Performance Standards: Booking and Attending Gigs

May 16, 2013 § 2 Comments

I have performed as a belly dancer for over a decade and have danced in a large variety of venues and settings.  Some amazing, some good, some okay, some bad, and some really unpleasant.  At a recent bad performance experience, there was no designated stage area, there was no DJ, and they had no performance time for us. They gave us a call time, but when we showed up, no one seemed to know what was going on.  We were not in the line up.  They asked if we wanted to dance to the DJ, even though we had specifically told them “no” over the phone during the performance invitation.  We waited around for a while and didn’t have adequate warning before we finally did perform.  They “let us” perform while the DJs took a break. It did not get better once we started dancing.  They introduced us as “the belly dancers” instead of by our troupe’s name.  People were wandering through the area where we were dancing.  No one was taking care of our music or paying attention to what was going on.  Our ipod got bumped in the middle of the set, and started playing a song over again.  We couldn’t get anyone to fix it for us.  One of the dancers had to leave the “stage” to fix it herself.  Then, in the middle of our last song, the band that was on next started improvising on top of our music and then said “let’s hear it for the belly dancers!…” before the song completely finished.  We were practically kicked off stage.  It was very unprofessional.  We handled it as gracefully as possible, but it was not a fun experience.

Because of all of this performance experience as well as others, I have thought a lot about performance standards.  I think it’s important to consider what kind of settings you would like to perform in and what your expectations are.  Sometimes it is okay to decline an event invitation or decide that a venue is not right for you.  Sometimes, it may even be reasonable to leave an event without performing.

Here is my list of performance standards:

1) Make sure you have an official performance slot.  If they are not organized enough to put together a set list, chances are good you will show up for a 10-20 minute set and wait around for 2 hours.  This is not okay.  It is reasonable for shows and events to run a little behind, but what they are saying by not giving you a time slot, is that your time isn’t valuable.  If they don’t have an approximate performance time, the answer is no.  I also know of some professional dancers who start charging more if they don’t go on within a reasonable amount of time after the agreed upon performance slot.  I think this is fair.  Their time is valuable.  Your time is also valuable.

2) If they can’t give you an idea of what the music system is like, you should ask them to find out before you commit.  You need to be able to prepare your music.  Music is essential for dancing.  If there are different options at this venue, and they aren’t sure which will work out for that night, that’s not too big of a deal, as long as you know what options to prepare for.  You need to know if you are capable of using their music system and have an adequate amount of time to get your set list prepared.  You don’t want to waste your time preparing a set, getting into costume, and going to the event, just to find out you won’t have music and can’t perform.

3) If they want someone who does something that you don’t do,  just say you are not what they are looking for and suggest another performer, if you know of one, who is a better fit.  If they want someone to dance to the DJ who’s playing techno or reggae and that’s not the kind of music you dance to, then the answer is no.  If they want gogo dancers, that’s fine, but belly dancers aren’t gogo dancers.  They need to find someone who can fulfill their specific performance needs.  And if they are calling for a bachelor party performance, be weary that they might expect something more risqué than your typical belly dance.  This may not be the performance for you.

4) Expect them to be professional and have respect.  For example, there is someone in charge who knows what is going on and can direct you where to go.  There is some sort of backstage area where you can prepare and safely store your things.  You should get a proper announcement before your performance.

5)  This is a big one and sometimes the hardest for dancers to take a stand on:  Don’t dance for free if other performers get paid.  Also, don’t dance for free if there is a cover charge.  The only exception to this rule is if it is a benefit show and the money is going to a good cause.  Don’t let someone personally profit from your hard work, unless you are also profiting.  Even if you do a short set, you should still get paid.  They aren’t just paying for your performance time; they are paying for your years of dance classes and performance experience, your costuming, your time spent building a set and getting into hair, makeup and costume. You are worth compensating.  It is also okay to dance for free at community events, festivals and haflas.  These are shows for sharing and exposure.  My old dance troupe had a set number of free shows we did every year.  Once those slots were full, we only did paid gigs.  This worked out well.  I recommend coming up with a similar policy.

