belly dance advice help

Too often rather bad things happen to nice belly dancers. Or puzzling things happen. This is when a person may find herself in need of some good advice from another who's been there, done that, or had it perpetrated upon her. What to do? Now the dancer in need can ask Aunt Isis. 

As  you can see, Aunt Isis has been around the block a couple of times and has seen most of it. And she's blessed with a lot of good old fashioned common sense. Feel free to bring  your problems to Auntie. Or if you, for some unfathomable reason, disagree with something she says you can tell her so and why and offer your own helpful suggestions.

Stella forwards your letters to Aunt Isis.  E-mail

No stripper
Unfriendly dancers
Mixing it up.
Costume copying
Age Problem: Too old?
Business cards
New teacher in town
Wedding dancer
What's authentic and substitute teaching
Too old to perform?
Exploited and Insulted by teacher
Going professional

More Poaching
Guest or Dancer?
Emotionally hurt by teacher
Free show as audition
Dance name
Waiting to go on

Dear Aunt Isis,

I have been belly dancing for about 4 months, and my parents happily support me in it I'm 19); but all my guy friends make comments about how they will pay me to give them a belly dance, or other comments I feel are inappropriate. Everyone except my parents seem to think belly dancing= stripper.  Because of this I haven't shown anyone what I have learned, even though I really want to! It seems as if they think I am a sex object! I have no idea how to deal with this!  Should I just brush the comments off, or confront them? 

Thank you,
Belly dancer NOT Stripper

Dear Not a Stripper,

I feel your pain. Long ago, when Auntie was a relative newbie, she made the mistake of letting people in her office know what she was doing in her off hours. Now, while the people in Auntie’s office were mostly very nice, they were also mostly very male. A bunch of horndogs, in fact. Anyway, after a lot of hooting and hollering they moved on to something more gratifying. It was très humiliating while it lasted, though.

So you’re already on the right track. Ignore the guys when possible and brush them off, as you said, when you can’t let it go by.

Now there’s something else in your note I find more worrisome than hazing by a bunch of hormone intoxicated boys. You sound strong and savvy enough to handle whatever they’re throwing your way. What concerns me is your eagerness to show people what you’ve learned. There’s a right way and a wrong way to show the folks. In the beginning the right way is to do it is in a student recital or concert sponsored by your teacher.

(I’m assuming you are taking lessons--if you aren’t, please find an experienced and professional teacher to guide your development as a dancer. No matter what all those videos and cds promise, you cannot learn to belly dance properly from a machine. You have to have knowledgable feedback if you’re going to get it right. If you need to find a teacher in your area, there’s the phonebook, the internet, and there’s where you’ll discover a load of listings for just about everywhere in in the U.S.A. and beyond.)

No matter how eager you may be to share what you’ve learned, ask for outside guidance before you do it. Why? Because you want to present yourself and your dance as beautifully as you possibly can. You want to get out there with surprises kept to a minimum and skillfulness at a maximum. You want to feel confident and competent and gorgeous and in control. That feeling comes from loads of practice and constructive criticism. You want your debut to leave you super happy, not regretting what went wrong and what you should have done, etc., so hold off until your teacher says you’re ready.

Good luck, of course, and sincere best wishes for much joy and success with your dance.

Aunt Isis

(back to topics)

Dear Aunt Isis,

I recently joined an online community trying to network with other fellow dancers, because I believe that belly dance is ancient art form that forms strong sisterhoods. So I joined and after adding so many interesting gals that always seem to be online to my contacts, they all rejected my contact requests, except for a handful. Even some very famous dancers that are ALWAYS online rejected my request. They also didn’t reply to my replies on their posts where they were responding to everyone else.  I really want to make friends but these women seem so rude.

And another problem:  Costume copying. It seems to me that all the ladies don’t have any ideas of their own and all they keep doing is asking where they can get the most popular dancers’ headdresses or their handmade costumes. I went into this thinking that everyone would be their own person, that they would be nice to their other fellow dancers, and that they wouldn’t completely rip off everyone else's costuming! 

Aunt Isis, what is going on here? I am so disillusioned that its turning me off from being professional. Is there a false sisterhood nowadays?


Dear Disillusioned,

What an interesting letter! And so sad, too. Although I feel for you, I’m going to start out a bit harshly. You tell Aunt Isis that you’re hurt by nonresponsiveness and gratuitous snippiness coming back at you from people you’ve reached out to on line. Also, you have a problem with copycats. As for the copycats, it happens all the time so don't worry about it. See For the rest of it, well...

Sweetie, if you think you’re going to find meaningful relationships on the internet, you’re looking for love in all the wrong places. We belly dancers do form solid, loving and supportive friendships with each other some of which last our entire lives. Just not online. We do it in person, in our classes, troupes, and so on. (Okay, so there are probably a couple of exceptions out there proving the rule; I’m talking about in general.) Those people who are all over the internet spouting off or expounding either have nothing better to do with their time or are just plain self-aggrandizing or they’re in it for the money. They are not there to be your friend. Think about it: if someone on is listed as having ten thousand posts, how much time does she have left for dancing? Or friendship. Or anything else, for that matter.

Once upon a time in the storied past when there were very few of us on line at all and only librarians (who seem as a group to be really nice people) and Morocco were online a lot, there was MED-list moderated by the gracious Eileen Bauer handling maybe eighty or ninety messages a day, maximum. One enterprising dancer even set up an early webpage with everyone on the MED-list’s picture and e-mail address. That was during the Pleistocene in internet time, like 1994, and Nigerian ‘royalty’ were still scamming by snail mail. Those days, my dear, are dead, dead, dead.

Nowadays the bellynet is full of self-important self-promoters with agendas or ego problems or both, as you’ve already discovered. The most frequent posters who aren’t using the internet as a business tool are writing just to see their names on the screen. They aren’t interested in what responses they get or even what has already been discussed--they just want to spout. Look over the discussion group postings with a critical eye and you’ll see what I mean. You can even find huge fights between posters about books and articles they haven’t read, shows they haven’t seen, and dvds they haven’t watched.

Personally, Auntie avoids the bellynet like the pestilence it is. She doesn’t have a MySpace or Facebook page; she doesn’t “network,” whatever that’s supposed to be; she doesn’t do Tribe and she doesn’t bother to And she gets on just fine.

