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.
The focus of this article are gigs that are generally considered exclusive and glamourous…even though when you get right down to it, the work is tough and demanding, with very long hours and a high rate of rejection at auditions. Even if you make the cut at a try-out, these jobs are grueling and require focus, dedication, and sometimes, almost super-human energy!
Film, Video And Television Work
These jobs are usually booked through an agent, though once in a while a talent scout or casting director will contact performers directly. Typically, in order to be considered for a part in a music video, film or television show, you or your agent will submit hard copy or digital photos, video clips and a performance resume. If the production company is interested, they will contact you to arrange an audition or invite you to a casting, which, in the entertainment industry, is also sometimes known as a cattle call, because they’ll probably be looking at dozens of similar performers… or actresses who’ll arrive in a belly dance costume even if they’ve never danced before!
At a private audition or a casting, the process doesn’t vary much; you’ll probably be asked to show up in full costume and make up, a production assistant will take face and full body Polaroids of you, and then you’ll be asked for a short performance.
Sometimes this is to music that you have selected, but it can also be to the musical track that will used during the dance segment. Unlike other dance jobs for film and television, auditions where hopefuls have to learn combinations with a choreographer present are rare… I’ve done many film, television and music video appearances over the years- and it seems to me that as far as selecting belly dancers goes, whomever is doing the hiring just bases it on if they like what they see!
If the role you’re trying out for includes lines, you’ll be given sides (pages of the script for your scene) and expected to learn- and perform them- on the spot…and this is precisely the reason so many actresses dress up as belly dancers to go to these auditions!
If you’ve aced your audition, you’ll either get the role immediately or you’ll be asked to audition again; this is known as a callback. It’s a good sign, but it basically means they’ve weeded out everyone who auditioned except a for few performers who have the right look or style. For example, along with hundreds of others, I was called back five times for the part of a belly dancer in “Charlie Wilson’s War”, a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. In the end, the role of the belly dancer went to an actress…but the film hired me to instruct the actress in sword dancing, I got paid extremely well and also got screen credit.
If you’ve never been on a film set before, I can assure you it’s not as glamorous as you might think. Some sets are absolutely lovely and run like clockwork, others are disorganized and stressful. The hours are incredibly long, and there’s always a lot of “hurry up and wait”. You’ll probably arrive ready to dance and raring to go, only to wind up sitting around in full make up and costume for hours, waiting to perform as they shoot other scenes, set up the lights and cameras at different angles, or change the scenery. By the time you are asked to perform, there’s a great likelihood you won’t even have a chance to warm up properly!
The rate of pay you get for film and television jobs can swing wildly from a pittance to big time bucks, depending on the production itself, what your being hired for, if you have an agent negotiating on your behalf or if you’re a member of an entertainment union. Case in point: an extra or background performer won’t make anywhere near what a featured or principle dancer makes. Likewise, the pay for dancing in an indie band music video can’t be compared to dancing in a television commercial for, say Target or Macy’s. It’s all relative.
But no matter what type of filmed job you get, make sure to get a copy of your work to build up your show reel…or at least to post on YouTube!
Cruise Ships, Casinos, Theme Parks And Resort Shows
Most of these jobs contract performers for several weeks or months, though some theme parks also hire dancers or specialty acts for one-off gigs seasonally (usually during the summer) or for special holiday shows. These jobs usually offer decent-to-great pay for their exclusivity, but the schedules can be grueling, so they’re best left to younger dancers or to those without injuries.
Once you lock into a contract, you’ll probably be required to do a certain amount of shows per day or per week, and depending on your agreement, you might be given room and board as well. It also might be expected for soloists to appear in group shows, in addition to their own performances. Cruise ships especially expect most of their employees to be at least bilingual.
Additionally, it may be mandatory for any entertainer hired to perform other duties. For instance, on cruise ships, in addition to their regular show, dancers may also be required to teach dance classes for passengers, participate in children’s programs, pose for photos with guests while dressed in costume, and possibly even assist the crew with emergency procedures or muster drills. At a resort, in addition to performing solo, a dancer might also be expected to learn group choreographies quickly, know first aid and CPR, teach dance or fitness classes, and interact with the guests by getting them involved with games, crafts or any water or land sports the resort offers.
Before submitting yourself for any of these jobs, make sure to read up on the requirements, and before you sign any contract, read the fine print! I knew an aerialist who was absolutely thrilled to have landed a six-month job at Disneyland in Japan; she thought it was really going to further her career, and also that she’d be able to explore Tokyo during her time off. Sadly enough, she wound up performing multiple shows a day with only one day off a week, which she usually spent icing her sore muscles and doing laundry. Not only that, the poor girl performed flying trapeze the entire time anonymously…dressed in a fuzzy squirrel costume, complete with a buck-toothed mask!
Many dancers have dreams and aspirations of dancing abroad, specifically in the Middle East or North Africa. Some realize these dreams and have been very successful, living and working for years in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon or Dubai; others have come home swiftly with their hopes dashed. A dancer I’ve known for years took foreign contracts on a routine basis, and everything went smoothly…until the night she returned from her show, to find her bags packed and her passport confiscated. She was taken to the airport in the middle of the night and sent home with no explanation whatsoever about anything!
Over the years I have known quite a few dancers who have moved to Egypt to try their luck at performing in major metropolitan hotels or at seaside resorts… only to find out that the dance scene there is as competitive as it is anywhere else, if not more so. I have some pals that stuck it out tenaciously in Cairo, but it was often more than two years before they were able to get regular gigs at private parties. Only a handful of them ever received the official government license that enables them to get jobs at major hotels.
Sometimes, even though a dancer might not work regularly in the country she has moved to, just the fact that she has lived in that country ( and absorbed the culture , indigenous dance and music, thereby improving her skills) gives her a valuable sort of credibility, enabling her career to flourish in her home country, upon her return.
There’s no way to tell you everything about working as a dancer with a contract in a foreign country- it probably couldn’t even fit into a thick book!
But you must know that every situation is different- there’s no “norm” here!
For example in Egypt, almost every dancer works with an impresario (essentially an agent) who helps her to find jobs and put together musicians for her band, negotiates her contracts, and generally oversees her career.
Some Western dancers work with a booking agent who is based in a specific country, and the agent gets them work in that country as well as others, arranging the contracts, travel visas and flights. Other dancers might choose to work on their own, as independent contractors.
If you want to work abroad, my advice to you is to do your research, and keep personal safety at the top of the list for job requirements. Get a reputable foreign agent, and then find out as much as you can about the venue, the people arranging the job and/or hiring you, get references from other dancers, and go over your contract with a fine-toothed comb, spelling out every single tiny thing that you can think of.