6) Sometimes it is okay to leave a gig.  I don’t think I have ever done this, but there has been a time or two I wish I had.  This is a last resort, but if you aren’t being treated appropriately and there is no reasonable negotiation, or no one cares enough to negotiate with you in the first place, you should consider whether it is fair for you to stay, especially if you are volunteering your time.  I’m not saying be a diva, I’m just saying make sure they treat you with respect.

Have you had any experiences that have made you reconsider your performance standards?  What does your list look like?  Is there something I should add to mine?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Performing: To Look at the Audience or Not?

December 31, 2012 § 3 Comments

I have heard many different theories and many different preferences on where to look when performing.  When first learning to perform, I think it’s hard for most people to look at the audience.  Dealing with stage fright can be a process.  Most people have it at some point, and looking an audience member in the eye does not tend to help the nerves.  My first teacher taught me to look over the heads of the audience members if this was the case.  I know some dancers who have been dancing for years and still prefer this method.

Personally, I like to look at the audience.  I feel more of a connection.  However, I don’t tend to focus on one person for too long (unless their body language and facial expressions invite more interaction) because this can be too intense and make them feel uncomfortable.  Some audience members like to feel more included, but I think a lot of people just want to be spectators.  I like to look at the audience not only because it makes me feel more connected to them, but I also feed off of their energy and feel like my facial expressions are more genuine when I have people to respond to.

Sometimes I still look over the heads of the audience.  I do this if looking at them is too intense, such as when I feel like they are being unresponsive.  Also, it’s nice to alternate between looking over them and at them, especially if some audience members are sitting very close.  Sometimes looking over the audience can be used for effect as well.  This can be used to create an ethereal or dreamy quality, like you are seeing something in your mind. In the case of bright stage lights, I can’t see the audience members anyway, so this is more like looking over the heads of the audience.  Even though I may or may not be since I can’t actually see them.

The big no-no for where to look when performing is down!  Sometimes looking down for effect is appropriate.  It can help to express something in the music, intensify a movement or help direct the audience’s focus.  However, it should only be used for effect!  It is not fun to watch a dancer who stares at the floor the whole time.  Personally, as a spectator, it makes me feel uncomfortable.  I feel like the performer is nervous and therefore I am nervous.  Looking up and out is inviting and shouts confidence.  Even when a performer is experiencing stage fright, looking up is the best camouflage.  This will help the audience relax and enjoy the show.

What do you think?  Where do you like to focus when you perform?

How to Choreograph

April 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

I don’t usually choreograph my solos.  I “tried” many times over the years, but was unsuccessful.  I tried choreographing by dancing through a song, but couldn’t remember what I’d done. Or I came up with a set of moves for one phrase, but couldn’t come up with anything for the rest.  Or I listened to a song and imagined how I would dance, but these images didn’t translate easily to reality.

Honestly, I think I lacked patience and confidence in my choices.  I wasn’t ready to choreograph.  Creating something definite was too much pressure.  If I improvised, I didn’t have to worry about forgetting my choreography.  Sometimes I worried about not knowing what was next, but I had no choice but to commit and keep dancing.  It seemed less stressful.  I love the freedom of improvisation.  It’s so honest and genuine.  However, both improvisation and choreography are important skills and lend themselves well to different circumstances.

A couple months ago, I signed up for a 3-5 minute solo at Amaya’s Oriental Potpourri.  I wanted to challenge myself with an Oriental belly dance choreography.  I picked a piece of music that seemed like it would be challenging to improvise to.  After working on it obsessively, I am pleased with how it turned out.

Here is the process I went through:

1) I listened to the song over and over and over again.  I wrote notes about the sections.  How are they different?  What is their feel?  Should that section be fast? Staccato?  Melodic?  Traveling?  In place?

2) I broke down the song by section and count.  I wrote things like “Intro-32 counts” and “Call and Answer-16 counts.”  Then I wrote general notes about what I saw for each section, such as “traveling,” “undulations,” “layering,” “shimmies.”

3) I listened to one section at a time, and then one phrase at a time.  I visualized dancing.  I kept listening until I had an idea I really liked, then I wrote it down.  If I couldn’t get an idea for something, I skipped it and came back to it later with the question, “what does the dance still need?” As the dance developed, I made sure there was enough variation in floor patterns, traveling, staying still, leveling, etc.  I didn’t want my dance to look stagnant and I wanted it to reflect the changes in the music.  I also made sure there was some repetition so the dance was cohesive.

