Sunday, September 30, 2012


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!

Foreign Contracts
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.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


 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. Here’s an overview 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 article covers  what will be expected at special one-off events  that are larger than private parties, such as corporate shows, atmosphere  or walk-around gigs,  benefits and charity shows and lecture-demonstrations.

Corporate Gigs
 Corporate gigs are kind of like private parties- on steroids.  As with a private party, the hired dancer will be doing a specially tailored show that’s not open to the general public, but instead of dozens of guests, there might be hundreds, and often the going rate is what you make it. A corporate gig isn’t merely an office party- it’s often a humongous affair thrown by a large corporation with a sizable budget.  I have worked at  many corporate gigs  for major world-wide companies as well as attended a few as a guest, and lots of them are pretty extravagant!

That being said, of course there’s a range within the genre; some companies -and their social functions- are much smaller than others.  But  on the other hand,  I also  know dancers who, along with Arabic musicians and singer plus an assortment of other entertainers, who (with all expenses paid)  were to the Caribbean on a private jet to work at a private corporation’s yearly retreat! On the flip side, there are many smaller “mom and pop” companies without luxury budgets. I’ve also known dancers who’ve been contracted by a corporate Human Resources Department to teach a weekly belly dance class as part of a company-wide employee wellness program.

 I myself  worked  a corporate gig  for one of the leading  cigarette companies in the 1990’s. They were running an  Arabian Nights-themed campaign, and wanted belly dancers. So in addition to performing  a couple of times a week on these shows, I was also the liaison for hiring other dancers to appear and perform at clubs, concerts, outdoor events, and so on.  I was paid a sizable monthly salary for this in addition to my performance fee.

When a company or corporation contacts you to do a show,  treat it as you would any other gig- find out as much as you can about the job before mentioning your price. If  the organization contacting you is a major corporation putting on a large-scale event, don’t  even think of undervaluing yourself, set your prices accordingly.

 Atmosphere and Walk-Arounds
 For these jobs, the dancer is hired to set a mood or add to the ambiance instead of doing a traditional performance.  This type of   job often occurs at a large event with a theme, such as an “Arabian Nights”, “Under The Big Top” or “Ancient Egypt”.   Sometimes, a belly dancer will be booked along with close-up magicians, acrobats, fortunetellers, or other variety artists and costumed characters. Often, dancers will be eye-candy, expected to greet guests at the door, mingle among the crowd in costume, stand by a trade booth or silent auction table handing out price lists,  or  moving  around among seated guests stopping for mini- shows (done to background music) at every table.

 Payment for this type of gig is usually based on an hourly or full-day/evening  rate and dancers are usually hired more for their appearance rather than  technique or talent.

 Though  atmosphere and  walk-around jobs may seem relatively easy,  they  often require long hours   standing around in costume, and it is usually  not a tipping situation. Though these gigs are frequently one-off deals and don’t feature the dancer as anything other than a costumed character, many performers find that the occasional walk-around is a nice supplement to their income.

Benefits And Charity Shows
 Benefits and charity shows are like many other gigs; they can be small and intimate, or very large, elaborate affairs. Sometimes, there is quite decent pay involved; other times, there might only be a small honorarium, and it all depends on the organization. Either way, once you have committed to a benefit show, you should treat it in the same way as you would any other gig: showing up promptly, acting professionally, and performing to the best of your ability.

  If you are not getting paid for your work, ask if it’s possible for you to get a charity donation receipt from the organization- that way, at least you’ll get a  tax write-off.

 You can also work under the stipulation that you be featured prominently on press or promotional materials, and let the organizers know that you are available for interviews and photo ops- many publications jump at the chance to feature pictures of pretty women, so there’s a good chance you’ll wind up getting some press.  Another thing to do in exchange for your services is to ask if you can have an ad placed (for gratis) in the program, if there is one. Also, make sure it’s fine for you to   leave out promotional materials and hand out business cards…  I have always gotten paying gigs  from   leaving my  cards at charity gigs- and I’ve also been personally referred for other   well-paying shows by the  event planner who  engaged me for  the charity gig.

 Often   doing a benefit is a nice way for a dancer to give back to the community or contribute her time to a cause she believes in., but these gigs can also be a good way to network and get exposure.

