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

Dear Shira

Shira

Dear Shira:

How to Deal with Restaurant Audiences?

 

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The Question

Dear Shira:

I recently started working as a dancer in restaurants, and there are some things I don't quite know how to handle with the audiences:

  • Why don't the customers in the restaurant look directly at me? Why do they look off to the side, or look past me?
  • Why won't people get up to dance with me?
  • Why do many of the women in the audience glare hostilely at me?
  • Why don't people tip?

--New Pro

 

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Shira Responds

Dear New Pro:

Many up-and-coming Oriental dancers don't realize that performing for the general public in a restaurant is entirely different from performing for other dancers and their friends at insider events. I have often said that it takes more than excellent dance skill to qualify somebody for professional gigs — it also take business acumen, strong instincts on how to read people's behavior, a thick skin, and emotional maturity. These things, however, are usually not considered by belly dance teachers when preparing their ambitious students for professional work.

I'll take each of your questions one at a time and offer you some things to think about.

 

When Customers Don't Look At You

In North America and Europe, the general public is not accustomed to finding themselves up close and personal with performers in live shows. They are accustomed to watching the performing arts in large concert halls, separated from dancers, actors, comedians, magicians, and musicians by a large orchestra pit between the audience and the stage. This distance provides a type of safety, and is known as the "fourth wall". The term means there is an invisible wall between the performer and the audience.

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

A dancer in this environment, such as a ballerina or contemporary dancer, may cast her gaze out to the audience, project her energy to the back row, and possibly even make eye contact with someone; however, the audience still does not expect any true interaction. The dancer remains remote, a character on a stage, and poses no real threat of intrusion on the audience member's privacy. Productions that send performers out from the stage to engage audience members directly are typically considered edgy, and even in those situations the interaction rarely goes beyond the front row, or into the seats located away from the aisles.

Belly dancing is different.

An Oriental dancer typically appears in a more intimate environment. This could be a restaurant where the audience member is dining, or perhaps the living room of a home where a birthday party is being celebrated. If there is a stage for the dancer, it is usually small, with audience members seated at tables placed near it. The dancer often leaves that stage to visit the tables, greeting the customers and accepting tips. Sometimes there is no stage at all, with the dancer performing her entire show weaving her way between the tables.

Shira

In these situations, audience members perceive that it is very likely the dancer will approach them directly. An audience member might look away from the dancer for one of these reasons:

  • The person might not know where to look. S/he may be uncomfortable gazing at your hips, because that person is not accustomed to a social situation in which it is acceptable to focus in on that part of a stranger's body. It may seem easier to look intently at one's plate.
  • It may be unappetizing to have bare skin glistening with sweat hovering an arm's length away. Perhaps they're afraid seeing so much perspiration up close and personal while they're dining may spoil their appetites.
  • A man might want to avoid making his wife/girlfriend jealous.
  • A man may hold very conservative religious beliefs, and may be trying to avoid thinking impure thoughts.
  • The dancer's costume may be much too skimpy in the opinion of the audience members who are refusing to look. They may find it embarrassing. This can be particularly true in family-oriented situations with children present.
  • An audience member may be uncomfortable with the idea of tipping the dancer, particularly if the dancer is accepting tips tucked into her costume. Or, possibly that person doesn't have any cash in appropriate denominations to use for tipping. Looking away may mean, "Don't expect me to tip you."
  • The people at the table may be deep in a conversation that is important to them, and not wish to be interrupted by a dancer trying to get their attention. Perhaps their reason for coming to this restaurant was the food, not the entertainment.
  • The person may be shy.
  • If the dancer customarily gets audience members up to dance with her, people may look away as a means of saying, "Please do not ask me to get up and dance."
  • The audience members may be disappointed in the dancer's skill, and do not wish to watch what they consider to be a poor performer.
  • The person may be starting to come down with an illness, and not feeling well.

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

If they don't look at you, try not to take it personally. Tell yourself that their reason for not looking is because of their own discomfort with something about the situation, and it is not a reflection on you, personally. It may be wise to consider whether your costume is too skimpy or whether your dance skills require further work, and if you think this could be an issue, discuss it with your teacher or engage a private lesson with an experienced professional.

Shira

 

Why Won't People Get Up to Dance with Me?

Many restaurants and party hosts expect the belly dancer to invite audience members to get up and dance with her, and many dancers enjoy doing this. However, embarrassing moments can arise when the dancer invites someone to get up and that person refuses.

