Smile Baby!; Putting the Fun Back into Belly Dance

Smile Baby!; Putting the Fun Back Into Belly Dance
Smile Baby!;
Putting the Fun Back Into Belly Dance

I recently invited one of my very best friends to a belly dance show, in which I was to perform. She was thrilled to attend the event and brought along her enthusiastic twelve-year old daughter. After seeing several acts by different dancers, the girl leans over to the mother and says, “Do those dancers even like to dance?”

Ouch! That is not the kind of question dancers want to hear. The reason for this inquiry: no one was smiling.

To be fair, not all the dancers were stone faced. After the show, the daughter willingly gave me her opinion. She listed three dancers she felt had a great connection with the audience (me included, thankfully). But, three acts out of fifteen seemed low to her.

I have never been a person to discount the observances and opinions of a child — any child. Kids are very attuned to emotion and instinct. This particular child has been born and bread in a professional theatre family. She already has a lot of experience acting on stage and she also studies dance. So, of all the opinions offered by children, I trust hers implicitly. If she questioned the performances, there was a reason.

Criticism is always hard to hear — believe me, I know first-hand. I faced this very same moment as a child. At seven years old, my mother came backstage after my dance recital. She hugged me and said, “Sweety, you did a great job out there. You hit all your marks and moves. But… it didn’t look like you were having any fun. Perhaps you should try smiling a bit more.”

That moment changed my life forever — for the better. It was one of the best things my mother has ever done for me. I had been dancing since the age of three. I knew, at seven, that I wanted to be a professional dancer. Though my mother is a most loving person, she also understands that helping a child grow is not done by always giving constant reassurance. Sometimes, honesty is the best course of action. She is right. Her criticism was a great motivator. To this day, every time I dance in front of an audience I hear my mother’s voice in my head telling me to smile.

That doesn’t mean I have a perfect performance all of the time. Sometimes I blow it. Sometimes I forget the choreography (always 16 counts that I have never forgotten before). I’ve dropped my cane. I have caught my veil in a chandelier. I was once performing floor-work, and while in a back bend, a customer said, “Um, Ma’am, you’re on fire.” That was the day I learned to be more careful while using open-flame candles.

But the one thing I always do, is make eye contact with the audience. And smile.

That is not to say all performances require smiles from ear to ear. A dancer should exhibit a range of emotions while performing, depending on the music. A sad song should be expressed with great emotion and with choreography to match the tone of the music. Belly dancers can be playful, fearful, shy, sexy…anything it takes to express the emotion and tell the story of the dance. But no matter what feeling is portrayed, belly dancers must be engaging. They need to connect with the audience.

 

What is the problem?

There are several reasons the dancers do not engage with the audience while performing.

First, more often than not, belly dance shows are filled with both professional and student dancers. Not that non-professionals can’t smile. They certainly can. But it is true that student dancers are often unsure of themselves. If students are consumed with trying to remember choreography and how to perform a move, it is easy to forget to smile. Often the face becomes vacant while the wheels spin in the brain. With time, students become more comfortable with their dancing and learn to relax.

I also believe some of the fault lies with the teachers (me included). We spend so much time breaking down moves, making sure lines are straight, and trying to keep everyone on the beat, that we often forget to emphasize the importance of stage presence. Perhaps if we reminded students to smile more, they might have more success.

I sometimes wonder if stylistic evolution in belly dance plays a role. I’ve been belly dancing for just shy of twenty years. During that time, I’ve seen a huge shift in belly dance costuming and music.

When I took my first belly dance class, cabaret style was the norm. Everyone bought a jingly hip scarf, sequined tops and belts, flowing silk veils and skirts in bright and bold colors, had false eyelashes fake gems at the tips, and used lots and lots of glitter. Who doesn’t want to smile when dressed head to toe in glitter? And what audience member doesn’t smile faced with a bouncy dancer and a happy music beat?

Since then I have witnessed the intense rise of American Tribal Style belly dance (ATS). Coins turned to tassels, silk to cotton and burlap, the predominant color became black (though still with very colorful accents), fake gem eyelashes were replaced by darker eyeliner and glitter was on its way out.

Lately, I have noticed an even darker shift. The colorful tassels of ten years ago are often non-existent. Costumes are mostly black, with accents of black lace or black street underwear showing. Sometimes the fabric is torn around the edge and the outfit includes black army boots and fishnet tights. Eyeliner is caked on and even lips are lined with black (or at least a dark burgundy). The music is heavier in tone. What was considered “Tribal” has evolved into “Goth” belly dance.

