This is Part Three in a series of articles I'm doing on becoming a professional dancer. Today's post deals with professional appearance, both on and off stage.
For years, people who want to enter the corporate world have been advised to dress for the job they want, not the job they have. The same concept applies to the performing arts. If you’re going after professional dance gigs, you need to look the part, so now's the time to get with the program!
Costuming, Make Up And Hair
You’ll definitely need to invest in a few professional costumes. Whether you buy your costumes or make them, they need to be showstoppers- and they have to fit you well and flatter your shape and coloring. You’re creating an illusion for the audience when you're on stage, so you can’t look “average”. That also means you can’t expect to work in glorified class wearing a haphazardly embellished bra with a hip scarf tied on over a street skirt, the way you might at a hafla!
A tried and true idea for rookies is to get in a good quality gold or silver bra and belt set ( decorated with fringe or coins, it doesn't matter) and make it appear versatile by changing up the look with different skirts, veils and accessories.
Additionally, you'll also have to shell out a couple of pro-level full costumes. You will need more than one costume, especially if you'll be working at a restaurant or a nightclub. Many places require costume changes for multiple sets a night, and if the place has a regular clientele, they expect different shows, too...as in different music and different costumes each time you dance.
If you can’t afford brand new stage wear, then “gently used” costumes will be your best friend. Typically, they’re in good condition and being sold because a dancer wants to rotate her stage wardrobe or they no longer fit, not because they are ruined. “Clothes make the man” and costumes make the dancer- at least, when she is on stage. Often, you’ll be working up-close and personal with your clients, so your costumes must fit well. If you don’t sew, have the alterations done by a seamstress.
True professionals are capable of doing their own faces. If you’re at a loss about stage make up, you need to get a clue- pronto. The natural look just won’t fly onstage, even if you’re working at an outdoor event. Your audiences expect a certain exotic image;it's imperative to look the part. There are numerous tutorials for beautiful make up on YouTube.com; watch them and follow along. Study photos of famous dancers and really examine the way they do their faces. Look at everything: ballet dancers, Vegas showgirls, Broadway dancers, and the Rockettes- even vintage movie star photos! Look for beautiful, expressive performer’s faces. On a large stage, “fresh faced” usually means foundation and powder, red lipstick, pink cheeks, penciled brows and false eyelashes. At a smaller venue, you won’t need quite as much.
Your hair is an important part of your professional appearance, too. Some of us are blessed with great hair...others, well, not so much. Even if you happen to have a gorgeous head of hair, it may not look that way after sweating through multiple shows, so this is where wigs and hairpieces come in. Here's a link to an article I wrote in 2011 about faux hair for dancing:
Image And Appearance Offstage
Remember that you are the product you’re selling, so think about the packaging! Even when you aren’t onstage, when you’re at gigs, in class or at a belly dance event, you must look flawless. It’s the image your students, clients and fans expect of you- don’t destroy the illusion!
The general public wants to experience a diva, not some average woman who just happens to dance. Think of your dance jobs as an acting exercise and maintain your “role” as a belly dancer.
Arrive at your gigs with your hair and make up done, wearing something pretty. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive. Something you’d wear on a casual date, like a little dress or a nice top with jeans or leggings is fine.
Wear a cover up between shows, so you don’t ruin the impact of your costume. Sorry to say, but a veil or a coat you’d wear on the street might be fine for a studio party, but it just won’t cut the mustard for a professional gig. There are plenty of beautiful, washable, inexpensive caftans on eBay…and one of them has your name on it!
Dress nicely for class, especially if you’re teaching. You don’t need anything too fancy to wear; there are tons of cute and affordable workout clothes, so there are many options. You probably already have an extensive class wear wardrobe. A light touch of make up won't hurt, either. Remember once again that you are now marketing yourself as a professional; and that you are not only interacting with the general public, but you’re also a role model for your students, a few of whom will turn professional at some point, so set a good example.
Making an effort look good when you go to dance festivals and workshop weekends is now a requirement too, even if you’ll be sweating away in the classes. You never know who you’ll run into at one of these events; you might come away with a gig or an invitation to teach somewhere… and of course everyone always takes pictures!
Your physical appearance needs to be maintained if you’re interested in professional work. Good grooming is essential; you now have an image to uphold- and at many gigs you’ll be in very close proximity to your audience. This means that no matter what your personal aesthetic is, you’ll need to conform to mainstream beauty standards, so shave, polish, spray, exfoliate, deodorize and coif yourself carefully with this in mind.
When I first started dancing over twenty years ago, I was a punk rock chick...but I knew without being told that my fried, Krazy-Kolored Calico-striped hair wasn't gonna fly at the Arab clubs that I wanted to hire me...so I grew my hair out and dyed it back to it's original color. I also knew that (back in those days) tattoos and piercings were absolutely taboo for dancers. So, in order to work, I had to keep all of my body art covered in order to get hired! I made sleeves that matched all my costumes, and hid my tattoos. But I didn't consider this a sacrifice, I considered it a career move. I took the phrase "When In Rome..." to heart, and no one was the wiser! Nowadays, I still often get questions about whether or not it's acceptable for dancers to have tats or multiple piercings. Those looks are all popular and accepted by society pretty much everywhere so don’t worry if you have colored hair, piercings or tattoos... because now, pretty much, everyone does. However...
The next thing I'm about to say may be somewhat of a hot button issue-but it's the truth.
While it’s a fact that our dance looks beautiful on women on every age, shape and size, this is not the case with most professional gigs. You don’t have to be a sylph, a few extra pounds are fine, because everyone likes a feminine, curvaceous dancer... but you will need to maintain a “professional” weight in order to be hired. I've also known dancers who were underweight that lost out on jobs. If you are a more mature dancer, know that you may get passed over in favor of a younger performer.
I hear dancers complaining all the time about all of this: "Why did she get hired? She can't even dance, she just looks pretty!"
Well, one of the reasons "she" got hired is cause "she" had the right look.
We dancers judge each other on talent and technique, not appearances. But the general public doesn't see the same things we do- and neither do many show producers, restaurant and night club managers or casting directors.
When you're competing for jobs, looks count almost as much as technique. Remember that song from the old Broadway musical A Chorus Line? "Dance 10, Looks 3/ and I'm still on unemployment/ Dancing for my own enjoyment"...sadly, those lyrics are still true today!
Though all this may seem outright wrong in this day and age of body acceptance and diversity, this is a fact of life in the realm of professional dance. Remember, you are now entering a competetive world- nobody ever said it was going to be fair. Again, it’s our societal standard of beauty at play. What constitutes “acceptable” physical appearance for dance entertainment is subjective... and it’s always up to the people who hire you!
In my first post on becoming a professional dancer, I wrote that you will need to develop a tough skin because there will be a lot of rejection...no matter who you are, no matter what you look like. This comes with the territory. Be realistic about getting rejected for a job because it happens to everyone. Take it with a grain of salt. Dream as big as possible, keep your goals in mind and work as hard as you can. Looks aren't everything, but they do count.
The bottom line is that if you take great care of yourself and look as good as you can both on and off stage, you’re much more likely to get hired!
Shameless plug: Need some help with your stage make up? Look no further!
"Bombshell: Dramatic Make Up For The Stage, Photos & Glamourous Occasions"
Comprehensive two-disc instructional DVD set for purchase here: