Cultivating the Image

Cultivating the Image

Student Venues and Professional Performances

By Miramar

The dancer glided onto the floor, her sparkling veil flowing behind her to the pulsating beat of Middle Eastern music. Costumed in silk and chiffon, accented with gold sequins, bells and mirrors, the green-eyed dancer wove her spell as she gracefully shimmied around the room. The couples and families watching were mesmerized. They longed to see more. The dancer had made a great impression. Years of dance training and her professional attitude made her dance a “work of art.” She succeeded in promoting Middle Eastern dance, one of the primary reasons for performing.

Professional dancers, as part of their quest to promote Middle Eastern dance, create venues for their students to perform in. These may be shows where family members and the general public are present, or they may be belly dancers’ parties (hafla) where only students are present. Both of these performance opportunities are necessary tools for the growth of the dancer.

Often, students seek or find performance venues on their own. An unfortunate consequence occurs when the unprepared amateur, lacking the required expertise, produces a show that leaves unfavorable impressions on the audience. The student thereby diminishes the progress the professional dancer has made in establishing Middle Eastern dance in the community. Therefore, whether you are professional or amateur, teacher or student, it is important to consider the following guidelines for planning shows.

If you just want to have fun, plan a “girl’s night out,” or belly dancers’ hafla. The only guideline to follow here is to be courteous and considerate of other student’s performances. Try out a new solo on your friends, work on improvisation and even practice choreographies. It is time to let your hair down and have fun!

In contrast, the venue where the audience is present requires a different approach. Many in the audience may be experiencing Middle Eastern dance for the first time. Strive to make their first impression an excellent one, one that generates admiration and respect for this art form. When amateurs present shoddy, ill-defined, and poorly planned shows, they are, in effect, decreasing overall professional opportunities. As Alexandra King said in an article in Habibi in 1987, “It is this area of dance, particularly, where we find the frustrated recreational dancer who, unqualified and unprepared to work as a professional or even semi-professional, (represents herself) as such. Under-trained, these dilettantes or ‘dabblers in dance’ present themselves to the general public as professional dancers, oftentimes creating a negative image of the dance and thereby making it difficult for honest professionals to get decent work.”¹

If you are not a professional, do not attempt to pass yourself off as one. A professional dancer and instructor is one that is recognized by her clients, sponsors, peers and students as having the necessary knowledge, skills and training to be a professional performer, and is compensated for her performances and instruction. An amateur is a student of Middle Eastern dance who may find herself in performance venues.

This does not mean that students should not produce or dance in shows. Certainly appropriate venues exist for amateur performers; nursing home shows, local parades, street festivals, student haflas and recitals are several examples of places where the non-professional can perform. The important point here is that no matter how insignificant the show, never extemporize when an audience is present. Thoughtful planning, consideration and practice are required. By using the guidelines and rules below, the amateur will be able to accomplish a great deal to promote the art of Middle Eastern dance.

Guidelines for Producing a Show:

Carefully plan your venue: Before planning a show, consider where you will have it. What is your primary goal for having the show? Is the venue an appropriate place to achieve that goal? Finally, are you willing to take the time and effort to produce the most professional show you can? If the answer is no, then stop right here. If you want to get together with your friends and have a good time, then have a “girls night out” party and wing it. But if you really want to promote Middle Eastern dance and show others why you love belly dancing so much, then contemplate following the rest of these guidelines.

Consider whether to charge an entrance fee: If the show is comprised mostly of students and you are performing for the Girl Scouts, you most likely will not charge an entrance fee. However, if you are bringing several professionals in, you probably will need to charge a fee to cover your expenses.

Provide for walk-in audience: Devise a system for selling tickets at the door to handle patrons who did not buy a ticket in advance. If the show is invitation only, you will need to have someone at the door checking the guest list.

Inform the audience if the show is a “student show”: Let the audience know you are students of “so and so” and that you will be performing her choreographies. You could announce that the show is comprised of beginning, intermediate and advanced students. If you have a professional guest artist, make sure you announce her as such.

Plan show costuming carefully: If you are planning an event where mostly families and children will be present, request that your dancers have a more covered-up look. The audience will feel more comfortable and so will you. Insist that dancers wear cover-ups when not performing.

Provide an adequate place for dancers to change: Never expect performers to change costumes behind a flimsy partition. If there is no adequate place for costume changes, plan on one costume per dancer and have the dancers arrive in costume (with an appropriate cover-up of course).

Music request: It is preferable to request that the cassettes or CD’s be turned in by a certain date, but if dancers turn them in the night of the show, have labels ready to go so you can easily organize the music. In either case request two copies of the music.

Use the best sound equipment you can afford: If you are going to go to the time and trouble to put on a show, make sure the audience can hear and appreciate the music!

Announce the dances correctly: It is advantageous to have an announcer who introduces the performers, and gives a brief description of their dances. Use terms that describe the dance as closely as possible. For example cabaret styles include American belly dance, raks sharqi (Egyptian dance), Lebanese belly dance, Greek belly dance and Turkish Oryantal. Folkloric dances include Turkish Rom (Gypsy), Moroccan Shikkat, Saidi, and Ghawazee. Tribal dance styles can be called American tribal style or California tribal. Don’t misinform the audience into thinking you are presenting authentic pieces if you are not. Instead, define the dances with the words “interpretive,” “fantasy,” “modern,” etc. A program listing the performers, their dance styles and music selections will add a professional touch.

Do not try to do everything yourself: It is hard to perform, MC a show and play music. Enlist the help of your friends and other dancers and the show will run more smoothly.

Photography and videotaping: Determine your policy regarding photos and videotaping before the show starts, and make a general announcement at the beginning of the show regarding what is permitted.

