If Prices Are Up All Over, Why Are Oriental Dancers Getting Less?

Fantasia, Vol 5 #5, Sept/Oct 1982
By Morocco

When I started in this business, just after Noah landed his ark, milk was 18 cents a quart, yogurt 16 cents a pint (flavored), tuna in water 31 cents a can, subways 15 cents, the morning paper 10 cents, my 3-room New York City railroad apartment $42 a month, beads $8-10 a kilo. You could make an entire costume (belt, bra, cuffs, anklets) fully beaded for under $25.

In December, 1960, I was a rank beginner, but I got $125 a week for six nights, two shows a night at the first Middle Eastern club I worked in. It had a live, cooperative band: six pieces, three female singers, two other dancers. After two weeks, when I proved I could learn a few steps, my salary was raised to $150. Three weeks later, another club down the street offered me $180. I took it. Six months later, I was earning $240 a week.

Prior to this, I had earned $120 a week as a soloist with the Ballet Espanol Ximenez-Vargas on the road. That meant that I had to pay for hotels, food, etc, every day of the tour out of what was left of that $120 after taxes (which were much lower then).

I was in hog heaven. No more ten hours a day on a bumpy bus, stopping only to unload bladders and wolf down various nefarious versions of tuna on rye at roadside ptomaine emporiums. No more searching for cheap hotels at midnight in some very strange places, in order to save a few bucks. Ah, the glamorous life of the show-biz personality!!

The dancers knew each other and there was an agreement that nobody would undercut prices. Beginners worked for no less than $25 a night, established dancers got $35-$40, singer-dancers $45. Parties, dances, special jobs paid a minimum of $100-150, often as high as $500 or more plus tips. On those special jobs, dancers kept all their tips. In the clubs, their share of the tips went back to the boss, towards their salaries, but tips were thrown or showered over the head, with respect.

There were no schools as such, but sitting on that stage every night, from 9:30p.m. to 4:00a.m. was a far better school than anything that exists now because, unfortunately, those clubs are no more.

Whole families used to come in together, from the great grandmother down to the newest baby, sleeping in a basket. We learned how to play drum, when another dancer or a musician put it in our hands and said: “Your turn, play.” We played while great grandma danced with great grandpa or the youngsters. We saw folk dances all night and they knew all the dancers and watched our progress with interest and encouragement.

Club owners protected us as if we were the favorite daughters of the family. Being a chronic sufferer of terminal curiousity, I milked everyone I could: musicians, other dancers (from the “old country”), singers, great grandmas, etc. for steps, facts, rhythms, history, legends, anything I could get. Oh, it wasn’’t all sweetness and light. there was the occasional “You no go coffee me, I no play music you”, but , having once dramatically established that approach didn’’t do any good with me (that’’s another story), those hassles were very few and far between. . .

I taught a couple of friends the few steps I knew at the time and got them jobs at a couple of the clubs where I’’d performed myself and watched them progress. There still was no such thing as a “belly” dance class per se.

Dancers worked at each club a minimum of three months to a year at a time. I starred at The Roundtablefor four and a half years, did a featured part in a hit Broadway show for ten months, and numerous side jobs, most without leaving the island of Manhattan. Six nights a week, fifty-two weeks a year for nine years (except when I was off on my research trips, when I performed till the night before I left, resuming my place the night after I got back, jetlag notwithstanding). Then I decided a little free time would be nice, since all I had been doing was dancing, researching, making costumes, eating and sleeping (I admit to a little occasional hanky-panky too).

I began to do weekend club dates in American clubs, Haflis, Greek dances, etc. Those clubs paid a minimum of $150 – $200 plus tips for two days, plus room and board if it was out of town or upstate. Some clubs ran three days at $225-$275 plus tips. Dances, Haflis, weddings: $150 – $300 plus tips.

In 1969, yogurt was 19 cents, tuna 34 cents, milk 20 cents. I paid $55 a month maintenance charges on my two and a half room co-op in a lovely brownstone. Beads were $10 a kilo.

I had a lot more time for researching and writing, publicizing Mideastern Oriental dance as the true art form it is and could still earn a comfortable living.

Then somebody opened up a school (bravo) and began teaching on a commercial scale, so that the general population could discover the joys and advantages (physical and mental) of our wonderful art form (also bravo.) Schools began opening up all over the country. Unfortunately, some of them were of the “Madame La Zonga can teach you to Conga in 10 easy lessons” variety, with about as much taste as a piece of paper, no technique to speak of and zilcho knowledge of culture and background. The fad had hit. Yech.

A few discerning people of taste and culture realized that there was lots more to all this than twitching your tush to turn hubby on and began seriously looking for further knowledge and technique. They influenced others. Slowly but surely, their numbers increased. Audiences began to notice the difference between the sleaze sluts and sincere performers. Whoopee!

Now there are a lot more dancers of varying degrees of skill in a lot more towns and cities. The average degree of skill of the average Oriental dancer has gotten higher (good), the level of respect for his art form has, in most areas (not counting the absolute, obstinate ignorance of the die hard bible belt bozos), risen tremendously (about time.) Most of the crotch-watchers go to the topless-bottomless go-go lapdance dumps for titilation.

