This is Part Two in a series of articles I'm posting on becoming a professional dancer; today's post deals with your basic performance skills and dance repertoire:
No matter what, your technique has look polished. If you can perform in many styles with ease then you’ll already be ahead of the pack. You never know what a job may require, and you should never stop learning! Accelerate your dance study now- take as many classes as you can, and if you haven’t taken private lessons yet, now is a great time to start.
As a professional belly dancer, it will behoove you to be comfortable performing to many types of ethnic music, from traditional to modern pop. Build up your music library and become familiar with Arabic song structure and different styles of music. Learn as many of the most-requested classic songs as you can; know them inside and out, especially if you’re working with live musicians. If you’re using recorded music, make sets of various lengths; ten to twenty minutes for restaurants and clubs, twenty to thirty-five minutes for private parties. Structure your shows so that they have variety, with a beginning, middle and ending. For parties, allow an extra song at the end for audience participation.
You should be able to play finger cymbals well, be proficient with veil work, and have the skills to rock a hot drum solo. You also ought to be able to perform at least a couple of the folkloric dances that are typically requested at clubs, restaurants, private parties and weddings, such as raks shamadan, saidi, khaleegy, melaya leff and so on.
Are you good with props? While audiences in the Middle East are content to watch hours of Oriental dance, Western crowds often want a spectacle. They’re really into sword dancing, candle trays, Isis Wings, fan veils, large feather fans, raks shamadan and that sort of thing. Some purists may sniff at a couple of these props because they aren’t traditional, but the general public loves it; so if you don’t already have a specialty, think about learning one. If you use any type of props that require open flames, you may need to carry fire insurance. Check with your venue or local fire marshal regarding local laws.
Great stage presence is crucial. You must be able to win over the crowd and get them on your side the moment you step on stage. Even if a performer is a superlative technician, if she looks expressionless or scared, the audience will feel nervous, not entertained. There has to be a personal connection with the crowd. A dancer who is adequate but has great stage presence will often outshine someone who has incredible chops but is boring to watch! You can’t fake charisma, but emoting during your performances is a skill that can be learned. Consider performance coaching or acting classes, or at the very least, concentrate on allowing your emotions to flow as part of your technique drills. Get translations of the songs you use, so you’ll know what the lyrics are about.
For working in situations where there is no stage, such as many restaurants, hookah bars and private parties, you’ll need great improvisational skills. If you’re working in the round with customers and waiters wandering through your performance area, using set choreographies just won’t cut it. Practice improvising as much as you can; both to songs you know inside and out and to songs you’ve never heard before.
As a pro, whether a rookie or seasoned performer, you should be prepared for anything to happen while you are onstage... cause it always does! I'm talking about wardrobe malfunctions, mishaps with props, the music cutting out, missed lighting cues...and in my own case, once in Kansas, a bat flew onstage while I was dancing! Handle the situation with aplomb, by either completely ignoring it and continuing on with your show, or with a humorous look or gesture. It might seem like a big deal while you're dancing, but in the big picture, it's practically not even a blip on the radar...the more you're onstage, the more potential there is for crazy stuff to happen. Consider it a battle scar; you've just earned your stripes...and know that it will probably make for a great anecdote in the near future.