Again, remember if you want to make friends in the bellyverse go to class, join a troupe, hang out and talk to people face to face. There are lots of nice, interesting women who share your passion for the dance and I promise you, you’ll find, and be found by, them.

And please don’t let hypesters fill your head with romantic notions about so-called special Magickal properties of the belly dance: Antique tribes of warrior priestesses, wise women, shamans, and/or sacred prostitutes or any of the rest of the gibble-gabble unfortunately prevalent in the bellyverse. Belly dancing as we know it is a theatricalized form of social dance with middle eastern roots that has become an entertainment for spectators. Remember that. Any other description is meant to lure you into putting out more money for fiction. Many, many years ago when Auntie was newbie she, too, liked to think she was connecting with the Wisdom of the Ages. We all want to connect with the Wisdom of the Ages. She got over it. And you will too.

All kinds of good luck to you in your pursuits and, remember, don’t go pro before you’re really ready.

Aunt Isis

(back to topics)

Dear Aunt Isis,

I hope today is seeing you well!
I have a question I have been meaning to ask my teacher, but always forget to.
Is it seen improper to dance a certain style to music it wasn't originally meant for? For instance, is it improper to dance in a traditional style to modern fusion, use Saiidi movements outside of a Saiidi dance, or dance a Turkish style to Greek music? I know they don't exactly fit, but if someone decides to "mix it up a bit" is it essentially disgraceful?

Just Wondering


Dear Wondering,

Not to worry so much.  Aunt Isis thinks it's very sweet of you to care about doing the right thing (would that more dancers were as scrupulous as you are) but there are very few stylistic decisions based on music alone that could end up being labeled inappropriate.  Besides, in this late and decayed age the only people who'd have a clue that you were mixing things up might be a couple of other dancers and, if you got wild about it, some isolated folks from "over there" who'd never seen YouTube and might think, "Hey, I never saw that step before."

There is one place that the wrong choice might cause problems and that's in your selection of music. In picking your music be sensitive to people's national and political sympathies.  For example, don't use Hava Nagila at a Palestinian party or pick some lovely Kurdish lullaby for a Turkish soirée.  Also, it helps to know what the lyrics mean, especially when you're working with contemporary music.  Lyrics can be more sexually explicit or politically explosive than you or your audience might like.  And know your crowd before you opt for floor work during slow sections.  (Oh, the stories I've heard about that one!)

As for dance styles and impropriety, if you can truly hear the music you're dancing to you are not going to go wrong.  There are not that many core steps in the belly dance, just lots of different flavors.  The style in which steps are executed really depends on the music.  There are a few generalizations we can make about regional style but even those are not absolute.  We can say that Arabic/Egyptian style usually is performed with an upright carriage while Turkish style is (or at least was) danced from a pelvic tilt.  There's more footwork in Turkish than in Egyptian, usually.  Egyptian/Arabic style is more likely to use hip drops on strong beats while Turkish style goes in for hip lifts.  Beyond that, the music tells you what you should be doing.  If you're dancing to the music, heeding the beat, you'll have a hard time going astray.  The music won't let you.

And don't solo for strangers until you know you know what you are doing.  That way you'll be free to worry about possible costume malfunctions instead of your step choices. And see if you can stay away from dancing to rock.

Positively yours,
Aunt Isis

(back to topics)

Dear Aunt Isis,

I don't know if it's more that I want advice or if I just want to vent. Here's my problem. I designed a really unique costume that took me nearly five years to bring from idea to completion. On the way to finishing it I had some professional help.

What happened after I wore my costume has me seeing red. A bunch of people including locally well-known teachers/choreographers requested exact copies from the costume maker. Others asked me to sell it to them, or tried to copy it for themselves using photographs and videos.

I know that imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery. Nevertheless having my baby copied all over the place really burns me up. It makes me never want to try out things in front of other dancers or wear new costumes again. And forget about letting people take photos and videos of me.

Ripped Off


Dear Ripped,

I'd be mad as hell, too. Similar crap has happened to me and what burned me most was knowing that there was nothing I could do about it. I even watched one lovely sketching my belt while I shimmied. And what could I do? Tell her to stop it? Slap her?

All I can say is shame on anyone who, knowing you designed your costume, commissioned or set out to make a copy of it. They should pay you royalties each time they dance in their knock-offs. And anyone who helped you make it should respect your ideas and refuse to make the same costume for would-be copy-cats.

If I were you I'd wear my costume proudly and tell everyone who'll listen exactly what happened and who the design thieves are. Embarrass the hell out of all of them. You have your costume. You have dated pictures of you wearing it. And that's that. Raise enough of a stink and people will never mess with you again.

That's what I think.

Individuallly yours,

(back to topics)

Dear Auntie,

I seek your wise counsel. I've been taking bellydancing classes for three years from a teacher I love and admire. I've been in three student showcases so far, and have done a solo, with her encouragement, at each one. I attend class faithfully and practice at home. But every time my teacher assembles a small group of dancers for a special private event, she never invites me to participate, and now she's picking from the less-experienced dancers in my class. I can do the dances, I'm tall, slender, strong, and have long hair, graceful hands and arms, good posture, clear smile. I've asked my teacher what skills I'm lacking, but she's dodging me. You think maybe it's because I'm 50? I don't look it, but still. Do I continue to show up for class forever and ever, and be stuck behind the door every time there's something special going on?


Dear Wondering,

You are not going to like this but as I, with my mountains of experience and deep pools of wisdom, see it you are not getting sent out on group jobs because no matter how good you look, your age is working against you. Your teacher is not going to send you out with younger women because you won't fit into the group. A group is supposed to look unified, not like, say, three girls and a woman. Moreover, the client gets to tell the booker what the look of the dancer or dancers is supposed to be. Clients ask for the damnedest things--fat girls, skinny girls, girls with big boobs, etc. It's often bad enough for you not to want to know what they asked your teacher to send. For instance, do you want to be the belly dancer who's not so pretty that the homely wife feels jealous?

As for soloing, fifty is not the time to be thinking of starting on a standard professional career.  Your teacher is not going to send you out on the same kind of jobs as she does younger women and she shouldn't.  You see, among the public at large there is a mental image of The Belly Dancer that the booker must heed.  When someone calls her about hiring a belly dancer the first thing they ask after hearing a cursory physical description is "And how old is she?"  To which the booker will generally reply "She's twenty-seven," unless the dancer's even younger.  Or, if the booking is for grandpa's sixty-eighth birthday and the caller has asked for a more mature dancer, "She's thirty-five."  When someone else is booking us we are all twentyish, twenty-seven or thirty-five and that's it.  Your teacher out of niceness can't bring herself to break the news to you.  Someday, though, if you hang in there, you just might be thrown a great-grandpa's ninety-first birthday booking after the client is told you are forty-three.  Will that make you feel better?

