Earlier this month I survived my fifth annual (except I missed a couple years) big belly dance show! I wanted to share a bit about what putting on a show entails and what lessons I’ve learned.
This isn’t really a step-by-step process and I’ve just sort of organized Things I Think are Good Ideas in general sections. This is about self-produced belly dance shows that are small in the scheme of things, but big compared to the informal stuff we usually do. I do insert some comments about smaller haflas here and there because I can’t help myself.
I’m not saying I put on the best shows and don’t have room for improvement – in fact, writing this is my attempt to reflect and get better. So if you’ve been to or in one of my shows and thought something was dumb about it, please (politely) tell me so I can fix it!
If you have anything to add from your experiences, please leave a comment!
Why Put on a Show?
Every time I get into show stress mode, I remind myself that this is optional and I don’t have to do it at all. So why do I do it?
In this area, we have many haflas (informal shows) – you could probably perform every weekend if you wanted to. Most of these shows are in restaurants or gyms. There’s nothing wrong with an informal show – I run a gym hafla myself! – but I think it’s important to put this dance on a “real” stage like a “real” art form. To be very candid, I’ve been to many haflas where it seems like every dancer picked their music in the car on the way over. Not that there’s anything wrong with improv, but with a more formal show like this with a program, a set line up, etc, people are forced to prepare a little more and produce something a little more polished. (Before you get at me: a lot of improv can be polished, but being candid again…….a lot of it is not. Let’s be real.)
I also look back very fondly on my first stage experiences as a dancer – the excitement, the preparation, being on ~A STAGE~ -and I really wanted my students to have that experience as well.
There is also a selfish component, of course – I don’t gig and I’m not that prolific of a performer. I look forward to FORCING people to watching the ONE DAMN solo choreography I made that year, on a stage. 🙂 So I wanted to create a space for people like me, who want to create thoughtful dance and present it in a space that’s a little fancier than a gym.
Decide What You’re Going to Do
This sounds obvious but I get the sense that a lot of shows are thrown together at the last minute. Even if what you’re going to do is “belly dance show 101,” just decide that and start planning.
In my area we have too many BD101 shows so I would encourage you to get creative and at least have a theme – our next show I’m hoping will be a little more coherent as a whole (TBD).
How far out to plan? It depends on the type of show and/or how many people you need to plan around. I’ve got nine peoples’ schedules to consider, which means we decided in February to have our show in October. The true show prep started in about May, because each person was working on an original solo and I wanted to make sure everybody had time to really work on it.
I think three months is probably a good minimum for something like this. You may need to reserve your venue earlier than that depending on how fast things fill up, but in terms of promotion etc, I think three months is pretty doable. Of course, if you want to start earlier, go for it!
Before I put on my first show, I thought you had to have a special skill or some kind of special permission to do this sort of thing. Turns out any asshole can rent a theater; trust me, I’ve done it five times. You just need money.
Where to get it? Welp, the first three shows I just paid out of pocket. This is very stressful. VERY. STRESSFUL.
The fourth show I forced my troupe to pay me X money, which they could make back by selling tickets. This was pretty successful (and filled the house), but it did feel a little pay-to-play to me, so not ideal.
The most recent show we relied on our troupe fund. This was my favorite way so far, because I didn’t have to front any money at all and nobody had to go around begging their friends to buy tickets. I mean, we did anyway, but that’s just so the house wouldn’t be empty.
The thing with the troupe fund is you need to (A) have a troupe and (B) spend a year or more contributing to it, depending on how much your dues are. So plan ahead!
For our next show, I would like to look into sponsorships from local businesses. I think that’s the only way anybody does anything.
FYI you will probably never profit from these things. But, if you wanted to make money, you wouldn’t be in the belly dance game in the first place, WOULD YOU?!
Pick a Venue
This is all personal preference. For a “big show,” I prefer performance venues, as opposed to something informal like a restaurant or fitness studio. There’s nothing wrong with those, but having a “for real” stage feels a little more formal and exciting. I think it’s especially exciting for newer dancers who have never been on a stage before.
I personally like black box theaters because they are generally smaller and there isn’t as much separation between audience and performer. And, frankly, they are usually more affordable. 🙂 The large theater shows are super fun and a totally different experience – there is a little more audience/performer separation but it’s kinda neat to be floating in your own space.
Regarding other types of spaces that have stages such as bars or restaurants – I suppose it depends on the specifics of that venue. Generally, for a show like this, I prefer venues where the focus is all on the performance, as opposed to places where there is also food, drink, possibly TVs playing sportsball games, etc.
Invite (and Pay?) Performers
When it comes to inviting performers, I encourage you to look at your show and figure out where the gaps are. Do you have a lot of Oriental style? Invite some fusion dancers. Is every other piece some sort of robot fart industrial piece? Maybe get some AmCab. And so on. The only thing worse than a Parade of Soloists is a Parade of Soloists Who Are All Doing the Same Style.