Most of the places I work in now wouldn’’t’’ve thought of hiring one of us in 1960. I do lecture/ demonstrations in museums, universities, schools, for the Department of Cultural Affairs, at Lincoln Center. My dance company works more and more each year. Others around the country are doing likewise. Great, right? Hold on to your hats bunkies: here’’s the fly in the ointment. The monetary renumeration not only hasn’’t risen, it’’s plummeted!

1982 in New York: milk is 99 cents a quart, yogurt 55 cents a cup, tuna in water $1.39 a can, subways 75 cents and going up, the daily blab 25 cents. My old apartment rents for $650 a month. A kilo of beads is $18-40.

Dancers are working at the Ibis for $35 for two shows, for a couple of days a week, no long term guarantees. At the Haci Baba for $20 a night, two shows. In San Francisco, they do three forty-five minute shows a night for that kind of money. At some of the clubs that are only open on weekends, the dancers are getting $25 a night. A few pay $35-$40 a night for a Friday-Saturday weekend. The classier places pay more, but not by much.

When they can and do come up with “good money”, they don’’t give it to the people who work there regularly for such peon wages. They give it to those, such as myself, who have set a better value on themselves and hold out for it.

How has this happened? Why? Gather ’round my children. Mama will tell you a parable and you will see. No names will be mentioned, because the cases are typical and composites.

Remember those two friends I mentioned a few paragraphs back, that I taught and got jobs for? Being a happy little patsy then, the lessons were gratis.

One of them had a day job and considered the money she made as a dancer “found”. She began accepting weekend dates in American clubs for less than the going rate because, after all, it was extra money and she liked dancing so much, she would do it for free, so what the heck?!

When I asked her if she would accept less money at her main profession, because she enjoyed doing it, she answered: “What?! And let them think that I’’m not as good as I am at what I do, or treat me as the lower priced version?” She was too dense to get my point.

Fortunately for the dance community, her new job precluded any kind of “public displays” such as performing. She’’s out of the business now, but too many like her persist in undercutting, dancing only for tips or for free. They don’’t realize that they are cheapening themselves, minimalizing their talent and their art form and making it almost impossible for the true professionals to earn enough to continue benefitting the genre with accumulated expertise.

Performers who dance for free (at other than charities or old age homes) are looked down on by the very people that exploit their idiocy. Dancing just for tips is begging, rather than accepting tribute for artistry, as it is when the audience knows that you are being well-paid for your performance. Don’’t think they don’’t know if you are getting paid or not. Just think: would a plumber fix your toilet for free or for tips? Are you any less?

Dancer number two’’s story is longer and more complicated, so bear with me…

She became a full time dancer and worked the Greek club circuit, getting better and better all the time. The she went overseas to discover her roots, married and returned to the U.S. to settle down in another state, where she became the first teacher of Mideastern Oriental dance in that area. She taught many, she taught well.

Three of her students, that I know personally, are even better dancers than she, no small feat. Best of all, she communicated her love of and respect for the dance, but she had come to consider the money she made teaching dance and performing occasionally as “money on the side”, for she was now a “married lady” with a working husband.

A new Greek club opened, not far from her home. The owner had been a fan of mine (bless him) for many years and finally got in touch with me. He wanted me to perform at his club and was willing to pay $150 per night plus roundtrip transportation and overnight for two nights, two shows a night. This in 1972. Not great, but not bad. A comic, a singer or an athlete with my degree of fame and/or skill could expect at least 10 times that amount, but a dancer in America?

Needless to say, I jumped at the chance and took the choo-choo out to the club. Nice place, nice music, nice audience, nice boss (except he kept trying to get me to eat too much). My friend showed up with her students. The audience was happy so the boss was happy. I got asked back several times. I accepted with pleasure.

Meanwhile, friend-cum-dance teacher sees the club as an opportunity for her students to get some performing experience. Nothing wrong with that. She suggests it to the boss, who agrees. She feels that as unpolished dancers, they shouldn’t aspire to professional salaries and only asks for $20 a night for two shows. The boss laughs and suggests $15. She accepts, much to his surprise. At that rate, they’’re so cheap, why not take two. He does.

They don’’t do too badly, show talent and potential. No talk of salary increases, so they are forced to really work the tables for tips just to cover travel and costume expenses. Other students want to perform and are so anxious that they start to undercut even that price, just to get in the door. The boss is astounded, but what the heck, it’’s more money in his pocket. Some others, with a far more lucrative profession on the side (if you know what I mean), udercut even them, to get to the customers.

The boss calls me and explains that since he can get three dancers, whose total costumes contain less material than my one (who can afford more on what he pays them?) and whose total salaries are less than half of mine… I do understand don’’t I?

In the next breath, he tells me that the calibre of the audience has fallen tremendously. Husbands don’’t bring wives any more, family groups have stopped coming. The Greeks and Arabs are going elsewhere, except for the punks. His bottom line has fallen a great deal.