Honey, really, it's not such a big deal, this getting paid stuff. The average poopsie in a hip-belt is anonymous and expendable, no matter how hot she thinks she is.  Most group jobs are the jingly equivalent of go-go dancing requiring solely hair, teeth, sequins and youth jiggling. Sorry, but that's the way it is.  (And whatever you do, do not chase "youth". While tummy-tucks, brow-lifts, liposuction, Botox, whatever, can help preserve established careers they can't launch new ones.)

That unpleasantness out of the way, let's go on to find ways for you to dance more and even perform more.  You must ask yourself what you really want out of our dance.  Why did you start taking classes?  Can you get yourself back into that state of mind?  If you are like the vast majority of women who begin belly dancing you didn't come in focused on performing.  In the beginning you probably were there to try something new that sounded like fun.  And it must have been fun or you wouldn't have stuck around for three years.

The question then becomes how can you make dancing fun again. First of all, I recommend you find another place to study. You don't have to drop your current teacher, just add another teacher for whom booking dancers doesn't constitute a large part of her business. I'll bet you find that the atmosphere is more relaxed and the other students more friendly. Dance, decompress.

The second action you could take is to explore dancing with established troupes. Try American Tribal Style groups where diversity is more apt to be nurtured than in pure cabaret. Look for auditions for volunteer dancers for street fairs and hospitals and nursing homes. These opportunities arise fairly frequently so ask around and also, check Belly Dance NY News.

I'm sorry if this sounded harsh. I know you are in a painful place right now and competitive belly dance classes can just rub your face in the inevitable changes life brings all of us if we are fortunate enough to have lived beyond forty. Hang in there, please.

Lots of good wishes,

(back to topics)

Dear Aunt Isis,

Recently I was hired to perform at private party within the arabic community and I hired another dancer to perform in the gig with me, we each had our own set. I have worked with this dancer once before and for that gig I explained that I was being hired and my client would like an additional dancer so I would be paying her directly. I also explained that she would be representing my company and should not pass out her own business cards rather refer anyone to me for future engagements. I asked if there were any questions or concerns and she said no and she understands and does this also for her teacher's dance company.
For this recent gig I did explain that I was being hired once again and I gave her all the details, rate I would pay etc. and asked if she was interested - I did fail to reiterate the business card thing though and although I feel it should have been understood I do wish that I would have made the point to remind her.

This time after she performed in the gig with me she took out a stack of her business cards and left them in the ladies room of the locale. I was frazzled because I had just finished performing and was trying to change in a small ladies room and catch my breadth so I was not sure how to respond but I was upset. At the time I did not say anything because because I was unsure what to say and also did not want to engage in a confrontation that I was not sure how to respond to.

I am still bothered by this and I don't know what to make of it. The only thing I thought of is that I just won't give her any gigs but I am still not sure if I should have said anything, if I should talk with her about it and also what is the best way to communicate this to dancers when you are being hired and then hire out another dancer. Any help and advice is greatly appreciated!

Bothered by Business Cards

Dear Bothered,

You are far from the first person to have had this problem and you certainly won't be the last. And yes, it is unfortunate that you did not repeat your previous instructions concerning referrals and business cards. That omission has put the matter into a place where your assistant could pretend that she thought self-promotion was acceptable. (Believe me, at some level she knew she was getting away with something.) At this point the chickens are out of the coop, the horse is out of the barn, the milk has been spilled, et cetera, and there's nothing to be done. If you remain annoyed and the dancer is replaceable just stick with your plan not to use her again. You don't have to say anything to her, but, if she happens to ask, be frank and tell you thought she had more sense than to distribute her cards on your gig and you cannot trust her to represent you properly.

The best way to communicate to dancers one is booking something which should be as obvious as the noses on their faces is to give it to them in writing. Make a simple sheet of conditions of employment and hand it to them. Start out with the three Ps: Prompt, Polite, Professional. You might expand on Professional should you feel it necessary. I've had to tell dancers not to come on to women's husbands and boy friends, not to beg for tips, not to sit on laps, not to stand around in their costumes after their shows, not to disappear into hidden corners of the room, not to chat up buddies while dancing, and all manner of nonsense you and I could never imagine doing. Whatever.

Then go on to promotional activities, saying just what you told Dancer X the first time you hired her: She is to refer any inquiries or comments back to you and to give out only your business cards without adding anything to them. Remind anyone you book that she is representing you.

This stratagem is not going to solve the hustling on your time problem. Nothing is going to solve that. However making everything very explicit will give you the advantage if you should learn that someone else's cards were being handed out as well as or instead of yours.

I know that all this must sound like overkill, especially if you are primarily a performer rather than a booker. That said, the same rules apply. It does get a bit different when dealing with steady jobs at clubs or restaurants where the original dancer may have brought in a permanent substitute. Then job rights can become tricky to negotiate and have to be handled on an instance by instance basis.

Bon chance!
Aunt Isis

(back to topics)

Dear Aunt Isis,

I have just moved from a dance community where I was very well known to a dance community where I am unknown.  In my former area I taught three classes a week, ran a dance troupe, performed regularly at all types of venues, and organized workshops with professional instructors.  The area where I live now is smaller and has fewer dance and teaching opportunities.  There are also a couple of teachers already working here.  I would very much like to work in this area, too, but I don't want to make enemies of these teachers or look like I'm trying to steal students.  That was done to me a couple of times and I don't want to be that kind of person.
I have spoken to both of the instructors about possible teaching jobs that wouldn't conflict with theirs, but haven't had too much feedback.  That's understandable, since they don't know me and have no idea if I'm competent to teach.  Both of them have been very friendly and welcoming, however.  If you have any advice on how to find a niche for myself without stepping on toes, I would greatly appreciate it!
New Dancer in Town

Dear New,

This is one of the most difficult problems anyone has sent my way. It's especially thorny since you are clearly an ethical and considerate person and as I see it no matter what you do you are going to be resented. At least a little, at least at first. However, even making no claims for myself as a fortuneteller I do see you getting nicely settled in and making a comfortable dance home for yourself.

