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

Belly Dance:
A Good Career Option?




You've recently learned how to belly dance, and you find that you enjoy it very much. Now you're thinking about making a career of it. But should you? Or is it a bad idea? On the surface, it sounds great! You can be your own boss. You get to parade around in beautiful clothing and be the STAR of the show!

But a career as a dancer isn't for everybody. A small number of hard-working individuals have been able to support themselves through Middle Eastern dance, but the vast majority of "professional" dancers must rely on a second source of income to make ends meet.

So, do you have what it takes to earn a living by working as a professional belly dancer? Making your living at belly dance requires you to not only be a skilled performer, but also to have a good head for business. This article will offer you insight into the skills required to go into business for yourself as a dancer.

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




A Full-Time Dance Career May Work for You If...

You may be successful in an Oriental dance career if all of the following apply to you:

  • Your dance skills are polished enough that strangers would pay over $200 or more to hire you to entertain at their event.
  • You'd rather be dancing than be rich.
  • You have always dreamed of starting your own business.
  • You see yourself as being an entrepreneur.
  • You are very, very well organized when it comes to business matters.
  • You excel at keeping records of your finances and completing financial paperwork.
  • You have a flair for sales and marketing.
  • You have a large amount of patience when dealing with annoying people.
  • You enjoy the challenge of dealing with the public.
  • You always return telephone calls and emails promptly.
  • You always know the due dates for paying your bills every month, and you always pay them on time.
  • Financial security is less important to you than running your own business.
  • You love to travel, even to places that aren't glamorous.
  • You are interested in including folkloric dance styles in your repertoire to broaden your market appeal.
  • Your spouse (if you have one) approves of your aspirations and wants you to follow your star, even though it means you'll frequently be working nights and weekends, and traveling to teach/perform/vend in other cities.
  • You possess some "show business" skills other than belly dancing that you could also market successfully such as great singing voice, magic acts, clowning, comedy, etc. Such skills could enable you to start a full-service entertainment company.
  • If your current city doesn't include a large Middle Eastern community or a high public interest in belly dancing, you're willing to relocate to a city that does.
  • You believe in treating customers, audience members, restaurant owners, and other dancers ethnically and honorably, knowing it will bring you repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.
  • You have a passion for providing excellent customer service to everyone who hires you.
  • You excel at taking positive situations and making them even better.
  • You're willing to invest a substantial amount of money in music, props, costumes, and ongoing training - not just at first, but ongoing over time.

PHOTO CREDIT: Both photos by John Rickman, San Jose, California.




Don't Quit Your Day Job If....

Even if you absolutely love to dance, you probably shouldn't rely on it as your sole means of support if any of the following are true for you:

  • Your dance skills are mediocre at best. (Be honest!)
  • You detest keeping records and doing paperwork.
  • You are slow to return telephone calls and emails.
  • You hate dealing with the public, and you quickly lose patience with annoying people.
  • You are shy or insecure.
  • You don't like to view your dancing in terms of running a business.
  • You believe it's a dog-eat-dog world, every dancer for herself.
  • You want the security of a steady, predictable income.
  • You're resentful when people try to tell you what to do, and you don't like the idea of being bossed around by clients, restaurant owners, or others.
  • You don't have a plan for how you would continue supporting yourself in the event an injury or a medical problem forces you to take a break from dancing for 2-3 months (or longer).
  • It's likely that dealing with mundane "business issues" such as local competition, sexual harassment by club owners, negotiating prices for dance jobs, etc. will destroy your love for the dance.
  • Your family obligations require you to be home most evenings and prevent you from traveling out of town much.
  • You're not very aggressive at selling yourself.
  • You do a poor job of stretching your income between paychecks or putting aside savings.
  • You don't have any money to invest in training, equipment, advertising, costumes, professional photos, insurance, or other startup business expenses.
  • You hold grudges for a long time and would refuse to do business with someone who offended you 5 years ago.
  • You would be upset to lose gigs due to what you look like. (Belly dancing is a wonderful hobby for dancers of all ages and figure types, but professional work opportunities are a very different matter.)
  • You would find it upsetting to deal with racial discrimination among potential clients. (Sadly, this is an issue that many belly dancers face, particularly dancers of color.)

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




What Are the Disadvantages of Going Pro?