I explain that if you put on a cheap show, you get a cheap audience or none at all. It’’s great to hire talented semi-amateurs, as long as there’’s also a strong, competent professional on the bill. Then the patrons won’’t feel cheated. Audiences are much more discerning than he gave them credit for and won’’t accept skim milk at whipped cream prices.

Hiring obvious hookers will immediately antagonize female customers, and when wives and girlfriends won’’t go to a club, most husbands and boyfriends won’’t go there either. He tells me that I don’’t know anything about the restaurant business.

A month later, he turned his once beautiful club into a strip joint and then closed altogether. Now nobody, can work there. The saddest part is that he later admitted to me, that if the teacher had stuck to her guns, she could’’ve gotten $50 a night for her students, alternated them, everyone would have been happy and the quality of the shows and audiences would’’ve improved rather than diminished. He would have been able to afford two students a night during the week and one student plus one competent professional on weekends. He would’’ve had respect for her and her students.

Obvious moral about underpricing a quality product too much: it gets dumped on the same bargain basement table, with the soiled goods and gets ruined by the contact. People in that town remember the low quality and prices of the more recent “dancers” in that club and pay accordingly for jobs. I’’d love to say “I told you so”, but I’’m too busy crying.

Another ripoff that dancers fall for over and over again: club owners that demand a live “audition” on a Friday or Saturday night, in front of their customers, to “judge their reaction” to your dancing. Why don’’t they ask carpenters and plumbers to do their clubs over “as an audition” and wait to see if the customers like it? A total rip-off of the only thing performers have as a stock-in-trade: our TALENT.

Do Broadway shows or movies hold auditions in front of live audiences? Of course not. If they can’’t be referred to a previous employer (who you are sure was ecstatic with your talent) for a good reference, or be invited to another place, where you are being paid to perform, to see your show and the audience’’s reaction to it, and you don’’t have enough of a reputation in your field, that he’’d have to have been born on another planet not to have heard of you, arrange to audition to a tape, during the day, in a rehearsal hall or the club.

Bring a friend, preferably big and nasty, with you. Empty clubs have a strange effect on some owners during the day. If you are turkey enough to be conned into a freebie show on a Friday or Saturday night, lay back and enjoy it: you’re being screwed! (update: show’ ’em a videotape or DVD!!!)

All the club owners that pull the above lulus were once paying their performers and paying them well, till other “dancers”, overanxious to perform (which I can understand), and unaware of their own worth (however high or low it may be), stabbed their sister performers in the back (which I refuse to understand or forgive). It’’s usually pretty easy to find out how much a dancer makes — ask.

Deliberately undercutting or auditioning on Friday/Saturday will not only not get you good money, it won’’t get you any respect. When they find out how cheaply you work (god forbid you work for free or just for tips!), it’’ll be a snowy day in hell before you’’ll get decent money in that town.

Try paying living expenses, costume costs, etc., on $20 or $30 a night. If you can manage it, come to New York. I’’m sure Mayor Koch will hire you to solve our fiscal crisis, that is if Ronald McDonald doesn’’t grab you up first!

If you must dance and there isn’’t any decent paying work available, or if you feel more practice is needed before you go out there to compete with the pros, perform for old-age homes, hospitals and charities. They’’re grateful, sincere audiences and think of all the good karma you’’ll be racking up. Do your cheaper jobs for small, in-house parties that you are sure can’’t afford more than $50 or $75, which is what you should be getting, at the very least, for Grams.

A good guideline for what to charge for house parties is based on the probable income of the head of the house and how many guests there will be. If it’’s a catered affair, the price goes up. They can afford fancy hors d’’oevres, they can pay the dancer. Anyone making over $35,000 a year can sure as hell afford $100 for a dancer. Two theater tickets cost a lot more, not to mention sitter, dinner, parking, gas, etc. Clubs can afford 50 cents per seat available, at the very least, if not $1.

Don’’t fall for any bull like: “but you’’ll only be working for 15 minutes (half hour).” Baryshnikov doesn’t charge by the hour of performance time. Besides, there’’s travelling back and forth, costs of transportation, time getting dressed and waiting to perform, time spent dressing after the show, time spent learning, making costumes, wear and tear on the costumes. Add it up yourself. How can you put an hourly rate on what is yours and yours alone? Personality and talent?

Hold yourself cheaply and so will everyone else. I’’ve seen rotten dancers demand and get great money by acting as if it is their due. This is not a cue to carry on about how much you’’re worth – that won’’t get it for you. Quiet convictions and dignity will.

I’’ve also seen dynamite dancers who are so insecure, ask for too damned little and be treated like dirt, because NOBODY VALUES WHAT THEY GET AT BARGAIN BASEMENT RATES!!! I myself, have more than once been patsied into doing a favor and charging less than usual. I lived to regret it.

Funny – it took a while, but when I stick to my guns, I get more and better work. A reputation for quality and selectivity gets around. Meanwhile, research, rehearse and improve the calibre of your performance.