Here's what you need to do--

First, toughen your hide. Whatever you do is bound to be wrong since the other people are established and would be out of their minds not to regard you as a threat. Let's face it, you are a threat and can't help but be one. You teach dance, they teach dance; you perform; they perform. You are all in competition for the same scarce commodities of students and jobs. Students and jobs are nearly finite. You can hunt up new prospects but pickings are slimmer the further you get from the usual suspects in the usual places.

Once you are mentally prepared for bad feelings, be aggressive within reason. You have an absolute right to advertise your services as a teacher, performer, or whatever. Would a new plumber in town or a dentist refuse to let people know he or she was open for business? Naturally you are not going to apply for any health club or adult ed jobs the other people already hold but as far looking for regular students is concerned, anything goes.

Next, ask yourself what can you organize that would include the other teachers. Anything no matter how farfetched it may seem that would feature all of you would go a long way toward making you more acceptable to your sister teachers. Talk a café into having a hafla afternoon, volunteer an educational show for the local girl scouts or brownies, announce a benefit for a charity or a relief effort, anything where you are doing something where there's currently nothing and then ask the other teachers to participate in it along side you.

And finally, do you vend? If you vend you can turn selling into an opportunity to become known as a dancer and teacher. Check out area flea markets, school and church sales and the like. When possible take a table and sell your wares. At the same time as you are meeting people you can pass out flyers for classes and performances.

I hope something works for you. Remember it just takes time. And if nothing else gets you to to be thought of as established, well, the minute teacher-dancer Number Four hits the neighborhood the two early-birds are going to consider you as an old-timer and their best buddy.

Best wishes,

(back to topics)

Dear Aunt Isis:

I am an advanced student that has been performing professionally for a few years now. I don't perform all the I consider myself a "new performer". I have not had much mentorship from my long time instructor. I wish I had...but I didn't. I greatly respect Raks Sharqi and strive to always portray it correctly. I have been hearing about dancers say, they know how to perform at a traditional Moroccan, Persian or Egyptian wedding. Or that's there specialty. What does that mean? I have not performed at weddings at all. I usually perform in Restaurant or private events. But I'd like to perform at weddings if given the opportunity.

Are there specific things you need to do for these types of weddings? Specific type of routine? I was never taught this so please forgive my ignorance. However, I would very much like to know.

Dear Unsure,

Too bad your teacher hasn't given you the guidance you need. Did you ask her directly? To my mind one of the obligations of a teacher is to provide accurate information about the cultural context of the dance. If she is uncertain or just plain doesn't know about the role of the dance in the part of the globe from which it comes she should educate herself before she sets out to instruct others.

Diatribe aside, here's the straight story. Dancing at a wedding is like dancing at any other party. When you get hired as a belly dancer you're being hired to do your show. Since you are a professional you know you must ask the person hiring you what music you'll be expected to dance to. Are you going to be dancing to a band? What kind of band going to be playing? As ever, talk to the bandleader before your show. (And good luck to you with this but let's pretend he'll care.) Tell him what you'd like. If communication is a problem just let him know the sequence of tempos you prefer--fast, slow, fast, taksim, drum or whatever. Feel free to offer the person who's hiring you information about any props you can use such as sword or tray, etc.

If you are told the party will have a dj instead of a band (a ghastly thought but it happens!) bring a cd of your music and give it to him. Do they want you to do audience participation? Are there any people to be especially honored? If you don't ask, you won't know. Ask also about whether they want you to wear a lovely gown or a midriff cover or if one of your beautiful bra and belt costumes would be preferred.

As far as the deeply ethnic-specific end of dancing at weddings goes, that's a specialty. Someone who provides ethnic entertainers will be called on to provide any processions or presentations that the wedding will include. These presentations take place before or during the wedding procession. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred you won't even be around while the actual wedding is taking place--you'll be part of the entertainment at the reception or post-wedding party.

If you should happen to be hired for a henna party you'll be entertaining the bride and her female friends and relatives. Just think of them as a bunch of sober bachelorettes who want to boogie. Bring happy music and be prepared to have a lot of people dancing with you during your show.

And finally, about advertising yourself as available for weddings--include weddings on your list of occasions for which you are available. If someone calls, just ask them what the job is. In this matter, as in just about everything else in life, the key is clear communication. Ask what is wanted. If you don't ask, you won't know. If you can do what is expected, take the job. If you can't or aren't sure, let it go.

Happy dancing!
Aunt Isis

(back to topics)

Dear Aunt Isis,
My teacher has me filling in for one of her classes while she heals from an injury - we do a lot of Traditional, Cabaret & Turkish dancing at my school. This is my first belly dance teaching experience and I put together some really fun dance moves that I picked out of video performances by world renown belly dancers. On class break my teacher advised me that some of the dance moves I chose are "not belly dance" moves. Two of the moves were chosen from a Persian belly dance performance and I can't imagine my teacher (as experienced as she is) knows every belly dance move ever created. Do you know how I could go about confirming if a move is a "belly dance" move or not? I might like to use the moves in my future performances - but I also want to stay with tradition.
Any help, advise, or words of wisdom would be greatly appreciated.

My sincere thanks,
Discouraged teacher

Dear Discouraged,
It looks to me like you have two problems happening here: An immediate and specific one concering satisfying your teacher and a general one about deciding what's really "Belly Dance." The second problem taken in the abstract is a poser but operationally it becomes super-simple and provides the key to solving your first problem, the one about keeping your teacher happy. Just ask yourself where you learned the move and take it from there. From a Fifi Abo video?-- it's probably belly dance. From a Paula Abdul video?-- it's probably not. If your teacher taught it to you it's belly dance and you better believe it; if you learned it from that harpy with a competing studio down the block, hmmm, it might not be. Got the picture?...

And therein lies the key to teaching at a venue not your own: Do as the boss does. This is a lesson I learned the hard way long, long ago. I was head over heels with joy and pride when my then teacher handed me a begininer-beginner class. Those beginner-beginners were about to learn SO much and have SO much fun that...I don't know what. Anyway, I marched into the studio with an ambitious lesson plan and a choreography that no question about it would have bewildered me had I been subjected to it. I was going to teach them a veil dance complete with turns plus a taxim. Needless to say it was a mess. And there were complaints. My new job became observing my teacher as she taught my erstwhile class.

Things went along nicely once I finally mastered the useful teaching adage of "Keep it simple, Stupid." It took about six months after that for me to get in trouble again. This time I did something like what you did but much, much worse. I decided to share steps I'd learned from that harpy down the block. I could have probably gotten away with it had I been actually able to do the moves and had withheld the lecture on the role of exile in shaping rembetika. (I'm sure you, unlike me, were polished and graceful with your "outside material." and discreet about your sources.) This bit of overreaching nearly cost me my class altogether.

Which brings us back to your question about what moves are "belly dance". The fact is your teacher probably does know every belly dance move ever created mostly because, in my extremely unhumble opinion, there aren't really very many of them. We have a surprisingly small number of basic steps or movement patterns that we enhance through elaboration and vary through body position and placement. Lots of these steps or movement patterns occur in dances from places distant from the Middle East but when they are done as Middle Eastern or belly dance they have a special style and context that identifies them as belly dance. For example, we share small, tight hip rotations with the hula. Would you mistake a hula for a beledi? Even if the dancer wore in street clothes? It is true that over time some dancers have incorporated steps from other genres into belly dance performances. I'm not going to get into the sticky problem of when it's okay to do that--that's far too large a topic. Let me finish by saying it's really hard to teach for someone else especially when she's sitting there watching you and you certainly have my sympathy.

Best wishes for your future as a teacher,

(back to topics)

Dear Aunt Isis,
      I have been dancing professionally for  thirteen years. I think many of us start at a mature age with this's not a "kid's dance."  I do all kinds of family oriented parties, and have been busy enough to please myself.  I am 46.
      I am curious as to the average "retirement age" for professional performers.  I do not do this as a living...just for fun and profit.  I know that some clients expect a young chickie, but others are happy to have a mature, non-threatening and experienced entertainer.  I am interested in your cosmopolitan advice.
      "Mature Dancer"
Dear Mature,

What a wise woman you are. Would that more of us were equally self aware. Naturally Auntie has opinions to spare about when who should be doing what but in response to your request she has asked some of her peers for their personal takes on when it's time to hang up the sequins. The consensus was it's time as soon as the thought that maybe it's time enters the mind. Personally, I think that's a tad harsh. What seems a lot more reasonable to me is a realistic staged withdrawal and redefinition. Maybe a forty-five year old should stop and think before she books herself for a Bar Mitzvah if she's supposed to be entertaining the kids' table; if she's there for the grown-ups, that's a whole other thing. Use judgment. Grandpa's eightieth birthday probably isn't the right date for a twenty-something but it would be lovely for a dancer in her mid to late forties. See what I mean? Maybe the way to assess your suitability for bookings honoring a man is would you fill the bill as a trophy wife or mistress if he's over forty or girl friend if he's under. When the honoree is a woman just don't be so young that she thinks of you as her daughter or so old that you remind her of her mother.

Auntie much prefers to deal with specific cases rather than expound on generalities. In your case my dear what's needed is to find an easy way to provide truth in advertising. You are clearly a thoughtful and considerate person who loves to dance and enjoys helping people to have a good time. You are concerned that your clients will feel disappointed when they see you and discover that you are a grown-up. Here's all you need to do: Make yourself a web page. On this web page put an honest recent picture or two or three of yourself in costume. Make sure the pictures are glamorous the way you are when you get made up for a show but not all Photoshopped to get rid of laugh-lines. Also, blow your own horn about your specialties and range of experience. List any props you use. Describe the types of shows you do, i.e.. weddings, birthdays. Let people know about your availability--how far from home you'll travel for a job. Put in a couple of laudatory quotes from happy clients. Perhaps give a short paragraph about what it is you love abut dancing. Then when potential clients contact you you can refer them to your website if they haven't been there already. (If getting a website together is a problem let Stella know--she does simple free pages for local teachers and posts them on Belly Dance NY.)


(back to topics)

Dear Aunt Isis,
This happened about two months ago and my daughter and I have been crying on and off ever since. We went to a workshop given by a teacher we didn't know. We just like dancing. We don't want to do it professionally or anything like that. It's just fun and something we can do together. We went to this workshop try something new. The teacher didn't know us but she made some very personal comments to us anyway. She told my daughter she needed to lose weight if she wanted to dance. And she gave both of us the name of a plastic surgeon and a make-up artist. I felt insulted but my poor daughter was so hurt that she has stopped dancing completely. Being told she was fat was bad enough (she was already aware of her size and had been going to Weight Watchers) but the awful thing was the implication that she was ugly and should go to a plastic surgeon.
I know you can't do anything about this. We told our regular teacher the story as soon as it happened and she was furious and said we should write to you. I know you can't name names but please can you say something telling teachers to be careful what they say to people.
Sad Mom

Dear Sad Mom,
You're right to be sad. This is one of the saddest dance stories I've heard in a long, long time. You should also be very, very mad. You are so right about the power of teachers' thoughtless words to do unintended damage. Too many teachers are unaware of the power they wield not only to help their students learn and develop but to hurt and even, pardon me for being melodramatic, destroy the vulnerable. Who ever she was, that woman was an ass.

I see a second issue raised in your sad tale: Exploitation There's a fine line between helping a student enjoy taking classes and being part of a dance community or family and taking advantage of her. Too many teachers regard their students as resources to be exploited or cows to be milked. Let's say a teacher presents student shows, as many do. These shows can be fun for the students giving them a place to demonstrate the skills they've mastered and motivation to continue and do even more. The shows are good for the teacher, too and for very much the same reasons as they are for the students. Student shows become exploitive when the teacher establishes preconditions for participation that are necessary only to the enhancement of her wallet. For instance, she demands that in order to perform students buy new costumes from her or pay her for private coaching they would not otherwise take or buy accessories or even routines or rent her studio space for rehearsal. Pardon me, but that sort of thing stinks. I call it pay to play and it sucks the joy and fun out of too many haflas.

I'm just guessing here but I suspect you and your daughter were caught in a student exploitation scheme. The teacher I'd bet expects that everyone who comes around wants to become a professional dancer or should want to become a professional dancer and will do anything and everything to get there. (After all, what better can life offer than a career as a professional belly dancer?) Students who want to become professionals are much more exploitable than students who are there to have fun. The woman probably gets a finder's fee of some kind for each client she sends to the plastic surgeon, the make-up person and to whomever else she refers people to so she tries to send everyone she meets. There may be a wigmaker and a photographer in the mix.
There's nothing you can do about what happened except not go back. Be glad you have a good and ethical teacher in the person who referred you to me--enjoy her and treasure her while you overlook the crapmeisters we all occasionally run into.

Keep on dancing.
Aunt Isis

(back to topics)

Dear Aunt Isis,
I've been studying bellydance for more than four years and I really love this dance. All my teachers think I'm doing pretty well and that I have a lot of potential. I've danced at many student shows and now I'm hoping to get started as a professional, but don't know how to go about it. Do I contact restaurant owners/managers in person? over the phone? Do I send out a promotional video? Ask my teachers to recommend me to people they know?
Starting Out

Dear Starting--
I'm so glad someone finally wrote me your letter. Aunt Isis has been meaning to have a virtual heart to heart with the aspiring thousands for quite some time. What I'm going to do here is two things. First I'm going to tell you how to go about getting yourself work. Then I'm going to pose some questions for you and all your hopeful sisters.

Dancing in a perfect world--

First let's tell it the way it ought to be or at least the way we like to kid ourselves it is. Ask your teacher(s) if they book people and should one or more answer in the affirmative ask if you are ready to start working. Should she or they turn out to be able and willing to book you you are on your way. She or they will tell you what's needed to represent them. Just remember that if you're sent on a job by someone you take her business cards with you and tell anyone who asks how to reach you in the future to refer to the card.

If your teachers agree you are ready but aren't in the booking business then you should start out by writing up a truthful resumé and having realistic pictures taken. By realistic I mean simple photos of classic poses that actually look like you, not like a bunch of special effects and a whirling dervish on a foggy night under a street lamp. Nice for your grand kids to gape at when you're ancient maybe but it won't get you work now. You can put a photo on a business card too, though that costs bucks. As for the video, do it but don't overdo it. Have it edited down to highlights and show bits of all the things you can do. Tell prospective employers you can supply it but don't just send it out on spec.

Look up local entertainment bureaus and events planners in the yellow pages. Also, maybe check out catering halls. Make a first contact by phone, politely inquiring if they ever need belly dancers or however you prefer to characterize yourself. If they sound interested ask if you can send your photo and resumé and then do it. They'll tell you if they want to see you.

Go around to places that have dancers. Talk first to the dancers and ask them if they're willing to have you sub for them. Ask who's doing the booking at different places and talk with that person. Do not try to horn in on anyone's job. Especially don't go running around telling owners and managers you'd be happy to work for less than anyone else or just for the experience. You will be correctly considered to be lower than dirt by the rest of us. In the end other dancers may turn out to be one of your best sources of work and information so be sisterly.

Talk with musicians if you can. Hang out a bit without being obnoxious about it

Develop your own venues. Drop in on likely places such as Middle Eastern and Greek restaurants that aren't currently having dance shows and ask if they'd be interested in having you perform on a trial basis. Actually, you don't have to confine yourself to Middle Eastern places. Ask around your neighborhood. Who knows?

If you have lots and lots of money and are burning with ambition you might consider getting a voice-mailbox and taking out ads in local magazines and newspapers or even in the yellow pages under Entertainers. For the yellow pages though, you've got to have a business phone and that is really major money.

And of course there is the internet. All you need is those few nice pictures and a website. Again, don't go overboard on glitz and Flash modules and all sorts of bells and whistles. Personally I abhor sites with tinny music that won't stop. A nice basic site saying you're available to dance at parties with your contact info will do the trick. Just be sure you or whoever does your site has your keywords and meta-tags set up so you are easy to find and does basic search engine submissions although even that is barely necessary in these days of spiders and web crawlers. Nearly any fool can make a decent website and you can find cheap or free hosting just by asking Google.

Consider teaming up with one or two other new-on-the-scene dancers as a package deal. You may well find it easier to break in if you can market yourselves as a complete show. Work out two or three group choreographies, preferably using props, in addition to your solo dances.

Finally, if you do get work you must fulfill your responsibilities in a professional and grown up fashion. You show up on time with a good costume. You know what the deal is about the music: yours or theirs; live or canned. You go on when you are asked to, you finish when you are supposed to, you are polite and pleasant. You don't hustle tips or hassle the customers. You don't act overly seductive especially with men whose wives or girl friends are with them. Good dancing plus good behavior will get you asked back.

Now the tough part, the questions...why is it that so many women think they need to turn professional in this dance? There's almost no work and most what there is pays very little so it can't be for the money. And as for fame, forget about it. Why isn't it enough to just love dancing and go to class and dance socially with friends? Why do so many students believe they're supposed to be out there shaking it for dollars? Women who take classes in ballet, jazz, modern dance, tap or flamenco rarely think there's an inevitable career path out of the studio and onto the stage. In fact, we usually regard adults with such intentions as delusional: consider Zelda Fitzgerald. The high number of intermediate level belly dance students envisioning themselves as preparing for dance careers suggests that either what's around proporting to be professional shouldn't be, or that teachers out of laziness, ignorance or avarice are not inculcating in their students respect for this dance as a serious discipline. What in the world is going on here?

(back to topics)
Dear Aunt Isis,
About a month ago I got booked for a wonderful show at a prestigious institution. Everybody liked my dance a lot and I was asked to return and perform again at a second event. I even got a confirmation call 5 days before the event.

The day before the job, I got a call apologizing because the job had been given to another dancer. The person who booked me said apparently this other dancer knew somebody and that's how she pushed her way in. 

Is what she did ethical? Should I give her a call to confront her?


Dear Miffed,
On the facts you've given I'd say that you are within your rights to be deeply annoyed.  And that the other dancer overstepped by deliberately using her "in" at the  institution to take a job from a sister dancer. 

 However there is a lot none of us know about exactly what happened.  What looks on the face of it like a clear case of poaching may have mitigating circumstances. Before we can accuse dancer #2 of deliberately taking your job we'd need to know she asked for it even though she knew someone had already been booked or if someone who didn't know a dancer (you) had been hired simply offered it to her and she took it.  If the former scenario was what played out then you have every right to be very angry.  In scenario number 2 the fault isn't necessarily hers.  We don't know if she knew a dancer had already been booked.  If she knew, she was dead wrong to take the job.  If she didn't know, she isn't culpable.  The one thing we do know is that an events planner isn't about to stand up to a board member.

