As TribalCon’s books are being closed out my brain is on how for me, as a person that only earns money in her chosen art form, moves forward earning a living. There are so many ways a bellydancer can make income: teaching classes and workshops, private gigs, restaurant work, event production, and private lessons/coaching. Often these things are risky income since you are investing in time and/or money with the hopes that you at least break even (this is a large part of why TribalCon is being put to bed, the risk is no longer worth it). Usually a bellydancer has to do a combo of many of these aspects, and/or combining a “day job” with the pursuit of their art form.
Many a year ago I made a decent living as a restaurant dancer as the main dancer at the first Cafe Istanbul many years ago. As I begun to travel to teach I had to step away from restaurant work. This past year I returned to restaurant work, partly to more fully explore how to deeply embed myself OTS in a totally improv setting, and partly as a way to add income. As an older dancer I was unsure how well I would be received. For some venues it wasn’t an issue at all, at some they only want young and blonde and I have no place there.
Here are some thoughts that I had while at restaurant gigs this weekend to demonstrate the ups and downs of this aspect of the work.
This weekend I have been fully immersed in restaurant work at two of my favorite gig restaurants, Taverna Plaka and The Imperial Fez. A large aspect of both of those restaurants is birthday parties. Both Friday at Plaka, and Saturday at Fez, almost the entire places were taken up by birthday tables.
At Plaka they take up long tables full of party goers and the bellydancer's job is to get the birthday girl or boy up on the sturdy tables to dance a piece of baklava, with a candle to blow out, is brought to them. Hopefully you get members of their party up to dance too! If you can do this then you are "good at your job"'. It isn't just about the dancing, it is the effusive enthusiasm to encourage a party atmosphere…the strains of "little elf, little elf..." go thru my head if you are familiar with David Sedaris’ 'Santaland Diaries’.
At the Fez the birthday routine is also getting the guests up to dance, but also a ritual of the dancer starting a birthday song on the sound system while a waiter brings out a red tapered candle to set in front of the guest of honor. We clap and sing along with the song and then the guest is encouraged to blow out the candle while making a wish. This can happen 4 or 5 times in a row, with the dancer running back to start the song over and over. Each time our enthusiasm must be “real.”
And then on the flip side here I am at Plaka on a Sunday night and it is couples night. You know what couples trying to spend time together don't want? A dancer playing loud music and interrupting their conversation. Some watch with a tight politeness, some just ignore us, and some really do enjoying watching and get into the spirit of tipping. I always feel a little bit guilty dancing on these types of nights. I try to be graceful with a fan veil or comedic with a sword to entertain beyond just being an excitable lady in a pretty costume. But I am here to do my job and luckily Plaka is sweet about being considerate to couples so I don’t get pushed to be obnoxiously in their face.
An interesting aspect of this restaurant work is the physical theatrics that goes into transforming from looking like a mom into a fancy bellydancer. Even I am still amused by the transformation. It requires lots of bobby pins, hairspray, hair falls, foundational undergarments for some costumes, shaving and plucking all the visible places, safety pins, glitter, eyelashes (I use reusable magnetic ones now), glamorous jewelry, plus sparkly costumes and pretty veils.
This person I transform into is a bit “much,” an over the top performer that is meant to draw attention, which is why she is fun at the birthday parties… and unfortunately why she is vexing to couples.
So now as I finish this blog post up (much was written on my phone while at the gigs this weekend) I am back home with the make up off and a cat in my lap to help with the emotional roller coaster that this weekend was. Last weekend I created a space to allow artists to study, teach and perform. This weekend I was working in spaces others have created, being less of an artist and more of an entertainer. I felt more of an artist at TribalCon, yet got to dance far more this weekend going in and out of restaurants. *sigh* So many ways to get to be a bellydancer.
This upcoming week I will be preparing for a completely different aspect of my bellydance life, the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). I will try to keep a running blog about interesting instances while I am there.