Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Best Business Practices for Belly Dance

Over the years, I've frequently heard belly dancers complaining about how their art form and in conjunction, themselves, are not accepted by the general public.  How they can’t fill classes and shows, and how they are unfairly discriminated against.  And by all means, yes, at times there are the uneducated and ignorant who dismiss belly dance and belly dancers unfairly without knowing anything about the dance.  But there are also other occasions where I think belly dancers are shooting themselves in the foot by not taking advantage of every opportunity to present themselves and their art form in in a relevant and professional light.  My observations come from applying my corporate business background to the business of belly dance.  For those who don’t know me in the “real world”, I have a Bachelor’s degree in business, am a licensed CPA, I worked in professional financial services for eight years, and am now currently overseeing accounting and finance for a multi-state organization with a budget of almost $50 million.  Below are a few observations I’ve noted over the years.  None of these are radical, novel ideas, but they are common best business practices, no matter what line of business you are in.  
1.      Embrace Technology – Maybe it’s because dancers are so focused on perfecting their art form that they forget about the business side of things, but frequently I see that some belly dancers are behind the times in technology.  For example, dancers not accepting credit card payments, requiring the printing and snail mailing of paper forms, no online scheduling for classes, outdated information on websites, etc.  For example, I recall calling a phone number on one dancer’s website and that phone number was out of service.  Eeek!  Talk about losing customers.   Ease of use and being able to complete tasks quickly with a few mouse clicks are becoming more and more important in our culture, and customers are expecting this as the norm.   I’m not saying I’m immune to this, because I’ll be the first to admit I’m guilty of doing (or not doing) some of these things myself.  But it’s on my radar and I have a plan to address them.  Do you?

2.      Stand Firm on Punctuality – Personally, this is a big pet peeve of mine.  While I understand that belly dance originates in countries that have different concepts of time and punctuality than our own, if belly dance is going to be successful and appeal to the general American public, it needs to align with American cultures, one of which is punctuality.  I have frequently been to shows that start anywhere from a half hour to an hour or more late.  Where multiple breaks are taken and the whole event ends up lasting for hours longer than it really should.  I’ve even seen audience members walk out before the show is over because the show has dragged on for too long, the hour has gotten too late, and a commitment of this this many hours is just not what they signed up for.  There are certain dancers in my area who are notorious for this, and frankly, for the most part, I avoid their events.  In our American culture, punctuality is important.  Go to the symphony, the opera, the ballet, etc. and they start and end on time.  Running late is unprofessional and disrespectful of your audience’s time.  If you want more audience members at your belly dance events and you want the general public to take you seriously, run your event seriously: smoothly and by the clock. 

3.      Be Transparent – More often than not, belly dancers don’t quote their prices for performances on their websites.  Again, this may come back to a cultural difference, but American culture is not one of barter and negotiation.   When prices aren’t quoted, Americans get suspicious and wonder why.  And I agree, why aren’t you listing at least a base price or a range?  Is it a secret?  Are you looking to gouge me because I’ve never been through this process before and don’t know what is or isn’t a reasonable quote?  Am I going to have to go back and forth with you over the phone to settle on the price?  Legislation and regulation in the U.S. continually moves toward more transparency in business transactions and this environment trickles down to the little guys as well.  If I’m online looking for services, short of surgery, legal services, or extensive construction projects, I expect vendors to list either an exact price or at least a base price with a description of variables that will affect my ultimate ending price.  Variables of course go hand-in-hand with belly dance shows as well, and each show will have its own formula of details that will make up the final price, such as length of performance, date of the event, specific requests, and location of the venue.  But ultimately, there’s a minimum base price that you are willing to accept to show up.  Consumers expect to make quick, snap decisions when they are online.  If they have to call you to determine if you’re even in their price-range, they may have already ruled your services out.  Not listing your pricing is simply outdated. 
Alright, those are my personal observations, and yours may be different.  Please leave comments, as I’d love to hear your own opinions on these topics!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Backstage at Belly Dancer USA

Last month I competed in the Belly Dancer USA competition in Canyonville, Oregon.  I’ll just get any surprise portion of the post over with and state right now, that no, I did not place.   I can’t say that it wasn’t a bit disappointing, because let’s be real, who doesn’t want to go home with a title and a trophy?  Not to mention it was a fairly big investment of time and money, if you add up the registration fee, private lessons, new Bella costume, gas, meals, and hotel.  However, I don’t feel it was all a waste.  I’m glad I did it and here’s why.

The Preparation

I started putting together my routine months ago.  The process of gathering ideas, selecting my music, choreographing and fine tuning  was almost a five month process for me.  Not only did I work on it extensively by myself, I also invested in some private lessons with Nadira, who was amazing in her depth of knowledge, advice, and encouragement. Advice: Get thee to her studio.

I also purchased my first ever custom-made Bella.  It was a steep price tag.  I’ll just go ahead and make full disclosure, it was almost a $1,000.  I pretty much had to close my eyes, hit send, and try not to think about it as I was transferring my money.  The costume turned out gorgeous, however, more on that end later.

I also did three practice performances, two of my exact competition choreography, and one local improv competition.  For the two performances doing my exact competition piece, I had mishaps happen right before I went on for both of them.  For one, my CD refused to play, and for the other there was change in the lineup that I was unaware of and I was announced as I still sitting in my seat in my street clothes.  Both situations were stressful and nerve-wracking, but they were good practice at dealing with the unexpected.  I was still able to execute my performances and felt good about them afterward. 

