Are you thinking about "going pro"? Or do you already have a few paid gigs under your (beautifully beaded) belt, but realize you got into this a bit unprepared? Here are my top ten recommendations for you. (I'm assuming you don't have an amazing teacher who has already prepped you appropriately. Lucky for you, if you do!!!!) If the thought of dancing professionally brings up thoughts of $$$$$, then skip to #10.
Just to get this out of the way - If you have taken less than a year of belly dance classes, get back to class. You aren't ready. How much longer should you take classes? Keep reading . . .
1. Find a mentor and schedule some how-to-be-a-professional private lessons immediately. Yes, private lessons are not inexpensive, but it's important to make this investment. Even if you have been dancing for a long time, that doesn't mean you are prepared for professional gigs. Not sure where to look? Ask for recommendations from other dancers. Don't have anyone in your area that qualifies? Seek out an online mentor. Your mentor should be supportive, but honest. Ask for guidance about professional rates, undercutting (preventing it, not doing it!), handling an audience (including receiving tips), working at restaurants, booking private parties, and how to structure a 15-20 minute set. Arrange for video critiques.
OR attend a "going pro" workshop. For example, in the Washington DC area, "So You Wanna Be a Star" with Artemis Mourat. Sedona (Arizona) offers "Biz of Bellydance" workshops. "So You Want to Be a Pro" with Ruby Beh.
If finding a mentor seems impossible, at least become connected with dancers all over the world through various internet groups (Biz of Belly Dance on Facebook, Bhuz.com forum) and ask for guidance. You can even glean many helpful tips from Michelle Joyce's "Secrets of the Stage" DVDs (there are three).
2. Do an honest self-assessment of your skills. Are you able to perform with a veil? Finger cymbals? Cane? Sword (or other balancing prop)? Can you dance to Oriental entrance music, traditional dance classics*, baladi, Saidi, drum solos, and pop music in the manner that each genre suggests? Are you able to dance continuously for at least 20 minutes without becoming winded, while smiling and looking glamorous? This thread on Bhuz.com has some great suggestions for restaurant gig preparation. Film yourself dancing for at least ten minutes, in costume, and watch it carefully and honestly. (Now do it again with people walking through your dance space, preferably while carrying trays of food or drinks, and other obstacles such as a toddler who wants to dance with you and an oil spot on the floor. Ha!)
3. Learn as much as you can about Middle Eastern music. We can't do this job without it! Not only that, but musical knowledge is essential for structuring engaging performance sets with authenticity and variety. Shems has put together incredibly helpful information about the various parts of a performance.
4. Purchase at least two professional quality costumes and adjust them to fit you perfectly. Again, this is an investment in your new business venture. While the quality of your dancing, your business ethics, and ability to engage your audience are most important, you must look the part. Spend as much as you can afford, whether brand new or gently used. You don't have to spend $900 on a high-end designer costume, but the under-a-$100 items that pop up on eBay and elsewhere likely won't cut it. Select costumes that you LOVE to wear, flatter your figure, and are suitable for typical pro gigs such as restaurant performances and private parties. It's very important to make sure your costumes fit you as perfectly as possible. Gapping bra cups + skirts shifting or sliding down = looking unprofessional.
5. Educate yourself about the going rates for your area and charge accordingly. Samira Shuruk's "Rates by Region" page is an excellent resource.
6. Make connections with professional dancers and teachers in your area. Become friends on Facebook or through other social networks, support their events, and go to their gigs (tip them well, but DON'T dance for too long if they get you up during audience participation. I honestly don't care about this, but some dancers do.)
7. Establish a website and order professional business cards. There are so many inexpensive (or even free, but watch out for too many advertisements) options available for both. You'll want cards to leave with restaurant owners, give to customers, and connect with other dancers and you'll want someone searching your geographical area on the www to find you. You'll need photos for your cards and site. Use the best photo of yourself that you have that represents your performance style. If you can't afford a professional photo shoot, have a skilled friend take lots and lots of photos of you in full costume and make-up, either posed or during a performance.
8. Read up on ethics for professional belly dancers. Suggested articles: Fair Rates (Samira Shuruk), Business Tips (Shira), Do's and Don't's (Schadia of Atlanta)
9. Set up a way to track your dance income & expenses. If you use an accountant for your taxes, consult him/her on the best method for this. Otherwise, log all income (even cash payments) and keep your receipts. If you want to call yourself a professional, you need to be honest with the IRS and keep everything legitimate. You'll probably be spending much of it on business expenses and will be eligible for deductions (speak with a tax professional about filing a Schedule C along with your 1040.)
10. Don't do this for the money. Seriously. I really mean it. To get started, you need to invest in costumes, veils, props, music, jewelry and other accessories, cover-ups, business cards, and make-up. This is going to run you a bare minimum of $600. (Remember, you have to spend money to make money.) It's going to take you more than one night's worth of gigs to recoup those expenses and by the time you do, you'll probably realize you need to spend more on higher-quality costumes that will withstand wear-and-tear of regular gigging and still hold their shine. Yes, there are dancers who can make at least a partial income from gigs, but they are in large cities with many restaurant & private party opportunities, usually teach several dance classes (or even fitness) a week, and are really, really GOOD. Plus they already have years of experience.
Well, think you still want to do this? Yes? Great. Then BE professional. It may take a while to get all your ducks in a row, but make it a priority before you seek out any (more) professional gigs. Walk the walk, talk the talk. Keep learning and growing. How we behave while calling ourselves professionals affects belly dancers all over the world. Sounds exaggerated, but it isn't. I'm trying to do my best to represent us well. I hope you'll do yours!