so badly, and on the other hand I had a restaurant owner trying to take advantage of my lack of experience by offering me little over minimum wage.   I remember the lump in my throat forming as I bit down on my lower lip and listened to the offer.   My dilemma was set.  How was I going to make the right decision?  Do I accept the job at such a low rate that sets the future for other dancers to be paid the same or lower while compromising my morals?  On the other hand if I were to turn the job down I could potentially be damaging a good contact with a restaurant owner and losing an opportunity to gain experience dancing at a local restaurant. The issue was not the money.  Earning five to ten dollars less doing something that I love while gaining experience sounded pretty good. There were two issues at hand: My integrity, and undercutting other dancers.  I knew the amount that I was willing to accept per night for dancing. The owner knew how desperate I was to dance, and assumed I was equally ignorant about pay. He thought he could take advantage of me and offer me next to nothing. At the same time, if I was willing to dance three sets for $20, imagine what he might offer the next dancer.   He was already offering me half what the first dancer was paid.

I told one of my instructors what had taken place. She informed me that at her first show, back in 1973, she was paid $15 during the lunch hour.  She only danced one set, and that was fifteen years ago!  I was so pleased with myself that I hadn't let go of my integrity.  I politely told the restaurateur that although I would like to dance there, I was not interested in undercutting other dancers, and therefore unwilling to dance for less than $30 a night.  He, in turn, politely said goodbye and I haven't heard from him since. In hindsight, maybe I shouldn't have let him know how new I was to dancing. He might not have tried to take advantage of me by offering me so little.  At the same time, I could have hid my enthusiasm about being able to dance there too, making it seem as though I had many offers and was not sure I could fit dancing there into my schedule.  It really knots up my stomach  to realize that I probably did the wrong thing by being honest and open. 
  
I have learned two important things about belly dancing. The first being that dancing is like an adventure. It contains so many elements where a dancer can run into problems. Yet at the same time, she can have so many great experiences. All the while, constantly learning, growing and changing.  The second is that it is like most things in life. Although I would love to be honest and direct with everyone, I have learned the hard way that it generally won't get you where you want to go. Most dancers are not in it for the money. If you are not completely and utterly in love with the dance, you won't be able to put up with the difficulties that go along with it. As much as I love the dance, holding on to my integrity was why I felt good about myself in the end.

 

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