One possible cause for this can be that people who aren't accustomed to Middle Eastern restaurants may be uncomfortable with this. They may not realize that this is a normal part of a show, and may feel shy about it. Many people have a very deep fear of looking stupid or klutzy, and the idea of getting up to dance with all eyes on them can be very intimidating.

Usually, in the opening of my show, I try to size up the room, to guess which audience members may be willing to get up and dance with me, versus which not. Here are some things I look for:

  • If I see someone I know, I may target that person first to break the ice.
  • If I see children, I usually sweetly invite them by crouching down to their level, smiling, and waggling my finger. Sometimes they will dance with me, often not, but either way their parents are charmed by the attention I'm paying to them.
  • I tend to avoid people who are looking down, because that's often a sign they really do not want to be asked.
  • If I see a party with an obvious guest of honor, I may try to get the guest of honor up to dance. Often, his friends will all urge him on. If it becomes clear the guest of honor really does not want to do it, I then turn and grab whichever friend was the most obnoxious in trying to get him to do it, and make that person the center of attention instead.
  • If I see a table with a woman glaring at me, I will ask her to get up and dance with me. This often defuses jealousy, and allows her to be the center of attention.
  • If I see a family that looks Arab, I may invite the women to dance with me. If they hesitate, I keep trying until they have said no three times, then move on to someone else. The reason for waiting until they have said no three times is that sometimes it can be a social faux pas to seem too eager. So at first they decline, to show that they are appropriately modest. But once propriety has been satisfied, they may be delighted to get up and dance. However, if a woman is fully veiling her face, I don't ask at all.

Another reason for people hesitating may be your choice of music. If they have trouble finding the beat, they may be reluctant to try dancing to it. For audience participation, I usually choose bouncy pop music whose rhythm is easy to hear and never changes.

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

Shira

 

Why Do Some Women in the Audience Glare At Me?

This can relate back to some of the same reasons I mentioned above regarding why audience members might look down instead of looking at you:

  • They think your costume is too revealing or your choice of dance moves excessively provocative.
  • They are jealous of how much attention you are receiving, particularly attention from their man.
  • They are projecting their insecurities onto you.

So, what can you do about this? I usually try to change the energy that's passing between us. In other words, I try to win her over. The following ideas often help defuse the hostility:

  • If children are present, I pay attention to them and try to make the children smile, perhaps dance with me. Families often are delighted when people pay attention to their children. It also helps defuse any "seducing the Sultan" stereotypes, if I'm encouraging a little girl to feel like a princess.
  • Instead of focusing on the man, I dance for the woman. I make eye contact with her, and give her a "just between us women" kind of smile.
  • If the mood feels right, I'll invite her to get up and dance with me. I may stand to one side and let her dance, while encouraging the people at her table to applaud her. I just try to read the situation and improvise in the moment.

Ultimately, I try to create a situation that makes the woman feel that she is having fun. That's my role as an entertainer.

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

Shira

 

Why Don't People Tip?

There can be many reasons why people don't tip. A dancer should never expect it.

Tipping is common from Arab audiences because of their culture. Often, the act of tipping is intended at least in part to show off the wealth of the person doing the tipping. I have watched Gulf Arabs at clubs in Egypt do money showers on many of my trips to Egypt, and I have also seen it done in the U.S. at Arab restaurants.

Outside of the Middle East, tipping entertainers is much less common. Audiences often don't realize that the dancer hopes to receive tips from the audience. You should always charge what you're worth for your gigs with the assumption that there will be no tips. That way, if you receive tips, they will be an appreciated surplus. I personally don't try to encourage audiences to tip me, though I enjoy receiving them and always thank people who give them to me.

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

Belly dancers rarely tip each other at "insider" events where dancers are performing for each other. Tips are more likely to come from the general public.

Another article on my web site offers some suggestions on how to suggest to the audience that tipping would be welcomed. Perhaps these suggestions will help you get the tipping started.

— Shira

Shira

 

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Related Articles

Other articles on this web site related to handling performances in restaurants include:

 

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About this Column

Shira has received many questions from readers over the years related to various aspects of the dance. In this column, she picks some of the more interesting ones to answer publicly. Details contained in the questions are sometimes removed or disguised to protect the anonymity of the person who asked the question.

 

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