Monday, September 7, 2009


It's barely the end of summer, and in some places, school isn't even in session... but already, the stores are filled with Halloween decorations, and you know that means: we're sliding down a slippery slope to the end of 2009, and The Holidays. For some people, that means going into a purchasing frenzy. But with the economy being the way it is today, many of us may not be able to afford to spend the way we previously did on the gifts, feasts, bells and whistles that go along with the Holidays. So why not get your Jolly Holiday fix for 2009 by helping others?

Have you ever wanted to contribute to a worthy cause, but couldn’t seem find the time to volunteer, or realized that any “disposable income” you might have went directly to dance classes or costume purchases? There's a way you can help, and it doesn't cost a penny. Dancing at benefits and fund-raising events for charities, social or environmental organizations can be a great way for you to contribute to the worthy cause of your choice AND display your dance talent.

My entire adult life I have been involved in the arts, and though that has been unbelievably rewarding on a personal as well as creative level, I can tell you sincerely that “starving artist” is not a euphemistic phrase. Sometimes, over the years, even donating ten or twenty bucks to a great cause that I believed in would’ve broken my bank, so whenever I could, I donated what I could: my time and talent - both as an entertainer and an event producer- to organizations or assistance groups whose work I supported.

Since the late 1980’s, I have either produced or performed on countless shows that raised funds for organizations like The American Red Cross, The United Way, Rock The Vote, Hollygrove Orphanage, AIDS Project Los Angeles, Sweet Relief, Project Angel Food, The Los Angeles Free Clinic, SPARK, Caring For Babies With Aids, The ASPCA, Food Not Bombs, Los Angeles Youth Network, Children of The Night and numerous women’s shelters…as well as many “private citizen” benefits for fellow artists who needed financial help in dealing with health problems or personal misfortune. This experience has definately enriched my life, and also given me a handle on how to help the community through donating my services as opposed to financial resources. Like me, you may have a schedule that is too full to be able to volunteer on a regular basis, so you may want to explore being part of a benefit show, or even putting one on yourself.

Fund raising shows occur all year round, because there is always a need for money. Youth organizations, animal rescue services, women’s shelters and general relief type charities constantly need funds. There are also certain times when benefits or fund raising events might “spike”, such as the months leading up to the Holiday Season, or after a national or international disaster, like Hurricane Katrina or the Tsunami. Every bit of money counts, so there is no such thing as any show or event being too small. Do what you can, when you can because it all adds up.

If you are interested in donating your time and talent to this sort of work, there are a few ways of going about it: you can either choose to offer your services to an established organization as an entertainer, or you can set up a fund raising event yourself. Either way, you will get that warm, fuzzy feeling that comes with doing good deed!

There may already be belly dancers involved in volunteer work in your area, and you can seek them out and get involved with them. For example, in Los Angeles, MECDA routinely holds haflas that raise funds and take donations of food, clothes and bedding for women’s shelters, and Tonya and Atlantis of BDUC have always put aside a portion of funds from their events to make financial contributions to animal and wildlife organizations, like Wild Horse Rescue and the ASPCA. Ask around with the dancers in your community, see what you can find; then introduce yourself and offer to help.

You can also approach an organization you believe in and tell them you would like to donate your services as an entertainer or stage manager if they are planning any future fund raising shows. Ask for the people who head the fund raising or public relations committees, explain that you want to help, what you can offer, and make sure they keep your business card and resume on file.

You could opt to put on a show yourself- on any scale, large or small- but you also need to know that if you producing a fund raising show or benefit yourself, prepared for a lot of work, literally- weeks and months of work, to be specific.

If you are asked to perform at a charity event, there are a few things you need to bear in mind. Some fund-raisers pay entertainers a fee for their services, but this isn’t always the case. You may not be able to afford missing a regular gig in order to do a fund-raiser, but on the other hand, you may feel passionate about the cause and wish to participate even if it means foregoing pay. Some benefit shows are very high-profile events that will bring you a lot of free publicity, not to mention other job contacts, so it can be lucrative for you in the long run.

