You have a restaurant gig!

Or you are thinking about getting one – either way, congratulations!  Healthy restaurant businesses can be the bread and butter of a professional dancer’s income and is a great venue for cultivating performance skills.  If you are not a professional dancer, or are not making the standard wage for restaurants in your community, please take some time to read my blog on professionalism and ethics.  I hope this helps clarify how to belly dance in a restaurant for new and seasoned dancers alike.

Most often the restaurants that feature belly dance are Moroccan, Lebanese, Turkish, Persian, or Egyptian restaurants.  I have also seen bellydance in Indian restaurants, Ethiopian restaurants, places that have ongoing live music performances, and nightclubs.  This blog will focus on dancing in restaurants where there is no designated stage or dance area – that is, you are dancing among the patrons of the restaurant that includes men, women, and children.  I’ll share with you the keys to dancing in restaurants that make it successful for the audience, the establishment, and you as a professional dancer.

Arrive.

From the moment you step into the restaurant,to the moment you leave – be genuine, be beautiful, and be polished.  That goes for your dancing and in your interaction with audience, waitstaff, owners, and managers.

  1. Be early.  If it takes you 20 minutes to change and your set starts at 8:00, be there at 7:20.  I find that if I am rushing, I feel less than great about my dancing.  If it is your very first time, get there an hour before hand.  This will give you time to relax, get settled in the changing area, or deal with an unexpected early start time (it happens).
  2. Look gorgeous.  Show up to the restaurant with your make-up and hair finished.  You should just need to change into your costume or remove your cover up when it’s show time.  Be relaxed.  Even if this is not how you are in your everyday life, as soon as you walk through the door, consider yourself on stage. Wear a beautiful, simple dress that is not revealing.  I have a favorite black dress, pretty scarf, and strappy heels or boots that I like to wear.  I try not to stand out, but if someone were to spot me having a glass of wine before my show, they would think that I am either the bellydancer or someone famous!
  3. Assess the room.  Take a look at who is there.  Ask the manager if there is anyone you should know about that is coming.  A birthday?  A long time patron?  Someone who does NOT like bellydance?  Trust me, the manager will know.  And if he or she doesn’t, she will think about it next time.  You are working as a team to create a seamless experience.  There are some things that you can see without asking anyone.  How crowded is the room?  Is there more than one room?  Is there a large party?  Where is the kitchen?  The waitstaff will be entering and exiting from there.  Is there a party of only women?  They are probably there to see you and you absolutely should dance for them.  Is it too crowded for veil?  I like to figure out spaces in the restaurant where everyone can see me and also areas that are less crowded that can serve as a post.  A post is an area that you can travel to and dance in for a little while.  This could all change when you go back to get into costume, but it’s worth checking out nonetheless.

On your marks, get dressed…

  1. Backstage at a restaurant varies widely from place to place.  I have had gigs where I had a full mirror, a waiter who brought me warm towels and glasses of wine, and, at my very first regular gig, I changed in the pantry.  No kidding.  You will save a lot of time and  stress if your costumes hooks are in the right place (so you don’t have to pin), and you can get it on in under 10 minutes.  But bring safety pins just in case.  In all honestly, you should have worked out these issues before starting at your first restaurant gig – either at student shows or community events.  I acknowledge that that is not always the case, so at the very least, practice this process at home.  I always pin my skirt to my belt (on the inside) so that the belt doesn’t shift to one side and the top edge of the skirt doesn’t creep up above the belt line.  These things make you look unprofessional, even if you won Ms. Bellydancer of the Galaxy.  Your patrons don’t necessarily know stellar bellydance from average bellydance, but they do know what a safety pin looks like.  So be careful – costuming matters more than we wish to believe.  Your audience does not want to see your bra strap dangling down your back.  Some of them are already fearful that your shoulder shimmy is going to shake your bra right off.
  2. Stretch and ground.  Give yourself time to breathe, stretch, and become present.  This is the most important part of your pre-dance routine.  I highly recommend developing and practicing a warm-up for backstage.  Ideally, you would have warmed up at home for 30 minutes or more, stretching the large muscles, and dancing through your set for the night.  Doing so will help you navigate any space more easily and stay in the moment with your audience.  After my costume and zills are on, I apply my favorite amber essence oil to my pulse points and around my bellybutton.  The scent makes me think of freshly baked cookies and reminds me to be warm and yummy!  It’s one more thing that brings me to the present.  I only apply enough that I can smell it when my wrist passes my face, so that my audience can enjoy the smell of their delicious food.  I then flow through a simple vinyasa type of warm up that connects body to breath (this also helps me see how my costume is fitting), some loose and relaxed shimmies, choo-choo shimmies to get the blood into the ankles and toes, and fluid arms, hands, and feet.  I don’t do any stretches on the floor, so forward bends, big hip circles, lateral sways, and other standing stretches are a part of my routine.  When I first started performing, I intentionally did these things verrrry slooooowly, because I found that my dancing easily became overly excited and I lost that sense of ease that I love in great dancers.  I visualize seeing the most precious baby in the audience and dancing for her (maybe the next generation of bellydancers!).  For me, babies inspire the calm kind of love that I hope my dance brings to people.  Whatever works for you, practice your backstage warm up along with your regular dance practice.  Nothing can better prepare you for an improvised performance than a familiar routine.