Now, I’m not trying to put down my Goth belly dance friends. I truly appreciate all forms of dance. In fact, sometimes I’m a little jealous because I’m not sure I could pull that act off. My niche is cute, with a little side of sexy. Goth is way out of my comfort wheelhouse. So, more power to you ladies!

I’m also not arguing that Goth dancers should be all smiles. That wouldn’t fit the theme of the dance style. Though they should still engage an audience with a strong attitude and eye contact.

I just wonder, are audience members reacting to all that heavy attire and music? Audiences react to the subject in front of them. Children are often more impacted than desensitized adults. Is the darker tone interpreted by children as “not having fun?” Thinking back on my young friend’s comments, I can’t be sure. All of her favorite dancers were cabaret dancers, but they were all also professionals. Did she like them because they were pros or because of the glitz? I suspect it’s a little of both.

I also took my three children to the same show. Coincidently, they all picked the same three favorite dancers. Of course my youngest daughter liked the blond (who looked like Elsa from the movie Frozen) best.

If the tone of the dance does play a major role, have we lost the fun in belly dance? And does that really matter?

 

Who is Your Audience?

Perhaps we need to take a moment to ask ourselves, who are we dancing for? And why are we dancing for them?

I have a belly dance colleague who signs all of her emails: “Dance as if no one is watching.” It’s a lovely sentiment. And yes, we should all enjoy the rapture of dance. Because if we are not having fun, then what is the point of doing it at all? Turn down the lights in your living room, turn up the music, and dance. Dance with unabashed exuberance. Dance the way you want to dance, wear what you want to wear, dance in your underwear (or without any clothing) for all I care! And love it.

However, if you are dancing on stage or in a restaurant in front of an audience, you are not dancing for yourself. You are dancing to entertain others. This is what a professional dancer does. And if you are not a professional, pretend to be. I believe we all have a responsibility to ask ourselves the following questions: Who is my audience? How can I entertain them best? How can I connect with them to put on the best show possible?

Those who organize dance shows also have an obligation to their audiences. For instance, when I design a show, I put great thought into the placement of acts. I start the show with a happy and enthusiastic number to welcome the audience and get them excited. I also end the first act with a well-executed and enthusiastic number to persuade the audience to come back after intermission. I rotate props — one wing number, followed by a zil piece, then a somber veil song, then back to an upbeat number. The second act builds to an exciting finish with the most talented professional dancers.

Sometimes I make other types of adjustments. If the show will be performed in an old folks home, I’d advise turning up the music for those hard of hearing. If the show will be in an elementary school, I’d suggest wearing a full-length, full coverage baladi dress. And for goodness sake, if you are dancing for an American audience, ladies, please, shave your visible body hair!

Who is your audience?

 

At the End of the Show

At the end of the day, the choices are yours. Your costume and music are up to you. But whatever you choose for your performance, do what you do with flair. And engage your audience. If your music is dark and heavy then stare your audience down and draw them into your world. If your song is soft and lilting, milk it for all it’s worth and take your audience along for the ride. And if your song is happy and bouncy, then smile baby. Smile.

Group dance classes are back!


SIGN FOR A CLASS NOW!




COST: $12 per class or $40 for 4 classes. Space is limited. Registration and pre-payment at the beginning of the session is required.

BONUS:
New students who pay the $40 will also receive Jaiya’s belly dance video (one-time offer).

MONTH: May 9, 16, 23, & 30

DAY: Tuesdays

TIME: 6:30 to 7:30 pm

PLACE: West side of Colorado Springs (Old Colorado City). Exact location will be sent in an detailed email after paid registration.

LEVEL:
 Beginning + Intermediate

Email Scams Aimed at Belly Dancer Instructors

Belly dance scam attempt wedding bridesmaids flash mob event.
Thief attempts to scam belly dancer by booking the choreographer to teach bridesmaids a flash mob dance routine for a wedding.

Once again I have been contacted by a scammer. Though this is not an unusual occurrence, each episode is mentally and emotionally exhausting. It also drains my precious time which I need to operate my business.

I can’t stop scammers from approaching me, but I can try to help others in my business recognize a scam targeted at dancers. I hope this blog post will help some of you avoid the pitfalls of these evil villains.

