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Baby dancer attempting to handle a drunken and agressive sultan.

Gilded Serpent presents...
The Devil's Details, Show Ethics for Professionals Part 3
Separating the Girls from the Women:
What differentiates amateur from professional dancers?

by Yasmin

 If a performer conducts herself as a professional she is much more likely to obtain repeat engagements and referrals. No one wants to be seen knowingly hiring an amateur. It is bad for business and a customer’s image. Again these are only stream of consciousness tips in no particular order.

  • Rhythm. Be on beat. This is a cardinal rule for all forms of Middle Eastern dance. The music must be interpreted the way it is played, not the way you think it should be. There is nothing more painful to watch than an offbeat dancer – no matter what the style.
  • Know the music or be good at improvisation. With CDs it’s easy, you burn the CD, and you know what’s on it. You can practice to it - before you perform in front of an audience. You can listen to the pauses in the songs and between tracks and think of ways to fill them. You can memorize where the big accents are so that you hit them. On the other hand, if there is a live band, you have to improvise, even if you know the song. Each band will play its own rendition. Your job is to do justice to whatever you hear. For example, someone with live music experience knows to pause slightly before each new phrase, to ensure what she thinks comes next actually does. 
  • Handling tips – family friendly costume placement. For most dancers, a stranger reaching into their costume is an uncomfortable situation - until they work out a system. Everyone is different. Usually the solution involves a joke, a wink, a turn of the hip or shoulder, so that private parts stay private and customers still share a happy moment of appreciation. The sides of the belt, a shoulder strap or an armband are all very acceptable places for bills to be slipped.
  • Tips - how to split them with the band (if there is one). What happens to tips during and after a performance is usually the biggest bone of contention between a dancer and musicians. The more money involved the higher the stakes for all concerned. When I worked in Europe and the Middle East there were two different ways that tips were handled. Either every member of the show, musicians and performers, took an equal share of the night’s total income (for the lower class places) or each performer had their tips split three ways, with a third going to the artist, a third to the band and a third to the house. A smart dancer learns to pick out the big bills in her costume or on the floor and to remember roughly how much she put into the communal pot (if she empties her costume on stage). However the split will be, communicate about it before the show to avoid misunderstandings or confrontation.
  • Floor tips. A dancer does not go scrambling around the floor collecting money. It makes her look cheap and low class. Ask a staff member of the booking agent to arrange for someone to collect your tips.
  • Audience participation.  Some audiences will want to dance and others will not. Some nights you will find lots of people to get up and make fools of themselves and other nights not a single good sport. No matter what, a dancer should never force an audience member against their will. At the other end of the spectrum, a performer should also figure out a method to gracefully escort people out of the limelight. If you need the stage to yourself, don’t hurt a guest’s feelings. Also, learn how to do your show with a sidekick. This is extremely helpful when children get up and their parents expect you to baby sit as well as be the main attraction.