4) Once I had a combo written down, I tried it. I sang each part to myself as I slowly went through the moves.  Some things worked and some didn’t.  Some phrases needed a little refinement while some had to be entirely reworked.  It was a process.  Once I had something solid, I tried it with the music.

5) When I finished choreographing, it was time for memorization.  I kept my notes nearby and practiced transitioning from one section to the next.  This took awhile.  It was the same process as learning someone else’s choreography.

6) Once it was memorized, I focused on musical expression.  I listened to the music very closely and adjusted moves to reflect the sound.  I tried to really dance it.

7) Practice, practice, practice.

This is the process that worked for me.  I put together my 3-and-a -half minute solo in about a week and a half.  I worked on it everywhere I could; every free second I got.  At home, at school, at work, at the laundry mat…Once I started, it was hard to stop.  It was a labor of love.

Here is the finished product:

What is your choreography process?  Do you have any tips to share?

New Troupe and Oriental Potpourri!

March 14, 2012 § 3 Comments

I have re-immersed myself in dancing. It was really easy. I love how it seems no matter where I go, there is a flourishing and welcoming belly dance community. I went to a Farfesha student show and started taking classes at their studio shortly after. I signed up for an eight-week course with some American Tribal Style dancers who got their start at the same Santa Fe studio I did. I introduced myself after the first class and we talked a bit. After the second class, they invited me to join their troupe, The Desert Darlings! So how about that; I thought I would be stepping back from the tribal community, something I have thought before, yet it always seems to find a place for me. I guess it’s meant to be.  And the Desert Darlings are, well, darling!  I am still pursuing Oriental belly dance in my self-practice and will soon be seeking a weekly class.

Last month, I attended Oriental Potpourri, an annual event put on by Amaya. It was wonderful! The guest teacher was Karim Nagi of Turbo Tabla who is amazing! I took a Drum Solo and a Raks Assaya (cane) workshop. It was educational and inspiring! If you ever have the chance to take workshops with Karim, do it! If I had the means, I might travel all over the world taking his workshops. I would learn so much! He has published some DVDs and sells them at a discount to his workshop students. I haven’t gotten to watch mine yet, but I will post about them when I do.

Karim’s workshops got me thinking about some things. First of all, I now realize how important it is to call the traditional dances by their proper names to credit the Egyptians. Going forward, when doing these styles I will do my best to honor them with their true names. I will still call tribal style “belly dance” because it is so Americanized, and I will use “belly dance” as a catchall phrase since I don’t strictly do classical styles.

Second, I now know that I love Raks Assaya! I had never danced with a cane before, and it was so much fun!  I already knew that the women’s style of dance came from playfully teasing the men who do Tahtib (an ancient martial art form using a large stick, an assaya), but hearing Karim’s description made it so much more fun!  I want to buy a cane, but I have to do some research first because I don’t yet know what I’m looking for in this prop.  If anyone has any pointers, they would be much appreciated!

I also learned some very valuable tips for drum solos, like separating the location of accents in the body to reflect different sounds on the drum, and I performed in a show for friends and family of Oriental Potpourri participants.  I did my first ever, completely choreographed, non-Tribal solo.  It was really fun and a great experience.  I will post a video soon.

Hobbies: Having to Make Choices

January 27, 2012 § 10 Comments

My life has become a bit hectic as of late, as I have recently moved and am taking a new direction.  I have returned to college to study biology (with a dance minor), with my eye on a career in physical therapy.  I am still working a day job and trying to figure out how I would like to enter my new dance community, all while maintaining a home life–the kinds of things we all must figure out how to balance.  When faced with less time and money to do all the things I want to do, I have had to figure out what it is I really want.  I would love to take multiple belly dance classes every week, a hoop class, join the local college juggling club to meet and practice with poi spinners, and maybe even play clarinet in some sort of band again.  I even considered joining the college marching band, because, hey, it was fun the first time around!  But alas, I have realized that accomplishing all those things in my daily life would simply be impossible.  I have been faced with the decision of picking an artistic direction, which will really make a person realize what they love.  I am most passionate about belly dance so, belly dance it is!  I will continue indulging in my other hobbies here and there for fun, but I won’t be investing in classes at this time.

