Meet Onca O'Leary, the hardest working woman in show business!*

Jaylee will be hosting Onca O'Leary and Alyssum Pohl for the "Loose Stockings" hafla, salon, and private sessions over the weekend of August 24 and 25. For more information, see the Facebook event or email Jaylee.

Onca took some time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about belly dance, professionalism, and burlesque. Thank you, Onca!

*That's what her site URL says!

Part of the Loose Stockings Salon will be a business class - "Can you make a living doing that?" What is the number one business mistake that dancers make - regardless of whether they dance full-time or dance to bring in extra income?

Photograpy by AB Photography, courtesy of Onca O'Leary"How do you PERSONALLY define being a 'professional'?" is the central question most dancers don't know to ask themselves on the topic of “Belly Dance as a Business”. Everyone defines this differently, and your ideas will create the job as you develop it. Do you mean full-time performance/teaching work on the national circuit, a committed secondary career on the weekend, teaching seasonally at your gym, or a focus on doing restaurant gigs locally?

Will your goals require a website, an accountant, an assistant? Will they require a multi-year business plan? Will your desire to 'go pro' balance sustainably with your other interests and responsibilities, as an employee, parent, caregiver, or multi-talented artist?

Conversely, I know extremely dedicated dancers who wisely will only take 'non-pro' gigs, because they a) want to safeguard against getting involved in the competitive side of the art and b) want to keep it fun, i.e. "not let it get too much like a real job".

A clear notion of what level of lifestyle commitment you want will save you time, money, and community drama!


Difficult question - how do you know when you are good enough to make belly dance your business?

The real question here is "Are you brave enough?"

Being a full time artist can be a dream job..but the biggest word in “show business” is business. Being a skilled artist or athlete is only part of the formula for success. Rejection is a real factor in the mercenary marketplace, for every reason, fair and unfair  - based on your looks, body-type, artistic aesthetic, local politics, administrative skills, and more. That is not a problem, if you have the temperament for it.

There's also a wide world of office skills required in being self-employed in the arts, especially as most of the best-known dancers in our field still manage their own contracts, press, and accounting.

Ask yourself a series of questions: Do I have something truly unique to offer/market/sell? Am I ready to change my art and presentation to suit the market or client? Can I function in a highly competitive and sometimes very emotional work environment? What do I want my work and personal life to look like now, in a year, and in five years?

Photograph by Jay Paul, courtesy of Onca O'L

You produce the Americana Burlesque & Sideshow Festival. More and more, belly dance is being (re)associated with burlesque. There are dancers who also study burlesque; burlesque shows that include belly dancers and vice versa; and belly dance studios that offer burlesque classes. Is this a return to the roots of American belly dance - as exotic sideshow entertainment? What would be your response to those who criticize this (re)association of belly dance and burlesque as bad for belly dance?

I understand and respect those concerns, especially coming from those dancers who laboured long and hard through the last century to elevate the profile of belly dance as a family-friendly, folklorically-based art. However, history also shows us a clear working relationship between burlesque and belly dance, and contemporary feminism broadly understands that the next step in empowerment is to seize control of the conversation about women's sensuality and how we choose to use our bodies. We don't do burlesque for validation of self-worth; it's about using comedy and narrative to open and sustain conversation about the future of women in our culture. It's part of the same civil rights conversation that we are having about a woman's right to breastfeed in public.

I've thrown in my artistic lot with the bigger battle. The arts that I support and promote have a consistent message of empowerment, innovation, and education. We work very hard using the stage to change our culture for the better, to create a saner future where breast-feeding isn't a scandal and women's right to self-determination is assured. As Princess Farhana says, belly dance represents one powerful medium for modelling this self-acceptance, in this case rooted in a Middle-Eastern art-of-the-people cultural context. Burlesque offers us another, in a uniquely American “people's art” modality. The circus arts likewise present boundless opportunity to explore themes of social commentary and gender-based inequalities requiring redress!

Photograph by Jay Paul, courtesy of Onca O'Leary.Onca on Onca

I'm originally from Gloucester, where my ancestors have been working in the quarries and on the wharves since 1620. I am delighted to be able to come home again and share my art, my convictions, and my experience along with JayLee, Alyssum Pohl, and the ladies of the Loose Stockings salon.



Amy SmithComment