How to go pro
Let me start by saying that just because you took some belly dance classes, it does not mean you are a belly dancer. It is disrespectful to the art form and our dance community to label yourself as such when you go out to perform in any public show, even if it's a non-paying event.
I did not call myself a “belly dancer” - my mentors and teachers were the first to present me as such. I did not call myself a "professional belly dancer" - my mentors and teachers were the first to name me as such. This title came after five years of intensive dance training and workshops. I then maintained this title, after an additional two years of training with multiple reputable teachers within the industry.
I did not go out and get myself my first paying gig. My mentors, teachers, and sisters within the dance community provided that, telling me it was time to leave the nest. You do not "debut as a belly dancer”. You are embraced by a dance community of women who have walked miles before you and broken ground within the community to build a reputable name for our dance form, and know what it feels like to dance with glass dug into their bare feet, pain in their backs, or with clients who expect them to put on a spectacular show in only two inches of dance space.
Moreover, the green light does not come from one person alone. It took three professional dancers to give the ok for me to start marketing myself. Hence, the reason I say it's a “community embrace”. Your teacher may be biased in their affection for you, and it could cause them to misjudge your readiness. They should be bouncing the idea of you going pro with other pros.
Until all this happens, know your place and market yourself accordingly. You are a "student of Middle-Eastern dance". Heck, even that title requires you to actually be actively studying with one or more main core teachers, while pursuing workshops and attending community dance events. One does not go without the other. If you only train with one teacher, attend one or two classes a week, but don’t invest in studying the art on your own time, then you are not a real student of Middle-Eastern dance. You are a person who simply "takes belly dance classes". There is nothing wrong with that. There is just a difference and a student hierarchy too.
It takes a minimum of 4-5yrs of dance training in this art form before you can earn your slot in the “belly dancer” performance arena (if we can label it that). Even after all that time of training, you still actually need a mentor. This should be a reputable teacher or tenured dance professional who brings you in and gives you the backing as you start your journey.
On a side note: Please be aware that once you "go pro”, it is professional etiquette to name the person who brought you into the pro scene on your website acknowledgment page. You don’t just credit your teachers, you credit the people who got your foot in the door. Too many people forget that this person who promoted you and got you your first gigs did so despite the fact that they are helping a competitor. To me, I have even more gratitude for my dance sisters, who never collect a check off of my dance training sweat, but still promoted me anyway.
Understand that belly dance is just not just some dance you pick up and “BAM”, you are a belly dancer. There is a cultural awareness you must have, and etiquette that must be followed, so that you do not misrepresent the dance form or disrespect an entire culture based audience.
While I am on this tangent….please know that not everyone is qualified to be a belly dance teacher. I taught my first class under the guidance of my first belly dance teacher. I knew enough to recognize that she had thrown me into something I was NOT prepared to have. I had not earned my stripes yet. Her confidence in my dance ability had clouded her judgement.
Let me explain why she was wrong. She had been the only teacher I had ever trained with. The only workshops I had ever gone to were with her, and the only community events I would attend were the ones in which she was present. I was WRONG! With the opportunity to teach, I saw how unprepared I was to fully give my students a well-rounded foundation of this art form. I quickly saw my mistake and took the first opportunity to close up my classes. It was not until three years later, after having taken private lessons with three other teachers, gained 3yrs of pro-type performance experience, and enrolled in the Egyptian Dance Academy in NYC (which gave me endless opportunities to train with international superstars within the industry)...not until after all that did I decide to teach dance again.
Also, please note that I did not open up dance classes for self gain. I decided to teach because I saw a need in my dance community. I had now gotten to a point in my dancing where it would have been irresponsible of me as a new professional to not carry my own weight within the community. I felt that as the new wave of dancers came in, I should try to expand or continue the legacy the established pros started.
I started dance classes with kids first because I saw the priceless value of how this dance teaches women to love and accept themselves. I wanted our CT youth to have that resource and learn these lessons during the most crucial moments of their cognitive development. I then started adult classes based on public demand, and because I had made a deal with the dance studio that welcomed my kids classes. If they let me have a dance home for kids, I would provide a class for their adult studio members too.
I'm not saying that I have all the answers. I'm just providing a public service announcement about what it really takes to be a belly dancer, based on my experience and exposure to the industry.
Clients: Don't be fooled by those who try to sell you this dance without fully understanding it themselves. Also, if you ever wonder why professional belly dancers are higher-priced than the one that cut you a “deal”, read this entire document again. The answer is here.
Students: Don’t just accept just any teacher. When you find the teacher who is right for you, don’t take everything they say to be correct. Look at their community contributions, professionalism, and dance training. Nourhan Sharif still takes dance workshops. You never just arrive and stop learning. When was the last time your teacher took a workshop or worked on their own personal dance improvement?
Sadly, some tenured teachers have lost their way. They are not practicing what they once so heartily preached: sisterhood, professionalism, communicating with your dance sisters. Look fully and realistically at your mentors. When you have learned all you can learn from them, move on and train with others. If they are truly professional, and love you, they won’t hold it against you for leaving the nest. In fact, they will make attempts to join you on your journey, and still mentor you wherever they can as you continue to grow.
If you find that you are wrong in any of these areas…as we say in the military - "get right”. As a person who has intensively trained in 16 different dance forms; as a person with the work experience in other dance industries (I came out of the ballroom/Latin dance scene, and I am a member of the latino community, exposed to the work within their dance community as well), I can tell you that this dance form is an entirely different animal. It operates completely differently from any other dance community I've been exposed to. Don’t pretend to know one because you come from another. Just when you think you have a good handle on it, that is right when you realize how much more you have to learn.
When it comes to my dancing, I am further along today than I was yesterday, but light years away from where I wish I could be tomorrow.
Kelvia is a performer and teacher based in Naugatuck, CT. She has studied with Nourhan Sharif and Adina of CT. Visit her web site at www.kelvia.com.