En-Trance them.

  1. Your music has started.  But don’t go yet!  I recommend choosing music that has an intro to allow for potential technical glitches and sound issues to be worked out while you are out of your audience’s view.  It also allows for the suspense to build.  Let the audience experience some anticipation.  I have used music that has over a minute of intro music.
    Navigating the space. When you first enter, whether it is with veil or zills or both, move confidently and pleasantly through the tables, making eye contact with the guests and smiling graciously at them.  I try to cover as much ground as possible – sort of sprinkling my bellydancer fairy dust about and letting them all know that something special is happening.  Remember that this might be the first time that your audience is seeing bellydance.  It is important to emanate love and joy no matter how they are looking at you (or not looking at you).
  2. Evaluating your audience.  I remember being horrified the first time I saw a bellydancer in a restaurant.  I had no idea she would be there and I could NOT make eye contact with her.  She was beautiful, but I just was not prepared for it.  In the course of her 20 minute set, I became more and more intrigued, but who knows what kind of face I made at her in the beginning.  She was not bothered, and you shouldn’t be either.  That woman giving you the evil eye might be your student some day!  So don’t be deterred.  Everyone is on their own path that is as important as any other. Just assess your audience and share your love of the dance with them.  Find the people who are obviously there to see you.  Acknowledge them, celebrate with them, and this will model for the others what the dance is about.  A good restaurant dancer is an ambassador for the art of bellydance.
  3. To play zills or not to play zills.  That is a question for the owner or restaurant manager.  What do they want?  What do they expect?  Ask them from the beginning.  Make sure you are not dancing to Arabic music in a Turkish restaurant, and vice versa.  If the music is too low and can’t be adjusted, I do not play zills even if they are on my fingers.  I love playing zills for the general public, however – it adds a live music element that is exciting and impressive if played well.  If you are not confident in your playing, do not play them.
  4. Intimate and confident.  It can be daunting at first to be dancing so close to your audience.  They cannot deny that you are there (although some absolutely WILL) and you cannot deny that they are one foot away from you.  Embrace this experience because they can smell your fear (ha!).  A great way to get comfortable with this intimate environment is to dance for the children and the ladies.  This will make you and your audience more comfortable since a lot of people still think that bellydance is a dance of seduction for men.  Do your best to put the women at ease if necessary.  If you don’t look a man in the eye during your entire set, that is okay!  Over time, you will be able to involve men in your dance.  If you are already comfortable doing so, do acknowledge them.  You will know right away which ones are looking at you like a piece of meat and which ones are enjoying your dancing.  Either way, be confident in your movements, be playful and elegant in your interactions, and you will feel good about your performance.
  5. The presence of staying present.  Restaurant gigs almost demand that you improvise your dancing.  The easiest way to improvise is to know your music inside and out.  Even if you try to choreograph parts, do not let that override a moment when someone in the audience wants to interact with you.  Maybe they want to tip you, maybe they want to smile at you, maybe they want to dance with you.  Let them be the star of the show!  At the very least, know when your music tells you to TRAVEL and when it tells you to STAY PUT.  When it tells you to travel, use a traveling move to get you to a new post in the restaurant.  This will allow different tables of guests to see you up close, and will give some a chance to get back to their conversation if they stopped to watch you.  Knowing the big transitions in the music will also guide your improvisation.  A simple directional change can make quite the impact.  For example, you may suddenly turn to dance for the people who were at your back, and this can be a pleasant surprise for them.  I personally like to incorporate one or two lengthy spinning moments in my set.  In the chaos that can be restaurant dancing, finding a safe space to just spin, even slowly, clears the energy and allows your audience to just gaze upon you and get swept away in the music.  Confidently letting the music guide you will help you stay present, in tune to with your audience, and let you relax in the moment.
  6. Dance to bless, not impress.  Offer up your dance to your audience as a celebration of the culture whose music you are dancing to, of womanhood, and of life!  Dance is the only art form that happens in the moment – never to be repeated in the same time or space.  It reminds us that life is fleeting, and that we should enjoy every moment.  Share this with your audience because you are creating it together.  Give the dance generously and openly and they will experience another realm of life.  Be playful and alive!
  7. The tip.  A topic of much controversy in the US, body tipping can be seen as associated with stripping.  The most important point is to know what you are comfortable with and to set boundaries for yourself on how you will receive tips.  Decide this in advance!  No one wants to watch an awkward moment happen where the drunk guy tries to tip you between your breasts and you slap him in the face.  Ask the restaurant manager if and how tips are received by the other dancers there, and let him or her know what your wishes are.  If you are absolutely opposed to accepting tips in your costume,  you could write up something that explains how you would like to be tipped and leave it on the tables at the restaurant.  A lot of guests are also uncomfortable tipping in your belt.  For me, I have learned to direct guests on where acceptable tipping places are.  I do not take tips in my bra unless it is close to my neck.  You can ask the manager to tip you first, so that the audience knows how to do it.  It’s wise to take the first tip from a woman or a child, as this will set everyone at ease.  Arab audiences might see basket tipping as busking, or begging, so it is best to talk to the manager beforehand to see what he or she thinks.
  8. Audience participation.  Most restaurant owners LOVE it when the patrons want to dance.  I say that in any restaurant, absolutely allow them to dance with you.  This shows everyone that the performance is really audience-centered and that you are there for them.  Some restaurants will require that you ask people up to dance.  If this is the case, develop a keen eye for deciding who wants to dance and who would be mortified if you asked them.  There is always someone who is watching your every move, smiling excitedly at you, and on the edge of their seat.  She would be my first choice!  After that, whoever is sitting with her I would also ask to dance.  With that said, I would let at least two songs go by before asking someone to dance.  Even if someone is extra excited to dance, I would still dance my first song before having them up to dance – simply because I want to be able to control the audience’s first impression of me.  Let that first song show your joy, elegance, and love and establish that as the mood of the show.  If someone stands up to dance with you in the first 30 seconds, it may be difficult to re-establish that standard of conduct if they have just tried to gyrate all over you.  Remember that even though you are technically working for someone else, your reputation and the way the audience remembers you is important for your own business as a dancer.  You are the artist and you are in control during your set.

