Thursday, August 21, 2008

So, you wanna go Pro?

What it means to be a professional dancer and when/how students should take gigs.

Ok. I had to come out and do it. I received yet another anonymous tip via email about students accepting gigs for low wages at a restaurant and I decided it was time for me to post my thoughts on "coming out" as a bellydancer/troupe. As a teacher in
the Baltimore area, I feel like it's important to let my thoughts be known on the subject and for my students to understand what I believe is fair practice when deciding to take gigs.

Please note: this is not to poo-poo on your parade. I love my students. Really, honestly care about them. Part of that caring is in helping students come out the right way and preserving their career in the long run. To do that, there's some good pointers that I hope will help guide students to a long and lucrative career in bellydance. And this is also because I wish I had this post when I started out... so here's to some vicarious living.

Part I: You really want ME/US to dance?
AKA: Just because you're offered a gig, doesn't mean you should take it.

I don't mean to burst any bubbles or rain on any parades here, but just because someone offers for you/your troupe to dance DOESN'T mean that you should. Now, I remember what it was like when my troupe first started getting asked to gig at various events and venues. It feels DAMNED good to have someone ask. It feels like sparkly butterflies in your stomach, mixed with immense dread. It also feels like a state of accomplishment, like the first boy/girl to notice you in school that asks you to the school dance. It's so flattering to be noticed, it's so special for someone to even think to consider you.

But I'm gonna level with you. Just because someone asks doesn't mean you're ready. Just because a restaurant owner, friend, friend's band, charity event coordinator, or anyone for that matter asks you/your troupe to dance does not qualify you to be able to do it. Though it does feel flattering and amazing to think of taking gigs, there are several points to consider before you should take any sort of gig as a student.

Does my teacher support me/feel I'm technically and professionally able to perform yet?

I personally feel that if you are taking gigs in any capacity, whether it be as a student or pro/semi-pro, you should be taking classes regularly with a teacher. This can be either a regular, weekly class or regular workshops with mentors/teachers. No exceptions. If you can't spare the money/time to study, you are not ready to perform. Period. Are we done? I think so.

So, assuming this is the case, you will have a teacher/mentor that you should be able to ask about your ability to perform in public. I would caution anyone out there from taking it upon themselves to decide that they're ready to perform without a teacher or respected professional in the area critiquing whether they are performance ready. Why? Because we are poor judges of our own skill sometimes. As dancers, we sometimes have the flaw of either over or underrating our skills when it comes to performance, so it's good to have someone you respect and trust giving you an honest crit. By talking to a teacher or professional dancer in your area, you are also getting advice straight from the source and will probably walk away with some great tips on starting your career on the right foot. And finally, there's one little selfish reason- networking. By making the connection with your teacher/a professional dancer, you're establishing the quality of yourself/your troupe and opening the door to more gigs!

However, the kicker with this one is that you have to respect said opinion. So, if your teacher evaluates you and says, "you know... Sorry, but you're just not there yet. You need to work on X, Y, Z before you're truly ready to get out there," then you have to respect it. The trick to this is that you should trust your teacher/a professional's viewpoint enough to value their judgement. It may not be what you want to hear, but it'll be better for you as a dancer. It's better to get this feedback now and be the best you can going out into the world than to be a poor performer.

Why? I'll level with you. The audience doesn't know your a student. This includes other professional dancers (read: the people who will get you more gigs in the future.) If you take a gig that is not a student showcase and you look bad, there's no buffer/excuse for your performance. You'll more than likely get labeled as a bad dancer, a bad troupe... and that's just, well... bad.

Sound scary? It is a bit. But your career should be worth considering.

Am I able to live up to the performance standards/professional standards in my area so that I can be a good representative of bellydance and enhance our community of performers as a whole?

Once you put yourself out there, you are representing your local bellydance scene. Yup, what you do in your show reflects us all. And this can be awesome! Every area needs as much awesome talent as it can get and you/your troupe can be a great asset.

However, this goes both ways. Sorry to be a sour-puss, but that also means that if you're not a skilled and able performer, it can be a not so great thing as well. My young paduans (excuse the dorky Star Wars reference), when coming out to dance you are also taking on a great responsibility to represent your community and you should want to make your contribution a positive one.

