You charge WHAT? for just DANCING?

“A guy calls the musicians’ guild to get a quote on a 6 piece band for a wedding. The rep says “Off the top of my head, about $2000”. He says”WHAT? FOR MUSIC?. “The rep responds ” I’ll tell you what. Call the plumbers’ union & ask for six plumbers to work from 6 to midnight on a Saturday night. Whatever they charge you, we’ll work for half.”

(From Absolute Underground TV via a facebook status)

I like that joke. It’s funny because it’s so true. People don’t question paying a professional trades person for their expertise, but they are always often thunderstruck when asked to pay a professional rate when hiring a musician or dancer. It’s just crazy-making! Why does this happen? Why does the public so undervalue the professional entertainer?

It can be really insulting, too, when someone calls to hire you to perform for their event and then changes their mind when they find out that you actually charge money. Money! “Well,” says a typical inquirer, “I thought you could stay and enjoy the party in return for dancing.” Or how about the restaurant owner who offers you a “free” supper in return for the evening’s entertainment. Or worse yet, the potential employer who cancels your gig because they found someone else who will do it for significantly less money. I even had one conference organizer who, upon being told my fee, asked me if I had a student I could recommend who would do it for free! This might lead you to think that I charge exorbitant rates – not true! My rates are similar to what bellydancers are charging for similar gigs in Calgary, Edmonton & Vancouver.I think dancers and musicians have in large part done this to themselves through a history of undercutting. Undercutting is when someone agrees to work for significantly less money than the current local rate. This results in the going rate going insultingly lower and lower until a professional can no longer justify working.

Sometimes this happens in all innocence – for example, several years ago I passed a gig along to a student of mine who I judged ready. She was excited to accept. When she discussed what rate she should charge, she suggested a rate about 50% of what I typically charge for the same event. “No, no!” I cried! “Don’t undercut me!” She was shocked – she hadn’t considered it to be undercutting. In her mind, she was my student and less experienced and therefore should charge less than me. Logical on the surface; however, I explained that once you enter the arena of the professional, you must conduct yourself as a professional in every way, including your rate. (How to determine your readiness to become professional is another topic.) The client has hired a professional, and that is you! Why should a client want to pay $175 for a bellydancer if they can get one for $75? Why should they want to pay $50 for a bellydancer if they can get one for tips and a meal? And so it goes.

Another example is when people accept a gig for very little or for free because they “just want to dance.” They want the fun and the experience. They aren’t thinking that they are getting their experience at the expense of those working artists who gig for their living, to supplement their income or support their art. These dancers may be ultimately shooting themselves in the foot, because when you undervalue yourself as a performing artist and don’t charge a professional level fee, everyone’s fee goes down – including yours on the day you decide you’re worth more than a plate of nachos.

And what is wrong if you just want to dance and don’t care about competetive rates? Nothing! Dance for your family and friends. Dance at public events such as fundraisers for good causes. Dance in the school recital with your teacher. Just be sure, when dancing in public, to let people know that you are an amateure, not a professional for hire.

I pretty much suit myself these days when it comes to what gigs I accept and what gigs I turn down. I enjoy dancing for friends – in fact, this weekend I’m helping to celebrate the birthday of an old friend by showing up in costume and doing a little performance. I take a paying gig if it takes place at a date & time I am happy with, and only if the client is happy to pay a fair rate. I am too old to want to beat the bushes for paying gigs at this point in my life, and I’m past the days of wanting to make a living gigging – fortunately I have a 9-5 that takes care of most of my living expenses. These days the dance pretty much manages to pay for itself, and that is 95% through the school. I dance for free a lot – donating my performances to good causes that I believe in. But even there, I set a limit. Often oganizations who are fundraising will have a small budget for honoraria, and I always ask if they do. I am happy to give a receipt for in-kind donation for records if they are non-profits. This also lets them know that they received a gift of some value, and that I value my time & talent. And let me stress that while I do donate performances to good causes, they have to be causes I am passionate about. I’m sure nobody would be surprised to hear that everyone considers their cause to be the best one! So I hope the phone doesn’t start ringing with people wanting free entertainment now that I’ve said that.

The subject doesn’t come up very often, but when it does I just want to throw a little tantrum – which, I guess, is what I’m doing in this blog post. I have spent countless hours practicing technique. I have spent a lot of money on my dance education and training. I am a professional dance artist. I teach classes and have spent hours and hours (and dollars!) attending professional development classes and workshops learning how to teach dance and how to teach adults in general adult ed. It takes a couple of hours to prepare for a gig. Am I dancing at your wedding or at your convention? Am I doing a little solo followed by a fun bellydance lesson for your baby shower or your women’s retreat? Costumes are expensive, and the client expects a professional performer to show up in a professonal costume. But there’s more to it than that – it also takes a good chunk of time to put on makeup and do the hair for a performance. It takes time and expertise to plan the gig – what numbers I will dance to, making the lesson plan for the workshop, putting the music in order. Arranging my day to accommodate the gig (which is often at an inconvenient time). Waiting around in the kitchen or the closet or hiding in the guest room for the right moment when the birthday boy will be surprised by my entrance. Helping the bride plan the right moment for the dancer to entertain the guests in phone calls before the event. Isn’t having a professional arrive on time, prepared and ready go, adding pizzazz to your event in a seamless, no hassle way worth the price? It should be.

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