Emma’s Soapbox: “Why Yes, I Am a Professional Bellydancer”

Last week the following video went round the online bellydance community.

It made me laugh, in a hollow, sad sort of way. I decided to write about it.

   In this post I will consider the following question: what SHOULD a professional bellydancer be? I am addressing anyone who considers themselves to have reached a point in their dance career where they can represent bellydance in public outside of a hafla setting[1], whether through performance or teaching. Student dancers, relax, I’m not talking about you :). These are the standards I hold myself to. I am not claiming to be perfect and I have not always managed to fulfil all of these in the past, but when I fail to meet these standards I do my best to make sure I learn from that and do better next time.

   So what makes a professional bellydancer?

Getting paid to dance
   Well, yes, this is the most basic definition of a professional but actually it’s a bit more complicated than that. To quote my friend Kitty Kohl : “Somebody can behave professionally and still be a student, and they can be earning money as a teacher and a dancer and be totally not professional in any way.” Sometimes a professional will choose to waive their fee, for example, in support of a charity, but even without money changing hands they still give a professional standard performance. Discussions about money and professionalism are often derailed by arguments over what proportion of your income comes from dance, which is simply not relevant. In situations where you would reasonably expect an entertainer to be paid (birthday party, restaurant, wedding…) you should be paid, even if you only do one gig in a year.
   There’s more to it than that. You should be getting paid a fair price, and if you’re not sure what that is you should ask. Hint: don’t ask a restaurant owner :). You shouldn’t be undercutting the other dancers in your area and if you don’t understand why then you are not ready to be a professional dancer. If you think the standard of your dancing means you should be paid less than the average (“50% less than any other dancer!”) you are certainly not ready to be a professional dancer.

Technical standard
   I wish it went without saying, but you must be able to bellydance well. I could write a whole other essay on what it means to “bellydance well” but for now I will stick to “execute isolated movements clearly and gracefully with good posture and demonstrable knowledge of stagecraft”. I’ve been involved in bellydance for over 12 years and have seen the overall standard of dance in the UK rise but still I come across videos that make me shake my head in sadness when I see that the dancer claims to be a professional or worse, teaches other people. And don’t come to me and say “But I only teach beginners!” because you will unleash a rant which makes this polemic sound like The Little Book of Calm!
   A professional dancer should also have the necessary background knowledge for whatever she is performing. Know the style of music, the style of dance that goes with it, what the words mean etc. You can’t assume that your audience is totally ignorant. Maybe I am there in the back row, judging you 🙂 If you are a fusion dancer, know what you’re fusing. Do you really feel “boxed in by styles” or are you just not prepared to put in the effort of learning about them? Believe me, it will show in your performance.

Professional development
   There is no standing still in dance. As soon as you stop trying to push your dancing forward you start going backwards. The opportunities for professional development have simply exploded in the time I have been involved in the bellydance world. You don’t need to travel abroad to train with world-renowned dancers, but if you do want to there are plenty of people to help make that happen for you. Artists from Egypt, the US and Europe regularly visit the UK for festivals and intensive training weekends and of course we have some superb home grown teachers. There is a mind-boggling array of DVDs available on every subject related to bellydance, no matter how tangentially. And of course there is YouTube which is an amazing resource for different styles, dancers and settings if you can navigate your way through the dross. I will note here that “free classes on YouTube” are worth exactly what you pay for them. There is absolutely no excuse for stopping your dance education, and why would you want to? Learning is awesome!
   If you are also a teacher then professional development also covers teacher training and health and safety. There are quite a few bellydance teacher training courses available although it looks like JWAAD is going to dominate the field for some time (disclaimer, I am JWAAD trained). There are also more general courses for teaching exercise to music such as that offered by the YMCA. You should seriously consider having a first aid qualification and some venues will require you to have one. Before you all email with me with the names of perfectly good teachers with no qualifications don’t bother. I KNOW THAT [EGYPTIAN TEACHER] HAS NO CERTIFICATE. I think that anyone starting out on their teaching careers NOW should undergo training.

