Professionalism and Integrity in the Entertainment Business and Beyond!

By Soraya

International Egyptian Dance Artist, Choreographer and Entertainment Booking Agent

"An ancient art with a modern vision"

Staying true to why we love to dance and entertain is just as important as staying true to ourselves on a personal level. Many singers, musicians and dancers have written to me from all over America and the world asking what to do in certain situations when problems and unforeseen challenges arise. Unfortunately, there is a cruel wind blowing through our business. Even though I am young, I have been performing Egyptian dance since I was five years old at countless family celebrations, etc. Since then, my art has taken me all over the world and the U.S. I am American born but I grew up with the ethnic music, Middle Eastern/Mediterranean heritage and the dance constantly around me. These experiences have taught me valuable lessons as a person and as a highly respected, professional international artist. Being an entertainer and choreographer of powerful and dynamic avant-garde dance performances has led me to a higher understanding and level of every nuance in the art world. I am not a hobbyist, but a true professional in every sense of the word and this is what I wish to convey in the following essay.  I will try to answer the questions and advice inquiries posed to me and to help guide others along in reaching their goals and in remembering to always stay on track.

One of the most common situations a performer could find herself/himself in is the Arabic restaurant or nightclub. The most important thing to keep in mind is to never compromise your art for any low-class club owner, etc. In all due respect, I am trying to avoid sounding prejudiced, but the scenario remains true all too often. Unfortunately, as performers, the cultural connotations that accompany the art are not always good. Since we are viewed too many times in a negative light, we must always remember to stay strong. Never allow anyone to put you down or offer low pay for something that we pour our heart and soul into. This not only goes for insidious club owners but also unprofessional and sleazy promoters. They are known to offer terrible wages, overwork the artist and act inappropriately. I hear this all the time. The club and/or restaurant situation can lower a performer's self-worth. It is so terrible because this is usually the only artistic outlet! Countless performers have written to me asking what I would do if I were in their shoes. The reality here is that in this type of venue, the owner and sometimes the audience does not care about getting even a half-decent entertainer, let alone a really great one. As sad as it sounds, the underpaid artist is forced to accept a ridiculous fee of $25.00, $50.00 or $75.00 for the entire night and has to depend on the good will of a few dollars from an overzealous tipper in the crowd, which is in very bad taste! This type of behavior has brought the value of good talent to an all-time low. Good taste and talent are usually not a factor in a restaurant. The art suffers, the poor audience suffers, and the idiot who owns the restaurant or club continues to exploit! When they look for a cheap price, they always get a cheap performer who is desperate for work it's a shame.

I carefully select every show that I do and never under any circumstances, put myself in a scene that is not 100% professional and appreciative of the dance. That not only means who my clients are who my audience will be and if the establishment is professional, classy and has a great reputation BEFORE I accept any job. It is important to ask many questions. Try this and you will see how much respect you gain as an entertainer and as a person. I rarely dance in restaurants and/or clubs unless my show is being "showcased/featured." This means taking excellent pay (unlike a "house" performer) and being advertised, highlighting your credentials and accomplishments with your professional "public relations" photo. Your "following" will get to see where you are performing and people will even bring their children with them. Many times I cannot invite the general public to an event because most of my work is a private corporate theme party, Arabic or Jewish wedding or some other private function. When I get requests to showcase my art, it is a very nice way to provide an evening of cultural entertainment to people who normally never get to see real, authentic Egyptian belly dancing and in most cases my clientele are Arabs and know the difference in quality and authenticity. It is like comparing a hamburger to a filet.  Unfortunately, a lot of American audiences will settle for anything. For the discriminating and family oriented ethnic audiences they demand the best or they will not watch and ignore the dancer. "Showcasing" is also a very nice way to show my audiences' my newest choreographies, music and costuming. Sometimes I also incorporate my orchestra or a singer into the act. My show is upbeat, exciting and dramatic as well highly professional with strong routines, rhythmically dynamic and challenging "cutting edge" music, gorgeous costume changes to ultimately culminate into a true Egyptian style stage show. With Arabic dancing, it is important to know "how" to dance and to move correctly and with "feeling." I love to give my audiences a complete show encompassing a total experience to give them the best image of belly dancing possible. I enjoy doing choreographies and energetic stage performances, not walk around practically begging customers for tips, which is embarrassing, degrading and ruins the whole image of what this art is all about. The classy, elegant and upscale bistros' do not want this garbage in their establishments. They want to keep a certain air of professionalism, dignity and integrity and are careful not to hurt their reputations and enjoy separating themselves from the rest. In the low-end restaurants the dancers are only a bad diversion and are in the background while the people eat and do not pay attention, unless a guy who had too many drinks decides to stuff in a dollar and act inappropriate. This is in very poor taste and is not Arabic dancing. It is disgusting when they act like sleazy American go-go dancers and strippers. Let's not go there, you know what I mean! I also clearly define how many shows I will be doing and make sure to have nice dressing room. Too many people write to me and tell me of awful, deplorable conditions, etc. So here is your answer… 