I once danced without pay at a large-scale  charity event held at a major film studio, and wasn’t expecting anything other than a night’s work. However, I not only met- and hung out in the dressing room with -some major household name celebrities ( Why hello, Sir Paul McCartney!) got three more paying jobs from it, and two months later, I got a call from a prime-time television show. Turns out they had taken film footage at the event, which included my dancing, and they wanted to use it on the show. Who knows how they tracked me down, but when I said yes, I was immediately issued a large check…. And over ten years later, I still get royalties from that show every time it airs!

 Ok, I live in Hollywood, and  admittedly this was an once-in-a-lifetime happy accident, but my point is that you never can anticipate what can come from accepting a high-profile gig, even if you are dancing without payment.

So weigh all the possible options  and outcomes  before accepting or declining  a “free gig”- you never know what might happen!

 Usually, this sort of job often comes through an organization that promotes the arts and/or cultural diversity such as a university, a women’s group, or through the public school system.

This educational “show and tell” style gig is tailored to be an educational experience for the audience.  Your performance consists of sharing   your own knowledge and specialties combined with public speaking; the demonstration portion could feature anything from   technique for a certain type of dance, costumes and props, a full costumed performance, video or film clips or   historical photos, often followed by a Q & A session with the audience. Sometimes these shows are aimed at children, in which case “audience participation” (like a lesson on veils or finger cymbals) always goes over well.

  The amount of payment you receive is dependent upon who is hiring you, and usually cannot be negotiated- many schools or groups have a set budget intended for this type of presentation. However, some privately funded groups  are able to pay you well for your time and expertise.  In either case, this type of show is usually won’t interfere with your regular dance jobs and is great addition to your resume, as well as a way of educating the general public.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Internationally acclaimed dancer Ozgen is one of those rare performers whose got it all: his stage presence and awe-inspiring technique are nothing short of dazzling, and he’s got the kind of dark, sultry look that literally makes the ladies swoon. A choreographer as well as a great instructor, his wide repertoire includes everything from Turkish Oryantal to ballroom dance, ballet, contemporary and burlesque, as well as Arabesque- a slinky, retro style of belly dancing that was popular in Turkey during the 1970’s. One of his specialties is  authentic Turkish Romany (Gypsy) dancing- and it’s also become one of his signatures- but more on that later!  

 Ozgen has danced pretty much his entire life. Born in Cyprus, he began learning Turkish folk dances when he was just a little tot. He excelled and kept dancing, which landed him a spot in the Turkish production  “Hurrem Sultan”.  Soon after that, he joined the music and dance extravaganza “Night Of The Sultans” in Istanbul.  For the past fifteen years he’s been teaching workshops and performing all over the world, and   he also runs “Oriental Istanbul” a Romany dance intensive that takes place every year in  the city, before going to Erdine  to celebrate Herdelljez, the Romany  springtime festival.

 Ozgen and I  met in 2008 in London at The Shimmy Shake Show, where we were both performing. The Shimmy Shake Show was a groundbreaking event in the UK- it was the first time that belly dance and burlesque were being presented together, and nobody in the cast was certain what the audience  reaction would be. Held at the glorious and quite notorious Madame Jo-Jo’s in Soho -which, back in the day had  been a burlesque theater- the show sold out immediately, much to the disappointment of   those in the line that that snaked at least a full block down the street.

  As I pushed my way through the crowd into the dressing room, two things happened simultaneously:  The show’s producer Sapphira immediately popped a bottle of bubbly and  handed out champagne flutes among the performers for my birthday toast, and as this was going on, she introduced me to a tall, dark and handsome man…Ozgen. 

We got along like gangbusters right away, giggling like a couple of   rookie chorus girls as I fumbled to secure his  costume belt  with a safety pin- there’s nothing like meeting backstage just before the curtain goes up to dispense with any sort of formalities!

 I could already tell Ozgen was totally cool- nice, smart and really funny. However, I really wasn’t prepared for what I witnessed onstage as he danced…he was truly incredible.  That evening, Ozgen performed a Turkish Oryantal piece as well as a dangerous fusion dance that included a thick length of rope as a prop.   Between twirling it as a lasso and binding his own wrists, Ozgen had every woman in the 85% female audience in the palm of his hand.  I fully expected to see masses of panties tossed onstage a la'  a vintage Tom Jones concert!

