Sunday, 20 November 2016

The ever expanding rider of a professional bellydancer - contracts and clauses

When I started out as a new dancer, I joined an online forum called Bhuz, where bellydancers gathered to chat, to exchange information and to learn. Bhuz had a whole section about professional and legal issues, and at the time it seemed kind of ridiculous that turning up and dancing should involve contracts and all kinds of legal wrangling. After all, you show up, you dance, they pay you, everyone's happy. Right?

Oh poor naive past me. What she had to learn....

After hearing lots of horror stories, I realised that it was necessary to have a contract. Too many dancers were being cancelled last minute, without having taken a deposit, or even sent home from a gig (after or without performing) without full payment for various reasons. A lot goes into preparing even a short performance, so losing the gig fee is fairly devastating.

I started out with a cut down version of Michelle Joyce's sample contract. My contract looks a little less formal, because I send it out very early in my conversation with a new client and I wanted a "friendly" approach.

However, as time, and shows, have passed, my contract has grown. For the most part because I have discovered that things that seem basic and obvious to me as a dancer, don't always occur to the client, but also because of some ridiculous, and often hilarious positions that I have found myself in.

This post is a brief compilation of some of those additions, based on the experiences of myself, and other dancers I know. Some details are changed to protect the innocent.

The monies

On the Bhuz pages, it was always the money side that caused the most issues. Common problems include being asked to reduce the fee for various reasons, some of my favourites on the bellydance grapevine:

  • "it's my birthday"
  • "It's only half an hour"
  • "not everyone likes bellydance"
  • "it's fun for you"
  • "it will be great exposure"
I used to be shy about stating my fee, but now I make it very clear at the outset. Some people will be put off, but they will be put off whenever they find out the price, so let's not waste anybody's time. An easy mistake to make when starting out is not wanting to "put off" potential customers, but it really is OK to let an enquirer know if it's not going to work for you.

Deposits. Again, my serious clients have never taken issue with a deposit to secure the booking. It's important because you can end up turning down work because you are already booked, then being cancelled at the last minute. 

Workshop teaching has a whole different pricing structure. While I generally quote a flat fee, it has become increasingly common within the dance community for teachers to work for a percentage of the class takings. At best, it means you can earn slightly more for a popular class. At worst it means that the host is protected from making an unaffordable loss - many workshops just wouldn't happen in the UK right now otherwise, the risk is just too great for the host.

Most of the time it works out just fine, because dance teachers aren't generally out to fleece each other; hosts tend to work very hard to populate classes, and if they can't they tend to be honest and cancel. But there was an occasion where I offered this pricing structure to an "outside" client, who then did not publicise the class, or tell me that there were only two participants, and I lost a lot of money on expenses. Because of this I now include a clause for a minimum number of participants, or a minimum fee.

Changing space.

Almost every dancer I know, who has performed at some point - whether as a pro or a student has encountered this one.

A brief rundown of the top 5 changing spaces:
  • A food storage cupboard in a restaurant
  • The back of a van with no internal light
  • A tent with no standing room.
  • A single toilet cubicle, which was the only toilet for the venue.
  • A shower room with a wet floor.
From a dancer's perspective: Most bellydance costumes are not travel friendly. They have fringe, heavy beading, delicate crystals. They are not designed for being sat on. They are also generally difficult to wash so we want to wear them for as short a period as possible and not anywhere that the hem might be soiled on the ground. They are also complex to get into, we need space and we don't want to drop the end of our belt in a puddle. Even the skimpiest costume often involves a lot of layers, fastenings and pins. And we need light, and preferably a mirror. We know this can be a tough call for some venues, but if it really is impossible to provide a decent changing space, it's best that we know in advance so we can work with that and arrive partially dressed at least - and it might mean that there is no costume change between sets.

Show timings

My terms always state when I will arrive, when I will leave and how long I will dance in between. I often get people asking me to dance for an unrealistic period - like 2 hours straight.

Dancing, full tilt, registers on my Fitbit as an Aerobic workout, but I have to do that without appearing to exert myself excessively. Because nobody likes a bellydancer dripping in sweat and heaving for breath over their dinner. Most dancers consider 20-30 minutes to be a reasonable set length. 

While it might be possible to tone it down and dance for longer, most Western audiences couldn't really handle that. We don't really have a culture where people are comfortable sitting back and being lightly entertained, we want big, in your face... until our concentration span runs out. 

