Photo of Shira



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

Bringing Middle Eastern Dance
To Your Community


By Shira




I frequently receive emails from dancers asking questions about how to build performance opportunities in her community. For example:

  • "I've just moved to a new city, and I'm trying to establish myself as a professional dancer here, but there is no dance scene to plug into! There are no Middle Eastern restaurants, and no other dancers organizing events. How can I re-launch my dance career in my new home?"
  • "I'd love to dance professionally, but another dancer has taken all the gigs in this city for herself. There's no place left for me to dance. What can I do?"
  • "The people in my town believe that belly dane is a dance of seduction, and they think there must be something indecent about it. So no one wants to hire me."

So, you're eager to perform for someone, but people aren't calling you up to fill your calendar with gigs. What can you do to change the situation?

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.




Names Have Power

First things first: if you live in a community without a local Middle Eastern dance scene, your first move should be to erase the term "belly dance" from your vocabulary. This term often triggers fears of something "dirty", especially in communities with conservative religious views. An event promoter in the 1890's coined the term in hopes of stirring up a scandal that would stimulate ticket sales. He succeeded. Over a century later, the term "belly dance" is still tainted with an undeserved scandalous reputation because of continued "dancing for the Sultan" stereotypes being depicted in movies, television shows, men's magazines, and even children's cartoons. See my article "Mass Media, Mass Stereotypes" here on this web site for further information on this.

If you want to avoid the whole stripper misunderstanding, then call it "Near Eastern dance," "Middle Eastern dance", "Biblical dance," or "Oriental dance," but don't call it "belly dance". See my article "A Dance By Any Other Name" here on this web site for the detailed explanation behind this advice. I have never heard a member of The General Public ask, "Does that have something to do with stripping?" when I tell them I do "traditional dance forms from the Middle East". Think about it!

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Lina Jang, New York City, New York.

Some dancers firmly embrace the term "belly dancing" because they're trying to reclaim it, transform it into a term of power, and apply it to the divine feminine. I don't have a quarrel with these people, and in fact, I hope they're successful! But, most of these dancers live in communities where many people are already familiar with Oriental dance and have friends or family members who have tried it. These people can afford to call the dance whatever they like, because they're not risking as much when they do.

However, if most people in your community associate the term "belly dancing" with something "dirty", then maybe you need to abandon the "powerful woman" politics and call the dance something less inflammatory. Consider your local environment, and decide which is more important to you: using the terminology you like best, or building local acceptance of your art form. Sometimes you can't have both.




Don't Be So Lazy!

You might not like it, but someone needs to tell you this: "Don't wait for someone else to create a place for you to dance! Get out there and start your own dance scene!"

Many dancers are inherently lazy. We prefer to let someone else go find a place that welcomes dancers, and then we come knocking on the door to ask if we can dance there, too.

If people aren't coming to you to beg you to perform for them, then you'll need to invest some effort into developing local interest in what you have to offer. No one else is going to think it's important to help you find an outlet for your yearning to perform. It's harsh reality.

Gear up your public relations engine. You have a significant amount of work ahead of you:

  • Collect Names. Find out the names of local organizations who might be willing to provide performance opportunities (see next section below for suggestions). Call those organizations and ask, "I'd like to send a letter to your entertainment officer. Can you please tell me who that would be?" Build a list of prospect names. This cold-calling is basic sales technique.
  • Brainstorm. Think creatively about what types of events might provide an opportunity to perform. See below for suggestions you might not have thought of.
  • Publicity Photos. Hire a photographer to shoot some professional-quality photos of your in costume for use on flyers, business cards, and other promotional pieces. If your community is very conservative, choose midriff-covering dresses and folkloric costumes for these photos such as the dress I'm wearing in the photo to the right. You can always return to your beloved bra/belt/skirt set after you've gained the trust and friendship of local promoters.
  • Build Technical Skills For Self-Promotion. Learn how to use software tools on your computer for creating graphics, a web site, and flyers.
  • Begin Selling. Send a letter introducing yourself to everyone whose names you collected. Enclose a photo business card with the letter. Promote the benefits of what you can do for them, and invite them to contact you for more information. Do not include pricing in this initial letter. About a week later, phone everyone to follow up. Be pleasant and cheerful. If someone says she doesn't have time right now, ask when would be a better time to call.

All of this may seem tedious, but the reality of running a startup business is that many tedious tasks are involved.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.




Places to Dance

Think creatively here. Middle Eastern restaurants aren't the only place to dance!

There are two basic types of performance: community service and professional. Community service performances usually pay very little (or even nothing at all). When booking one of those, be sure to ask what the pay will be — sometimes these places do have a budget to pay you a small amount, but they won't offer it if you don't ask. In contrast, you should expect to be paid for performing in professional settings.


Community Service Opportunities

Many professional dancers prefer to avoid these gigs because they offer no pay. If you decide to do one of these, bring an assistant to distribute flyers or business cards for you while you dance. Remember, the "exposure" is worthless if the audience doesn't know who you are or how to contact you.