My advice to you is to leave this matter alone.  Whatever happened happened and into each life and all the rest of the platitudes.  In the future if you suspect that someone might horn in on a job, see if you can get a cancellation agreement with the booker.

(back to topics)
Dear Aunt Isis,
Did I do something wrong? Please tell me.

I've been dancing for a little more than two years and my teacher says I'm getting really good. She's had me dance at studio party shows and sent me out to some nursing homes to dance on holidays. And every time I get up to dance at friends' parties people always say things like "Are  you a belly dancer?" 

Anyway, I decided to start dancing for real.  So I went to a restaurant I knew had belly dancing and asked the owner if I could dance there.  He said okay and offered me $40 for a show.  I've danced there a few times and everything's been great.  People like me and the owner wants me to dance every week.  I love it!

Now I hear that other dancers are mad at me.  Last week at class some people wouldn't say hello.  Finally one of them came over and said I'd undercut someone else and she lost her job at the restaurant, that she'd been getting $75 there and since I took only $40 the owner fired her.

Is this my fault?  I want to dance.  I'm good. I'm young and really attractive and people like to see me.  Besides, everyone has to start somewhere.  And now these dancers are treating me like a criminal.  Can you help?

Up and Coming

Dear Up,

I don't think you are going to like my answer, but you asked.  Once upon a time people were hanged for poaching.  We are more enlightened now and don't kill over it but poaching is still wrong.

Of course other dancers are angry with you.  You should apologize to the dancer you displaced, and dare I say it, offer to quit.  You were out of line in presenting yourself for the job.  You knew that someone was dancing at the restaurant, that the job was taken.  You should have gone over on an evening on which she was performing and simply asked her who was doing the booking.You also should have asked if the dancer would consider you as a fill in on an evening she couldn't be there She probably would have asked to see you dance and if you proved competent she would have put you on her substitute list.

Instead you went behind her back. Yes, I know the owner has the last word about who dancers there and what she is paid.  That is not an adequate excuse for horning in on someone's territory.  I'll bet a little birdy was telling you not to let anyone see you chatting up the owner.

As to undercutting--offering to dance for less just to get a job...Well, how does that sound when it's presented so baldly?  Pretty bad, right?  Think about it.

(back to topics)
Dear Aunt Isis,
I am a professional performer who also has a day job in a public high school.  A work colleague of mine is inviting me to her wedding, and wants me to dance.  (Another colleague and her husband will be playing the banjo and washboard---but not for me!)  I wouldn't mind being hired to perform.  However, I think she justs expects me to "jump up and dance."  I know she doesn't realize all the prep time needed to offer a professional show.

Would it be acceptable to offer my performance as a gift?  Then after the show, I can throw on a caftan, have a drink and some "hors" and leave.  The event is over the fourth of July weekend, I really don't want to tie up my entire day for a free performance.  Thanks for your advice.
Confused and Befuddled in NJ

Dear Teacher,
In Auntie's anything but humble opinion, you've already solved your problem quite neatly.  Just tell your colleague that you are delighted to have the opportunity help her celebrate.  You might add something like being able to give your dance as a gift to a friend for her wedding is so much more gratifying than being paid to perform at a stranger's marriage.

Amazing, isn't it, how little appreciation people outside the dance have of what we do and how much time and effort we have to put in to doing it? 

(back to topics)
Dear Aunt Isis,
I'm thinking of getting a tattoo.  My girl friend just got one that goes around her belly button and it looks great.  What do you think?

A Belly Dancing Student

Dear Student,

Auntie thinks a lot of things.  Among them,  think again. 

Personally I have nothing against tattoos per se.  Goodness, I have one myself. However, unlike the tattooed ladies I've encountered lately my decoration is available only to my truly dearest friends.

If your tattoo plans have nothing to do with your dancing, well then, what you do is up to you.  On the other hand, since you are asking me you must be thinking that the tattoo and your dancing are related. 

Far too many otherwise lovely young women have made the same mistake.  Tattoos and belly dancing do not go together.  (The sole exception is American Tribal Style belly dance à lá Fat Chance and remember, Carolina urges her dancers to try out the look with temporary tattoos before going all the way.)  No only are tattoos distracting and even offensive to some audiences, they create visual static that interferes with seeing the clear lines of the dancer's movements.  They limit costume choices--the elegance of formal cabaret costumes and and the ethnic fantasy look of tattoos do not go together.  And they are faddish:  can you guarantee the tattooed look will be in let's say, eight years from now?  Are you certain that you will be presenting yourself in the same way for the rest of your dance life?

It doesn't matter if whether you are dancing for fun or for money, it just makes sense to keep your fashion options open.  If you want body art limit yourself to henna or temporary tattoos.

Unadornedly yours,
Aunt Isis 

(back to topics)
Dear Aunt Isis:
I have had trouble with racism in a certain bellydancing class.   While the teacher's technique is astounding and her music selection is wonderful, I noticed that she works harder and more closely with the students of her own race than with anybody else. When I or other students of other races ask her to break down steps she sighs and speeds through a demonstration.

One day I overheard her tell a friend of hers "I wish I can have a  class with only [my race] students.  I am tired of teaching my gift to these [other race] women when all they do is steal our moves."  I was crushed by this comment.

Should I complain to the studio where this woman teaches?

Dear Devasted,

Racism is ugly and terrible but it exists. This teacher shouldn't be teaching open classes if she cannot control her bias and treat everyone in the same way.  If she feels so strongly she should teach only under her own roof.

If your former teacher is sharing her class fees with a studio or is employed by a studio she is responsible to that studio for following its policies.  It is highly doubtful that a whole studio is racist.  And this woman may, if her bias can be documented, be exposing them to potentially litigious situation of which the owner needs to become aware.  (Not everyone is as nice as you.)  But I don't think you should engage in whistle-blowing with only the evidence from an overheard conversation.

Can you write a polite note to your ex-teacher?  Tell her without rancor that you were aware that she was not happy teaching women of your race and suggest that she make her preferences known in advance, perhaps in the class title.

Or just drop the matter.  There are many wonderful talented teachers out there with superb technique and great music and no prejudice.  Try out some more classes,  I'm sure you'll find a great teacher who respects everyone equally the way you do.

(back to topics)
Dear Aunt Isis--I have been Belly Dancing for 4 years now. I would say I am pretty  good and the teachers I have taken class with say the same thing. There is this one teacher that asked me to join his troupe. I did not think twice and proudly said "Yes". I was very happy and honored to be asked.