The competition was a different story.  It was an improv performance with a live local band.  Songs were drawn by the competitors at the beginning of the show and then were incorporated into a three-part set.  After each dancer performed her set, feedback was to given by three judges and then the audience voted on the winner.  As I was performing my set, I certainly didn’t feel like I was having an amazing performance, but it didn’t feel terrible either.  However, when it came time for my live judges’ feedback, they felt completely different.  I believe the nicest thing they said to me was that I looked pretty.  I received negative feedback on almost every aspect of the dance – poor musicality, lack of audience connection, limited dance vocabulary, poor arm positioning, etc.  You name, I'm pretty sure they said it.  Overall, pretty painful.  Needless to say, I didn’t win.  The day after the competition, I moped around my house all day.  Well, probably more than moped, I slipped into a downright funk, complete with mid-afternoon drinking.  I declared to my fiancé that not only was I certainly not going to compete in Belly Dancer USA, I was done with belly dancing altogether.

I guess it’s true that time heals all wounds.  I slowly came around again.  There is a video of that local competition performance out on the web.  However, to this day, I have yet to watch it. 

About three-weeks out from the competition, I regrouped my motivation and started practicing my piece every single day.  By the time the weekend of the competition rolled around, not only did I have my piece down forward and backward, I think my fiancé quite possibly did as well.  Or he at least had my three songs forever seared into his memory!

The Competition

Canyonville, Oregon is a six hour drive from Seattle, and a drive that I made by myself.  I drove half-way down to Beaverton and stayed with family the night before.   The morning of the competition, I completed the rest of the three hour drive, which given my nerves, spanned into a yawning eternity of highway.  In preparation for my honeymoon in France later this year, I had French language CDs in my car, which I listened to to help pass the time. Bonjour.  S’il vous pait. Je ne comprend pas.  One hour down.  To pass the other two hours, I alternated between having a conversation with my good luck stuffed teddy bear given to me by my fiancé, who I proceed to perch on the steering wheel, and singing at the top of my lungs to an old Alanis Mortisette CD.  So yes, to anyone driving past me, I was probably looking a little unhinged.  Oh belly dance, you see the kind of ridiculous and neurotic behavior you drive me to?

Finally arriving at the casino, I check into my hotel and start to get ready.  After an order of room service and checking into the competition, I'm feeling much more relaxed than I felt in the car.  I draw spot number four out of 17.  I acknowledge to myself that it’s not the best spot for scoring, but I'm also kind of relieved that I don’t have to spend hours waiting around for my turn. (For those who don’t think positioning matters, or judges who say they don’t score differently early on in a competition, I’ll just throw this out there:  All three dancers who placed were in the final five to go on.)

The competition started almost an hour later.  Sitting backstage, I listen to Awolnation and Rob Zombie on my iPhone as I stretch.  When I get nervous I fiddle.  Growing up as a swimmer, I would adjust my swim cap and goggles over and over as I waited for my heat.  Now as I dancer, I fiddle with my costume.  I reapply my lipstick.  Check that all my bra straps are secure.  Adjust my skirt to be exactly centered.  Pull my arm bands up to circulation inhibiting height.  And repeat.

Finally it’s my turn. My name is announced.  My music begins.  I take a deep breath and exhale a big, huge sigh out.  I say my new mantra, “validation is for parking”, in my head.  Think smile and relax.  And then I’m on stage.

I feel nervous, but also more excited and confident than I thought I might.  I can feel the adrenaline coursing through my legs.  My entrance piece is an upbeat Turkish piece by Tarkan, which is good for getting the extra energy out.  The other two times I’d done my practice performance, I’d completely forgotten this portion of my choreography.  This time, I barely miss a beat.  Before I know it, I’m into my taqsim.  I tell myself to slow my breath and ground down into the song.  However, I feel I still have a bit too much adrenaline going to really embody the slow music as it deserves.  At one point in my song, there is a pause in the music, which I’d planned to hold elevated on one leg.  However, I don’t hit my balance quite right and have to pull out of it, hoping that the wobble is not completely obvious to the judges and audience.  And before I know it, I'm onto the home stretch: drum solo.  I’d practiced this section so much, I could probably execute it in my sleep.  Feeling very comfortable with the technique and choreography, I really get into it and start to enjoy myself.  I even see a couple judges crack some smiles.  In the video, I think you can really see the relaxation happen, as I start out a bit timid in my movements in my first two songs, but really hit my stride by the drum solo. I strike my ending pose and feel that, for the drum solo at least, I nailed it.

My Takeaways

As you already know, I didn’t place.  In reviewing the judges’ scorecards and comments, my scores were mostly 9s and 10s, sprinkled with a few 8s and one 7.5.  One of the main areas I was marked down for was my costume fit.  In hindsight, a pretty silly item to be marked down for.  In the future, my new policy is that all new costumes require videotaping and review for fit, as when I was just standing in front of the mirror, the fit was looking fine.  But as we all know, standing in a costume and dancing in one are two entirely different things.  Learned my lesson on that one. 

But perhaps my most important takeaways have nothing to do with anyone else or their opinions.  By signing up for a competition, I really pushed myself to hone my technique, practice every day, and push out of my comfort zone.  And I learned the power of persistence and belief in yourself, even when others don’t.  When you get knocked down, the only thing to do is get up again. 

I didn’t win the local competition or Belly Dancer USA, but you know what?  It doesn’t really matter, because in the end, validation is for parking.  The true competition is the one you have with yourself.

Want to see the performance you’ve been reading about? Well you are in luck, as I’ve linked the video of the performance in below, so you can judge for yourself.  Don't feel like watching the whole 8 minutes?  Then skipped ahead to the drum solo, which starts right around 5:20.