Don’t Just Applaud, Throw Money!?!

Originally Published in Shimmy Chronicles ’95
By Morocco/Carolina Varga Dinicu ©’94

Headline gotcha curious? Good: I’’ve got alot to say on the subject.

During my 38 years in this field, I’’ve heard & read many pro & con opinions on the subject & been asked innumerable questions by dancers, students & even “civilians”, re the “ethnic validity” of tipping performers. This, hopefully, will detail what I’’ve observed within & without “ethnic” environments, private & public, &, of course, what I think of it all.

While I truly feel that sticking one’s “whatevers” into people’s faces or dinners while performing, waiting there, begging &/ or allowing tippers to “dig for gold” is disgusting & inexcusable; giving or throwing money is definitely a longstanding Mideastern/ North African/ Caucasian/ Mediterranean custom.

In all of the aforementioned places, at family celebrations as well as public performances in most venues, I’’ve seen money handed to, thrown at or tucked into pockets/ straps/ etc. of both male & female: musicians, singers, dancers, acrobats, etc.. Almost always, it was done with taste & joy, out of appreciation of the music, artistry &/or personal appeal of the performer, all three -or- simply to show off extravagance to one’’s peers & the audience in general. In many settings, tipping becomes de rigeur & sometimes even competitive.

Over the years, in Ain Diab (wealthy resort suburb just outside of Casablanca, Morocco), at both Wichita & Sijilmassa night clubs, whether I was alone, blending in, or with one of my groups, I saw male & female performers tipped.

We, ourselves, did some tipping, after observing how local Moroccans & Gulf visitors did it there: women from the audience went up onto the stage & tucked large denomination dirhams into dancers’ bra straps or dress & shirt collars of the singers. The men made paper chains of bills & draped them around the necks of the dancers & singers (love that custom!).

Even in out-and-out “B-girl joints”, nobody “dug for gold” in the costumes: it wouldn’’t have occurred to them so do so, because the manner of the dancers did not encourage it!

At 1001 Nights & al Riad restaurants in Marrakesh, some male Gnaoui & female (& male) Schikhatt’performers entered with bills tucked between fingers or in hats & belts, as a hint to the audience to add to the kitty, or a baby Gnaoua passed his cowry-shell bedecked, tasselled hat around (who could resist!). They didn’’t slither around, give intimidating looks or work exclusively for tips. They were paid for their show. Tips were extra.

“Class” night clubs & casinos in 4 & 5-star hotels presented their shows on high stages, away from the audience, making tipping impossible. Only itinerants, working outdoors, in Djemaa el F’na, performed just for tips.

Djemaa el F’na is the main market square in the “old” section of Marrakesh & the only place in the Mideast & North Africa, where one can still see (male only!) storytellers, medicine men, Gnaoui acrobats, contortionists, Schikhatt dancers, snake charmers, etc. performing & stopping every few minutes, to “pass the hat” for tips to continue. The only women “working” in Djemaa are totally veiled, immobile, fortune tellers, seated on small carpets or low stools.

In Egypt, relative to the economy, performers are very well paid. In addition, spectators often tip by handing bills to the tabla player (or singer with the dancer’s firqua), almost never to the artist directly. In some others, they throw it at the feet, drizzle it over the head or drape chains of notes around the neck of the artist.

In more baladi establishments, they might tuck it into shirt tops or bra straps. I’’ve seen a cane dancer hold her assaya out to the audience & draw it back with folded bills draped over its length.

There’’s another Egyptian custom: Taheya (greetings or regards), when money is handed to a singer or announcer with the band & the donor gives just his name & country or adds a specific message. The person on the microphone then announces: “Taheya min Mohamed ibn Hassan min Quattar al sheb Masri!” (“Greetings from Mohamed, son of Hassan from Quattar to the people of Egypt!” – or the bride & groom – whoever was indicated).

When Ghawazi performed at family celebrations in Upper Egypt (before pseudo “fundamentalists” succeeded in intimidating those who hired them!), a relative of the host gathered the tips, writing down each person’s name & contribution in a special book. Guests competed in showing generosity, often pledging more than they’d brought with them, to be paid later. At the end of the party, the noqta (tips) were presented to the performers, in addition to their agreed upon salary. Tips to musicians & male singers at these affairs were pinned to their draped neckscarves.

In the Egyptian film, “Halli Belek Min Zuzu” (“Pay Attention To/ Watch Out For Zuzu”), starring Souad Hosni & Taheya Carioca, during a scene at a wedding party, one of the guests is drunk & gets carried away by Souad Hosni’’s beauty & dancing. He gets fresh while tipping her & a big fight ensues. It is clear to all concerned that he stepped out of bounds.

In some 5-star establishments, tips are sent up with the waiter & handed to the tabla player. Some discourage the practise as being undignified. Some customers buy flowers, to be presented to the artist, or scattered at her/his feet during the performance. Flower-sellers really like that idea.

In some places, tipping has been banned because filthy-minded tourists misinterpreted the custom & got fresh.

There are a few places, usually very low-class, where “anything goes” & the unlucky tourist might chance upon one. They are the downstairs “come-ons” for upstairs brothels & they provide the kind of entertainment in keeping with their main purpose.

Prior to the upsurge in tight-lipped, sour-faced pseudo-“fundamentalism”, with its cuckoo Comstockian killjoys misinterpreting the word & intent of Islam, at “ethnic” picnics, haflas, weddings, etc. in the U.S. (& the ones I’ve danced at or attended “Over There”), children were sent up to hand the performer tips or women danced up to shower money or tuck it into collars & bra straps, sometimes dancing a bit with the performer. Men showered money or draped aforementioned chains of bills, sometimes they also danced a bit.

This was in addition to being well paid for the job.