The time window is also important. Firstly because, as Michelle puts in her contract, often a performer has other gigs to get to, so it's not acceptable to postpone the performance at the last minute.Or maybe you need to get home to a babysitter, or before you turn into a pumpkin. Another issue that seems common for festivals and conventions, is that they expect all the team to be on site for the duration. This means that you might get paid for an hour of your time, but you lose 6 hours of your day. That might be OK if the event is of interest to you, and you get to spend the day watching bands or perusing interesting merchandise, but if you are going to be losing the opportunity to work elsewhere, then it is reasonable to charge a waiting fee for your on-site time.

Show content

It's really important that clients know what to expect from a show, I usually have videos and music samples, and that goes into the initial agreements so it's super clear.

A couple of other useful things....

"The show will be culturally sensitive" - which is a really nice way of saying "no, I'm not going to dress your uncle up as a "harem girl" and teach him a dance to humiliate him, but I will gladly do some audience participation that is respectful of the culture I am representing"

"I will choose who to invite for audience participation". I stole this from another dancer. While sometimes it's cool to be asking the guest of honour up to dance, it's preferable and "safer" for the performer to choose participants herself. Then she can choose people who look keen (because embarrassing people isn't usually actually fun) and avoid people who might cause issues (like the guy who strips off his shirt and wants to rub up against her while she dances. This has happened to dancers I know. It's gross and unacceptable).

"The show will be family friendly". This eliminates some of the wierd preconceptions some people still have about bellydance and sexuality. 

On a related note, here is the moment for a story from a friend of mine who is a burlesque dancer. She and a colleague were booked to perform at a corporate event. The organiser came to see them just before, in the dressing room and said "just to be sure, you're not going to be doing anything *too risque* are you?". Well. The problem is, that they were. As strip tease artists, that was exactly what they had planned, and while they had alternate acts in their repertoire, they hadn't brought the costumes and props for those. It seems the client had booked performers who were known to be good at what they do, without properly checking what it was that they do.

Often our clients aren't used to booking performers, and they don't know what questions to ask. The performers on the other hand are so used to what we do, that we often forget that some things aren't obvious to an outsider. This is why I like to keep it all written down in a standard document, that I can quickly customise and send out.

A safe space to dance

Another one for a list of ridiculousness, I have experienced....
  • Wet tarmac
  • A slope of about 30 degrees
  • Deep sand
  • A rolled lawn, which disguised uneven ground underneath (I broke a toe on a turn)
  • Grass with thistles in it
Often an event organiser will think about space, but not think about the floor, which is the most important aspect of the performance space. The only way to overcome this is to be really prescriptive, and include the caveat that says you won't dance but will require payment if the area is unsafe. It sounds harsh, but it's not as harsh as losing a month's dance income due to injury and I've never had to follow through on this as clients tend to be brilliant once their attention is drawn to the right areas.

The green room

OK, so now we get into diva rider territory! I always put into my terms that I will require access to drinking water. It's easy to get stuck backstage, with nothing to drink and performing is a hydration heavy occupation. If there will be substantial gaps between my teaching or performance slots when I am expected to stay on site then I need a rest area (green room) with bathroom access etc. No peeled grapes and blue M&Ms, I promise. I just don't want to be left sitting on my suitcase in a corridor!

Tech requirements

This one is super important. Music is absolutely crucial to a dance performance and I cringe every time I hear the story of a dancer who had to dance to the client's playlist, to their phone speaker or nothing at all. I clear up the sound system requirements straight away and offer up my sound rig if they need it. Then I bring an MP3 player and a CD of just that set. I also bring cables to connect my MP3 player via phono, analog and USB. Then I put my Minirig in my bag. Just in case.

This isn't because I am super awesome, it's because I have had to run out for a new cable 10 minutes before a performance, or got to a venue and found their sound system is too quiet. Also there was a time when I decided to charge my iPod on my laptop, but it synced with iTunes and erased the playlist that I had compiled on the device. I only realised when I arrived at the venue and went to soundcheck. Always  soundcheck.

I also ask for someone to be on hand when I arrive and, if relevant, when the performance/class starts to help with tech setup (and if it's a class, registering etc). The story behind this came from an event where I had arrived first thing in the morning, but was teaching after lunch and inbetween times, the location of my class was changed. To a cinema. Which had no accessible music system. And was playing adult films. Clearly this is not an acceptable situation, and none of the organisers or support staff were anywhere to be found. I had to delay the class by 15 minutes while I ran around trying to find a tech person to sort it all out. So now my contract is set up so that sort of thing doesn't end up being my responsibility.

