Written by Francesca Anastasi
For quite a long time, I have been wanting to write about this topic. It keeps coming up in conversations I have with other instructors and performers, as well as appearing in discussion groups on social media.
I will never forget the wise advice of one of my mentors when I first started my belly dance journey. She gave me this heads-up: “In this profession, it is very easy to perform yourself into poverty.” She went on, painfully telling me how she had spent most of her dance career doing gigs for free or for very little money, in the hopes of one of these events leading to greater opportunities. She ended up hanging up her hip scarf and retiring with a long history of disappointment and broken dreams. Maria’s words have stuck with me till this day. I am reminded of them every time I get a request to perform somewhere for free or very little.
Dance was my fulltime job and provided me with 100% of my income. Right from the early stages of my dance business, I had to make some decisions and set some rules. I made the decision early enough that the largest part of my income would come from teaching, not performing. I took to heart my mentor’s words, so I promised myself that I would not set myself up for that kind of hurt. If I lost a gig that didn’t pay what I thought I was worth, and I charged a lot more than the going rate in my area, I did not take the gig. I found an equal number of customers willing to pay my higher rate. In the end I made more by taking fewer gigs and sticking to my rates.
It has been many years since that conversation. Since then I have observed dancers do exactly what my mentor had done, perform for free, or for very little, undercutting and charging less than others, for the love of getting the gig. At the same time, I regularly hear other performers rant about people who undercut them.
So why do dancers perform for free or for less than the going rate? Let me give you my take on it. First of all, I want to clarify that I truly believe that generally these dancers harbor no malicious intent towards other performers.
For simplicity, I will use a description of what I think are the two types of performers who are performing themselves into poverty.
Performer A. You started taking classes and love dancing. You are excited and eager to perform and show others what you can do. You take performing opportunities when they come your way, maybe you even seek them out.
You are an amateur and you don’t really care about the money. You just want to dance. You also know you are not at the same level as professionals and don’t feel comfortable charging. If you are new to the dance scene, you might even feel it would be presumptuous to charge when you know you are not a professional (although you consider the possibility of going pro once you have enough experience).
Performer B. You are a performer who is looking for paying gigs. You accept anything that comes your way even if it is for free or for less than your competition charges. Why? Because you really need the exposure and the money. You hope to make a living doing this and take the gigs in not so financially rewarding circumstances in the hope that it will generate more gigs and more students. You might even have a student troupe and are also looking for opportunities for them to perform to help visually advertise what you do.
Here are the issues for both types of performers:
If you are performer A or B, no matter how talented you may be or what your reasons are, you will become known as the one who undercuts in your community. Other performers might be nice to your face. Some may even be forgiving. But trust me, whether you are an amateur or a professional, most of them will talk behind your back and they will not have nice things to say about you. Why? Because you have taken an earning opportunity from another performer, most likely unknowingly, in an unethical way.
Undercutting jeopardizes your own future. If you are an amateur, you may not think you will ever want to be paid; you are just having fun. But based on my experience observing lots of dancers over the years, at some point you will want to be appreciated with more than adulation and applause; you will want to start making serious money.
I will never forget a call for a gig I got a few years ago. The customer wanted to have a belly dancer at her husband’s 50th birthday party. She told me she was more than happy to pay my rate (which was almost double what the others were charging) because she wanted it to be a pleasant and fun evening. She had recently witnessed an amateur belly dancer at someone else’s party, who took the gig for less than the going rate. It turned out the dancer was inexperienced, and the much anticipated entertainment turned out to be disappointing for all present as they were accustomed to belly dance performers.
My philosophy has always been, when customers bargain to have you perform for free or for very little, they get what they pay for. You would not go to a restaurant for dinner and expect to be served the food for free to give the chef exposure. Why should you provide a service and not get paid for it?
Easy for me to say because performing was just extra cash for me and not a means to provide my bread and butter. But it is for some dancers. Often that is all they do; they perform and depend on the gigs they get to pay their bills and put food on their table. Some are single parents who have no other support. As a fellow performer, you need to be considerate of that.
When you start taking gigs for little or nothing in exchange for exposure, you establish a precedent that is going to be difficult to change. You become the one who performs for little, the ‘cheap’ performer, and you will be referred to others who will also expect you to dance for little or nothing at their event. You are not taken seriously as an artist, but merely seen as cheap entertainment. I somehow doubt that is how you want to be known. The chances of a much greater opportunity stemming from it are slim.
So ultimately, you undercut yourself.
So then what?
Having said all this, it does not mean I have never performed for free, or that you should never perform for free. There is a time and a place to do so. The important thing is to identify where that is and what the long term benefits are. You never want to create a ‘lose’ situation for anyone, including yourself.
The issue is not really performing for free but WHERE and WHY and WHO is benefiting? Ask yourself if there is anyone on the losing end.
If you are a beginner and you are performing outside your circle of family and friends, make sure to have the right experience before taking on performing for the general public. Seek proper guidance or you are most likely setting up a less than great reputation for yourself with possible long term repercussions. Most of the time, the customer will not tell you that you were not good because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. You may be a nice person, but they will never hire you again.
So how to get performing experience before being able to charge?
There are plenty of performing opportunities that you can take without undercutting other performers. Seek them out!
Look for community events where NO ONE else is being paid, where everyone involved in the event is taking part as a volunteer. In other words, ask yourself: If no one would agree to perform for free, would the organizers pay someone else to do it? If not, you are not taking a paying gig away from anyone. You can sleep well at night. Here a few more examples
• Belly dance community shows
• Local talent shows
• Fundraising events
• Multicultural competitions
• Dance competitions
These will help you gain experience, will give you a chance to work harder at mastering your skill and will have a more accepting and nurturing audience that will be thrilled at seeing you grow through your dance performance journey.
All of these give you plenty of opportunities to perform.
A last word for Performer B.
You might be thinking, “Everyone in the business world competes. Many businesses lower their rates against each other to get the client, isn’t that how business works?”
If this thought has ever crossed your mind and you believe it, you are likely undervaluing yourself.
There is only one of you. You are unique. As a performer, you are an artist and no one else is like you. Once you establish that for yourself, others will see it too. There is no price limit for that.
The real competition in the performing arts is not the $ amount but the value and uniqueness you bring for that $ amount.
You need to find out what differentiates you from other performers in your area and use that to market yourself.
So set your standards realistically high and decide who you want your customer to be and what you are really worth. The more unique you are, the more niche oriented you are, the more you can charge and the more your customer will be willing to pay.
Performer B, start giving yourself more credit and value. The more gigs you take for cheap, the less you will be respected as an artist by those who hire you. You will not be taken seriously for your art and the customer will not be willing to pay you more in the future. Don’t compete with other dancers based on the amount of money but the value you bring to your paying customer. Stand out from the rest. Create your own trademark. You don’t necessarily need to be the best dancer in town. Work at your craft and at what makes you different so that people will want to hire you and be willing to pay more to have YOU rather than another dancer.
Maria gave me the best belly dance advice I could have received at the time. Her experience saved me a lot of heartache and helped me set standards for myself. I will be forever grateful. I hope that her wise words together with my observation¬ can inspire you to design a structure that will bring you financial success as a performer and establish yourself as a role model in your belly dance community.