 

Who Gets Scammed?

This problem is certainly not inherent to me alone. These days it plagues all of us, with many scams being quite generic. For instance, email scams that start, “I’m writing on behalf of my wife who was detained in a third world country due to her passport and money being stolen. If you can send her the money to get a new passport we will pay you back when she is home.” I have lost track of how many times I have received a variation of this email. Sometimes the email comes from the account of one of my friends, who had their email hacked. It reads,”I’m writing to you on behalf of my friend…please contact them directly if you are willing to help.”

As seen in above examples, the goal of a scammer is to dupe their targets into giving them money. Sometimes they ask for a “loan,” other times they ask for an outright “donation.” Often they ask for bank account numbers so they can send you money. Sometimes their methods are even more creative than that.

 

Scams Directly Targeting Dancers

Even though scammers will target anyone, these villians are so sophisticated that sometimes their scams are tailored to specific types of businesses. As a dancer and choreographer, I have been approached through email by multiple thieves looking to “book a dancer for an event” or “hoping to hire a teacher who will teach my little girl private dance lessons for a month.” Some of the stories weaved are so elaborate they have little to no difference from true client inquiries. The following text is an exact replication of an attempt from my most recent scammer. It starts:

 

From the phone number: +1 (972) 379-8147

From Scammer:  Hello, This is Micheal Williams, Are you available for Dance lesson for my Daughter Bridesmaids ?

My Response:  So is it a bachelorette party? Those are always fun. What is the date? I can teach in my studio or at a private home. The cost is $125 for a half-hour if I travel within the city limits of Colorado Springs.

From Scammer:  Thanks. I’m organizing a surprise dance (like flashmob) for my daughter’s wedding, So i want you to teach the Bridesmaids choreograph, The Wedding is on the 8th of April. The ladies are local. There are 7 Bridesmaids(all ladies) and i want them to choreograph a song by “John Legend” titled “All of me”….I want lessons to be at your studio. I’ll prefer Tues&Thurs 11-1pm, if that’s okay with your schedule. Though the ladies are fully committed to this training, so their timing is pretty flexible please note they are not professionals and have no experience in dancing. What is the total cost for 2 hour rehearsals twice a week for 3 weeks?

 

At this point in the conversation I am wary. Let’s address some reasons.

  1. The scammer approached me via sending a tex message to my phone. Anyone can buy a burner phone and make untraceable calls. Many scammers do use email, even though email can be traced more easily via IP address, which shows where the sender was when they sent the email. Even if you can’t trace the address to an exact location – perhaps they are sending the email from a coffee shop – you still gain insight to the nature of the email. In fact, if they are using a coffee shop, that should tell you the email is not genuine.
  2. “Michael Williams” is a generic name. This is a red flag. However, according to the website www.howmanyofme.com, “There are 308,183 people in the U.S. with the first name of Mike,” and “There are 1,844,768 people in the U.S. with the last name of Williams.” The name is so common, “Michael Williams” might be a valid name.
  3. There are gross misspellings and grammatical errors in the scammer’s text. This could mean someone from a foreign scamming ring is sending the message. However, with the current state of education and the pitfalls of voice recognition dictation, I have received many text messages from non-scammers with the same types of spelling and grammatical errors. And I often receive emails with broken (obviously foreign) English, due to the nature of my foreign or recently immigrated belly dance clients.
  4. The biggest red flag for me was the text, “There are 7 Bridesmaids (all ladies)…” In this day and age, of breaking with traditions, it is very possible that a bridesmaid could include someone who isn’t a woman. However, this phasing seemed particularly odd to me.

However, there is a lot of detail written into this text that could ring true. For instance, the song choice is one that would be perfect for a wedding, the date of the wedding was given, the ladies were “all local” (though he did not mention a city), and he was requesting specific dates and times for rehearsals. Though you could argue that a mid-day time was a red flag – do none of these women work during the day?

My gut told me this was a scam, but I decided to pursue this further, just in case it was real. So I wrote him back a long paragraph addressing the details – what it would take to choreograph and teach the routine, times I could teach, the final cost, and so forth.

 

In response I received the following:

From Scammer at 8:32 AM:  Hello, good morning

I did not respond. If he wants to book me for a gig, he will send me the money via PayPal or call to discuss more details.

From Scammer the next day at 1:47 PM:  Hey

I did not respond.