Plan the end of the show: An excellent way to end the show is to have all the dancers walk out on stage in costume, hold hands and bow. The star of the show usually takes an extra bow. Make sure you thank the dancers for performing and the audience for attending.

Dancing in Show

Do not make a commitment you might not be able to keep: Avoid committing to a performance you might have to cancel at the last minute. Often, programs have already been printed, and if someone cancels at the last minute, it throws the show’s timing and the program off. Occasionally, when an emergency arises, you will have no alternative except to cancel. If this is the case, inform the sponsor immediately.

Do not dance before you are ready: If you aren’t sure of the steps, if you don’t have the choreography memorized, if you haven’t had time to practice—don’t dance! Consider each venue and ask yourself if you have the proper training to perform there. Beginners should be able to reasonably execute dance moves and choreography before attempting to dance in any public show. If you aren’t a professional, don’t try to pass yourself off as one—you’ll stick out like a sore thumb! Trust your teacher’s instincts about your dance ability. When someone sees an unprepared dancer passing herself off as a professional, it only adds to the pre-misconceptions and stigmas that abound in this misunderstood art form.

If time is left over at the end of the show, don’t use it to practice new choreographies or old dances. You could use the extra time to play music and invite friends up to try some of the moves they have learned. Make a brief announcement first to thank everyone for coming to the show so that they know the show is over and then invite everyone up for some improvisational dance.

If given a time limit, stick to it: Refrain from exceeding your time limit, even by one minute, without first asking the show sponsor if it’s okay.

Provide music when requested: Take the time to carefully record your music on high quality cassette tapes. Two tapes should be prepared: a show tape and a back-up tape containing only the performance song. While CD’s may sound superior, problems such as skipping and the wrong track being played sometimes occur. Often, sponsors request music in advance of a show. If such a request is made, make sure you honor that request. The sponsor may have a reason for getting the music in advance, such as organizing the music, combining the performance in one format, or performing sound checks so that music levels will be consistent.

Provide notes for the MC: Give dance notes to the sponsor in a timely manner so she can plan the order of the performances. Provide information on the kind of dance you are doing, the color and type of costume, the recording artist and music title, and MC comments.

Arrive in plenty of time to change: Give yourself ample time to arrive promptly and be ready to go when the show starts.

Be aware of dressing room etiquette: Be respectful of other dancers’ things in the dressing room. Don’t just pick up a can of hairspray and use it—ask first. Space is usually limited—don’t be a “prima donna” and spread your things out everywhere.

Plan costuming carefully: Traditional, authentic dances such as the hagallah should be presented in a hagallah costume. In a duet, costumes should match or at least closely compliment each other. Cabaret costumes are appropriate in nightclub and dinner show settings. Make sure your costume is fresh, clean and in good repair. Avoid smoke before a performance as it will cling to your hair and costume. Do not surprise the sponsor by wearing a different costume than the one you described in your MC notes.

Wear a cover-up when not performing: The audience should not see your costume before you perform; this would diminish the “magic and mystery” the costume creates. Andrea Deagon, a noted professional dancer, expresses this very eloquently in the following quote:

When a dancer costumes herself for a performance, she’s getting ready to do a very important thing. Her performance has the power to distract people from their cares, to change their mood and their perspective. She has the power to make her audience experience a feeling of community as they share their enjoyment of her dance—a rare gift in our hectic, fragmented world. ²

Dancers not performing should be wearing a cover-up at all times. Dancers who parade in their costumes also show disrespect for the performer on stage. When going to and from the show, dancers should be covered up. Yes, it is fun to parade around in costume, but if encountered in the convenience store in bra and belt, belly dancers don’t seem so mysterious!

Respect the artist on stage: Treat the performer who is dancing the way you want to be treated. Don’t make a lot of noise or create a distraction during a performance.

Keep your negative opinions to yourself: Resist the urge to comment negatively on another dancer’s performance. You may be sitting next to one of their friends or family members. Besides, most performers are striving to be the best they can be. Instead, think of something constructive to say to the dancer instead of trashing her behind her back.

Give credit to the choreographer: When performing dances not created by you, always give credit to the choreographer. It is also nice to credit the musicians by announcing who the artist is.

Don’t focus just on the men in the audience: To do so will make you appear “sleazy.” Pay equal attention to everyone. Women and children love our dances too! Please don’t shimmy your breasts up close to a man and be extra careful if you decide to drape your veil around a man’s neck. That innocent move on your part could be interpreted the wrong way!

Plan your entrance and exit: Carefully plan where you will enter and when you want your music to start. And plan your exit; don’t just walk on and walk off. This is show business! Grand entrances make wonderful first impressions and a great exit can leave the audience wanting more!

By thoughtfully planning your next show or performance and considering the above guidelines, you will do much to promote the image of Middle Eastern dance, the ancient and beautiful art form we know as belly dancing.


¹King, Alexandra, “Developing Professionalism.” Habibi, Vol. 10 No. 4, 1987, p. 26. Mountain View, California: Habibi Publications.

² Deagon, Andrea, “Costumes: Magic, Identity and Power”, Jareeda, March 1996, p. 29, Sutherlin, Oregon: Mezdulene.
Miramar is the owner of Miramar’s Mid-East Dance Studio in Winchester, Virginia. She has been performing professionally since 1985 and has taught dance classes and workshops for approximately ten years. Her articles have been published in Jareeda, Chandra’s Mid-East Dance News, and Sodabladet. A former member of the Silk Road Dance Company, workshop and show sponsor, Miramar has performed in numerous venues in nine states and the Caribbean. She has been the subject of local newspaper articles and has appeared on local television.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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