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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Booking Gigs


by Shira



Table of Contents


You're starting to dance professionally, and you've heard horror stories about the "Gigs From Hell" that other dancers have had. You'd like to avoid those nightmare shows yourself, and you'd also like to behave "professionally" so that your satisfied customers will recommend you to their friends. So... how do you do it? It starts with your initial phone conversation with the prospective client.



Before the Phone Rings

When a prospective client calls, it sounds unprofessional to say, "Wait a minute, let me find a pen... no, there's not one here, let me look somewhere else...." That makes you sound like someone who doesn't get calls like this very often.

So how do you avoid this potential pitfall?

Place a notepad, a pencil, a calendar that has your schedule on it, and a map of your area next to the telephone. Also write a "script" for yourself that addresses some of the "challenging" issues below where you might find it difficult to think on your feet — for example, what you would want to say if you discover that the gig would be for a bachelor party. Keep all of this next to the telephone, all the time.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.




Basic Questions to Ask

Question: What is your name and telephone number? What are your email address and your postal address?

Write these down. If necessary, ask the caller to spell his/her name. The purpose of the mailing address is twofold: 1) So you can send the person who hired you a thank-you card after the event, and 2) So you can add the person who hired you to your mailing list. After all, if the client enjoys your show, s/he may be a candidate to hire you again in the future, or to attend any future events that showcase you as a performer.

Question: What is the date and time of the performance?

Consult your calendar to make sure you're free then. Write the information on your notepad — don't transfer it to your calendar until you're certain you want to do this gig. If the caller hasn't thought about exactly what time s/he wants you to perform, ask what time the party starts, and suggest that you perform about an hour and a half after the scheduled starting time. Any earlier, and the crowd may still be small. Any later, and the crowd may be too drunk to be a good audience.

Question: Where will the performance be? What kind of facility is it?

Check your map. How far will you have to drive? If it's a long distance, consider charging extra for that. Ask for directions, even if you've found it on your map — your client will know the best route for avoiding heavy traffic, construction work, and other obstacles that may make it a hassle to get there. The type of facility will determine what kind of dance you have the space available to do. Is it a private house? Apartment or condo? Moose lodge? Restaurant? Know in advance what to look for. If necessary, ask the caller how much time you should allow to get there from where you are.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, San Jose, California.

Question: Will there be a sound system available that can play my music?

If the client says a sound system will be available, find out which you should bring - an MP3 player, or a CD.

Even if your client says a sound system is available, bring your own boom box just in case. You can leave it in the car until you have determined whether you need it.

The reason for asking this question is to help you know as much about the working conditions as possible before you walk in the door. It will make you less nervous and more poised.

Question: How long do you want the show to be?

Make sure your own performance skill is strong enough to handle a show of whatever length the customer asks for. A "bellygram" is usually a quick show of 10 minutes, or 15 minutes at most, which consists of swooping in with a perky entrance number, dancing briefly, doing something to embarrass the guest of honor, posing for photos, and swooping out.

A full show may be as long as 20-30 minutes, and demands a much higher level of skill from you — if you're new to gigging, it might be better to refer this one to a more experienced dancer.

Sometimes clients ask for a show that's a full hour in length. This is a sign of someone who is not accustomed to hiring entertainment. Nobody wants to be the dancer that everybody thinks is dragging on too long. It's best to steer the client to a shorter performance, and leave them wanting more.


Question: What is the special occasion or theme for the event?

This may give you some ideas on what to include in your show. If there will be a guest of honor, it's always fun to include some activity in your show to make this person the center of attention. For example, you might place the person in a chair in the center of the room, then lead all the party guests in a Middle Eastern line dance with the guest of honor in the center of the circle. Or, you might coax this person to get up and dance with you while all the party guests take photos and videos of the fun.

If the client says that this is a bachelor party, a "very private party" with only one audience member, you should be prepared to handle this discussion. Most belly dancers prefer to avoid all-male parties. Also, most belly dancers say no to the "very private party" gigs because usually those men are looking for something other than "dance".