Ask questions about where you will be performing, as you would for any gig. Is the venue a theater, art gallery, or a private home? Will you be dancing on a stage or dance floor? Outside in a festival atmosphere? In this case, because of wind and other weather conditions, props such as veils and swords may not be a good idea. Bring shoes, flat sandals or ballet slippers are probably best when you are not sure what sort of surface you will be dancing on. Make sure there is a dressing room or somewhere you can change and safely leave your belongings while you perform.

More things to inquire about: What is the sound system like? You may be the only act that features music. Definitely bring a back-up copy of your performance set. If there is more than one oriental dancer performing, it is a good idea to co-ordinate the music with other dancers beforehand, so two dancers don’t use the same song. How long will your performance be? And what sort of performance is it?

Many people who are not familiar with oriental dance will want to book a belly dancer at their fund raising event, but as an “atmosphere performer”, to add “color” to their event. The event may have a theme such as “Circus” or "Arabian Nights”. If you are asked to perform to add to the atmosphere, this basically means that they would like to dance through the crowd, to whatever random music is playing. Obviously, though you will be helping to raise money for your cause, this is not what would be termed an “optimal” performance opportunity! Check to make sure that this is what is being asked of you, because if it is, you may want to reconsider, or at the least, explain that although you appreciate that they want “color” at your event, your talents will go to waste. Personally, I ALWAYS insists on dancing on a stage or dance floor, in a designated performance area. I turn down any gig- for charity or otherwise- where they want me to dance through the crowd. You may not feel the same, but my reasons- with experience, as my teacher- is many. First of all, why dance to any music other than your own personal performance piece? Secondly, roaming through a crowd doesn’t show off your skills, there’s just no room to actually perform, and in a crowd situation, there is always the risk of having people step on your skirts, rip your veil or spill drinks on you. This is no good for a paying gig, and it’s even worse if you are volunteering your time! You want to come home feeling good, not resentful, riiiight?

As for other considerations, if you are donating your time and talent to an event, at any well-organized show, it’s routine have your parking taken care of, and have water, soft drinks or food provided. It’s also not unreasonable to ask if, in return for your services, you can have your business card or contact number printed in the programs, and you should also check if you can pass out or display business cards or flyers advertising your classes or other performances. Some benefit producers will pay you a small honorarium, but even if you are not getting paid, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for a charity donation receipt, which you can use for your own tax purposes.

If you are putting together a benefit or charity event yourself, like I said earlier, be prepared for A LOT of work. It will be necessary for you to have someone designated as your ‘second in command’ and a stage manager at the least, if not a full staff of volunteers, like door people, raffle-ticket sellers, stage hands, and so on. Don’t even attempt to co-ordinate AND perform if you have no previous experience in running a show. You will want to start strategizing and planning your event months in advance.

First you must pick your cause- whether it’s a fellow dancer who needs help with medical bills, or an established charitable organization. If you are putting on a show for a specific, established organization, you need to contact the organization, tell them your intentions, and make sure that it is ok for you to use their name on flyers, advertising the benefit. Some organizations are leery of being associated with any sort of “outside” fund-raising events because of scams- many people claim they are doing a fund-raiser and the money never actually reaches it’s intended goal. In addition, the cause you are raising money for may want to send representatives, speakers, or printed literature to your event.

Now it’s time to choose your performers. You want to go for those with a large draw, so the event will be packed. If you want to work with someone locally (or even nationally) famous, write up a short, business-like proposal letter, outlining your goals, specifying date, what cause the money will go to, and possible venues. With good performers, venues will be more interested in working with you. If dancers will be working in a tipping situation, you should allow them the option of keeping their tips, as they are donating their time and talents to your event. Make sure you specify how long you need each artist or group to perform, and roughly what time they will go on. Make up a schedule; allow for lateness or run- over by inserting a few minutes of “dead time” between performance slots. Make sure each act knows what time to be there for sound/light checks or tech rehearsal, what time the show begins, what time they actually go on, and if they will be permitted to bring a guest or two. Confirm all this in writing and re-confirm by phone or email a week before the show as well as the day before. It’s not just a great idea but a necessity to make up a contact list with email and cell phone numbers of your crew and performers and keep them updated as to schedule changes, availability of promotional materials, etc. in the weeks before the show.