Now, other dancers and pros may have more to add to this list (please let me know and I'll update), but for now, here's my handy list of what you SHOULD be able to do before taking a gig.

From a basic event perspective:

*Show up on time, if not early.
*Be dressed in a quality costume, with a cover-up.
*Act professionally from start to finish. You are on-stage every moment that you are at the gig, even when your set is finished.
*Be able to adapt your choreography/improv to the specific venue you're at with no noticeable mistakes or flubs. This includes showing up to find the configuration completely changed since your last visit.
*Be able to communicate effectively with music staff/event coordinators.
*Be able to discuss lighting, cues and rhythms effectively with the event staff.
*Ensure that you are getting paid a fair wage for this gig. No exceptions. You are not doing a free/cheap gig as a "discount" because you're new and you're not taking money from another dancer's income for exposure. Be able to talk with an event coordinator and get your pay before a gig, if possible, if not, at the end of the night.

From a personal/troupe performance and skill set perspective:

*Have a large repertoire of dance skills that you can adapt to the venue and patrons to ensure the best show. It's great to have a specific style, but know the mood/flavor of the venue and be able to pull from what you offer to ensure a good fit.
*Be able to technically execute all of your moves with precision and ease.
*Execute your choreography without it looking like choreography (if you're improv, you should be able to make your improv look seamless and effortless.)
*Layer moves. If you can't layer anything, you're not ready.
*Be able to adapt your performance for any emergencies that may come up (troupe member is stuck in traffic/sick/etc.) without any noticeable effect on your performance.
*Be able to perform solo with no nervousness, blundering, apologies or noticeable difference to the audience. This applies for troupe members as well. You should be able to dance both with your troupe and without them before going semi-pro.
*Be skilled enough in your props that they add to your show, not detract from it.
*Be engaging and interesting to your audience. Add to their experience.
*Be able to dance to a live drum solo, even if you usually dance to pre-recorded music (you never know what will happen... TRUST me.)
*Be able to deal with random objects which will get in the way of your show (children, food, cutlery, fallen costume pieces, dirty old men, falling decorations, ect.) without effecting the quality of your performance.
*Be able to perform to music that is not your own, because the DJ/staff messed up. Likewise, be able to take a music mix-up and turn it into part of your act and work with the situation.
*Never apologize or admit you messed up while on stage.
*Be able to deal with a severe costume malfunction without harming your show/doing minimal harm.

I'm sure there's some I'm forgetting, but that's enough for now I think.

Part II: Oh, I'm just a new dancer, anyways...
How to get what you're worth and be a part of your awesome community.

Am I taking money out of another professional's pockets by undercutting, undercharging or giving a gig away for free?

As a dancer "coming out," whether as a student troupe/soloist or as a semi-pro you NEED to get connected with local performers and find out what rates are fair. A great site for dancers is Samira Shuruk's Standard Rates and Guildelines. Samira Shuruk's site will give you resources for your specific area and what pricing is standard for various gig types. Enjoy!

However, let me clear up a common myth for your right now.

MYTH: I'm a student/new performer, so I shouldn't get paid as much as pros.

NO! No no no! Taking less money is undercutting. Though yes, you may not be as skilled, fabulous and amazing as some of the old pros out there (who is? These ladies rock!) that doesn't mean you should charge less. Why?

Because if they take $200 a gig and you offer to do it for $100, the event promoters will take the hundred just about every time. Meaning? You're lowering the standard wages and taking gigs from great dancers. And that's just wrong. Not to mention, you're selling yourself short and that's crazy.

Look, let me clue you in... you're worth it. If you've taken the time to train yourself and you meet all the above standards, then you're worth that extra pay. Get it while you can. And don't you DARE let them say, "well, but they're a pro and you're a new dancer..." So what? Doesn't matter. No-way, no-how. You're worth it, period. If they won't budge, pass on the gig. It's not worth tarnishing your reputation and hurting another dancer for less pay.