Egyptians, Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians, Palestinians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Armenians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Tadjiks, Kirghizi, Circassians, Iranians, Turks, Greeks, Sephardics (probably more, but these are just the ones I’’ve seen personally).

To them, it was a sign of admiration & appreciation, to share their joy. When offered to me, I took it for the compliment it was: not to accept graciously would’’ve insulted the giver, in front of friends & relatives!

Pseudo-“fundamentalism” & a slower economy have seriously diminished haflas, picnics, etc. & most of those that do occur aren’’t hiring Oriental dancers. A great loss in participation & shared joy, for all concerned.

When I first started, the custom in U.S. ethnic clubs had been to give musicians & dancers a small salary (still decent, in proportion to the economy at that time: enough to live on) plus a share of the tips, which were divided equally among all the dancers, singers & musicians. The “house” got one share.

I was one of the first beginners to insist on a guaranteed salary of over double the previous going rate, with our share of the tips going to the house. Before, only “name” dancers & singers got guaranteed salaries & didn’’t have to worry about or “beg” for tips. It allowed a more relaxed atmosphere & performance &, interestingly, often ended up generating even more tips, so the “house” was happy, too.

Dancers stuck together & never went below the new, going rates. Nobody worked just for tips.

Maybe it’s my attitude & general dance demeanor: I’’ve never, ever had an “ethnic” even try to get fresh with me during my show. On those very rare occasions in my personal experience, when it’’s been a bit “iffy” (& I headed it off before the “pass”, as it were), it was with “civilians”, who were misinformed about the intent of the custom & in a non-“ethnic” environment.

What’’s a dancer to do, to prevent or avoid uncomfortable situations?

If you need them, wear contact lenses. Develop radar: a tipper’s intent is often obvious in his posture & attitude, even before he comes near. If it doesn’t seem “kosher”, dance in the other direction. If he pursues, point to your head, indicating he’’s to shower the money. He can take the hint without anyone being embarrassed, along with an extra helping of respect for you & how you handled the situation.

If he’’s brain-dead & still doesn’’t get the hint, shake his hand, taking the money, say: “Thank you very much” in the language of his choice & shower it over your head & his. Point, set & match! (You can put a contract out on him later….)

I fully understand the terrible problem created for a legitimate Oriental dancer, if s/he has a job in a club or for an organization, where previous “dancers” allowed tippers too much leeway or danced like the Whore of Babylon, poisoning the atmosphere. The good news is it’’s almost always obvious within the first two minutes, to even the most lecherous idiot, whether or not you’’re “legit” & to be respected. If not, a simple “no thank you” usually does the trick.

Sometimes artistry is appreciated even more, by dint of contrast with the previous raunch queen. However, do not expect art lovers at bachelor parties or shows with topless dancers & strippers. They have their own, totally unacceptable tipping “style”.

Personally, when discussing a future job with a possible employer, I politely make it clear that I don’’t do bachelor parties, stags, etc. or dance in shows with strippers or topless dancers. I ask if women are a decent portion of the audience. If not, I refuse the job, explaining that predominantly male audiences usually aren’’t looking for art & neither side would be happy. I may lose a few gigs that I would’’ve hated anyway, but I’’m always remembered & called back when “legit” performances come up. “Truth-in-packaging” pays off, in the long run.

Unfortunately, there’’ll always be a “lower-priced spread”, those who cater to the lowest common denominator, & Dumb Dora “10-Week Wonders”, so eager to get out there, they’’ll work just for tips & even split those tips with the owner &/or musicians: in effect, paying them in order to dance!

Talk about being ripped off! They end up having to put themselves through all sorts of contortions just to make enough to cover their expenses, let alone show a profit & audiences get annoyed at being coerced into paying an unexpected, additional “entertainment tax”.

If & when legit dancers in an area unite & refuse to work mostly or just for tips, audiences & owners will soon tire of poor-quality, “hard sell” tip beggars.

When club & restaurant owners see that family & couple business increases with quality dancers, the ringing of their cash registers will be sweet music to their ears & they’’ll continue to hire quality. Subsequent comparison of the “tips ahoy brigade” with self-respecting, decently paid, polished professionals, dancing with dignity & technique, can only help.

Real tips will come voluntarily, from the heart, with joy, admiration & respect, as a bonus.

Lecture’’s over. In a lighter vein, here’s a related anecdote from my long & checkered past:

About 40 years ago, I had a gig for an American audience in a large N.Y. hotel banquet hall with four really cool Mideastern musicians. The leader was American born & had no problems with English.

While I was getting dressed, totally unaware of what was going on onstage, he took the microphone & explained a bit about the instruments, music, dance & the Mideastern custom of tipping (or so he thought…).

I clanged my sagat, to let him know I was ready. He announced me, the music started & on I went, skirts & veil flying, sagat playing. Two minutes into my dance, I see dinner rolls flying through the air & landing at my feet.

What’’s going on here? I glanced at the band: all had looks of total amazement on their faces. I stood stock-still, pointed to the rolls at my feet, held up a hand in the international “stop” signal & shook my head “no”. The flying missiles stopped.

Music & I continued & we finished to a rousing ovation. As I took a third bow, two men came from the back of the hall carrying a big basket. As they got to the stage, they turned it over, dumping hundreds of rolls at my feet. What’’s going on?

One of them took the microphone: “On behalf of our organization, we’’d like to express our thanks & appreciation for a great show. Your bandleader said it’’s a Mideastern custom to throw bread if you like the show. You didn’’t seem to like it during your dance, so we waited till now. We loved it. Here’’s a whole basket full.”

I’’m willing to guess it was the last time he used the ‘60s musician’’s slang word for money (bread) with a “civilian” audience…..