While figuring out what dance classes I can afford and fit in my schedule, I have also had to decide what direction to take within belly dance, being the large genre it is.  I think I have settled on taking Oriental classes a couple times a week and focusing on daily self-practice.  This means I will be stepping back from the Tribal Community for the time being.  This was a tough decision, but there aren’t many, American Tribal Style classes in Albuquerque.  There are some that are just Tribal, which I think are more along the lines of Improvised Tribal Style.  ITS is like ATS, using the same improvisational structure, but with mostly different foundational moves.  I can’t be sure if that’s true until I take some of their classes, but this semester, my school schedule conflicts with the classes I’ve found.  For now, I will continue staying sharp in my ATS with self-practice, and make a return to Tribal in a community setting in the (hopefully not too far off) future.

I need to develop my Oriental side of belly dance more anyway.  I long for it, the refined feminine movements, it’s grace and beauty, it’s expressiveness and freedom of movement.  I should focus more on developing my skills as a soloist as well, and Oriental style is great for that.

One day I will return to teaching.  It is definitely on my agenda, but I don’t have the time or energy to start up a new program.  It takes a lot of self-promotion and a lot of patience to get steady student enrollment, and that is just not something I can invest in right now.  I need to focus on my day job career goals first.  Long-term, I hope to be a great physical therapist, dance teacher, solo performer and troupe dancer.

Poi-fu

December 29, 2011 § 3 Comments

I am slowly working my way through playpoi.com‘s poi lessons. In the past, I have just randomly clicked through user-uploaded, how-to videos on homeofpoi.com (which are also awesome), but playpoi’s videos have continuity and progression. I have decided to start working my way through their series as I have time and poi urges. I am at the very beginning, just a few videos into Poi-fu, which covers poi fundamentals. It has already given me a lot to think about and some good exercises to work on. Some videos could even apply to other dance forms, or life in general. For example, one I watched recently not only teaches great arm pathways to add poi to later, it is great for general coordination. Give it a try!  It’s fun!

Getting Down and Dancey with Mira Betz

October 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Some time ago, I participated in the most amazing, 3-day Ethics and Technique of Belly Dance Intensive with Mira Betz.  I’d describe it as a movement, dance theory, life, history, culture, performance, self-examination and trust-building workshop. This woman has inspired me not only in dance, but in life.  She is very honest and straight forward, and I really admire that. She works really hard and encourages her students to do the same.

In the dance section of the workshop, we learned some combos that Mira emphasized were not so much about the order of movements, but about the concepts we were learning. We explored stretching rhythms and altering the typical timing of combinations to create tension and variation of movement.  We also explored how to present ourselves on stage in a way that makes our audience comfortable and relaxed.

There were many talking circles. We discussed our views and the way others view belly dance, things we’ve struggled with, and how our journey within the dance has been. We talked about East vs. West and Orientalism.  We discussed pre-performance and post performance etiquette and how to elevate the dance form. We also ventured into how belly dance compares to other dance forms.  This was one of my favorite areas of discussion.  We compared it to Ballet and Burlesque and how they came to be respected and considered art and how belly dance could become an equally accepted art form.

I was surprised to learn that not everyone enjoyed the discussions as much as I did. A few subjects were addressed that some people took very personally such as performance etiquette, skill, religion, public presentation and other areas of ethics.  I suppose that can be expected when such things come up.

One of my favorite parts of the weekend was a homework assignment called a wish wall. We made “wish walls” that represented things we wished for or that represented our hopes and dreams or inspirations in some way.  Mira said we could make it whatever we wanted, but most people did some sort of collage.  I used to collage a lot in high school but hadn’t in years.  I really enjoyed this assignment and wish I had more excuses to do arts and crafts projects.

My cat, Almond, helping me collage.

When we brought them to class the next day, they were presented anonymously and were analyzed and discussed by the group before revealing who’s wish wall each was. This was interesting because we got to see how other people perceived what we had done and even gained some insight into what our art was saying about us.

My finished wish wall

I definitely recommend taking this workshop or any workshop with Mira Betz. She is authentic and inspiring. It was a weekend of exploration, learning and self discovery.

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