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

Joining A Belly Dancing Troupe:
Is It Right For You?


After taking some beginning belly dance classes and spending time at home working with an instructional video, you may be wondering how to become more involved in the dance. One option may be to join a troupe. But is it right for you, and how do you go about it? Here's the scoop on troupes.



What Is A Troupe?

A belly dance troupe performs as an ensemble rather than as a series of individual soloists. This may be done either through presenting memorized choreography or through "group improvisation" (follow-the-leader).

The three most common types of troupes include:

  • The Student Troupe. A student troupe usually forms when a teacher's intermediate-level students have learned a few different choreographed dances and now want to perform them together as a group. They adopt a name and a common costume, and start arranging performances at community festivals, nursing homes, and other unpaid venues. Although she may invite input from the members, the teacher usually makes all decisions regarding troupe costume, membership qualifications, rehearsal schedule, etc.
  • The Social Troupe. A group of friends who know each other from classes or local belly dance events band together to form a dance company. Their primary aim is to spend time together enjoying their common interest in the dance and getting performance experience. They usually have more performance experience than the student troupes, and may successfully get booked for some paid appearances in addition to the "community service" gigs. Social troupes often (but not always) run as democracies, in which decisions on costuming, rehearsal schedule, membership qualifications, and other rules are decided by a vote or consensus discussion of the members.
  • The Professional Troupe. Truly professional troupes are rare because most people aren't willing to invest the time and effort required for a professional presentation. Whereas student troupes and social troupes often practice only about once a week, a professional troupe seriously rehearses 5-10 hours a week or more to achieve that polished effect. A professional troupe is usually run by an artistic director who uses an audition process to select members and makes all decisions regarding choreography, costumes, etc.

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





Why Join a Troupe?

Most people join a troupe because they have discovered they really enjoy belly dancing as a hobby and they want to become more involved. There is rarely any real opportunity to make any money through belonging to either a student troupe or a social troupe. Even professional troupes rarely generate a substantial amount of income for members. Troupe membership usually leads to the following rewards:

  • Growth As A Dancer. When first learning to perform, many dancers find it easier to overcome their stage fright when several other people are dancing on stage with them. Performing the memorized choreography or following a more experienced dancer's lead in group improvisation helps them learn how to assemble the movements learned in class together into a complete dance. It's easier to face the inevitable bloopers when friends are at hand to offer encouragement.
  • Form Lasting Friendships. Many people feel some level of loneliness or isolation. If you have moved to a new city, or if an event such as divorce has caused major changes to your lifestyle, joining a dance troupe may offer a comfortable way to meet new people and form a new social circle. The process of rehearsing together, overcoming barriers as a group, and performing together can cause a close bond to form between troupe members.
  • Creative Outlet. In addition to the fun of performing, troupe membership often presents opportunities to design troupe costumes, help create new choreography, design stage sets, and engage in other creative activity.



Is It Right for You?

Troupe membership is probably not right for you if:

  • What you really want is to be the center of attention.
  • You can't afford the time away from family, job, and other commitments to dedicate at least 1-2 hours a week to rehearsing, more if you choose a troupe that seeks professional engagements.
  • Your schedule is too unpredictable for you to make commitments in advance to being available for performances on specific dates.
  • You dislike memorizing and executing someone else's choreography.
  • You're a non-conformist who chafes at the notion of being told what costume to wear or how to dance.
  • You're on a tight budget and you can't afford to spend money on troupe dues, official troupe costumes, special props, rehearsal space, etc.
  • You believe that belonging to a troupe could make you rich or famous. (It's not going to happen!)

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

Troupe membership may be rewarding for you if:

  • You enjoy working together with a group to reach a common goal.
  • You've been feeling lonely and you're looking for a way to get out and spend time with other people.
  • You want more experience doing performances.
  • You've found that you love belly dancing and you want to spend more time doing it.
  • You want to become more involved in your community's local belly dancing scene.
  • You're looking for an excuse to buy costumes and you need a place to wear them!



How Do You Choose a Troupe to Join?

If you're lucky enough to live in a community that has more than one belly dancing troupe, then you can evaluate multiple choices and approach the one that seems like it would work best for you. Here's how to evaluate each troupe and decide which one may fit you best.

First, watch them dance. Do you like their costumes? Does their choreography appeal to you? Does their skill level seem like you would fit in? Would you be proud to be seen on stage with them?

If possible, try to catch a glimpse of how they behave offstage or backstage. Do they seem to genuinely like each other, or is there an undercurrent of hostility? Do you hear a lot of laughter as they interact with each other? Do they make catty remarks about other people? If you were to join them, do you think they would be warm toward you, or do you think they would gossip about you behind your back?

Take a few classes from the director. Do you enjoy the class? Do you like the way the director teaches? How do the troupe members treat you? How do they treat each other? How does your skill compare to theirs? Do you find what you learned in the class to be helpful to your growth as a dancer?