You might also consider inviting people you haven’t worked with before, or somebody you really like who you don’t get to see often. I personally try to invite at least two “new to me” people every time, so that the line up doesn’t get stale.
Whether you pay them or not is up to you. Most haflas don’t pay their performers – except maybe the headliner – and that’s fine. Personally, when it comes to an informal hafla where people ask me if they can perform, I don’t feel a need to pay them. For a more formal show where I’m asking them if they will perform, I think it’s nice to offer payment, even if it’s just a gesture (because let’s be real, I can’t really pay them as much as I’d like). I also include photo and video for free as part of the “payment.”
The benefits to paying your guests include:
- Showing respect for them as dance professionals. Belly dancers always complain that we never get any respect – be the change you want to see!*
- Giving you an “in” with dancers you may not already know. It’s way easier to ask somebody to be in your show when you’re offering to pay them! Pay people to be your friends!
*I’m not saying that being unable to pay somebody means you don’t respect them. But I see a lot of “they’re just performers” attitude that I don’t like (and get into a bit more under “Be Nice to Your Performers”) and I get the feeling that a lot people wouldn’t pay even if they COULD.
If you figure out how to do this effectively, let me know. I’ve never quite figured it out. But, I think I’ve had some success with:
- Good old-fashioned flyers or postcards with event info on them
- Facebook and Google Ads
- Posting to local dance and performance groups (including non-belly dance groups — we need to promote outside our community!)
- Posting on local event calendars
- POST CONSTANTLY. It feels obnoxious. Maybe it is. But not everybody sees all your posts all the time; more posts means you’re increasing the likelihood somebody will actually see it.
I would love to get into press releases or trying to get featured somewhere somehow…but… TBD. 😛
Set the Lineup
Upfront caveat: You’ll never be able to set the lineup the way you want it, EVER. There is always some kind of constraint. Usually it has to do with performers needing time to change costumes, but sometimes you might have a philosophical reason. For my most recent show I really wanted my troupe to take up the entire first half so it felt like a mini-show. As a result, it was a little lopsided as a whole, but I had my reasons.
So, with that in mind, here are the other things to keep in mind:
- As Doris Humphrey said, “all dances are too long,” and this applies to shows as well. A lot of event organizers seem to think “more is more.” It’s not. The audience gets fatigued and wants to go home. I’m a dance enthusiast and even I get a little mad when a show keeps me for more than two hours. I have other things to do.
- For a stage show, 90 minutes (including a 10-15 minute intermission) seems to be a sweet spot. For the informal haflas I try to keep it to an hour or less with no intermission.
- Try to alternate between styles and musical types, e.g., try not to have 15 fusion soloists in a row. I personally prefer to also alternate soloists and groups whenever possible – 90% of belly dance shows are basically Parades of Soloists and after a while it gets hard to tell them apart, especially if no consideration is given to mixing up the styles.
- This is almost never possible, but if you somehow wake up in a magical fantasy world where you know everybody’s act and can organize them however you want, it’d be best to design each half of the show with the energy flow in mind. It can be whatever you want, but I think the most successful ones are ones that start medium energy; drop down to low energy; then ramp up to a high energy finale.
Photo & Video
For the haflas, if people wanna take pictures, cool beans. For the stage shows, I think it’s worth it to get both professional photography and videography. Two main reasons:
- For your portfolio, duh
- The show will look better than it was. You’re playing the long game here: you need to have photos and videos of how great your show was so people will regret missing it and hopefully come to the next one.
Sure, your cousin’s sister’s girlfriend might do it for free, but I think it’s worth paying professionals to do it so you are more reasonably assured that it’ll come out nicely and in a timely manner (my #1 problem with friends/family doing the work is that they don’t have any sense of urgency in getting it out to you!).
Be Nice to Your Performers
I get it. We’re all on low (or no) budgets here. But, you don’t need to pay your performers or be in a fancy venue to be nice! One of my favorite haflas of all time was in a multi-purpose room at a school under fluorescent lighting. I liked it because the organizer communicated with us clearly and proactively and obviously had our comfort in mind. There were mirrors provided in the dancer pen, there was a break in the show for everybody to eat cake — it was just really nice.
I have been to too many shows as a performer where I get a very distinct “I’m giving you this performance opportunity, so you owe me” feeling from the organizer. Yes, it’s true, the organizer works very hard (VERY HARD) and performers should be proactive in getting them the info they need for the show etc. BUT, guess what, the show itself wouldn’t exist if the performers weren’t in it, so how about you not treat me like you’re doing me this huge favor? I guess to some extent that depends on the area and how many opportunities you have. But still.
