There have been evenings when I performed that I was on cloud nine. And there were evenings where I wondered what rock people crawled out from under.
(It seemed like they all crawled out from under the same rock!)
But this is restaurant dancing where we are secondary to the food and service.
Throughout the years of dancing I have been very blessed to dance at some amazing restaurants and some not so amazing restaurants. There were a few restaurants that I danced at that were open only a few months. Those gigs are my most memorable because I learned “what not to do” while dancing in a restaurant. First of all when the restaurant owner requires you to bring in family members, friends, co-workers and strangers off the street, you know you’re in trouble. Imagine being asked to help out with washing the dishes. (Yes, this did happen to me.) At least I had sense enough to say “no” and suffice to say this particular gig lasted only a few weeks and the restaurant stayed open for 6 months and than closed.
My first restaurant audition was pretty hilarious because my belt fell off in the beginning of my performance. I kept on dancing because luckily my skirt was not attached and the audience wasn’t sure if I intended to loose it or not. Hooks and eyes took on a whole new meaning for me after that!
The restaurant owner reprimanded me because he was running a “family” oriented restaurant but he decided to keep me and give me another chance. It didn’t work out because my inexperience with his customers was obvious and he wanted someone with more “people” skills. This was an eye opener for me because I learned that making the customers comfortable was a huge part of my performance.
Understanding people is so important and it is so necessary to read people and their moods as soon as they walk in the front door. I have danced for people who didn’t care if I could turn my head completely around and spit out fire. They are not there for the dancing but for relaxation and food. I learned not to take this personally and to go to tables that were more appreciative.
Then there is the “beautiful” couple who for some odd reason are very insecure. The woman won’t look at you and the man dare not even think about it. I had a lady tell a waiter that I should not come to her table because her husband would not appreciate it. So the waiter told me and I stayed away as requested but what the waiter didn’t tell her was that there would be tables all around her and that I would be dancing for them. I was trying not to laugh because as I was dancing for a table near her, her husband was standing up clapping and dancing along with me.
Not only is it our job to educate the customers regarding our dance form but it is also just as important to be lenient on their ignorance as well. It is not unusual for people to walk in the front door of a restaurant and not know the first thing about belly dancing. For instance I had a huge table of people that requested that I not dance for them because they had invited a priest to join them. They were a church group that was concerned about the priests’ reaction to my dancing. To their surprise and mine the priest was upset because I did not dance for them and requested that I come to the table so he could talk to me. He had been to the Middle East and had seen belly dancing throughout his travels. He was very educated on our dance form and I really appreciated him letting the church group know that he considered it an art form.
There may be some of you wondering about the pay scale for restaurant performing. This topic is consistently a heated discussion amongst dancers. There’s reason for it because one or two things happen to dancers that perform in restaurants. The first is being undercut by other dancers and the second is a restaurant not willing to pay the going rate.
In my 15 years of restaurant dancing I have found only a few restaurants that have paid me what I felt I was worth. I can count them on one hand. So my philosophy is a little different here only because I had to either understand the reality of this business or get out. My first reality shocker came when I was dancing in Dallas at a restaurant and the restaurant owner hired two new dancers to perform on the weekends with me. I was looking forward to dancing with them but what I didn’t know was that he paid them more than me. When I found out I was furious and like any good dancer and business woman, I confronted the owner.
My pay went up but what bothered me was the other dancers knew I was getting less. Was it their fault, I say no. It was my fault for not communicating better with the restaurant owner but I still would have liked the dancers to have been more forth coming since we were working together.
The restaurants that didn’t pay me what I was worth were places for me to train and practice my people skills. And that is how I looked at them. I was able to perform regularly and work on my dancing in an environment that required me to do my best. So I feel you have to make the best out of every situation and look on the positive side. Plus usually no one is forcing us to perform at restaurants. If I’m dancing at a restaurant I’ve made the decision and choice to be there. Remember you have free will to stay or leave.
I have just recently retired from restaurant performing and looking back I have to laugh at some of the experiences I had especially at the last restaurant I performed at.
I can remember one evening I was dancing and just happened to see my reflection in the window. At that very moment I realized I forgot to shave my armpits. My arms went down immediately and I kept them down for the rest of my performance.
(After that I always carried a razor in my makeup case)
And believe it or not I forgot my underwear a few times. So a put an extra pare in my bag for emergencies.
One time I forgot my bra to my second costume only to find it on my bed when I got home. I could have sworn I put it in my bag. So I danced in the same costume twice and as you can imagine it was sweaty!
The advice I would give to any dancer starting out performing in restaurants is to understand that the venue itself will help her become a better dancer. I feel restaurant dancing made a big difference in my stage performing because it made me a more personable dancer. The dancing itself will not only stand on its own but the confidence in which a dancer performs is priceless. Plus one day you will look back at your restaurant performing like me and have a lot of funny stories to share with friends and students alike. And that is truly “priceless”.