What I Wish I Knew Before Making Belly Dance a Profession

Helen Blondel | 04/18/2020

Helen Blondel Belly Dancer BellyPOP

Most of you know that in addition to singing, belly dance was always my passion since I started at the age of 13 years old. When I was a little girl, I dreamt of being where I am today. Had you told me 14 years ago that future me would be dancing at dozens of venues throughout Florida, appearing on TV, being asked to perform at festivals across the nation, and having the opportunity to positively influence a new generation of aspiring dancers through teaching, I would've blushed so hard from disbelief. It was always my dream to be where I am today. I've always desired to be a belly dance princess and profit from this art form that I am so passionate about. The desire is now a reality, but it didn't come without a price.

Transitioning from a belly dance hobbyist and student to a professional dancer was not easy and I learned so many lessons along the way. Keep reading to find out some of what I learned, so that you can be aware before turning this amazing dance into your career.

It is Not an Overnight Process​

As a dance instructor, I often get approached by students inquiring about how they can start getting gigs right away. While it's wonderful to be ambitious and I strongly encourage everyone to go after their dreams, the path to success and longevity as a professional dancer takes time.

Belly Dancing as a career requires extensive experience and often begins with connections, whether we'd like to admit it or not. Before I started booking gigs, I studied dance for many years under multiple teachers. I had to prove myself at my dance studio, attend performances, study others, practice like crazy, and exhibit myself as a professional. After all, how could I be granted the great responsibility of being a professional dancer if I couldn't display such professionalism as a student?

A career as a dancer is not just about showing up at a restaurant, looking pretty, and dancing. There's things you need to know, such as what costumes are appropriate for which events, what music to use and what not to use, how to engage with patrons in different settings, performer etiquette off-stage-- these are not things you learn overnight. Without mentor-ship, extensive in-studio study, and exposure to your more experienced counterparts in this element, you are more likely to fail or at best, have a short-lived belly dance career.

It's more about Marketing than it is about Art

I hate to say it, but as soon as you slap a price on something, it is a product now and therefore must be marketable. Sure, art is great and we as Oriental dance enthusiasts cherish our art, but if you want to be successful as a gigging belly dancer, you must be able to compartmentalize art and marketing in their respective places and focus on catering to what pays you.

As a dancer in the United States, one thing is clear. Every demographic loves belly dance, not just the Middle Eastern & North African communities. Therefore, it's important to be versatile and market yourself accordingly.

Sadly, not many clients care about how perfectly you can do that arabesque and will probably not appreciate the 2-minute a'capella mawwal about heartbreak that you chose to passionately dance on. Rather, they will care more about how hot you look in a sparkly costume and how much you engage with the audience, most likely to an upbeat pop song.

When I first embarked on my journey as a paid dancer I did not want to believe that this was the case. I did not want to believe that my looks were more important than my knowledge or artistic talent, but again, this business is all about compartmentalizing. Once you take yourself out of the artist bracket and into the bracket of product/service, you will need be hip to this if you want to make your dance career profitable.

You will Always be Fighting the Stigma

Belly Dance is a beautiful, respectable art form that gives me an outlet to express myself. Unfortunately, there is an ugly stigma that follows us as belly dancers that I work tirelessly to eliminate, to little avail. I have a Bachelor's Degree, multiple professional certifications, speak three languages (learning a fourth), grew up with a conservative and loving upbringing, and have quite traditional standards where physical intimacy is concerned.  Still, when people discover that I am a belly dancer, it seems like all of that goes out the window and I find myself struggling to debunk the myth that I am sexually available, uneducated, or will do favors for extra money.

This is an aspect to being a professional belly dancer that you must come to terms with before putting yourself out there as a performer. I've been approached by men offering me outlandish amounts of money in exchange for more than just dancing. I've had women at work give me weird looks after finding out my second job as a dancer. I had one woman with a straight face tell me "I'd never let you around my husband." I think that was one of the hardest statements to hear, because of its implication that being a dancer makes me easy and of low morale (enough that I would sleep with someone's husband, ew).

Are there belly dancers who use their profession and bodily charm as a gateway to sex work? Of course! There are many. However, the majority of us are serious women (and men) of depth and knowledge who just want to share our art with the world and still be treated normally like the rest of  society. The most you can do as a gigging dancer is understand that the stigma WILL be there, face and advocate against it any time you can, and carry yourself as respectfully as possible on and off-stage so that one day after enough of us set the example, this ugly misconception will fade away.

Helen Blondel Belly Dance BellyPOP

There are more Pros than Cons

With all of this said, I feel privileged to be where I am today as a performance artist and wouldn't trade it for the world. I do believe, however, it's important to know what you're getting into before signing up. Knowledge is power and these are the things I've come to learn after more than a decade in the industry as a gigging dancer. Sure, this wonderful reality came with a price, but nothing worth cherishing is free.

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