  • Local Festivals and County Fairs. Your community probably has some sort of annual festival. Often, such festivals will provide "community stages" with talent show opportunities.
  • Parades. Many communities have an annual parade. Perhaps you can organize a float or walk in it, periodically stopping to dance.
  • Busking. If your city allows musicians, magicians, and mimes to perform on street corners or at subway stops in exchange for money offered by passers-by, check into whether this could be a fit for you. Some cities regulate these performers and require them to obtain licenses.
  • Arts Councils and Community Theater. Check whether your city has an arts council that organizes public exhibitions of the performing arts. If so, develop a relationship with the event coordinators. Volunteer your time and use the opportunity to suggest that they invite you to perform at future events.
  • Church Pageants. If your church arranges special events throughout the year, offer to do a dance as part of one of these activities. The easiest way to stir their entrance is to offer to portray a Biblical character that fits with the theme of a given day's topic. For example, if Palm Sunday is approaching and your church likes to begin the Palm Sunday service with a procession of people carrying palm fronds, offer to portray a woman dancing along with them. Or, for a Christmas pageant, you could offer to portray a shepherdess dancing with joy at the news brought by the angels. For such an occasion, you should certainly dress in a historic costume that looks convincingly Biblical, and select moves that won't be seen as too provocative by church-goers. For example, consider a costume such as the one I'm wearing in the photo to the right, which is a Palestinian dress.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by PixieVision, Glendale, California.



Opportunities That Could Be Either Community Service or Professional

Sometimes venues in this category do pay something, but sometimes they don't. When you approach them, start with the assumption, "Of course they should pay!", but be prepared for the possibility they don't. Remember, if they don't pay anything, they should at least offer you an opportunity to distribute your business cards, include your name in their advertising, and make your name and contact information readily available to your audience.

  • Museums. Build a relationship with your local museum. Perhaps you can persuade them to hire you to entertain at an exhibit opening.
  • Hospitals. Hospitals often have programs to bring entertainment in to cheer up patients and their visitors.
  • Retirement Communities. Retirement communities are homes where still-healthy senior citizens reside. Often, these places will sponsor regular parties for their residents.
  • Nursing Homes. These are places where people who need more extensive medical care live. They too often try to arrange programs to add spark to the lives of their residents.
  • Schools. Approach a school in your neighborhood with an offer to do a special presentation about Middle Eastern dance for its students. Depending on the size of the group and their ages, you could spend some time with a short lecture, some with a brief performance, and some with teaching them how to do some simple moves.
  • College Dance Programs. If you have a local university with a dance department, check on whether they ever sponsor local dance shows that might include you. Maybe they would consider inviting you to do a brief lecture / demonstration in one of their classes.
  • Charity Fund-Raisers. The low-budget, simple ones probably won't be willing or able to pay anything. Elegant galas may have large entertainment budgets covering a band playing ballroom music, fancy finger foods, and upscale decor, and events should be expected to pay you what you're worth.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.



Professional Opportunities

Generally speaking, you should never do one of these shows for free. Doing so would destroy your potential market for paying gigs.

  • Special Occasion Delivery Services. Singing telegram agencies are often interested in adding new performers to the choices they can offer their clients. Contact every local agency, and make it clear your shows are "suitable for the whole family". Send them a photo of you in a professional-looking costume that doesn't bare too much skin. Offer to come in and audition. In addition to singing telegram companies, check with agencies who deliver balloon bouquets, and even local florist shops.
  • Hotel Lounges. Some hotels feature live entertainment in their lounges one or more nights per week. This encourages their guests to linger in the lounge and spend more money on drinks, and it encourages locals to come spend money at the hotel. Check with hotels in your community to see if they'd like to feature you in a pilot performance. If they say yes, then work your hardest to bring in a large crowd of patrons on the night of your show.
  • Restaurants That Are Not Middle Eastern. There's no law that says that only restaurants featuring Middle Eastern cuisine will welcome dancers. I've seen Middle Eastern dance presented in restaurants featuring cuisine from China, Japan, Russia, and India. I even know of several pizza joints who have featured dancers!
  • Sponsor Your Own Show. If you're willing to work hard on publicity, consider renting a facility to put on your own show. Sometimes a restaurant will let you use its private party room for free. Or maybe a local dance studio has space you can affordably rent. Invite artists who do other forms of dance such as flamenco or tango to appear in the program — be sure to pick ones who already have a good local following and are good at publicity so they'll help you attract audience members. Charge a cover charge at the door.
  • Shopping Malls. Malls often run promotional events to tantalize people into coming to shop. Maybe you can persuade your local mall to hire you for such an event.
  • Bridal Showers, Bachelorette Parties, Baby Showers, and Girls' Night Out. Women often look for entertainers for their social events. Offer a package that includes a 5-10 minute performance by you, plus a 50-minute private group dance lesson.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by André Elbing, Bärbroich, Germany, at one of Shira's performances in Egypt.




In Conclusion

If you sit around and wait for someone else to invent a place that welcomes dancers, then you won't be dancing very much. Reach out! Depending on how conservative your community is, you may need to start with a folkloric presentation to build a basic education, awareness, reputation, and trust. As people become more familiar with what you do, and learn to trust you, you can expand into the glitter and glitz.

Use a few community service events to advertise your availability as a performer. At every performance, distribute flyers and business cards. Approach a variety of businesses, local government agencies, and non-profit organizations. Build relationships and trust.

It takes a lot of hard work to initiate a belly dance scene in a city that currently has no activity. But if you're successful, you'll feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction for your accomplishment!




Copyright Notice

This entire web site is copyrighted. All rights reserved.

All articles, images, forms, scripts, directories, and product reviews on this web site are the property of Shira unless a different author/artist is identified. Material from this web site may not be posted on any other web site unless permission is first obtained from Shira.

Academic papers for school purposes may use information from this site only if the paper properly identifies the original article on using appropriate citations (footnotes, end notes, etc.) and bibliography. Consult your instructor for instructions on how to do this.

If you wish to translate articles from into a language other than English, Shira will be happy to post your translation here on along with a note identifying you as the translator. This could include your photo and biography if you want it to. Contact Shira for more information. You may not post translations of Shira's articles on anybody else's web site, not even your own.

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