Professional Company or Glorified Student Troupe?

After graduating college, I set my sights on joining a professional bellydance company.  I fixed up my resume, selected my best performance shots, grabbed a hip scarf, and headed out to auditions. It was a hopeful time, and happily, everything went well.  Both groups wanted me! But when it came to negotiating terms, I noticed something interesting.

BellyTrance
Yours truly at center happily surrounded by the beautiful women of BellyTrance. Gorgeous artists inside and out!

One company, BellyTrance, which I joined and with whom I’ve enjoyed working for a full year, wanted me to do exactly what I was expecting.  They wanted me to show up for rehearsals and perform.  The rehearsals would be unpaid, but the performances would pay a fair going rate for our area.  Except for things like shoes and some accessories, I wouldn’t have to pay for costumes, and coming from a background in Western dance, this seemed normal for a small company in a small niche market.  Without the massive budget and wide appeal of a company like American Ballet Theater or Ballet Hispanico, I shouldn’t expect to be paid for rehearsals, but we performed often enough that I would always come out in the green.

The other company wanted something a little different.  Like BellyTrance, I wouldn’t have to pay for for costuming, but there was an interesting requirement that didn’t sit well with me.  The artistic director, who was also the primary choreographer, required company members to take her classes and local workshops at our own expense.  Her justification made sense.  The more we worked with her and her movement style, the easier it would be to learn her choreographies, but even with discounted rates for company members, it added up fast (think in the hundreds of dollars per month).  Perhaps we performed often enough that, while I wouldn’t be making a ton of money, I would at least come out even? Their vague, beat-around-the-bush answer told me no, especially as a new member working her way up the totem poll.  It sounded as though paid performance opportunities we were few and far between, and company dancers were paid only after company expenses for rehearsal space, costuming, etc. were covered.  Needless to say, the company was not a good financial fit for me, and we parted ways amicably.

At first, I thought this was just a strange quirk of the company, but as I looked into other “professional” bellydance companies, it quickly became clear to me that they were not the only ones to use this financial model.  Many “companies” require dancers to study with the director/choreographer multiple times a week and at local workshops, often with discounts, but still at their own expense.  Many times “company dancers” are required to contribute financially for rehearsal space and sometimes even costuming (hopefully they get to take the costume with them if they leave the company, but that isn’t always the case).  It’s as if creating a “professional company” is really just a way for artists to sucker students into becoming their personal “fixed income.”  Even if there’s an audition, the line between company dancer and glorified student is blurred.

Look, I have no problem with people running their student troupes this way and then taking them out on the occasional professional gig.  It’s a great opportunity for students to get some “real world” experience under their belts, but as long as dancers are required to take your classes at their own expense, let’s call them what they are: students.  Real company dancers in real dance companies, don’t have to pay for “the honor” of participating.  They’ve already paid their dues.  They’ve already paid for years of study and practice. Otherwise they wouldn’t be professionals looking to join a professional company.  I mean, that’s the whole point of the audition process isn’t it? To weed out the professionals from the amateurs? After all, how are you supposed to create professional caliber work with anything less?

Normally I wouldn’t get my undies in a twist about this sort of thing.  People manipulate labels for marketing purposes all the time.  But the bellydance community is always going on and on about how we need to elevate our work and expand into the mainstream.  I’ve seen artists come down hard on misguided 8-week wonders charading as professionals, but then why are we not intervening when artists take it upon themselves to make a “professional troupe” out of amateurs?  I’ve heard great artists bemoan the difficulty of running their own companies, but maybe it’s because there are a few too many fakers hogging the market.  I think many students would love being moved from regular classes to the student company to an amateur company that occasionally has professional performances.  Great teachers shouldn’t feel compelled to label students as professionals before their time.  My parents worked for years in an amateur folk dance company and had some of the best times of their lives in that group.  Did some members move on to more professional opportunities and leave their amateur days behind? Yes.  But many found the rehearsals and performance opportunities invigorating enough to stay, so teachers really shouldn’t feel pressured into false marketing.  A vibrant amateur company is an attractive offering.

So let’s eliminate those less-than-professional “professional troupes” and see if the community really can sustain a true professional company and possibly make a little headway into the mainstream.  The Bellydance Superstars did it once, and you can bet it wasn’t by making the Jillina’s and Rachel Brice’s of the world pay for the rehearsal space.

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6 thoughts on “Professional Company or Glorified Student Troupe?

  1. Yay! A new blog post! 😀

    I love your posts because it reminds me how different things function in the States compared to here!