   Oh boy, this one is a mine field. I think bellydance is more inclusive then most other dance forms when it comes to appearance. A wider range of body shapes and ages are acceptable to most audiences. For example, I would never have made it as a ballet dancer and even if I had I would have retired by now! However, we still have to dance in a society with certain expectations of what a bellydancer should look like and whilst I think many of them are ridiculous that is not what I want to write about today. How much each individual performer chooses to fulfil these expectations is their own business.
   I am more interested in the cosmetic aspect of appearance. You should be well groomed, by which I mean clean (!), with suitable hair and makeup and a good costume. Good costume – now there’s a potentially loaded term. A good costume is well made, fits you and flatters your shape. It doesn’t reveal anything you don’t want revealing (I think we can all agree that bellydance should be family friendly). It’s appropriate for the style of dance you’re performing, the venue and the time of day.
   Your costume doesn’t need to be a $1300 designer creation. It does need to be a costume i.e. “a bra from Target” with a few sequins stuck on it will not do. I cannot say this often enough, but a costume bra is very different to a lingerie bra. You can use your bra from Primark (I guess that’s equivalent to Target) as a base for your costume but it needs more work than ten minutes with a hot glue gun. Hint: if the original straps are visible it will always look like you are dancing around in your underwear. I wish I could forget the dancer I saw performing (in a professional setting) in white leggings, a coin belt that shed as she danced, and an undecorated bra from New Look. How do I know it was from New Look? Because I saw the exact same one there the day afterwards. Her costume was a perfect reflection of her dance ability. I had to be led away quietly for a strong drink.
   Student dancers, please don’t be worried. If you are performing at haflas a simple long skirt and coin belt with a nice top is just fine as long as it satisfies the principles in that second paragraph. Just be aware that if you want to step outside the hafla setting you are going to need to invest money and/or time on your costuming.

Business skills
   If you are earning money from dancing at some point you need to be registered for tax purposes, and that means keeping records and accounts. You also need to think about public liability insurance (you’d be extremely foolish to start teaching dance without it), music licensing, advertising, creating and maintaining a website…in short, pretty much everything a small business start up has to consider. You have to be able to deal with clients and customers in a professional manner. Can you accept a compliment? Can you handle a complaint? Can you deal with competition from other dancers, ideally without creating a rift that splits your community in two? This brings me onto…

Supporting the dance community
   You can support the dance community in two ways: by playing nice and by not being an idiot. In other words, by taking positive actions and by avoiding engaging in negative behaviour (but I prefer the glib version!). So: playing nice. This includes everything discussed so far in order to be a good role model for the up and coming dancers in your community. It is also attending classes, workshops, haflas and festivals and encouraging other dancers or your students (if you teach) to do the same. You could go further and organise an event for your dance community. It is also important to show your support as an audience member, if you swan off as soon as your performance is over, or spend all your time hiding out in the dressing room, or sit scowling through every performance other than your friend’s (and I’ve seen all of these!) it will reflect badly on you.
   Alas, without infinite time and money it is impossible to show positive support to everyone. You can still support the community in other ways. Not undercutting is a big one. Not allowing your personal feelings towards other professionals to interfere with your participation – we’ve got a small sandbox to play in which is why we have to play nice. Not scheduling your events to clash with someone else’s. Not representing bellydance in an inappropriate or sleazy way. I could go on but I think you get the idea.

   I believe all of the above points are the absolute minimum necessary to make a professional bellydancer. The relevance of each is down to the individual – maybe your website is not as important to you as your training, for example – but no one point is sufficient. No, not even the one about being paid. The obvious next question to ask is “What makes a GOOD professional bellydancer?” and there’s a lot more scope for argument there!

[1] I make this distinction for the following reason. The definition of a hafla varies between regions but it is always an event put on by the bellydance community for the bellydance community, rather then the general public. A hafla is in no way inferior to any other performance setting.

20 thoughts on “Emma’s Soapbox: “Why Yes, I Am a Professional Bellydancer”

  1. Excellent post, I totally agree! 🙂

    I have loads more experience doing fire performance than bellydance, but I feel there are overlaps.

    Undercutting is a complicated ongoing grudge 🙂

    I liked your definition of technical skill – with fire spinners at least, technical skill at spinning doesn’t always correlate with the best performances, because things that are the most difficult to do aren’t always the same things that an average audience finds impressive (an audience of spinners, yes, but non-spinners less so). However, there’s a tendency, of the best performers, to keep on learning, and working to improve in all areas of their performance – the technical skill, the choreographies, working an audience, etc. As well as an awareness of the type of audience and type of show, and what kind of performance is appropriate accordingly.

    Yes to shiny costumes 🙂 I feel that shiny professional costumes make a huge amount of difference.