We had our first meeting a few months ago. A bunch of things came upfor the teacher and he didn't schedule rehersals after the first one. Two weeks before the show my leader reassured me we are going to have intense rehearsals in these next 2 weeks.

So anyway, our next meeting was coming up. I thought I was going to be ready to speak my mind a little. But, before our meeting we had a class. During the class I was a little tired and for one moment I was not concentrating and I made a wrong move. He saw this and then violently grabbed my upper arm and yelled at me and gave me this horrible look. I made sure I didn't do it again. Towards the end of the class I was about to twirl the prop he gave me the way he showed me in the beginning. Before I can do it, he came over to me grab the prop away from me without asking and left me standing there with nothing to dance with. I felt really hurt by this and walked out the studio.

Now I am left with no respect for my troupe leader and no confidence anymore about being in this troupe. I can't look at him or talk to him like I use to. This is destroying my energy and my light towards a dance I grown so much to love. I am starting to feel I am not good enough anymore and have thought about giving up. What should I do?

Dear Spirit--Your touching letter raises a number of vital issues concerning the relationship between a student and her teacher.

Meanwhile, here’s a snappy answer to a profound problem:  Lose the dude.  He’s been acting irresponsibly toward you and the rest of the troupe--too few rehearsals, no clear direction, no support.  Never let a jerk become too important a part of your dance life again.

The relationship between a student and her teacher is one of the most delicate there is  This delicacy is magnified when the student is emotionally deeply invested in the dance and even the least bit insecure about her potential.  A real teacher recognizes the precious gifts of trust her students have given her and honors them by responding with support and respect.  Her corrections acknowledge her students’ efforts; her encouragements are realistically gauged to her students’ level and progress.  She is sincere and nonexploitive, understanding that her students are hypersensitive to her words, gestures and expressions.  If she cannot meet these obligations she should not be teaching.

I am convinced that the process of learning our dance is much deeper than just physical and musical training.  What happens in the class can be likened to therapy in which the teacher is experienced as the parent, the lover, the ideal self, everything and everybody the student needs her to be.   Perhaps our dance, because it comes from such a deep place inside of us and is so filled with intimate knowledge of our bodies, evokes especially intense reactions to those who guide us in it.  This process goes on until the student is able to claim her dance as her own. Our goal as teachers has to be more than teaching technique.  We must guide our students to finding and freeing the dance within themselves.

Spirit-- it sounds liike you were shameless abused by a self-important fool.  Use this unhappy experience to deepen your own dance.  You wisely became doubtful when this person seemed to abandon the troupe although a performance was getting close.  In the future follow your own good instincts and stay if you feel the teacher is as committed as you are and leave the instant  something seems to be “off.”

(back to topics)
Dear Aunt Isis,
People probably ask you this one all the time but I need to know. I went to a club that has dancers Fridays and Saturdays and told the manager I'd like to dance there. He said I'd have to audition and I should do a show on Friday night. When I asked if I'd get paid he said the show would be free because it was an audition. I'd really like the job. Should I do this free audition?

Dear Eager,
A big NO! to freebies. You are right--people do ask about auditioning for free very often. And I always tell them the same thing: Auditions are auditions and shows are shows. Don't be "OVER-EAGER." Tell the manager that you will gladly audition for him at a time when the club is closed or at least not on a regular show night. And a helpful hint--if you're going in when the place is otherwise closed, bring a friend with you. Better safe than sorry.

(back to topics)
Dear Aunt Isis,
Help! I've been dancing for a year and a half and I wanted a dance name for when I dance in our troupe. Last month I picked a name I really liked--it was a goddess name, of course! Well, it turns out another dancer near my town has the same name. I heard that she got really upset when she found out I was using the name, She said I should change mine right away so people won't think she was some beginner. So now what should I do?

Dear Nameless,
Change your dance name immediately. That may mean adding another name before or after or tacking on an honorific such as "Banu" (Lady) before the name or Bint (daughter of and the name someone/something whose daughter you'd like to be) after it. Or add a last name. Or a descriptive phrase like a place name or something to do with your coloring. Or find somethng altogether different. Why not be an original!

Appropriating someone else's name is appropriating her identity and reputation. Newcomers rarely realize that a name carries with it all the hard work a dancer has done to make herself known to audiences and potential employers. If a dancer has managed to beat the odds and has established herself her chosen name should remain hers and hers alone at least until she retires.  And if she's on one the greats it's hers forever.

(back to topics)
Dear Aunt Isis,
I've been dancing in a local restaurant on Saturday nights. It's a family type place owned by a man from the Middle East. When he hired me the owner said I'd be paid so many dollars for a show to taped music and I would dance at 8:30pm. The first few weeks everthing was great. I came in, danced, got paid and left. Then one week he said I should wait a while because there weren't enough people. I waited about a half an hour and he said I could dance. It went like that for a few weeks--sometimes I'd go on at 8:30, sometimes I'd wait. Then one Saturday he had me wait and after around an hour told me to go home because there weren't enough people. I thought he should pay me because I came in expecting to dance,. He said no--that he only paid me for dancing not for waiting. I think he should have paid me because I was ready to dance and I gave up a lot of my evening waiting around in his kitchen. What do you think?

Dear Steamed,
This is one of the most common problems in the business. Almost all of us have been in a similar situation at some point. Mostly it's the result of a misunderstanding, especially when it happens in the kind of place you described--a local ethnic eatery with a smallish clientele. I agree you were taken advantage of--you really did want to dance didn't you? And he knew it. You gave yourself away, dear, by not setting rules for waiting or not waiting to perform the first time he asked. Actually, the whole matter of schedule and pay for service should have been discussed before you started working there but how were you to know?
Now that you do know, you can either go back there and have a friendly chat about your terms or forget about that restaurant and start fresh somewhere else. If you opt to go back, be sure you are willing to walk away if the owner will not meet your terms. However if having that particular job really means the world to you, tell him you expect to be paid a certain amount for showing up and put a limit on your waiting around time. ( A lot of people are going to be very mad at Auntie for even considering compromise!) If you decide, as I would, to move on, set the ground rules at your next job before you even put on your costume.
P.S. Be thankful you were in the kitchen. Some of us have sat it out in the cellar.

(back to topics)
Belly Dance NY TOC