    I don’t know of a single professional company (in bellydance) that functions like the one you’re part of now in SA.
    Something that ALWAYS irritates me is when teachers or troupe leaders (or whatever role) ask the students/members to fork out cash (usually a lot) for a costume that is never theirs. We have some troupe pieces that the studio owner keeps but she pays for it.

    My only question: In a company, who covers the cost of venue hire for practices and how is money generated to pay for things like this? Would the company owner take an extra percentage of a performance fee?

    1. Well, if the company director or a company member is affiliated with a dance studio, often they can use the studio space for free. For a while, BellyTrance even rehearsed before lunch at the restaurant where we regularly performed. In terms of funding for costuming and such, companies should certainly take a cut of performance fees. In many instances, the company essentially acts like an agency referring dancers to various gigs and clients.

  2. My gawd yes. I have seen so many “professional” troupes that seem to lead their performers around with this cult mentality which in the end hurts everyone – including “professional” companies that also made their performers pay for a ticket to the show they were performing in.

  3. So I’m going to throw in some logistical things for thought….
    Who pays for and secures the ongoing rehearsal space? Who does the admin of marketing, booking and bookkeeping and artist management of the biz? Are there really gigs out there that pay for high end costumes, pay performers a decent wage, maintain and keep an on-going rehearsal space? I’m assuming if a pro group is doing hi-end gigs, somebody needs to choreograph and organize and plan quality shows on an ongoing basis. Is that done for free? As an owner of a dance studio I can tell you just because a room doesn’t have a class in it does not mean it’s free. Every moment that a room is not making money it is costing me something, and I don’t mean profit, I mean keeping the lights and heat on and making sure we can make rent. These are some things to consider.

    1. Down to the nitty gritty! I love it! Here are just somethings I’ve seen in my experience and in the experiences of close friends. Each troupe needs it’s own medley of strategies, but lets share ideas.

      Rehearsal Space: If you have a studio, you can use it (yes, it costs money just to run the place, but it’s a lot cheaper than renting elsewhere, plus you can promote your studio at gigs). Often I’ve been asked to rehearse during “off hours” when a studio is unlikely to be rented by an outside party. I’ve also rehearsed at studios where I or a friend are employees, and we’re therefore allowed to use studio space for personal practice, class prep, or personal projects. With BellyTrance, for a long time we rehearsed in a private back room at the restaurant where we’re in residency. The lack of mirrors wasn’t great, but we were strong enough dancers that we could match each other without them. We rehearsed in the morning before the lunch rush when the restaurant was open anyways for cleaning and food prep.

      Costuming/Admin/Marketing: I personally believe that a director should be taking a cut/percentage of all gigs worked via the company, even if it’s a private gig asking for only one dancer. If the dancer gets the work through her affiliation with the company, then the company should get something out of it. It doesn’t have to be a huge fee, but as you build up your clientele and reputation and get more gigs, things begin to add up. (Please note that I think pricing should be adjusted to accommodate the cut so dancers are getting a fair wage. If your product is really of high quality, then you shouldn’t be all that worried that a slightly higher rate will put off potential clients. The right people will come if the quality is right.) With this money, you can invest in costuming. Maybe there’s someone in the troupe who’s handy with a sewing machine and can do the costumes at a discounted rate or for first pick on gigs? Maybe someone’s mother would be willing to pitch in for free as a sign of support? Maybe there’s an up-and-coming designer who might be interesting in having your troupe sport her wares for promotional purposes? The way I’ve seen admin managed is either a small stipend from gig fees or a work-study model where she gets first pick on gigs. Marketing can be worked similarly. Maybe someone is handy with photoshop or web design. Maybe you have a student who would be willing to do some of that work in exchange for discounted classes? Mine the things you’ve got going for you.

      Choreography: For many troupe directors, the troupe is their creative outlet so they do the choreography more for themselves than for the money. When they invite a guest choreographer, that person gets paid out of gig fees. BellyTrance commissioned me to choreograph a piece for them (I was still new to the group and therefore not first pick for most gigs, so it was another way to support me and give me an opportunity to make some money). It has become a very popular piece, and they’ve absolutely earned back any money I was paid since through its use.

      Of course, the exception to all this is if you’re just starting your troupe. In the beginning, maybe you do need dancers to pitch in for costuming or studio rental, but the mentality should be that that’s a short-term solution and a phase you want to move out of. You should always be moving toward the green, and I think troupe members are willing to work harder and go the distance when they feel really valued.

  4. This is such a great post demonstrating how belly dance companies work. Such an eye opener about how certain companies work and what to be watchful of. I loved it! It even gave me ideas about what to do for my own troupe. I do believe that if you are an amateur or beginning belly dance company you have to let people know because the ball has barely started to roll which means the company does not have much money. Thank you.

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