    And maybe less relevant to bellydancers, but I found that part of what made us more pro as fire spinners is a continually improving infrastructure behind what we do. So, partly the admin side (insurance, contracts, set lists, risk assessments), partly the prep (correctly timed music, smooth transitions between acts), partly the physical bits of show related kit (decent PA system, tarps, prepared boxes of stuff, nicely laid out stage area, fire extinguishers), and also the support staff present (safety techies, music techies etc.).

    I feel with any performance there’s a complicated middle ground, where you’ve gone past beginners, but don’t quite feel you’ve reached professional – it’s quite difficult to tell at which point you’re actually ready to go pro, and certainly the existence of middle ground gigs (haflas for bellydance, or things like parties and charity gigs for fire) is really helpful in accumulating performance experience in a particular discipline. I still feel it’s a bit of a mine field though – I try and negotiate it the best I can 🙂

    • I think undercutting is an ongoing grudge for anyone involved in a creative profession, particularly if they are self-employed!

      I absolutely agree that performance preparation and good equpiment are vital. I have said many times that I would rather see a simple thing done beautifully than a complicated thing done badly and I guess that’s even more important when you’ve got fire involved!

      I love that we have the hafla system for bellydance but I found I had so much to say about how great it is that it made the original post almost twice as long!

  2. Having personally invested so much money into becoming a professional belly dancer (which is ongoing) not just on training, but costumes, insurances and venues I have found it very hard to actually make any money at all. Such is my commitment to providing a quality product, classes, workshops and performances that one can be proud of.

    Undercutting has been a dreadful affair, however, this seems to be mainly predominant in the restaurant market, and has always been considered cut-throat. I recently fell out quite badly with an individual who took every single job going in restaurants in a town due to taking £10 less (saying it meant nothing to her) and accepting anything the owners asked for in terms of length of set etc. As you can imagine it ruffled a lot of feathers and this monopoly continues. I should point out here that I have long stopped dancing in restaurants in this town but I held an interest because I was key to maintaining the quality of work for dancers by working WITH the other dancers in the town (at the time to ensure we matched our rates). Friends of mine have suffered at the hands of this person. Now the fee is less than a third of what it was 4 years ago (not exactly representative of inflation!). This individual braggs about the amount of work they get in this field regularly on FB amongst other things and yet the wider community ‘tolerate, or even congratulate’ many oblivious as to how the work was gained. There are a lot of ruthless people out there, who will more than happily stamp all over you to get what they want. Fact.
    I also know that this person is not tax registered, nor insured or anything else, despite teaching. I guess she will cross the wrong person one day and get investigated.

    Rant over on that score, on to teaching.

    Now onto playing nicely in sandboxes, Last September on the very morning of my father’s funeral, I got a telephone call from a local ‘fusion’ teacher and in this respect I shall not comment further than to say more representative of the ‘taken two lessons and now is an expert’ variety of teacher. She rang to complain that I was starting a class in a town (where there was no class – which I had carefully researched) where some of her students lived, albeit she taught 6 miles up the road. 45 minutes it took me to get her off the phone, having explained several times I was getting in the car to go to the funeral home and my family was waiting for me.

    Trust me, if you want to be a true professional the only thing you can do is develop a hide tougher than your average rhino.
    Acknowledge and support the professionals who you really feel actually contribute to the community.
    Support events that truly showcase dancers of a high standard.
    YES – Sit and WATCH!! and appreciate the time and effort that went into it all. If we don’t – WHO WILL??

    Gosh – felt good to get that off my chest!
    Love and light

    • I’m so sorry you have had to deal with such astonishingly insensitive behaviour.

      I am very naive. For years I took dancers at their word and marvelled at all the places they had danced and all the work they were getting. What good dancers they must be! It never occurred to me that they were getting all this work through devious and unethical behaviour. Now I know that “Danced in top’ London restaurants!” just means “Turned up with a costume and begged to dance!” – apologies to the legit London dancers, but you know better than me who is doing this. We need to be talking to each other about this sort of thing. We can’t punish dancers who fail to live up to our standards (but it must be very tempting to give HMRC a call!) but we can stop supporting them. We have to know who deserves out support, but speaking out brings it’s own risks – not that I need to tell you that! I admire how you’ve spoken your mind in the past.

