Tuesday, July 1, 2014

When Should A Belly Dancer Go Pro?

This is a topic sure to bring out varying opinions and I'm certainly not the first person to bring it up.  But I would like to pose the question: when should a belly dancer turn professional?

Over my years in the belly dance community I've heard a lot of different opinions on this.  In the interviews (see "Discover Posts by Topic" below) I've done of other professional dancers, there has been a wide range, with some interviewees saying as low as two years of experience, and some up to six years. On belly dance forums, I've frequently read rants from seasoned dancers about "flash in the pan" students turning pro too soon, and how their lack of well-rounded experience reflects poorly on the community as a whole.

Many times, I think there absolutely is truth in dancers turning pro to soon.  I'll admit that I think I myself was one of them.  At two years into my belly dance studies, I was in the right place at the right time to obtain a job teaching belly dance at a nation-wide fitness chain, and therefore launched the professional stage of my belly dance career rather early.  However, in hindsight, I can see that at the time I didn't have all the components and training necessary to truly be a professional dancer.   Having had a background in dance, I'd picked up the technique and movement vocabulary fairly quickly, but I was lacking in many of the other tools I now believe a professional belly dancer should possess.  Even now, many years later, like most professional dancers I'm constantly continuing to learn, working to hone my art form, and frequently humbled by the knowledge and skill of other dancers.

However, at other times, when I hear dancers rant against the newest performer on the block, I don't always agree that it's a lack of professional qualifications and skill set, but more about the seasoned dancer protecting her business and her paid dance opportunities. 

So when should a dancer go pro?  I don't think it's as simple as putting a number of years of study into the equation; that once you complete your requisite years, voila, you're ready.  Nor do I think if you can list studying with certain teachers that you'll be better or sooner qualified.  Everyone learns at a different speed and pace.  Everyone has different goals for what it is they want to achieve out of their dance.  Everyone has a different background of other dance, athletics, and movement vocabulary that they come from.  Everyone has a different personality and comfort-level with being on a stage.  And for some dancers, no matter how many years they log, they may not ever be ready to go pro.  In short, I don't believe there is a simple answer.

Thus, more than a quantitative number of years or who you've studied with, I would argue that it's more of a matter of reaching certain qualitative milestones.  This is the list of criteria I would look for in a professional dancer.

For Performing:
  1. Mastery of technical belly dance movements, including proper control, alignment, and precision.
  2. Competency in use of finger cymbals and basic patterns.
  3. Understanding of Middle Eastern music styles, rhythms, and instruments.
  4. Knowledge of the history of the dance and the key players, both past and present.
  5. Ability to artistically connect with and interpret music, giving a performance that is nuanced and layered.
  6. Appearance that reflects level, with professional-grade costumes and stage makeup and hair.
  7. Knowledge of the various styles of belly dance, and the related history, music, and costuming.
  8. Minimum of knowledge of, if not actual experience with, dancing various Middle Eastern folkloric styles of dance.
  9. Ability to perform both choreography and improvisation.
  10. Competency with at least one other belly dance prop (likely veil, but may vary based on the style of belly dance performed).
  11. Ability to exhibit confidence while performing, including capacity to relax on stage and put audience at ease.
  12. Professional demeanor at all times while performing and teaching.
  13. Understanding of how to run a business, comply with applicable regulations, and interact with customers.
For Teaching, in addition to the above:
  1. Must be able to effectively communicate with students, design class curriculum, and explain breakdown of movements.
  2. Instill proper positioning for safety of students.
  3. Ability to diagnose technical and artistic issues that arise with students.
Succinctly, being a professional dancer means amassing a pretty large toolkit. It's not done overnight and it's not for the casual hobbyist. But it's amazing to see a well-equipped professional dancer practice her craft.

Alright then, anything that I left out? What else would you add to the list?

Photo Credit: Unknown

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