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.
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.