Next, you should pick a venue. Ideally, it would be a restaurant, club or theater with which you already have a relationship. Set a date that is far enough in advance for you to be able to generate ample publicity. Getting the space donated for free is optimal, but if that isn’t possible, try to work out a special rental rate. Sometimes, if you want to use a place on an off night, and seem to be able to guarantee business, they will be happy to work with you. And many business owners are glad to do something for a good cause. You either need to put the money up yourself, or agree with the owner that the rental expense will be taken directly off the top of the door. Some restaurants may be glad to charge a cover and split it with you for donation purposes, or donate half of each paid meal to the cause. Don’t expect this, and make sure to work this out in advance with the owner, and get it in writing. Offer to make out a charitable donation slip in their name or the name of the business for a tax deduction. You can do this with your performers, too. Everyone needs a tax write off! You also must mutually decide if customers can pay with personal checks and /or credit cards, or if you will be accepting cash only. Some places will also allow you to put a donation box up, too. The price of the event should be slightly higher than normal, because this show is special, but you don’t want to make it astronomical, because you want a sold-out crowd. Decide in advance if you will also be taking donations of, say, canned foods, used clothing, toys, etc. If you do this, know that it is your responsibility to get the donated items to their final destination.

You can also explore getting flyers or programs, T-shirts, or ads in newspapers donated by sponsors. This takes legwork- you have to contact the potential sponsors, give them an outline of your goals, etc. Local papers or magazines may be able to give you a special charity rate or even donate an ad, and they are usually enthusiastic about running a pre-event announcement, sometimes, they will even run a feature. Make sure to provide them with photos or j-pegs at least a month in advance of your event. Publications almost never turn down printing pictures of pretty women … Hello! Glamorous belly dancers working for a good cause! If a sponsor or a publication is donating a sizeable amount of cash or ad space, you may want to put their names above the title of the event:

“ (You) and (Local Business or Businesses) Present A Night of Dance To Benefit (Name Of Organization) “

Otherwise, printing their name in a “ Special Thanks To Our Sponsors” area of the program will do. You may be able to get artwork and/or printing, either for flyers, programs or T-shirts donated, too. Be aware that this process takes a lot of time and follow-up work; so if you are going to try to get these goods or services donated, start working on it as soon as you secure your date and venue.

You can raise even more money with door prizes, either by using numbered admission tickets or by having volunteers selling raffle tickets inside the event. In order to get good prizes you also have to use your head: who do you know that would be willing to donate a door prize? This can be anything from a set of zills or grab-bag of CD’s, to gift-certificates from a store, passes for movies, dinner for two at a local restaurant, or coupons for a spa treatment, theater show car-wash … Anything goes! How about a gift certificate for free belly dance lessons?

On the day or night of the show make your performers feel comfortable. Be sure you have water, soft drinks and snacks backstage, or that you have arranged for the cast and crew to be fed afterwards. Some promoters even provide a small, inexpensive gift for performers. This is a nice touch, which shows your gratitude, but is not necessary. Treat your performers and volunteers well because they are donating their precious time and talents.

Hopefully, your show will go off without a hitch… BUT DON’T COUNT ON IT! Even though Murphy’s Law will usually apply, try to maintain a calm, professional attitude no matter what. Definitely anticipate last minute, “Plan B” type changes, but also realize that if you have worked everything out in advance, there will be glitches, but they should be minimal.

After the show is over and the money has been counted, it is your duty as the producer to get the funds and whatever other donations (canned food, toys, clothes, etc.) To the organization or person you raised the funds for. You will probably also be spending some time filling out tax donation receipts for yourself, the venue, and performers. Please remember to thank all the performers, technicians, wait staff and volunteers that donated time, services and talent. You can do this by phone, or email, but a thank-you note is much classier!

Remember, you can make a difference! May you be blessed for your generous spirit, and have a great show!

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