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

Dear Shira


Dear Shira:

Why Do *I* Need to Care About Professionalism?



The Question

Dear Shira:

My teacher keeps telling us that for our recitals, haflas, city festivals, and other performances we need to look and act "professional". She says this need for "professionalism" is why we need to wear cover-ups over our costumes when not dancing; why we shouldn't smoke, eat, or drink in costume; why she expects us to treat others with courtesy even if they're rude to us; why she wants us to wear stage makeup, and so on.

But, we're not professionals! We're just students, and we're just performing for fun. Why should we have to worry about behaving "professionally" if we're not professional dancers, and most of us probably never will be?

— Not a Professional




Shira Responds

Dear Not:

This is one of those situations where it's helpful to understand that there's more to performing dance in front of an audience than just moving your skeleton around in a collection of movements you've strung together in a memorized order. When dancing for personal pleasure, you can do that in the privacy of your home. However, once you place yourself in front of an audience as a performer, the situation changes.

Being a performer is different from playing around at home. At home, with nobody watching, you have the freedom to focus on what makes you feel good, if that's what you want to do. However, once you decide to perform, other people become involved — your audience. If the performance involves dancing in the same show as other people, then there are also the reputations of the other performers to consider, and your performance will also affect your teacher's reputation.

Your teacher understands this, and when she talks to you about being "professional", she's trying to teach you how being a performer differs from dancing in private for your personal pleasure. Perhaps "professional" is the wrong word to describe what she is trying to say, but it seems to be the word that I've heard most belly dancers use when they try to teach this idea to their students. What she really means is "respect". She is trying to teach you how to respect your audience, respect the theatrical situation, respect the others who will be performing with you, and respect how you represent her.

As a performer, you want the audience to give you the gift of their attention while you're on stage. You want them to focus their attention on watching you, rather than on chatting with their companions, picking lint off their clothes, wondering whether they left the oven on, or otherwise letting their minds wander. You want them to take time out of their busy lives to watch you when they could be doing something else instead, and you want them to applaud you. You want them to praise you afterward, and you want continued opportunities to remain open for you to dance in future situations as well. You want them to come see you dance again sometime. You want your group to be invited to dance again elsewhere. It's normal to want these things. Every performer does, even people who are new to doing it.

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

But, if that's what you want from them, what do they want from you? They want a performance that is worth watching. This starts with respect — the performer needs to respect all who make it possible to have this opportunity. All those things your teacher says about "professionalism" play into this: show up for rehearsals, learn how to do makeup and style your hair, create a costume that conforms to the guidelines provided by your teacher, practice extensively to perfect your technique and master the choreography, and more. If you approach all your decision-making with the intention of respecting your audience, your teacher, your fellow performances, and the stage itself, you'll be rewarded with attention, praise, applause, and future performance opportunities.

It's an exchange. They give you their attention and applause, and you in turn earn that through "professional" behavior, whether your teacher is around to see what you're doing or not. By applying these standards to your behavior, you show that you care about this dance, and you show the audience that you think the dance itself worthy of their attention.

— Shira





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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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