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Belly dancing professionally: more than shimmies and sequins

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Making the transition from a hobbyist to professional is not always a simple path in the belly dance world. While a ballet dancer might attend dance school and join a company, a belly dancer may have a more varied approach to joining the ranks of professionals.

Samira Shuruk, a dancer based in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area, has been belly dancing professionally for over a decade. Shuruk, who was a dance major in college, said she began her career in belly dance by seeking out instructors with years of experience both teaching and performing.

Shuruk said she has studied many different styles of belly dance, including Egyptian, Turkish, American cabaret and tribal.

“Learning different styles makes you more marketable,” Shuruk said. “You can make more audiences happy. And that’s really your job.”

Isabel Asra, a Baltimore-based professional belly dancer and instructor, added that making audiences happy means professionals need to have a degree of cultural awareness and an attention to venue. They must know what their audience is expecting and deliver a performance tailored to that audience, be it an authentic Egyptian dance at an Egyptian wedding or a fusion performance at an art gallery.

“[You need] an awareness of the origins of the style, and an awareness of the meaning of the music and the culture,” Asra said. “You have a responsibility to represent an entire culture, not just a way of moving your body.”

In terms of professional standards, professional belly dancers have a wide range of responsibilities. Asra said some of the artistic standards include a strong dance technique, improvisational ability, spatial awareness and, of course, the ability to make it all look effortless.

In addition to the physical and cultural standards, Shuruk said there is a business side to belly dance.

“How do you screen a gig, how do you make sure you’re safe, how to negotiate what proper rates are in your area – it’s all part of professional training,” Shuruk said.

Shuruk said any students pursuing belly dance professionally should keep in mind fellow dancers in their community.

"Remember that other belly dancers in your community are the ones you’ll be working with the longest, so always be honest and fair with them," Shuruk said.

Asra said students should be able to continue loving the dance even as they treat it like a job, and to take a mature approach to improving their technique.

"It’s not all glamour, it’s hard work," she said. "It helps to find a teacher who gives you really honest feedback on your dancing and it’s important to be humble enough to take that and make it better."

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