 Ozgen and I stayed in touch, meeting up  whenever I came to the UK, both socially and for gigs at dance festivals.  In 2009 at Festival Fantasia we worked together and I got to witness firsthand Ozgen’s infamous Shoe Dance.  Hours before he even went on, all the festival attendees were giggling and whispering about the macho Turkish Romany performance he was going to do that night…which concludes with the afore-mentioned shoe   being taken off his foot and   getting tucked into Ozgen’s belt front and center, as he thrusts his way through a series of earthy pelvic shimmies!

   Though it sounds like a raunchy adult-oriented performance, the so-called Shoe Dance is actually a fairly traditional Turkish Rom dance. Sometimes, the dancer even will substitute a beer or wine bottle for the shoe!  That night onstage, the reaction to Ozgen’s   Shoe Dance was more like an early Elvis or Beatles concert than a belly dance show.   The audience was going so batshit crazy   I was kind of shocked that an ambulance didn’t show up to cart some of the hysterical women away!

 Even though Ozgen is literally awe-inspiring onstage and has legions of fans drooling over him, in his every day life, he’s pretty low-key.

 Here’s what he has to say about the way he likes to prepare for his shows, in his own words:

“ I have been dancing maybe from five years old in a group or as soloist, but I still get stage fright before I go to dance.

I quite like the stage fright, because its shows the respect to the audience and to yourself. I see that in a good thing for a performer, because sometimes dancing IS   their life. Or dancing is   the only thing in their life that they put so much emotion into, and   dancing becomes the love of their life. So going onstage, it’s almost like you see your lover for the first time, so like a school child you get very nervous and shaky.

On the day of the show, or the day before, ideally, I don’t eat any bread or food that will make me feel heavy. I check my music, costumes and all to see if they are still there and working!

I don’t want to be ready to dance and have my make up on and then wait hours and hours. I do very little make up anyway, so it’s not a problem. I do my make up    about 30 or 40 minutes before I will dance, and I am dressed fully in costume 10 or 15 minutes before the show.  When I dress in my   stage gear, it’s like someone else in that costume, not me, so it’s better to put on just before the show!

Oh, my God I go in to my zone back stage and don’t like talking too much. If someone tries to have conversation with me, I normally don’t understand what he or she is going about. I prefer to be alone, or with someone who isn’t stressing out, and I never practice my music. I do semi-improvisation when I dance, and I truly believe in  “The luck of the amateur”, so I like improvisation, or to not to know what I am doing every second of the song.

 I am spiritual, as all artists are, so I try to think of   being in Istanbul to get in to the oriental mood.   Very often I think of some old-time Turkish belly dancer, and like a child, I talk with them and sometimes I dedicate my performance to any dancer that I have liked from past.

Sometimes I remember my mistakes from a previous experience, and before   I go to the stage, I try not to repeat them.

 Often before I perform, I feel very shy to go to dance, as I am quite a reserved guy…but when I hear my music and first step to the stage it all changes.

 It’s almost like I am walking to my home and my comfort zone, so it all goes better and then DANCER OZGEN appears and Real Ozgen (me) disappears! “


  Ozgen is  currently on tour in America.  He is teaching and performing on the following dates:

September: 22 -23 in San Jose-Halanda Studio

September 25-30 Los Angeles : Workshops at Dance Garden on  Wed., Sept. 26 (evening)  & Sat. Sept.  29 (afternoon)
 Ozgen's only LA appearance is on September 27 at Skinny’s Lounge, North Hollywood, with Helena Vlahos, Rania, Dilek, Atlantis, Marque Bissell, DeVilla & Isis-Siren-Sekhmet, Jenna & of course lil' ole me... Princess  Farhana.  All info here:

Info on Ozgen’s  Oriental Istanbul  2013 Festival is here: 

…. and last but not least:  THE SHOE DANCE!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


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 habituĂ©s 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

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!

Belly Grams

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.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Internationally famous Egyptian drummer Khamis Henkesh has passed away…May he rests in peace. He was an incredible drummer, who came from an entire family of musicians from Cairo. In his lifetime, he played for some of the most famous belly dancers from Egypt as well as those from other countries , and also made many recordings, which are treasured and regularly used by performers all over the world.

