There are so many different types of professional belly dance gigs, not to mention the many variables within each kind of job, that it would be completely impossible to describe them all.
Depending on where you live, and how much of a go-getter you are, you’ll probably have the opportunity to try your hand at some of these gigs.
This article will provide an overview of some of the most common belly dance jobs, so you can weigh the options and decide which of these venues would be right for you.
This post discusses restaurants, night clubs, hookah lounges, private parties and belly-grams, as these jobs are "staples" for belly dancers. Up-coming posts will address other sorts of gigs, such as corporate gigs, film work, theme parks, cruise ships, and so on.
Restaurant jobs are usually a staple for most dancers, often providing a large chunk of income. Usually, the dancer is hired as an independent contractor, with base pay rates varying depending on location. Most restaurants employ more than one dancer as “ house dancers” or regular performers, with a set amount of shifts per week or month, but this isn’t always the case…some establishments only hire dancers on as “as needed” basis. Typically, dancers are auditioned by the owner, manager or head dancer (a long-time, trusted performer with seniority) before being hired. Some restaurants pay by the show, others pay hourly or by the shift, with multiple performances expected during the course of the night.
Depending on the size of the restaurant or the number of diners, an average restaurant set usually ranges from twelve to twenty-five minutes long give or take; some restaurants require costume changes, others don’t. Many places don’t have a stage or formal performance area, so you’ll probably be performing “up close and personal” with your audience, dancing among the tables. Because of this, improvisational skills are a must; it’ll be nearly impossible to do any sort of choreography with diners-and waiters carrying trays and dishes- walking through your performance area! There also probably won’t be room to use large or potentially dangerous props, such as Isis Wings, swords, or any prop incorporating live flames. Restaurants gigs are often “family friendly”, meaning that children will be present, so the dancer’s costuming and demeanor should be respectful of the clientele. Most restaurants use recorded music, but this isn’t always the case, some hire small bands on a regular basis or for special occasions.
Tips are a large part of the dancer’s income at most restaurant gigs, and they’re usually not split with the house, but might be divided among multiple performers over the course of the night. Tipping protocol is different, depending on the venue, the customers, or the dancer’s preference; some dancers are comfortable with traditional body tipping, while others might prefer a tip jar or to pass around a basket for tips.
Depending on the establishment, the dancer could also entitled to perks like free or discounted meals, beverages and parking; some places have a decent dressing room, at others you’ll have to dress in a supply closet or bathroom. Many dancers perform at one place exclusively; others book themselves into multiple locations, sometimes in the course of a single night.
Like restaurant work, a night club dancer usually passes an audition, is hired as an independent contractor by the show or shift, and will do one or more sets a night, but that’s usually where the similarity ends. Most night clubs stay open quite late, sell more booze and less food than eateries, and require an entrance fee or cover charge for their patrons; the dancer’s show times and pay reflect these policies. At nightclubs, dancers are hired as freelancers or independent contractors; they may work simultaneously at a few different clubs or sign an exclusive contract with just one venue.
At nightclubs, there is usually a stage or designated performance area, even if it’s just the dance floor. Whether dancing to a deejay or live music, the shows tend not to be as causal as those at a restaurant, they’re more structured and typically last a bit longer than restaurant sets; the venue may require costume changes, specialty props or group numbers as well. Also, the dancer’s tips are often spit among the house, the musicians and/or other dancers, and sometimes she might need to “tip out” the deejay, too.
In addition to the late hours, nightclubs are adult-oriented and make most of their revenue at the bar, so there’s always the potential for alcohol-fueled fights or disturbances among the patrons. This also means that the dancer might find she fending off inappropriate advances from tipsy customers. Obviously, most establishments discourage this, but the occasional venue will actually require the dancer to interact with the crowd when she is not on stage, or even to solicit drinks from patrons.
Nowadays, most nightclubs employ deejays, but there are still those which feature Arabic bands, and many dancers relish the opportunity to perform with live musicians… while getting paid for it! Normally, clubs don’t pay the dancers or musicians for rehearsals or tech checks, but they’re essential for a great show, and can also be an invaluable and interactive learning experience for everyone involved.
Nightclub dancing can be quite lucrative, but the long, late hours often tend to turn into a nocturnal culture among the employees and habitués and can eat up most of the next day, so many dancers find they’re not well-suited for this lifestyle.
Hookah Bars And Lounges
Hookah bars typically used to cater to an older ethnic or immigrant clientele, but nowadays, that is changing- many spring up in college towns, attracting younger crowds especially since so many restaurants and nightclubs have banned smoking indoors.
Depending on the venue, hookah bars can run the gamut from a bare bones hole-in-the-wall dive to being outright glamorous, enforcing a “dress to impress” door policy, cover charge, and with famous deejays and well-known dancers performing. Some places serve food or snacks; some serve alcohol, but others don’t- this varies from place to place depending upon regional laws and licenses.