Statement: My standard fee for a show of this length is $___.

Make this a statement, not a question. Listen for the reaction on the other end of the line. Decide ahead of time how flexible you are willing to be if the caller tries to negotiate a lower fee from you.

Warning: the cheaper the price you agree to, the less respect you are likely to get. Also, it's a very bad idea to become known as "the cheapest dancer in town" because that practice is known as "undercutting". Once you get a reputation for doing that, other dancers in town won't refer gigs to you, and the clients who learn of you through word of mouth will know they don't need to pay full price. Also, if the client thinks you are a "cheap" dancer, chances are you'll be treated with less respect.



Red Flags

Most people who contact a belly dancer to talk about hiring her for a gig do actually want to hire a dancer. However, some callers do not have honorable intentions.

It's always wise for a dancer to include some questions in her conversation with the caller to determine whether this is a legitimate gig opportunity or something else.

Some examples of callers with a dishonorable agenda could include:

  • One of your local rivals is trying to gather information about how much you charge and what types of shows you offer so she can use that knowledge to take gigs away from you.
  • The caller may be a predator looking for someone to rob, kidnap, rape, or kill. These aren't always men.
  • The caller may be making you an unwilling participant in his sexual fantasies. He may be aroused by asking you detailed questions about your costumes or what your typical performance is like.

Ask questions to learn more abou the caller and what kind of show is wanted. If something seems "wrong" about the responses, your instincts may be trying to tell you something. It's better to end a conversation with a suspicious caller than it is to walk into a dangerous situation or have your time wasted by someone who has no intention of hiring you.

If you need ideas on how to screen people with dishonorable intentions, I recommend reading the book The Gift of Fear by Gavin DeBecker. Also, read my article Protecting Your Personal Safety When Doing Belly Dance Gigs.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.




The Professional Touch

Question: Will the audience include large numbers of any particular ethnic group, particularly Middle Easterners?

If so, include elements in your show that will particularly appeal to that group. For example, an audience with many Turkish people will appreciate Turkish music. A largely Lebanese audience may appreciate inclusion of audience participation via a debke line.

Question: What ages of people are likely to be there?

If children will be present, then chances are your performance will be in a wholesome, safe environment. If there will be only adults, it may still be a great group to dance for, but there's a greater risk of drunkenness and rowdiness — it may be best to insist on an earlier performance time. An audience of young adults may appreciate inclusion of some current Middle Eastern pop music in your set.

Question: Just to make sure that I deliver the kind of show you're looking for, could you please briefly describe what you're expecting?

People often have stereotypes or expectations in mind when they hire a belly dancer. It's important to listen to what the person describes and determine whether it is a good fit with what you are prepared to do. Sometimes it may be better to refer the gig to someone else whose specialty is a better fit.

Sometimes a client says s/he isn't sure what to expect. At this point, it can help to offer a few descriptive comments that clarify what the show will be like.

Some clients may request a particular prop, such as shamadan for an Egyptian wedding, or they may request a more conservative, covered costume. Understanding these requests and accommodating them can make you stand out as a pro.

Question: What percentage of the crowd will be men, and what percentage women?

If the client says it will be almost entirely men, this should raise a red flag. If the party will be held in a very public place, such as a restaurant, even a primarily-male crowd may be fine, but a dancer should think carefully before committing to do it. A dancer should always feel empowered to turn down an opportunity if something about the situation feels uncomfortable.

Question: [If this is a special event with a guest of honor] What would you like the greeting card to say?

Clients appreciate it when a dancer leaves behind a souvenir card that the guest of honor can keep as a memento of the show. The concept is similar to the gift card that accompanies delivery of a floral bouquet — it's something that expresses a sentiment and identifies who arranged for the show. It's very important to verify the spelling of any names that are to appear on the card. Even a common name may have an unusual spelling.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.




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