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The American Belly-Gram

Advice From a Pro

1999 Anthea Kawakib Poole (updated 2012)

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Dancers, need a poem for your belly gram recipient's card?

Here's a Printable "Job Sheet" or "Gig Sheet"

putting the veil in a safe
            place after using it
Putting my veil in a safe place during one of my last Belly Grams (I'm 52 in the photo).

Why "Belly Grams?"

Over the years I've heard from both sides of the fence about whether we (as "Oriental Dance Artists") should even be using the word 'belly' at all, let alone doing Belly Grams. Obviously, I'm fine with both. Strictly speaking, of course, calling our dance 'belly dance' is like calling ballet 'tip-toe dancing' - there's a lot more to it than that! But I think of the term as the American nickname for Oriental Dance - in our culture it communicates information about our style of dance and costume. Somehow, 'Oriental Dance-gram' just doesn't communicate as well.

As for the acceptability or authenticity of 'grams in our dance form, having dancers entertain at parties is a centuries-old custom, an honored tradition (even if society didn't honor the dancer herself!). And besides the financial benefits (especially since private-party fees are about double what restaurant gigs pay), doing Belly Grams can give a dancer valuable experience in handling herself, other people, and unusual situations. I've found 'grams to be invaluable tools for personal growth, and not only in the realm of dance.

The safety issue...

Yes, I've had some crank phone calls; and even more calls from local hotels at 1am (where in my ads did it say anything about stripping or 'one-on-one' dancing? Too many one-track minds out there!). Do you have voice mail? Use it. Turn your phone off before you go to bed. If you get a call that makes you feel uneasy, hang up - you don't have to talk to anyone you don't want to.

Also, if you have to meet someone to follow them to the party, meet them at a public place and keep your doors locked and windows up, just like mom always told you.  Common sense and intuition will take you far.

If you get to the location and you don't like the look of it, just turn around and leave; you don't even have to explain.

In all my years doing hundreds of grams, I've only been to a couple that made me uncomfortable, that made me feel, not unsafe, but just icky. I probably wasn't what they expected either. But their money was just as good as anybody else's! So follow your heart, and your intuition, and may God bless your endeavors!

What to Wear

A cabaret-style bra and belt of sturdy material with short or medium-length fringe (you'll be sitting on it in the car so save the long fringe and sequined chiffon for the club), matching accessories, and costume jewelry make your look "complete". Harem pants and vests are suitable too. Keep your total outfit to one predominant color - mixing and matching doesn't look as professional. Wear a loose caftan over your costume until you get to the gig, then you can remove the coverup and put on your veil.

Boom Box and Music Player Tips

Get a portable sound system that puts out a big sound; if the speakers are detachable, lock and/or glue them on. Use batteries so you don't have to hassle with finding an electrical outlet, but keep the power cord in your dance bag just in case. At the gig, YOU take care of the music - don't turn it over to a stranger who may turn it on at the wrong time or hit the wrong switch by mistake. Make sure you put your music player where you can get to it easily in case you need to adjust the volume during your dance.

Arriving at The Gig

Quickly Assess the Situation:
  • is there a dog loose in the house? Ask someone to either put it in another room or restrain it because the noise and commotion can excite dogs into barking or snapping at you.
  • do you know what the recipient or Guest of Honor looks like? Get someone to describe what he looks like or what he's wearing, or at least where he is. You want to be able to go right up to him, not stand there looking lost.
  • is the group in an awkward place for you to dance? Request any tables or chairs in the way be moved so you can dance and easily approach the Guest of Honor. You may decide on another room entirely, and have everyone move there. Make sure you can easily reach the Guest of Honor if you want to wrap the veil around him. Try to get him into a chair at one side of the room - couches are awkward to work around.
  • is someone taking pictures? Make sure you give them a chance for a good shot or two during and after the dance, posing with him using the veil as a backdrop, etc. Ask them if they've gotten enough pictures, they'll appreciate it, and it leaves memories for them to share - and free advertising for you!
  • involve the Guest of Honor! When you've finished your dance and the 'birthday music' starts, ask him, "Would you stand up please?" (don't ask him to 'get up and dance' with you!) Do a simple shoulder or hip move and say, "Try this, it's like the Twist" or whatever. Once they stand up they're likely to follow through with dancing. Keep the birthday music to about one minute, and go through a few simple moves. Watching him try tummy rolls or arm undulations will amuse everyone greatly. (NOTE: at office parties they often won't do anything - another good reason for only one minute of birthday music!)