Get paid.

  1. It is unacceptable to dance in restaurants for free.  These are public establishments that pay their waitstaff, their bartender, their hostess, and who make money off of customers coming to eat and watch the belly dancer.  It is in the best interest of the restaurant to pay you, so that they can hold you accountable and to certain standards of dance.  If you feel that your dancing is not at the level that you should be getting paid, then you should not be dancing for the general public.  Please remember that all audiences deserve professional caliber dancers.  If you are unsure, find a mentor in your community or join forums online that discuss professional ethics.  The Biz of Belly Dance on Facebook is a great place to start.  If a restaurant tells you they do not have the budget to pay you, do not dance there.  Dance at a non-professional show, bill it as such, and keep working on your dance.  That being said, when it is time to get paid, the manager should pay you the agreed upon amount at the end of your set.  You should not have to wait to be paid.  It is common practice for the restaurant to give you a complimentary meal.  I always take my meals to go and leave as soon as I am paid unless some of the patrons want to talk to me.  I do not drink with them or stay for extended periods of time.  If I come to the restaurant to see a friend perform, I maintain my standards of appearance and professionalism as if it were my gig.  Tips are tips, they are not your wage.
  2. Promote yourself.  Leave your business card with the manager and/or waitstaff in case anyone asks about you after you have left.  One benefit of having a regular restaurant gig is that people from all walks of life see you.  Use your time wisely and efficiently.

Wash, rinse, and repeat!  Please leave comments if you feel so inclined 🙂

I now dance on the first Thursday of the month at Zaatar Lebanese Cuisine in The Pearl District.  Come dance with me sometime!

Some photos from my busiest years performing in restaurants.

I now dance once a month at Zaatar Lebanese Cuisine in the Pearl District in Portland, OR.  Every first Thursday I perform two or three classic belly dance sets in the restaurant.  It’s a beautiful space in a fun part of town.  On the first Thursday of the month, the Pearl District hosts its artwalk.  Many of the galleries and shops in the area stay open late and there are a lot of people out on the town.  It’s recommended that you make reservations for dinner on these nights.  I hope to see you soon!

Zaatar is located at 1037 NW Flanders in Portland, Oregon.
Call 503-704-9478 for reservations