Place in the Market

A BELLY DANCER’S PLACE IN THE MARKET

by Cory Wright

Here in the Western World, very few women start taking belly dance classes with the idea of becoming a professional belly dancer. For most of us it starts as a unique interest, and develops into a hobby. For some, however, it goes beyond hobby and becomes a passion. This passion is what drives a dancer to strive for excellence and fulfillment of her personal potential. Thus a professional dancer is born.

Unfortunately, something every woman experiences to one degree or another is a “transitional” period in which she goes through changes emotionally — making the jump from seeing herself no longer as a hobbyist or dilettante but rather as a professional dancer. It takes time and experience to achieve true respect for ones own talent and to be able to command respect from others. Just how long a process this is depends on each individual and her personality, background, and experiences.

During this emotional transition, a dancer is first exposed to the professional market; many impressions are made, both on her by the market and on the market by the dancer. It can be a crucial time, particularly if one is in a smaller dance community or a rural area. It is important to be aware of and to educate yourself concerning the market with which you operate.

Dance markets can be as different from one community to the next as night and day. Here are two examples drawn from personal experience:

In Frankfurt, Germany, I expressed to the local dancers I knew a desire to dance in the area. They immediately took me around town to introduce me personally to the restaurant owners. At first I though this a “controlling” maneuver and felt put off; but it soon became clear that their intentions were excellent. They told me everything I needed to know about their market — i.e., the standard prices to be charged, the length of performances given for these prices, acceptable and unacceptable practices for sharing tips (when, where, how much, and with whom). They had labored hard to build a level of respect and professionalism as high as any, and created a healthy market. They requested I please keep my prices and practices within the parameters of their established market. They never auditioned for a job — no free shows for the restaurant owners! They showed that they respected themselves, and would not stand for any abuse; therefore they gained the respect of the restaurant owners. Their business practices were absolutely the most professional I have seen, and the artistic levels were also very high. I left Frankfurt with the highest regard and respect for their professionalism. The dancers there make inspiring role models.

At the opposite extreme, one city in the southwestern United States has a Middle Eastern community which seldom (if ever) uses belly dancers at their social occasions. In fact, dancers are shunned.

The dancers there show not only an appalling lack of knowledge concerning Middle Eastern customs and culture, but also lack any interest in learning about them. The behavior and performances of these dancers are embarrassing and insulting to the Middle Eastern community. As a consequence of their ignorance or lack of regard for their natural audiences, they have completely destroyed a valuable market. Attempts by top instructors and performers to do workshops there are met with almost no support by the disaffected Arabic sector, and on occasion with active malice on the part of jealous dancers.

Needless to say, the artistic level, like the dance market it supports, is nearly non-existent. It is a shame; it does not need to be this way. Rather than spend time improving the level of their dance and broadening their understanding of the culture, these dancers have reduced themselves to forming cliques and fighting among themselves desperately for the rare opportunities which present themselves.

Good or bad, dance markets don’t just “happen”. They are a result of the cumulative actions of everyone associated with the dance community: dancers, restaurant owners, and audiences. As a performer, you have a great deal of influence over how belly dance is viewed overall.

Understanding the belly dance market is no different than understanding any other business market, except that you must also learn to understand and appreciate a whole new culture as well (which for an American can be almost as difficult as learning the dance itself!).

There are three main parts of any business market which you should pay attention to:

1) Product — In this case, this represents artistic levels and skill. The higher the artistic level, the more seriously it will be taken and the stronger the market will become.

2) Pricing – Professionals in any market charge what they are worth; you must know what the ;market will bear. Find out what dancers at all levels are charging in your area, and set your fees in line with those dancers you feel are of comparable skill. Overcharging for your skill level will cost you work, but undercharging, or worst of all undercutting other dancers holds potential disaster for both your personal fortune and the market in general. Once one dancer drops her price, it is very, very difficult to get people to go back to the regular, more reasonable rates. Cooperation is the name of the game here. Dancers need to work together on keeping prices fair…remember that this strategy is used by the restaurant owners with whom you will be dealing. In Greece, the restaurant owners band together to keep dancers’ pay at the same low rate, and it works in their favor; in Frankfurt the dancers stick by one another and hold out for the same high rates, and it works to their favor. It can be done with cooperation.

3) Distribution – This is where artist meets audience. It is highly beneficial to everyone to keep the audience (your market) interested and excited about Oriental dance. The best way to do this is through constant circulation of talent, both resident and visiting. New talent keeps audiences interested, and performers on their toes, learning and mastering their skills. Everyone benefits in the long run, and good business people know this. Closing the door to outsiders leads only to stagnation and decline.

Keeping and creating healthy, strong dance markets is as important to the community as it is to the dancers. It means there is always a positive environment in which to express the dance; always a place for the people to come and appreciate it. While it is a profession and should be taken seriously as such, we must never forget that belly dance is first and foremost a fulfilling and beautiful expression of a people’s culture, and for that reason alone should be nurtured with love and respect.

By caring for your dance market with a view towards its growth and preservation, everyone benefits.

Cory Wright is a professional dancer who has performed in Greece, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. She has traveled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East. Before taking up belly dancing full time, she held a position as Marketing Director in the computer industry, responsible for the expansion, penetration, and creation of markets for her company’s products.

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