Never let yourself fall into the trap of allowing yourself to be taken advantage of, because if you do, respect for the art will be lost, but more importantly, the respect for yourself will be gone and that is priceless....My sincerest advice is to never sell out no matter what! The change starts with you! Don't allow a sleazy club owner to bully you around, insult you with ridiculously low pay, make you perform too many times even to a practically empty house flirting and or hangout with the customers in between performances, etc. Take your time, relax and go at your own pace, always have fun no matter what. I love being the star of the show, a respectful professional preserving the image of what I want to portray. Do not let some jerk throw you off balance. Also, taking more for your shows in general makes your worth more as an artist and you can refuse to perform in between tables soliciting tips and in turn avoid unwanted problems. When you are well paid and held in high regard, you will be amazed at the respect it generates. People will know you are not a "bargain" or "economy" performer, this is how the "house" dancers are sadly viewed. There is nothing better than earning the respect and aura of a seasoned professional and to be held in the highest regard. Recently, someone told me about an idiot club owner who had the audacity of telling her during her performance, where to dance by pointing! I rest my case. Who is in control here? You are the entertainer, you make it happen and if the owner doesn't like it, politely hand him your zills and tell HIM to dance!  

I have been very fortunate in my career of having incredible opportunities of doing only high-end shows, concerts, special events, corporate theme parties, international tours, etc. Through my entertainment agency, I book and contract other performers; variety/specialty acts for high profile cultural events and parties for the casinos, Hollywood industry events, weddings, international concerts, etc. I book only professional magicians, singers, musicians, etc., through my entertainment agency: "SORAYA'S MID-EAST DANCE AND MUSIC PRODUCTIONS". Although specializing in the best in authentic Middle Eastern entertainment, I also enjoy creating and producing other cultural events with many interesting and exotic themes. These other national themes include; Hawaiian, East Indian, Spanish (Flamenco and Gypsy), Irish, Italian, etc. I like to offer my clients a whole plethora of ethnic shows, not in just one genre but to successfully reach out to the mainstream which is important as an artist and entrepreneur. My achievements became a reality not only because of this dance being my cultural art and in my blood, but by envisioning a goal and imagining and tasting it's many flavors and rewards. When dealing with only the business aspect, I try to separate emotion, it is the complete opposite when I dance, and it is all emotion. Having the natural feel for authentic belly dance since I was a child is important, it is also paramount to be good in business and not overextending my good nature to the wrong people. I enjoy bringing many creative and interesting dimensions to the dance, to add a modern vision to an ancient art without losing artistic integrity. When you feel truly appreciated for your hard work and dedication both financially and artistically it is just fabulous. Being treated the way an artist should be treated with respect and admiration as the star of the show and not as a bad diversion, elevates the reason why you are an entertainer in the first place. When the audience comes to see YOU perform and starts to clap and whistle (and in my genre "zaghareet") even BEFORE you begin to dance, just by hearing a few bars of music from the your introduction or theme, now that is the ultimate! Doing so many things and trying to always do my very best to reach the mainstream and to successfully tap into a culture as an aggregate will bring together better cultural diversity, awareness, multiculturalism and understanding of this often misunderstood dance form and the Arab culture. 