      I think there is a complicating factor in that for many people there personal and professional identities are deeply intertwined, so if they hear criticism of their business practice they take at criticism of themselves as a person. They can then tell themselves that the person doing the criticism is just a JELLUS HATER, a classic silencing tactic.

  3. Excellent, balanced essay Emma – not a rant but a thought out response to so many of the issues we’ve all dealt with over the years. I remember an attempt in the north west to get a generally agreed set of standards that were very similar and the Learn Belly Dance teachers have recently agreed a code of practice that forms the basis of our initial teacher training. I will include this essay in the essential reading section!

  4. Hi Emma, I read this with my jaw dropped open….why? Because its like you have read my mind on all aspects. Thank you for all that you have said. Is there a ‘Trading Standards’ to complain to when people state something they clearly are not? How do we police uninsured, untrained and rude (costume and manners)? Ive had more than my fair share of negetivity because I stand up for your values. But I hold my head up high and support the BD Community as much as I can. Kindest Regards from Daun.

    • *Polishes Belly Dance Police badge* I can dream…

      There isn’t much we can do other than be the change we want to see in the world. Support dancers who have professional standards. Don’t support the ones who don’t. I believe (hope!) that teachers starting up classes with training and insurance have become the norm and that’s an important step.

    • I don’t hate the video, I think it is spot on and I look forward to seeing what the creator comes up with next time! I agree that it is very close to the truth and I can see how it might hit too close to home to be funny.

  5. Brilliant post. This isn’t just a definition of what a professional bellydancer is, but with a few terms swapped, it’s a definition of what any professional in any field is, eg I couldn’t call myself a professional chemist and teach chemistry after watching a few science programmes and doing some experiments in the kitchen sink. And I wouldn’t be credible as a teacher or professional scientist if I didn’t continually work on my own education. Professional standards are not a means to exclude people but a means for a community of people to define and develop itself and to pass on collective knowledge.
    Better sign off before I get too philosophical and serious about this 😉

  6. Well written, although I believe this has been happening for a long time. I was one of the first JWAAD qualified teachers and at that time it was extremely difficult even to get music let alone a video of an Egyptian dancer. All workshops with visiting teachers sold out very quickly! Authentic costume was really hard to come by.

    Some parts of the dance community seem to have lost the love and respect for each other that existed then, so it’s nice to see that there are still those who care enough to set out behaviour protocols! So, well said, Emma!

    • I remember when the only music and video you could really access was whatever cassettes (Yes! Cassettes!) and video tapes (VHS! Really!) your teacher had for sale. Now we have much greater access to the real thing (which for me is dance from Egypt) that people take it for granted. Students starting out on their dance journeys now are so lucky.

  7. Our local adult ed courses have tried to improve standards by making teachers (of any adult ed area) attain a teaching certificate & be spot on with lesson plans. Unfortunately, this means that anyone who has this piece of paper, and is good with paperwork, can teach bellydance, whether they can actually dance or not!!! I have seen an excellent dancer not taken on, because she hasn’t the time to ‘train’ to get the said piece of paper. And obviously – visaversa which sucks.

    • I think you make an important point. Ideally your teacher should be good at what they do AND able to teach. One does not guarantee the other. Given that the majority of Adult Ed classes are for beginners, most of whom have not bellydanced before and may be coming from a background without much previous physical activity (I wish I had some stats to confim or deny this) if I was in charge I would want someone who can plan a lesson, select appropriate material and deliver it in a clear, safe manner. If I’ve got a choice between two people and one has a certificate that says she can do this, I’m going to choose her, especially if I have funding considerations. If the better dancer hasn’t made the time to learn these skills or has no way to demonstrate them then that’s just tough.

      Let me be clear: I don’t think bad dancers should be teaching others. However, there is no way to stop them. A teaching certification system should at least means they are doing it safely. I hope in the future it will be a guarantee that they are doing it safely and well.

  8. Oh Emma, this is so well said and I agree with everyone else’s comments. You said this in such a clear, nice, non-ranty way– very inspiring. I hope you don’t mind but I linked this on my FB page. People need to SEE this!
    I recently did an interview for my hometown’s local BD guild and it made me think back to all the lessons I’ve learned over the years and how the good and bad things have helped me make the best choices possible and take pride in ”being pro”. I wasn’t always perfect but I tried and I was aware….. so sad that there are dancers who just see BD as a quick way to make a buck and have no problem calling themselves an expert in something they learned from a DVD. Sigh….. keep fighting the good fight!

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