Like restaurants and nightclubs, performers are hired by the set or shift; tipping is encouraged, and there may or may not be a formal performance area. The shows at most hookah lounges tend to run a bit shorter and be more contemporary in flavor compared to t nightclubs and restaurants. Some places even feature go-go style belly dancers, who perform three or four song shifts dancing on platforms or go-go boxes, sometimes in non-traditional costumes, such as jeans or hot pants paired with a bra top or halter and a hip scarf.
If you aren’t working on a stage, dance floor or platform, know that you’ll be wending your way through a maze of potential hazards while you work…not just dodging the wait staff and patrons, but also shimmying in and out of sheesha pipes and their snaky hoses, and trying not to spin too close to the attendants carrying buckets or trays full of live coals! If you are interested in working at a hookah bar, you need to be OK with working in a smoke-filled atmosphere, because your costumes and hair will always reek of sheesha smoke!
Private parties can happen anywhere: at family homes or cramped apartments, banquet halls, restaurants, churches, community centers, or an outdoor recreational area. Once, I even turned down doing a party on a private jet flying from LA to Manhattan!
These gigs are usually quite worthwhile, because the dancer is being hired to do a special, personalized show for a non-public event. There are several types of private parties, usually one-off or annual events, including but not limited to birthdays, going away parties, weddings, wrap parties for films, holiday or retirement celebrations, baby showers and so on. Though bachelorette and hen parties is a commonly booked gig (often with a dance lesson for the guests thrown in), bachelor parties are not. Most belly dancers steadfastly refuse to do bachelor parties… for a couple of very valid reasons. Personal safety is first and foremost; an all-male gathering featuring copious amounts of liquor (not to mention free-flowing testosterone) could not in any way, shape or form be considered a neutral environment for a single female performer in a revealing costume. It’s more like a sexually charged atmosphere that could potentially get very out of hand! Plus, since many bachelor parties focus on adult- style entertainment, including live strippers- and the number one pet peeve among most belly dancers is being confused with strippers-many performers draw the line and absolutely refuse perform at this type of shindig!
For many private parties, dancers are hired via phone or email by the individual who’s throwing the party, or by an employee of the host such as a caterer, deejay or event planner. Some dancers list their rates and different types of show options on their website, but others do not… in which case the pay, type of show and performance duration will usually have to be negotiated with each client. Again, this is a situation where knowing and adhering to the regional going rate will better serve the individual performer as well as the dance community at large.
Many dancers are registered with internet-based licensed entertainment agencies that cater to both private and corporate events. There can be positive and negative sides to working with these services. Often, these agencies can provide a steady stream of work, or book a dancer onto a lucrative show that she may not have been able to find for herself. On the downside, performers are often charged a monthly or annual fee for being listed on the company’s website, and many of these sites require performers to bid for jobs, which typically encourages undercutting.
No matter how you get your private parties, you should always calculate the distance from your house to the event, and charge accordingly for your travel time and gas in addition to the gig itself. Get a contact number, find out exactly when and how you will be paid, what type of performance is required of you, sign a contract, get a deposit, have a cancellation policy, and make sure to confirm the details a week before-as well as a day before – the event occurs.
One last thing to put into place for yourself-and advice your clients about verbally and in your contract- is your wait fee. Private parties seldom run exactly according to schedule; your clients might ask you to push back your performance to accommodate late-arriving guests, a speech, or another entertainer…so a wait fee is kind of like of insurance, that you will either go on as planned or be compensated for waiting around.
When I book private parties, even though my shows are about twenty minutes long, I always plan for an extra half hour for “bumper time”. Padding my schedule like this enables me to be accommodating about my client’s small scheduling glitches, and it also works in my favor in case I get stuck in traffic on my way to my next show!
However, some gatherings run so far behind that nothing goes as planned, and the hosts expect the dancer they’ve hired to wait much longer than contracted, so this is where a wait fee comes into play. My contract used to stipulate an extra $25.00 added onto my fee for every half hour I was asked to wait after my original performance time -and my allotted grace period- which was usually ten to twenty minutes. Actually, in all my years of doing private parties, I only had to enforce my wait fee a couple of times, and one of those times the hostess tipped me generously on top of the added wait fee!
The term “Belly Gram” is popular dancer slang for a very abbreviated set performed at a private location. For belly grams, the performer will almost always show up in full make up and costume, ready to go the moment she arrives. Usually, a typical set lasts about ten to fifteen minutes, or the length of a few songs. Often, a belly gram is set up as a surprise way of honoring a special guest.
These mini-shows can be booked at any time of the day or evening, but for some reason (at least in my experience) many belly-grams seem to occur during the afternoon -such as at an office or during lunch at restaurant- which often makes it easier for the performer to schedule in such a short gig without it conflicting with her regular jobs. Sometimes, the dancer will need to provide her own sound (by bringing a boom box or an iPod; along with the other details involved about booking private gigs, checking on the sound capabilities at the destination for your belly gram is really important.