So many people don't have a clue or know what real belly dancing is supposed to look like. My dance technique and choreographies are very structured and well thought out. They are delicate, intricate, powerful, agile, creative, elegant, classy and expressive and much more. The movements are of an internal nature and every aspect of the dance has meaning as it reflects the intricacies of the music.  I always dance from my heart and soul, as if every performance that I do is my last. It is not how much one moves, like most people think, but how subtle one moves...To be perfectly honest, too many dancers look like nervous chickens running around on the dance floor, with no clue how do dance properly making a mockery out of Raks Al Sharqi and the related Arabic culture. It is embarrassing to the Arab people and this in turn has given the art such a bad reputation in the US. Anyone can just sway their hips around and run around a dance floor, that does not make them a dancer. It is not that easy, this dance comes from within and when performed correctly and it encompasses a full range of emotions. After a performance I feel like I bared my soul to the audience, because the art is my catalyst to spiritual awareness and growth. I can't emphasize enough how important feeling the music is and to really listen to how the music speaks to you. When someone makes the statement; "what is this music?", you can't say it is simply just Arabic music. You have to know exactly what it is from the name of the composition, the singer, the composer and its meaning. It is something that is innate, it is deep inside and is born into an artist from childhood and it really cannot be formally taught, because belly dance is more like an understanding. In my opinion, it can't really be taught as easily as other forms of dance can; either it occurs naturally inside or not, it is etched and ingrained in the soul and is very natural.  The music awakens the dance and brings it out to share with the audience. Whenever I do a workshop where I perform many different styles of Arabic dance; it can sometimes be difficult to convey the precise movements to the participants. For me, intense and impeccable attention to detail is everything and what it's all about as an artist. The best way to give my participants the real meaning of belly dance is for them to watch me dance and pay very close attention as they observe my every move and gesture. I first show them proper technique and then I put it to music. The "watch me" method works best in which I perform a specific choreography and then try to explain a little bit about the technique being used and why. The music plays the most important role in the art because the movements and the music are tightly interwoven. The movements should be direct illuminations that mirror the music to successfully embody the true soul, spirit and earthy nature of Arabic music and dance. Observation works best for those who want to really absorb this dance form. It is hard to teach exactly what to do when a tempo and time signature changes in the music. Steps can be taught, but to glue it all together and make it work, that is another story. By making it too scientific you lose the real meaning and feeling. You can't teach the feeling that comes from within your heart and soul. In the Middle East, the dance is passed down from generation to generation and from mother to daughter.  

Through education, artistic excellence, authenticity and integrity of the highest caliber possible.....I know I will continue to make my artistic goals happen. However, I know somehow that I have already achieved them and it feels incredible! I think that the art of "belly dancing" should be viewed as something beautiful and sacred, not as something sexual to be exploited in the wrong hands, but to be cherished and celebrated. The undulations of this dance originated and came to be as a birthing ritual in the villages of the ancient Middle East/Mediterranean. It was not intended to be misused and misconstrued as a form of seduction or a way to entice some silly man to stick a dollar in your costume, but as a means to celebrate the true feminine soul through personal self-expression. It is sensual as it celebrates life and sensuality and feeling is as natural as breathing. The true technique of the movements when done correctly is very natural and earthy, not sexual or dirty. My goal is to make Middle Eastern dance as respected and excepted as any creative expression like ballet, opera, fine art, etc. With these goals in mind at all times, I stay true to the roots of the dance and my heritage and continue to make it all happen. I taste it and picture how it will look as a choreographer before it becomes a reality. Nothing great is ever easy and to achieve success and personal satisfaction, one must remember to never give up, stay dedicated and goal-oriented, and most of all, be patient. Whenever someone states; "you can't do that!" remember, that is a statement to make you work harder but, most importantly, work smarter. These are the very people who try to hold you back and try to make you second-guess yourself. Don't be afraid of the unknown and take smart calculated risks! If you keep all of this in mind and continue to follow your dreams, you will do just fine!

Yours in art and dance!!

Ma' Salaama!

Soraya J