  • Pretty but Stiff

    Bra Failure

    Mischevious Munchkins
    Audience control. A performer is the master of her universe while she is on stage.  That means if someone is out of control, particularly on stage, the dancer must address the problem. If a drunk does not disappear on his or her own (by ignoring them), he or she will need help. What kind of help separates a pro from a newbie. Getting angry in front of a room full of people is not the solution (a sense of humor is always your best bet). Gently guiding the disruptive force out of the bright lights is better. If that doesn’t work, leave the stage to work the audience for a while. As a last resort know whom to wink at to get help. A restaurant is an easier venue than a private party. At parties, you are usually on your own. Just remember that all the people present are guests of your customer and you have been hired to entertain them, not to make them feel guilty about their indiscretions.
  • Facial expression / performance wall. Traditional Middle Eastern dance is an audience friendly performance art. That means your audience wants you to smile at them, with them, for them – not at the back wall or for the genie on the ceiling. They want your smile to be real, not plastered onto your face like an accessory. True facial expressions ebb and flow according to the music or eye contact with audience members. They are not carved in stone and immutable. It is easy for a beginner to succumb to a ‘deer in the headlights’ stare when she first appears, particularly if there are theater lights and a raised platform. A good trick is to focus first on the front row and establish a relationship with several audience members. Then transfer your feelings to the rest of the room. Even though you can’t see individual faces farther back, they are out there, watching every move, and they expect you to dance just for them.
  • Calm demeanor before a performance. Nerves do terrible things, like give you stage fright and make you want to throw up. But infecting everyone around you with anxiety is not a good idea. It makes you look bad and annoys everyone else.  It’s OK to be scared but keep it to yourself. Talking about it will only make it worse. Everyone gets butterflies in their stomach. That’s part of the adrenaline rush. But it is more helpful to concentrate on how you want your show to go, rather than on all the dreadful things could happen. Positive thinking works wonders.
  • Professional looking pictures, web site and business cards. In a word, marketing. Professionals know that to make their art profitable they must promote themselves, like any other commodity for sale. Your public image is a customer’s first impression of you. Do your pictures look amateur? Were they taken in front of a sheet, in a basement or in your back yard? Was your make up done well (did you wear any at all)? Are your business cards printed with cheap ink? Is your web site difficult to navigate? There are many sites on line that have good advice for beginners (like or Do research. Study the sites of well-known dancers. How do they encourage bookings? Have you arranged for links from the places you work to your own web site? Is your bio well written? Do you tell the truth? Padding a resume is not a good idea. Do you carry promotional materials with you when you work? It is always good to invest in professional pictures with lots of different costumes. Nothing exudes confidence more than a professional promo package.
  • Costume preparation and inspection. And nothing screams amateur louder than a cheap costume poorly put together. Loose hooks, ripped seams, gaping bra and belt, underwear showing … are all clues to the hapless audience that their performer of the evening was not prepared. Take five minutes before you go to work to make sure everything fits, that the hooks are sewn on tight and that all the bits and pieces are really in the bag (like the right underwear. Murphy’s Law - if you are not wearing underwear, your skirt will fall down. Or, you will be so worried about flashing that your show will be a disaster.) It is also important for a dancer to know what costumes are appropriate for which settings. A nightclub atmosphere might support tighter see-through skirts, where a family restaurant would want a more covered look.
  • Check for children in the audience.  Dancing for children can be rewarding or a pain in the neck. Children have no preconceived ideas of our art form, so if they like you, you see it on their faces. Some may be shy with big round eyes, but most just want to have fun. That means they can jump up on stage at any moment, sometimes when you least expect it. Murphy’s Law says it will be when you are swinging your cane or sword around at its fastest. That is why it is always a good idea to check the audience for little critters. Turn your radar on them so if you see movement from that direction you are forewarned. Again, some parents think it’s OK to let their kids play onstage during the show. It is up to you then, as the master of ceremonies, to set limits, graciously. If the parents are hopeless however, you must grin and bear it. Pas de deux, anyone?
  • Pricing standards. Every region has its own pricing structure. It is up to the new dancer in town to find out what the established community charges. Nothing will make her enemies faster than inadvertently cutting the pay scale in half for every hard working dancer in town. Again, has some excellent articles on the subject, along with some regional pricing.
  • Know the Law. Every state or even county is different. It is the performer’s job to know the rules and regulations that governs her region, such as where and if she can accept tips in her costume or whether her stomach needs to be covered. Are there prop restrictions (i.e. no fire or swords)? Generally the local liquor board covers tipping and costume issues and fire safety is up to the individual venue.

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Ready for more?
5-4-07 The Devil's Details, Show Ethics for Professionals, Part 1- Booking a Party by Yasmin
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
8-29-07 The Devil's Details, Show Ethics for Professionals, Part 2- The Cross Cultural Factor by Yasmin
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...

7-16-07 Music Copyright Law for Belly Dancers (or for any Performing Artist by Yasmin
From Hollywood blockbuster movies down to clips on YouTube the law is the same and it applies to anyone who uses someone else’s music for their own purposes.

10-11-07 The Jamila Experience by Yasmela
All of these feelings fled as soon as Jamila walked through the door.  A big impressive woman clad entirely in black...

10-3-07 Revisiting BellyPalooza: the Daughters of Rhea Belly Dance Festival by Elaine, Most photos by Allen J Becker
August 4, 2007, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland. The weekend of dance workshops and performances took place once again in Baltimore on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, one of the most elegant venues imaginable for such an event.

8-11-00-Yasmina's First Club Gig a silly comic strip by Lynette
"You're so beautiful! Wouldn't you like to audition to dance for us?"

9-28-07 Learning the Language of Belly Dance by Shems
A dancer’s path should be the same, moving from technique to refinement to pure inspiration.

9-26-07 Lifting the Veil by Yasmina Ramzy
I excused myself first and then asked her “why on earth would someone obviously not of Middle Eastern heritage actually choose to wear the veil?”She smiled knowingly and gave me an answer that still keeps me thinking today.


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