I don’t know any of the details of his death; in fact, I actually heard about it-and found out that it was indeed true- on Facebook. What I do know though, is that he has been on my mind a lot lately… mostly because I was planning to write up an anecdote about the time Khamis and his band played for me, in Cairo at The Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival. As soon as I heard of his passing, I knew it was a “sign from the universe” that this story needed to be written now as a tribute… especially since the entire story revolves around a sign from the universe! So here it is:

I don’t normally get stage fright, but admittedly, I was quite nervous to be performing at The 2009 Ahlan WA Sahlan Festival. Let me amend that statement- I wasn’t just nervous, I kind of had a sick and hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach all day, just even from thinking about it… and of course I couldn’t stop thinking about it!

It was my first year as an instructor at the festival, which on its own was kind of hard for me to believe, considering that many the other instructors were people I had been idolizing since the very beginning of my dance career-legendary Egyptian dancers like Mona El Said, Dr. Mo Geddawy, Dina, Aida Nour and celebrated choreographer Raqia Hassan, who is the festival director… and they were all going to be in the audience that night! So yeah, I felt like I was about to go full-blown into a panic attack!

Even so, I’d had the classic Egyptian song We Deret El Ayam going through my head for the past week and a half. Made famous by the illustrious Om Kalthoum, the song is heartbreakingly beautiful. Now was my chance to perform to this gorgeous piece of music, played by a live band in the city where it was created.

Steeling my shot-to-hell-and-back nerves, I told myself that I shouldn’t be a coward or a quitter; I would do this, I needed to do this, even if I felt like an imposter in front of the famous dancers I’d adored for years, even if I was so ruined with jetlag that I was no longer sure I would ever sleep again, even if failed miserably. I’d wanted to do this for years, now it was happening, and I was considering not doing it? I pushed myself past my comfort zone and proceeded ahead.

The light at the end of the tunnel appeared when I found out that The Henkesh Brothers were going to be playing for the dancers that night, and like most belly dancers on the planet, I was familiar with their work. A festival representative instructed me to find Khamis Henkesh so we could discuss the music for my set, and I crossed my fingers that no one had selected We Deret Al Ayam so it could be mine. If I was going to do this, it might as well be to my favorite song!

After running around the halls and the massive souk at the Mena House Hotel for a good forty-five minutes, I finally located Khamis on the mezzanine. He was sitting in a corner on a folding chair drinking Arabic coffee and smoking, a tabla resting on his lap. After a brief introduction, Khamis and I began to “discuss” my music.

“For you, Farhana, I will play Enta Omri!” he announced decisively.

Now, I love the wistful Enta Omri, it's a striking Om Kalthoum classic. The only problem was, I was going completely OCD on We Deret El Ayam. Plus, I’m a bossy American chick who, impending panic attack or not, wasn’t going to let a drummer who didn’t even know me –no matter how famous he was- tell me what he was going to play for me without at least a little discussion of personal musical preference.

“ I was kind of hoping to dance to We Deret Al Ayam, “ I said in my best honey-silk Egyptian girly-girl back-up singer voice.

“ No, I think Enta Omri will be better,” Khamis said, taking a long drag of his cigarette.

“Oh, but I really really want to dance to We Deret Al Ayam! “ I said, batting my eyelashes.

“For you, I play Enta Omri!” Khamis declared, “ You will like this music!”

“Is someone else dancing to We Deret Al Ayam?” I inquired, hoping I was still sounding flirtatious.

After a long, contemplative sip of coffee, he said no.

“You know We Deret Al Ayam, right?” I asked, as desperation began to seep in. I needed to dance to it, dammit!

“ Of course I know how to play this, “ he said in exasperation, “But I think for you, Enta Omri is better!”

Because he was so emphatic, it would’ve probably been a done deal at that point, my performing to Enta Omri, except for the fact that at that very second, man in a business suit approached us as he walked the hallway. Just as the man passed by us, his mobile phone rang…and the insanely loud Arabic music ringtone that blared from his phone was We Deret Al Ayam!

Khamis and I both stared in dumb amazement as the stranger passed us.

An expression of incredulousness passed over Khamis’ face for a moment before he threw up his hands in a gesture of surrender. He looked directly into my eyes and said sincerely,

“Farhana, for you, of course I must play We Deret Al Ayam…” With that, he shook his head, and we both watched as the stranger with the phone disappeared down the corridor.

Then Khamis said:

“ Yes... I must play this song for you, together we will make beautiful show!”

And we did.