Finally, and probably most importantly.

When I started using contracts, and to an extent still, I felt awkward about it. I worry about sounding divaish with an extensive rider, or like I have no faith in the client's ability to host me appropriately. However, I have noticed a stark difference between how clients treat me when I provide a contract, vs when I don't. The more prescriptive my terms, the more willing people are to fall over themselves making sure everything is right for me, and the whole thing goes better for everyone.

Assuming that your client isn't an expert in bellydance performance (and that's a safe assumption, because that's your job), they can't be expected to understand the minutiae of what helps you to give your absolute best. They will assume, that you have it all in hand, which rightly they should, that's what they pay you for. So if there is something that you need from them, they are going to need you to let them know or assume you won't get it.

Often a client contacts me, not really knowing what to expect, they might have a idea about what I can do, but part of my job is often to say "that's great and I can accommodate that" (or "I'm afraid that's not going to be possible") "BUT, I can offer you this.... which has worked out really well for similar occasions in the past".

For this reason, I always submit a contract for every performance or teaching booking. It doesn't matter if it is a local fete or nursing home, a charity fundraiser where I am donating my fee, or a high end ball. Even when the client is someone I know well and trust. Because without fail, every time I have let things slip and failed to provide a comprehensive set of terms at the very outset, something has avoidably gone wrong.

Here's your Jerry Springer moment. When you don't bother with the paperwork, things usually turn out OK. Sometimes they go disastrously or hilariously wrong, but that is the exception - usually you can muddle through. Paperwork fixes the problems before they happen, but what it mostly does is makes it clear from the start that you are not a rank amateur, and sets expectations appropriately. When you do everything professionally, not just how you behave and present yourself to perform, but also how you set yourself up, from the start with all the official contracts, invoices etc, clients better recognise your value and are enabled to treat you better. Not only this, but it elevates the impression of our artform as a whole.

Friday, 18 November 2016

The big November update.

I've been having an amazing couple of months, so I thought I had better do a little news post to catch up....

Dancewise my latest big thing was being part of The Juniper Project. I realised recently that this was the first time in 7 years that I have danced as part of a large troupe. The challenge of learning a choreography written by someone else (the amazing Alexis Southall), polishing to the point of uniform consistency and working with a bunch of brilliantly talented dancers was a really enriching, and intense experience. Oh. And the zills. All the zills.

We performed the piece at the Infusion Emporium show. I'm really looking forward to seeing the official videos  when they come out in January, because the sneak peeks I have seen are looking great.

Photos by Dan Fullard, here...
Infusion Emporium was also an excellent opportunity for me to get some training in. I took workshops with Piny Orchidaceae who really got me thinking about more interesting ways to move and to generate movement ideas, Amy Sigil, who I find really inspirational as an artist and teacher, and Anasma, who again was pushing me into realms of movement outside my usual repertoire. I came home after 4 1/2 hours of driving and went straight into the studio to start mixing some new ideas into my current WIPs.

Speaking of the studio, my home studio is now up and running. My Monday morning Glastonbury classes will now be taught out of my studio (no longer the Goddess Hall). I'm also getting a lot more work in, having a dedicated, full time training space, with all my props etc at hand.

The dancers of Bridgwater are shimmying on. We've been working on a party theme this term and I have been making them do more improvisation as well as getting a handle on some more social dancers. I am super proud of them for nailing some fairly challenging stuff this term. New dancers are always welcome to join this friendly and enthusiastic bunch.

The Laylet Amar Ensemble, a collective of musicians and dancers from the South West are going to be appearing at the Glastonbury Frost Fayre, Sat 26th Nov, on the Melodrome stage at 13.15. Come along and cheer us on if you are about.

Last of all, the big news is that I have now qualified as a Personal Trainer. Training and qualifying has been an extremely intense process, but it has given me a whole new skillset and understanding that is already adding new depths of understanding and tools for my dance teaching, particularly in terms of postural correction and complementary conditioning. I am also now providing fitness training through Fire Lotus Fitness, which will see me supporting individuals and groups in reaching their own health and fitness goals through in person and online personal training!

I'm really excited to see how the next few months pan out!