How often does the troupe perform, and where? Does their performance schedule fit well with the frequency and the types of places where you would like to dance?

Find out where the group rehearses, and when. Are the rehearsal time and location convenient for you?

If there are several troupes in your community, use your research to pick the top 3 that appeal to you most. Then you're ready to find out how to join.



Becoming a Member

Once you've decided which troupe you most want to join, approach the director privately and find out what it would take to become one of them. Different troupes have different policies on accepting new members.

Often troupe directors are so carried away with simply teaching their classes and leading their lives that they forget to proactively tell their up-and-coming students about the troupe opportunity. Don't wait for an engraved invitation! Just ask! Find a chance to speak privately with the director, and clearly state your interest in troupe membership. Ask what the process is for joining. Don't be afraid to raise these questions — most troupe directors will be happy you asked!

To help you anticipate what the director might tell you, here are some of the common requirements for troupe membership. You may want to ask the director questions to find out which ones apply to her vision for her troupe, because requirements can differ from one troupe to another:

  • You might need to audition. This would be particularly likely for a troupe who seeks bookings for paid performances.
  • You might need to learn specific choreography and demonstrate an ability to do it correctly from beginning to end.
  • You might need to simply take ongoing classes from the director until she feels you are skilled enough to invite into the troupe.
  • You might need to appear in student recitals. In these class performances, the teacher may evaluate you to determine whether you are a reliable person who shows up for rehearsals on time, learns the material, performs it in the show without error, and demonstrates a pleasant attitude backstage. Often, teachers use student recitals to determine which students may be good troupe candidates.
  • You might need to follow certain rules. For example, the director might insist that you take classes solely from her and discontinue any classes you might be taking from other teachers in your community.
  • The troupe members might vote on whether they think you are a good fit. Such votes are usually based on your dance skill, how much commitment you demonstrated to upholding your own responsibilities in class recitals, and on whether they generally find you pleasant to have around.
  • The director might operate more than one troupe: a student troupe and a more professional one. She might offer you initial membership in the student troupe, with the expectation that you can "graduate" to the more advanced one when your skills have grown to fit the requirements.
  • If you're seeking to join a professional troupe, you may need to make a commitment to rehearsing several days a week. Professional ballet companies usually expect their members to rehearse several hours a day!
  • Some troupe directors accept only dancers who have a certain "look". For example, a director might want to have only blondes, only people who look Middle Eastern, only people in a certain age group, or only people who are slim.

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

There's always a chance that the troupe director will tell you she's not interested in having you in her troupe. Maybe the troupe accepts only a certain number of members, and doesn't currently have vacancies. Or possibly this director accepts only people who have whatever "look" she wants. Maybe your skill level is too junior at this time to qualify. It could even be something as stupid as this director having a feud with a teacher you took classes from in the past! If this happens to you, try not to let it upset you or discourage you from your quest to find a compatible troupe. Just keep looking — there's sure to be another troupe who is a much better fit!

Find out what kind of costs you can expect if you join. You'll probably need to pay something to help fund the rental of rehearsal space and compensate the director for her time in running rehearsals, creating choreography, etc. The official costume and props, of course, will cost something. For example, even if you already own a sword, you may be expected to purchase another one that matches what the others are using. You may need to pay dues into a pool that is used for purchases by the group.




What Can You Expect?

Troupes usually have some sort of introductory period for new members. Sometimes there is an official probationary period, during which you'll be expected to demonstrate your ability to master the choreography, show up reliably for rehearsals and shows, show a team attitude toward sharing the goals of the group, and perform competently in shows.

When you initially join, you naturally won't know all the choreography, and you might not yet own all the props or costumes. So you can expect that you'll be phased into performances gradually.

Some choreography requires a specific number of people in order to work out correctly. Even if you know this dance, you might not get to perform it when you first join unless they need you to fill in as a substitute. Don't let this discourage you.

In your first few appearances with the group, you might do only one or two 3-minute dances over the course of a half-hour show. You probably won't be given an opportunity to do solos in the shows until after you've proved yourself. There may be some shows where you don't have an opportunity to dance at all, although they'll appreciate it if you come to videotape the show, take pictures, or help them with props and backstage costume changes.

Try not to feel bad about this — everyone has to start somewhere. Just treat it as a temporary situation and approach everything with a positive attitude. If you have questions about the process, or if you feel that you are being treated unfairly, take aside either the director or a member whose opinion you respect and privately express your concerns. As long as you explain your issue sincerely and courteously, you should be able to expect a helpful response.

If you want to ramp more quickly into full participation, you might ask the director about taking private lessons to help you learn the choreographies, polish up your skills, etc.

Some troupes have formal rules or by-laws. Some require members to sign contracts and pay dues. Others simply manage through group consensus.



Start Your Own Troupe

If you don't find a troupe in your community that matches your own needs as a dancer, you might consider starting your own. It's a lot of work, but it can be very rewarding.



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