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My Body is my paintbrush

Everyone asks the question: "How much money do you make as a professional belly dancer?" The "baby" belly dancers want to know because they've got dilated dollar signs in their eyes. They look at people on the belly-dance circuit and see themselves in two or three or five years; their CPA left in the dust for that glamorous, fast-paced lifestyle where you wear Mac lipstick every night and have screaming fans. The non--belly-dancers think it's cool that you get to do something so interesting, so, dare I say, sexy, for a job that they want to know details. The answer is the same to both: "You don't make very much."

We had a discussion panel at a conference where the workshop teachers allowed questions from the audience, and we got The Question. All the dancers on the panel said pretty much the same thing: "At least now that I'm married, I have health insurance."

One woman asked, "Do you get injured a lot in the course of your job?"

No, but sometimes it's nice to be able to go to the dentist or, you know, get a pair of glasses. Or a heart transplant.

Creative artists, the story goes, get paid in job satisfaction rather than medical benefits. They're doing what they love, right? Patrons of the arts provide an audience; isn't that enough?

As a dancer, my body is my paintbrush, the stage my easel. But I still need to pay for costumes, props, and false eyelashes. Not to mention the 14 years' worth of dance training to get me to the skill level I'm at right now. Also, food.

A student of mine recently tried to hook me up with an opportunity to dance "for exposure." I'm mostly past the point where I dance just for the opportunity for people to see me; that's like asking a Broadway actor to be in your high school talent show. Plus, it's a lot of work to get all dressed up and haul my buns somewhere...to dance for five minutes for free. Skipping the gig and practicing for an hour'd better serve me.

"I don't mind doing volunteer work," she said. "What if I did the performance instead? Then they still get a show, but you don't have to be put out."

Sigh. The point is that nobody should be dancing for free. Organizers should budget for entertainment the same way they budget for food or room rental; if you're counting on flashy entertainment to make your event a success, the people providing that success should get paid. Simple. It's a matter of respect, not just monetary gain. And, yet, entertainment gets the shaft because someone's cousin's friend took a belly-dancing class once and will do it for hors d'oeuvres. In the performance world, we call that "undercutting." I call it "supporting mediocrity."

We get this attitude from the beginning, when school kids get passed for substandard work (don't want to mess up their self-esteem). We praise behavior that would have appalled people 30 years ago.

We continue to believe that "good enough" is better than "great"; if you can get a mediocre belly dancer for free and a professionally trained one who demands to be paid the same way other professionals do (imagine deciding you just didn't want to pay your lawyer for services rendered!), oftentimes, mediocre dancing is good enough. Especially to a crowd who's never seen belly dancing before and doesn't know the difference; then they'll see an average dancer, assume that's what belly dancing is, and my job's just gotten exponentially harder because not only do I have to sell myself, now I have to sell quality belly dancing. If no one ever sees good dancing, there will never be good dancing, and so it goes.

Basically, you get what you pay for. Quality work costs more than average work; it's a fact of life. And quality work is provided by people who love their work because they spend more time honing their craft, studying their art, and getting experience. Professional artists love their jobs; that's why they do it and that's why they should be paid what they're worth. Your only daughter only has one wedding (well, one big fancy wedding, probably), do you really want to make it sub par? For the fundraiser you've spent six months organizing, do you want the only memory people take away to be the glitzy costume that "belly dancer" wore instead of her performance?

I hope not.


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