Photos: top- Dancing to The Henkesh Brothers band in Cairo, 2009 Photo by Andre Elbing

Bottom: Khamis Henkesh, RIP

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Karim Nagi is a one-man multi-cultural revolution. If you're a belly dancer and don’t know about him, you should… and if you are already familiar with his work, you’re probably a big fan! Hugely talented as a traditional Arabic drummer and folk dancer, he’s also an extremely creative and forward thinking composer and DJ.

A native Egyptian, Karim has spent so much time in America and Europe that even the smallest cultural nuances don’t elude him, which is just one of the reasons why Western dancers adore him. With his super-charged knowledge, cultural duality and open artistic persona, he has a unique understanding of global pop culture and Arab traditions that is endlessly appealing to members of all camps. Highly educated in musical theory and master of many instruments, his academic study and applied knowledge of Arab folkloric dances is just as impressive as his musical chops.

To list all of his credentials would be impossible, but he’s performed, taught and lectured at places like Harvard and The Smithsonian; he’s released several CDs and DVDs on Arab music and dance and he’s been the director of the highly popular Arab Dance Seminar for nearly a decade.

Karim also heads up the Sharq Ensemble, a pan-Arabic musical performance group he founded in 1999, and his Arabiqa program has educated children and teens in over three hundred schools. Oh, and he constantly tours internationally... usually for over three-quarters of every year. Suffice it to say that this man knows his shit.

Karim has an endlessly quirky sense of humor, which onstage especially, is as endearing as it is comical. Combined with the obvious joy that emanates from him as he performs, and his enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge of traditional and contemporary Arab music and dance with students, he’s truly hard to resist.

He also has a brand new CD out, which is why I’m raving about him!


RhythmatiQ is a musical project that probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day if Karim was “only” a musician… because it’s tailor made for dancers. Consisting of fifteen tracks which are all under four minutes long, the premise of RhythmatiQ is that everything on it is meant to be mixed and matched, enabling dancers to use the pieces individually or to combine them to formulate personalized performance or practice sets of different lengths. Each track on this CD will not only compliment the others, but would be just as cool when paired with tracks by other artists as well. The fact that Karim uses traditional rhythms and concepts but then filters them through his own outrĂ© -and dare I say hip - sensibilities means that RhythmatiQ as a whole is a multi-genre work that could be used for any type of belly dance, from cabaret to tribal, and would be also be great for troupes or different types of fusion belly dance, too.

Additionally, the inside cover features a chart with many Arabic rhythms annotated both by counts as well as a written verbalization of the Dums and Taks (that’s Arab musician -speak for the lower or higher drum pitches) plus each track highlights a certain Arabic rhythm, such as Fellahi, Hagalla, Ayoub, Masmoudi and so on, meaning that RhythmatiQ would also make a terrific teaching tool for dance instructors.

The CD opens with the Darabist Drum Solo, highlighting Karim’s signature tabla playing, which is always a rowdy crowd-pleaser, dynamic but done with finesse. Live or recorded, he always wrenches incredible tones from the tabla, from powerful slaps to quick finger work.

Some of the songs I really like a lot are the haunting Khaliji Rhythmatiq from the Arabian Gulf, the Sonbati Rythmatiq (which many dancers would probably identify as a quick chiftetelli) the high-energy Dabke Rhythmatiq. The quick Masri Rhyhtmatic with its rattly riq literally travels through Egypt referencing all sorts of rhythms. I’m also particularly fond of the gorgeous Andalusi Rhythmatiq, with its contra tiempo palmas, or hand clapping that counters the rhythm. Originating in the Muslim-ruled Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal) between the 9th and 15th centuries, the traditional Moorish music Tarab Andalusi is popular throughout North Africa.

Ok, so now that I’ve gushed about most of this album, I might as well add that Karim played most of the percussion instruments and the buzuk, did the vocals and the re-mixes and also conceptualized and executed the cover artwork, too... Yep, he’s a regular Renaissance man.

Even though he’s already got a big ole body of work, he’s so creative, prolific and driven, that I have a feeling that it’s all just the tip of the iceberg!

You can purchase RhythmatiQ on Amazon: Rhythmatiq

Karim will be appearing in Knoxville, Tennessee this coming weekend, September 14-16, 2012, before going on to Tai Pei and Singapore for two weeks (October 1-19) followed up by Acapulco, Mexico on the weekend of October 26-28th and that’s just for starters.