We all love the creativity, self-expression, shopping, costume dress-up, and social life of belly dancing. But what are the disadvantages of turning this wonderful hobby into a job? Why not earn a living doing what we love? Consider these disadvantages:

  • Low income. Many professional dancers don't make enough to support themselves from dance, so they need a second source of income.
  • Loss of your love for dance; dance becomes just another job that creates stress and drudge work.
  • Boring "business management" tasks of managing money, dealing with the public, taxes, making cold calls, keeping records of income and expenses.
  • Fighting with other dancers over gigs.
  • Friends turn against you out of jealousy if you're more successful than they are at getting gigs.
  • Prospective clients tell you what to do — what kind of costume to wear, what kind of music to use.
  • Regular restaurant gigs dry up due to places going out of business or deciding to hire someone else.
  • Working evenings and weekends and therefore no social life.
  • Teaching and gigging cut into family time and holidays.
  • Audience members in restaurants often act bored or heckle you.
  • Discrimination and rejection from prospective clients because they don't like your physical appearance: you're too old, too fat, too thin, too dark-skinned, too blonde, or otherwise unsuitable in their eyes.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by William M. Smith, Iowa City, Iowa.




Recommended Dance Education

If you're serious about building a career on belly dance, you need the right education in the dance itself. The more versatile your skills, the better equipped you will be to accept a variety of gigs.

In your dance studies:

  • Learn how to teach and perform more than one style of belly dance at a professionally skillful level. Versatility opens the door to more gigs.
  • Go to watch as many performances by professional dancers in your community as possible, particularly the ones who are the most sought-after. Try to watch at least one professional performance per week, and seek out a variety of situations - restaurants, city festivals, haflas, private parties (if possible), hookah bars, etc. Notice:
    • What music they use
    • Which dance style and props they use
    • What ethnic groups are in the audience
    • How those ethnic groups respond to their choices
    • How they handle hecklers
    • How they manage collecting tips
    • How they manage bloopers
    • If the same dancer performs in more than one place, watch for differences in how she structures her show from one place to another.
  • Learn how to teach and perform folkloric dances from throughout the Middle East and North Africa. This improves your chances of doing business with cultural diversity events, libraries, museums, community colleges, and other organizations who seek educational programming. If you choose to set up a non-profit arts organization, this versatility will increase your ability to secure arts and humanities grants.
  • Learn sufficient cultural and historical information about Middle Eastern dance, music, and costuming to provide credible lectures and mini-lectures on Near Eastern dance. Your knowledge should be sufficient to gain the respect of a native from the region.

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




Recommended Education
in Business Skills

Whether you want to make dance your full-time career, or just do it on a part-time basis for a second income, you may want to check whether your local college offers courses in business administration, arts management, and business law. Some specific classes that could help you make your dream financially successful:

  • Arts Management. Especially courses that cover writing grants and getting set up as a non-profit corporation.
  • Marketing. How to view your teaching and performing as a "product" and promote yourself. How to differentiate yourself from other entertainers.
  • Small Business Management. How to establish yourself as a small business, set up a tax ID, get a business license.
  • Sales. How to negotiate contracts, prospect for dance jobs, and close the deals.
  • Business Law. Understand your legal liability if one of your students becomes injured through taking your class. Learn how you would be affected by EEO, ADA, OSHA, payroll taxes, and other employment law if you take on a part-time employee. Study laws governing the mail-order business within your country if you sell merchandise. Find out what you need to know if you want to import or export goods.
  • Finance. How taxes affect your operation. How to evaluate investment opportunities and manage an inventory of merchandise that you sell. What kinds of accounting records will be required for a non-profit corporation.
  • Theater Arts. Courses in acting, stage lighting, set design, and costume design could be useful for dancers who aspire to organizing stage productions or securing arts grants.
  • Arabic or Turkish Language. Language skills may differentiate you from your competitors when you are promoting yourself for gigs within the Middle Eastern community such as weddings.

There's probably not much benefit to majoring in Middle Eastern Studies for purposes of running a dance business, though courses in Middle Eastern music and cinema might have some value in raising your cultural knowledge.

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




In Conclusion

In the final analysis, only you can determine the place that dancing has in your life. Some people have found that they love dance as an avenue of creative expression, but relying on it for income ruins the joy they find in it. Others embrace the notion of running their own business and being their own boss, and are delighted by the opportunity to apply this to doing something they enjoy. Only you can decide whether a career in dance is the right thing for your own future. Think logically about the pros and cons, and pick the path that suits you best.



Related Articles

Other articles on this web site you may find useful include:

  • From Student to... What? Suppose you don't go pro - what are your other options for becoming more deeply involved in belly dance and continuing to perform?




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