Shit happens, I get it. Just tell the performers what’s up. We did one show where we were given certain stage dimensions and arrived to find that there was an obstacle on the stage that the venue would not move and which significantly reduced the usable stage. The organizers apologized like a million times and we were fine with it! On the other end, we did another event where the room we were supposed to have for warming up was no longer available so they dumped us in a hallway nowhere near the stage and then seemed to forget about us entirely. Nobody came to tell us when we were about to go on, but luckily we were paranoid enough to go to the stage ourselves and got on in time. I’m still complaining about it and am not inclined to do that event again. Just an apology and checking in on us would have gone a long way!
Basically, remember the performers are people who are giving you their time and talents.
- Communicate expectations clearly: when their music/bio/etc is due; when they should arrive at the venue; etc.
- Try to give as much info as possible as early as possible: stage dimensions; stage oddities (like THE BUMP — see below); the line up; etc.
- If something changes, communicate it as early as possible.
- Bags of candy are optional, but I have done it for each my shows and don’t plan on quitting. 😛
- If it’s in your budget, having water and bananas/other snacks backstage is a nice gesture.
Be Nice to Your Audience
Like I said, I’m a dance enthusiast and I can’t stand those long shows. I have left mid-show many times and I always feel like a jerk when I do it. But you’re being a jerk to me by taking up my whole damn day. You’re especially being a jerk when the show was supposed to start 15+ minutes ago and no announcement has been made. I know these things are not on purpose, but how hard is it to pop out and let us know that we’ll be starting soon? Don’t forget that your audience is giving you their time (and in some cases money); don’t be rude by wasting it!
Putting on a Show is a Creative Act
Sure, it’s a lot of logistics and herding cats and spending money. But the show itself is a creative thing, so enjoy it! Put silly jokes in your programs; use a wacky theme; put 15 fusion soloists in a row if it really brings your vision to life.
Lessons Learned, in Some Cases Repeatedly
Get a Stage Manager
I have never done this and I regret it every time. For a casual show (e.g., restaurant) you can usually get away with managing your own show. For a stage show, you need a stage manager. You don’t think you do. BUT YOU DO. Here’s why:
- It’s stressful as hell and if you’re performing in your own show, you just can’t be responsible for it. Good luck getting into your performance head space.
- If you have to yell at somebody in your group to hurry the F up, it creates a sort of unpleasant (albeit temporary) dynamic. Blame the stage manager instead. 😀
- Depending on the venue, it may not be practical for you to be backstage directing the performers. I had one venue where the dancer pen was a separate room nowhere near the backstage entrance and I spent a lot of time literally running back and forth. In that case, you probably want two managers and some walkie-talkies.
Get a House Manager
I did learn my lesson about this one and have had a non-performing volunteer do this for the past couple years. This person:
- Takes and sells tickets
- Distributes programs
- Directs audience members to the theater, the bathroom, etc
- Directs performers to the backstage area when they arrive
- May help you stall if you have to hold the show for a few minutes
The first time I did a show I did all the house and stage management. I literally don’t remember anything about it, probably because I died and came back to life later.
This has never been in the budget because it adds to our rental time, but after the last show in particular, I think we might have to make room for it. Our rental started at 6, doors opened at 6:30, show was at 7. Dancers who arrived at 6 had only half an hour to check out the stage and get their bearings. I basically handed my iPad to the sound/light tech and was like, “just bring the lights down between acts, goodbye.” You’d be amazed at how well you can run a show with a bunch of people with a can-do attitude, but some of the piece transitions could have been a lot better if we had practiced.
Plus, the dancers would have time to get to know the space and blah blah. I just regret that feeling of OH GOOD YOU’RE HERE GET ON THE STAGE NO THE LIGHTS WILL NOT WAIT FOR YOU. So, next time, I think we’ll budget for a tech.
I don’t think this is necessary for the haflas, but for a larger show where you really really (really) need to sell tickets, I think physical tickets are a good idea. I did not do them last time and I think it was a mistake. We had a rough time selling tickets ahead of time person to person, and I think it’s because people didn’t have a physical ticket to hand over. It’s a lot easier to say “here’s your ticket, give me money” than it is to say “well, go online and buy it yourself, I guess.”
It’s Not About You
This is personal and I don’t begrudge people with different approaches. But for me, the joy of a show is creating a space for my dancers to present their art to their friends and family (and interested strangers). The audience gets to experience a beautiful live performance. Although I love dancing for my Instagram, there is something about that energy exchange between performer and audience. It’s really a special thing that is worth all the stress in the end. I do feel it’s an honor to create that space for people. It’s not about me, it’s about them.
**still gonna brag about how great my show was tho
All photos in this post are by Stereo Vision Photography.