CAVEAT: If you're a student, you take student gigs/haflas, not semi-pro/professional gigs. Translation: once you come out and dance in a non student showcase/hafla in which it is clearly noted to the audience that you are a student, then you are representing yourself as a semi-pro. You can't play both sides here and you can't sidestep back. Now, I know some dancers/teachers may disagree with me and that's fine. But in my opinion once you get billed as a semi-pro dancer once (or knowingly omit the fact that you're a student in your bio/announcement), then you've crossed over to the dark side. And the dark side can be fun, but you've got to be ready. There's no going back. You can't erase audience perceptions.

This means there is NO SUCH THING as a "student performer discounted rate" for gigs. You're either pro or you aren't. If you can't give a good enough performance to charge the full rate, that's fine... but stick to haflas/student shows until you are.

and finally...

Part III: But what's in it for me?
Getting the most out of your fledgling career.

Is this gig going to help or harm my career in the long run?

Look, it's not just you, it's the promoters. There are many reasons, from good to shady, as to why an event coordinator would ask for you to perform. As the captain of your career ship, it's important for you to choose your gigs wisely and make sure you're not only being offered the gig for the right reason but that it will give the most benefit to your career. Because, again, you're worth it!

From a positive standpoint, you could be offered the gig because this person/these persons would love to have bellydance at their event and your name came recommended from a teacher/pro dancer. Maybe they've seen you out and think you would be the perfect fit for their event. It could be that they are having a private party and think it would be great to add bellydance. There's tons of reasons why you got the call/email/offer. However, once you've gotten said off, here's some points to consider:

*Are you getting paid a fair wage?
*Did they already offer this gig to other professional dancers and are pricing around?
*Are they fairly compensating you for travel?
*Will this event be a safe venue for you to perform in (VERY important- I would suggest against private parties/bachelor parties unless you have an escort or are familiar with the hosts.)

If you are offered to dance at a gig (non student show/hafla), never ever accept the following excuses to not get paid a fair wage:

"Well we figured that getting to perform at your level would compensation enough. This will add to your resume and be great experience!"
(The easy answer to this one is that if you're not at a skill level to get paid, you shouldn't be performing out.)

"We have other performers (musicians, jugglers, whatever) that aren't being paid. They're doing it for fun, so we're not offering any pay."
(Others can do whatever they want with their art, but you have invested time in training, costuming, practice space, practice hours. You deserve pay.)

"Oh we figured you'd want to do this for fun since it's your new hobby and our party would be just the place!"
(You are more likely to hear this from friends. I'll level with you- the audience at a friend's party is usually very unlikely to know you're students and therefore you're putting on a free show, not honing skills. Politely decline and go to the party and just have a good time. Save your costuming time/practice time for a paying gig. Would you ask your friend to put on a show for everyone at your party for free that involved hours of rehearsal, money spent on costumes and classes?)

"We don't really have money budgeted for bellydance at this event, but if you'd like to come out for fun/experience."
(If they are charging at the door, they can afford to pay you. If they paid for food, a DJ, space, then they can afford to budget for dancers. If not, they don't deserve to have dancers for entertainment. The caterer isn't working for free and neither should you. CAVEAT: charity events/non profits are a sticky situation. Consult your local pros for their viewpoints on rates for these events.)

One thing to remember is this: from a more negative view, it could be that an event host/promoter figures that if they can get it free and or really cheap, why not go for it? I'm sorry to say it, but we don't live in a fluffy happy bunny world. There are people out there looking to exploit performers and get what they can for as little as they can. And to some of those bad people you, my dear paduans, look like fresh, shiny bellydance meat. Again, refer to any of the number of reasons above as to why you're worth good pay. Though it may be flattering to think of dancing, of seeing your name on the bill, don't do it at the expense of selling yourself short.

Ok, so that seems like a lot of "don'ts" and negativity. And I'm sorry for it, I don't mean to drag you down. But I want to be honest with you so you start out on the right foot, paduans. I guess what I'm saying is...

You shouldn't choose lightly to go out and perform in a non-student light. It's a big decision. It's a career decision and that means there's a LOT to consider.

Now, breathe with me... there's an upside.

If you follow my advice, I swear within 99.99 percent that you will be on the road to a good career in which you will be supported by your community and well paid! And isn't that good to know? And look, if you read the above and got daunted, if you decided you're not ready?

Then I'm proud of you. It takes guts to say, "you know what... I'm not ready yet." That's worth solid gold.


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