From Scammer later the second day at 5:47 PM:  Are you here ?

 

At this point his number was blocked from my phone. I either have a scammer who is trying to engage me in a real-time conversation to quickly pitch me the scam and get my money or I now have a stalker.

The next thing I did was to get on the internet and look up, “texting scams my daughter wedding” in Google. I immediately found a website promoting a choreographer, https://twistinvixens.com/2016/10/13/dance-choreographer-scam/, that has a scam story which matches mine almost verbatim. The choreographer’s scammer wrote, “Hello, My name is Chris King. I got your information online for dance classes. I’m organizing a surprise dance (like flashmob) for my daughter’s wedding, So I want you to teach the Bridesmaids choreography. Let me know if you can do this.”

I am confirmed in my belief this is a scam.

 

Why Do Scammers Target Artists?

This is not the first scam attempt on my dance business. Others included text such as, “My daughter is visiting your city this summer and is looking for a teacher for two months of lessons.” Or, “I have an event planned in Hawaii and would like to fly you to the island to perform.” The list is endless.

I also have a photographer friend who has had scammers approach him with lines such as, “I would like to book you for a gig in the Virgin Islands in spring.” By the end of the conversation, they say, “I would like to pay you with a credit card, and since our caterer does not accept cash I would like you to charge a little extra on our card to cover the cost of the caterer, and send us the extra money.” Translation – the credit card is stolen. The “mark” charges the card to get paid. The mark sends the extra money to the thieves. The credit card company denies the charges from the stolen card and the person being scammed is out several hundred dollars.

It seems that artists have a very high number of potential scammers beating down their doors. There are several reasons for this.

  1. Artists are known to have high running emotions, which is integral to our creative process. Perhaps villains assume artists can be easily swayed to donate to causes and give money to someone perceived to be in need.
  2. The arts, for most of us, tend to be less lucrative than other professions. Perhaps scammers assume that we might be easily temped by the offer of a well paying and long lasting project.
  3. Artists often deal with unknown and unexpected buyers of art, participants in classes or workshops, or people looking to hire an artist for a project (whether that is a choreography, artist installation, or photo project). Perhaps we are perceived to be more receptive of strangers and therefore easy to engage.

Whatever the reason, artists need to be aware of potential scams and be careful when dealing with unknown potential clients. Belly dancers need to be especially vigilant when it comes to bodily safety since we are often booked for parties by strangers. Even though I am very sure my most recent texter was a scammer, he could have been a simple stalker. Goodness knows I get many people who try to initiate flirtatious conversations through social media. But I think I save that for another blog post…

 

Best Practices to Avoid Falling Prey to Scammers

  1. It seems that lately, more and more dancers are removing their phone numbers from their websites and social media pages. You might consider following their lead by providing a contact email link. If you think the inquiry is valid then speak directly to the client by phone.
  2. If you get approached with any kind of job offer that seems to be a big and lucrative project be cautious.
  3. If you see any red flags or your intuition sends alarm bells, log on to the Internet and perform a web search.You might quickly find others who have had the same scam attempt.
  4. Be careful of emails with broken English, gross misspellings, and grammatical issues.
  5. Never provide clients with any account numbers, passwords, or any personal information that does not pertain to your business.
  6. If anything feels uncertain or out of the ordinary regarding forms of payment, stop correspondence immediately and reassess the situation.
  7. If being booked for an event such as my “bridesmaids choreography” immediately ask for a phone number for one of the girls. Be warned that scammers are so advanced they might be ready for you. The choreographer I referenced earlier did ask for a number. When she called it she got a generic voicemail and no one returned her call.
  8. Don’t be afraid to report scams to the appropriate authorities (see links at the bottom of the page).
  9. Remember that if a client really wants to hire you, they will pay cash. Don’t be afraid to ask for physical money and tell clients they must sign a contract to retain your services.

 

Helpful Links for Reporting Scams

https://www.irs.gov/uac/stay-vigilant-against-bogus-irs-phone-calls-and-emails

https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/Information?OrgCode=IRS#crnt&panel1-1

 

Article Updated 3/7/17:
The saga continues: I was contacted by email by “Robert Graf” with an email address of [email protected] who wrote, “Hello,this is Rr Roger Graf,I’m organizing a surprise dance (like flash mob) for my daughter’s wedding, So i want you to teach the Bridesmaids choreography.Let me know if you can do this.”