DEALING WITH THE PUBLIC

When the 'gram' is over and all the pictures have been taken, shake the Guest of Honor's hand, say "Very good! Thank you!" Then you can gather your veil and boom box and retire. The hostess should follow you out and pay you now, if she hasn't done that yet. Be as pleasant and gracious leaving as you were arriving. Don't linger long or join the party, it's unprofessional (even though they'll probably ask you to!). Act as if you have a busy schedule and be on your way, and never do "encores."

I marketed Belly Grams as "15-minute Shows"; in other words, when someone calls up for information you tell them: 
"It's a 15-minute show, it includes a card with my picture in it; I read him the poem, then I do my dance; if he's not smoking I'll wrap the veil around him during my dance; and after my dance I'll try to get him up to dance."
That gives them a good visual and an idea of the show will go without them having to ask question after question. Many times people ask for a longer show, or how much do you charge for an hour(!). I would explain that I've found that 15 minutes is a good length for a party, because people don't want to sit still and pay attention for much longer than that when they're at a party. I always made sure they understand that I'd only dance for family-family events - "group, mixed parties"  - and that I'm not a stripper.

Taking Care of the Business Details

Here's the "Job Sheet" I use to keep track of all the info I need - feel free to print it out and make copies for your own use. Make sure you keep your calendar updated!

An important part of your Bellygram is to leave them a memento, and a way to get in touch with you again. In my gram service I had my own cards printed, with an original drawing of me (by Jami Jahan), an original poem inside with a blank spot for the recipient's name (contact me if you want to buy the right to use this poem; it's all-purpose: works for birthdays, retirements, and going-away parties, for men or women), and of course a good photo. Plus, I paperclip my business card onto the back. Put your contact info on the gram card also, or even info on classes if you teach. If there's more than one recipient, I charge $5.00 for an extra card - after all, they're one of a kind!  And always leave a few business cards behind, even flyers for classes or shows. 

Even BC (Before Computers) it was easy to do the card layout, and now it's a breeze. If you're serious about the business of Belly Grams (and it is a great business), invest in these details that will set you apart from the rest. The Guest of Honor will likely show their special card to their co-workers and friends.

Music Suggestions

I recommend the typical American-style show of a 3- to 5- part routine: entrance, veil, beledi or drum solo, and short finale. My own show was simply Entrance (with cymbals), Veil Dance, Drum Solo, and 15-second finale. Then either about 45 seconds of a "Happy Birthday" song or another good dance song for non-birthday occasions. The total length of my dance was about 12 minutes or so; add on the presentation of your 'special occasion' card beforehand and your 'dance' with the Guest of Honor afterwords, and that brings the entire "show-time" to about 15 minutes.

What about playing Finger Cymbals or Zills?

Nothing beats finger cymbals for adding that unique excitement to your show!  If you haven't started playing with them yet, find an instructor to tutor you and/or work on them yourself at home! I even have a series of How-To videos on YouTube you can follow even if you've never played before. For Belly Grams, you really only need to use them for the entrance, then you can take them off and set them next to your boom box so you don't forget them. Even just 'triples' used with taste here and there in your entrance dance are better than nothing! You can also check out my "DANCE TIPS" booklet for more info on cymbals, including patterns and unique touches: Kawakib's booklets on belly dance.

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