Sometimes students ask me about the differences between restaurant, nightclub and stage performing and I thought it would be a good discussion for professionals or those starting to perform. After years of dancing at each venue, it became obvious to me that the stage is where I prefer to be and even though restaurant dancing made me a more personable dancer, the space, environment and dynamics of stages is what made me feel like an entertainer. Nightclubs were my secret desire, the place where I imagined legendary dancers performing and like every starry eyed dancer, I dreamed of following in their footsteps. Each nightclub performance was another notch on my belt that made me feel like I was successful almost like I had finally made it to Oz!
Is there a difference between being an entertainer or dancer? Interestingly enough there are people who contemplate this question and I guess I’m one of them. In restaurants I felt more like a dancer. On stage I felt more like an entertainer. In nightclubs I felt Jazzier and slightly avant-garde maybe because I felt a little bit of the entertainer and dancer come out. I believe it’s the venue itself that makes the difference.
It’s been awhile since I’ve performed on any venue and I found interestingly enough that the one I miss the most is the nightclub circuit. There is a pulse that beats inside of me beaconing me to the sound of live drums. The full orchestra was always amazing to experience but for me, the pop, roll and beat called to me like no other instrument could or ever will. The electricity and the ambiance of the crowd always added to this feeling of being a star performer because let’s face it, for most dancers performing, live music is what it’s all about. I often wonder if many of the dancers today know the difference between taped music and live. Maybe it’s a dumb thought but for many dancers today it’s not as easy to find live venues with musicians. I think the golden era of belly dance was a different time and place in our history. This period was around the 70’s and when I went to New York and talked to dancers who performed in this time frame I realized that I missed the boat. Story after story was told about performing at two to three clubs a night. These were the days of training during the day and performing up to 4 nights a week. I was fortunate to do this in the 90’s and enjoyed every minute of it but there was something different during the golden era in belly dance that was electric. It was more of a dancer’s paradise, a time to dance and be seen.
Sinbad’s Palace, Byblos, Al Amir. El Mirage, Veranda Greek Café, Chattanooga Club/restaurant and many more were my weekly gigs and I loved each one of them because they were all so different. I feel it’s important to change up weekly gigs so that as a dancer you can be fresh each and every time you perform. At Pars Cuisine here in Albuquerque, for a short while I was working every weekend and even though I was in Heaven most of the time, I found that my enthusiasm waned after awhile. First rule of thumb, it’s important to come in to any gig fresh and ready to dance. When the owner hired two more house dancers, I was thrilled because I was able to have one or two weekends off. The impression that dancing all the time at one venue is a good thing isn’t realistic. Rejuvenating choreographies and changing up music is just as important as having good energy. Changing up music once a month is a good thing because once customers know you change up your routine; they look forward to what’s new and different each time they come in. I actually had a couple come up to me and tell me they enjoyed my shows because whenever they came in to see me dance, the music was always different. Change is good in dance especially with music and choreography and a must for all working professionals.
Stage performing can be a problem for dancers depending on what type of stage it is. The crux for most dancers is to figure out how to perform their best on whatever stage is presented to them. I’ve talked about the many interesting stages that I’ve danced on already so I don’t want to go back into that but what I do want to talk about is the education needed in order to know the appropriate terminology for lighting, stage directions and sound. Even though most dancers perform once for local shows or workshops, it’s important to know the best lighting for costumes, best way to utilize the stage and make the most of the space given. A large space for a solo performer isn’t easy to master or conquer for that matter but props do help such as veils, fans and canes and even backdrops are a good way to fill up the space. Just remember stages at theaters are all about the dramatic aspects of dance so come up with unique ideas that will help set you apart from the other dancers. Troupes…are another story because you can’t get better than filling up the stage with beautiful woman!
Restaurant dancing obviously is a more personal way of performing but it’s also a good teacher in learning how YOU deal with different types of people and energy. Dancing in restaurants is really about how your interaction around the tables outside the stage (if you have one) and how you engage people. People want some intimacy while they eat their food which is very different from the nightclubs scene. Stage performing usually in theaters or big venues is the most desirable package for dancers because people go specifically to be entertained meaning they are paying at the door to be entertained.
The only drawback with nightclub and restaurant performing is the alcohol that goes along with them. Restaurants can be more easily managed especially if it’s a smaller space. Nightclubs are another story but in saying this, I didn’t have any problems myself but I did see people who were drunk and belligerent with their own parties. I had a few women dance with me after my shows who did their impression of my moves which always looked like a striptease. It’s amazing why intoxicated people think belly dancing is a bump and grind kind of dance. I was even challenged to dance duels with women who were strippers by trade. Now, I’ll say this because it’s how I feel, I don’t have problems with strippers what I do have a problem with is when they think they can out dance a trained dancer. This type of experience can be where the rubber meets the road for most belly dancers because we can actually prove that belly dance is a performing art not an exhibition of the female body strictly for men.
My choreographies changed for each venue because they each required something different. Restaurant dancing was about layering, in place combinations and soft and unintimidating moves. It’s about the poetry of the dance in restaurants that people admire not the theatrical narrative required in theaters. Nightclubs are about the screenplays to a dancer’s interpretive play on life and love. Each venue requires a dancer’s knowhow and expertise and the interesting thing is that better a dancer gets at each one, they all benefit in the end. A more well rounded dancer emerges who can handle any crowd, stage, space or requirements that might upset a novice dancer.
Each venue has a golden rule to it and the meaning for each is specific to the education required for each one. Belly dancing isn’t about getting a costume on and dancing, hurrying a dance education before it’s time, it’s about learning the ropes and being as professional as possible each and every time you perform.
Alternatively you can listen to “Restaurant, Nightclub & Stage Performing by Leyla Najma” on YouTube of from Leyla’s iTunes Podcast