Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Even if you have some performance experience, it doesn’t mean you’re fully prepared to embark on a solo professional career without at least some guidance.

There’s a vast difference between “paying your dues” and learning the hard way, so you it would behoove you to seek out a mentor.

A mentor is a role model who’ll show you the ropes, answer questions, offer advice and support, and help you through any rough patches or any dance dilemmas you might have. Most importantly, your mentor should be willing to be completely open and truthful with you concerning your growing career. Your mentor could be your primary instructor, or basically it any dance professional you admire whose opinion you trust.

Some people have such a close relationship with their mentor that they affectionately refer to her as their “Dance Mama”… but there can be Dance Papas or Dance Babas, too!

My own mentor was a male dancer named Zein Abd Al Malik. He was a terrific dancer who'd danced in San Francisco and Morocco before coming to LA. He was also a lanky six and a half feet tall with sea green, kohl-rimmed eyes peering out from under his expertly–wrapped turban. When he balanced a tray as big as a table-top on his head, all the women in the audience lost it! He took a shine to me early on, bringing me to Arabic night clubs and introducing me around, answering my endless questions, making me belly dance mix tapes - yes, on cassettes! He gave me technical and stylistic hints, helped me select my first professional costume, and he’d have me over for mint tea and Egyptian movies once in a while. He really nurtured me as a baby dancer at the very beginning of my career…in fact, he got me my first job! Zein has been deceased for years, but not a day goes by that I don't think of him, or his extensive professional knowledge and his exquisite generosity.

One great way to learn from your mentor is to accompany her to gigs and festivals as an assistant. Usually you won’t get paid for doing this, but if you consider it like an apprenticeship, you’ll gain invaluable insight into the way everything works. You won’t just be seeing the show, you’ll see what it’s like backstage and behind the scenes too. You’ll see what it’s like to teach for three to six hours a day, and then get ready for a show in under an hour. You’ll also be able to see the way she interacts with the producers, with other dancers, and the general public… and you will also have the opportunity to make contacts yourself, because you’ll be meeting everyone she knows!

If there are no likely candidates to mentor you within your own community, seek out someone online. You won’t have the face-to-face interaction, but you’ll still gain knowledge and insight. I can’t even tell you how many dancers from all over the world I’ve mentored over the years via email. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you admire and ask questions. Worst-case scenario? You don’t get a reply. But chances are the person you’ve chosen will take some time to answer your questions. Nobody was born with this knowledge, and most people will be happy to help. You may even develop a friendship.

...and with any luck, in a few years, it will be you passing on your knowledge to an eager protege!


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