Thursday, February 26, 2015

Welcome to the Toilet.

A bit of a gritty title for sure, but I've yet to come up with a better metaphor for the current state of the bellydance economy. And every person I've talked to about it has had the same response: initial repulsion followed by slow nodding and thorough understanding.

There's a lot here, so bear with me as I try to get it all out. And this is all in reference to bellydancers, within the community - not factoring in the general public side of things (restaurant gigs, other kinds of shows, etc). Everything happens in waves, and each wave is a bit different - because the world keeps changing. These are not ALL of the reasons (I would have to go to novel-status for that), but a lot of the key contributing factors we are looking at.

While I have not been around as long as others in the field (such as my dance mentors), I produced my first bellydance event in 2001, attended numerous events throughout the world (some as an attendee, some as a vendor and more as hired talent to instruct/perform), have organized multiple tours, and still actively produce, teach, perform, and vend today. I was there at the birth of the new fusion movement, and I have carefully tracked the ripples over the last 1.5 decades, especially throughout North America. And I continue to talk and network with a lot of people in different aspects of the trade.

I feel lucky to have launched the larger part of my dance career in the midst of a boom.  Thanks to a new DVD market, new social online media (remember and myspace), and a hungry, inspired audience, the first nationwide tour I planned in 2006 (The Durga Tour) was a huge success across the board in terms of full classrooms/shows and merch sales. For the most part, sponsors didn't need to market hard or be that experienced to make it a success.  The second tour for the most part saw equal numbers (or more) in workshop/show attendance, but the overall economy was hitting the merch sales hard.  Where attendees may have dropped $50-$200 easily in 2006 on merch alone, most were sticking to the $20-$40 mark in 2009 (a CD, DVD, or t-shirt vs. pricier costuming) after buying their workshop/show ticket. This trend to me showed a willingness to invest in learning and something they could appreciate and work with for a long time, despite economic hardship. In 2012, I planned a smaller, low-key tour to help me move from Providence to Seattle, and numbers were down generally across the board, minus a few hard-to-reach spots (like Billings, MT) and locations were I have a dedicated, established fanbase. Newbie sponsors especially had a hard time, and most sponsors mentioned the number of events happening at that time - more on this further down.

I have also noted a transition in the last 10 years is a move from weekend events that featured 1-3 teachers offering workshops with a show to more and more big, multi-headliner festivals. When I first started out, the majority of the events I was hired to do featured only myself, plus maybe a local instructor for a weekend, where I would teach 2-4 workshops and perform in a show. Now I'm mainly hired to teach at festivals and to do intensives. I'm still quite busy and in demand, but in different ways and now, in different markets.

Really, when you stand back and look at the bellydance community as a whole, you could say wow, there's more teachers, more events than ever, more stuff happening - that must be a good sign!

It would be - if we had a continually expanding stream of new students coming up to support it. And we don't. More on that shortly.

So there's more and more new festivals/events happening, meanwhile the festival events that have been the initial inspiration and mainstays in the community for years are being hit hard, and some of them are folding/closing down.  And many of the new events barely make it out of the gate. Why?

Location: Folks who would normally travel for hours to attend an event in another state or country, now have one in their own backyard.  Why put out a lot of money for airplane tickets, hotels, etc -  if you can have your favorite dancers in your own backyard? Or have 3 events that do that for you within 3 hours drive? Just how many big events can you attend in a year?

Vendors: Many of the old school importer vendors have closed up shop as well - because it's hard to compete with their own suppliers in India and Egypt selling directly online to their customers. Other vendors find it's easier/more affordable to sell their wares online than to shoulder the expense of traveling to sell at an event.  And it's the vendor booth fees that really help finance the cost of an event (at least the venue) - so less vendors = higher costs. Then you have the independent designers whose work gets copied/knocked-off either by overseas manufacturers or other "designers."

Production: When there was very little competition for events, and when the market was booming, it was pretty easy to have a successful event, regardless of producing skills, attitude, etc.  When you're the only game in town, folks want to play it.  When they have choices, they're going to look for the game that's more user-friendly and treats them well. You had a limited number of platforms to advertise with back then, and you would reap the rewards of it easily.  Now there's countless social media platforms to consider, and even more competition on them for people's attention. Nowadays, an event has to have an easy-to-use website, use online forms to apply for shows, have positive and prompt interaction, wallet-friendly pricing, and promise to deliver a whole lot to get folks in the door.  Not like back in the day where you could hang a black-and-white flier on your studio door that Miss SuperHips would be teaching a workshop there in 3 months and be sold out in a week.  So if a new producer NOW thinks all they need to do is have some big-name dancers on their ad and call it a day, they're going to be feeling the hurt soon enough.

Accessibility: Especially if that big-name dancer is at the more effectively produced/friendly event down-the-street, or also has online classes, or was just in the area a few weeks ago. When a student feels they could study with that teacher "next time", they will most likely wait.  Do online classes, dvds, and youtube really cut down on event attendance? I think for some people, yes.  Especially if they are on a tight budget.  They will forgo the live experience for the digital.

Scheduling: Not only are we seeing more and more events as folks try their hat at producing, we're seeing more events planned right on top of each other - sometimes in the same city/area. And there's no excuse about the markets being different when surveys have shown that 60% of the community will attend both tribal/fusion and oriental style events. There's also a new trend in events designed to feed off established events, where they happen the week before/after the established event, trying to latch on to that fan base.  There are only so many attendees to go around, and only so much money.

Money: Which brings us to money. Rarely are bellydancers independently wealthy, and you can only write so much off on your taxes (if you're doing this professionally vs. a hobby). The typical dancer has a set budget that they work with - how much they will spend on classes/workshops, how much on costuming/music, how much on travel. More events means that budget gets stretched tighter over several events, or they cut back to just one or two. You can only do so much with one body and a limited amount of money.

Cost: With the switch from bringing in 1-2 teachers for a weekend to dozens, the cost to produce an event goes up.  Not only do you have more airfare, food, and accommodations to cover, but you need a bigger venue to have room for more workshops, more vendors, bigger show, etc - and hopefully more students. The idea is that if you have more choices, you'll attract more people than those that have fewer instructors/workshops.

The Dedicated Dancer: Those of us who were baby dancers in the beginning of the last boom and have still continued on (and those before us) - are looking for more serious experiences.  They don't want a basic workshop, they want an intensive with their favorite instructor.  Or if they're looking for workshops, they want to try new and different things or more in-depth approaches, rather than taking the same workshop with the same big-name - but with a different title. They remember forking over a lot of money for years to certain names, and began to notice that the material didn't change much - or wasn't delivered.  When the Big Name Draw Glow begins to fade with the disappointment of non-delivery, they stop investing, no matter how much they may like that personality.  However, the type of experiences the Dedicated Dancer wants is going to cost more money (and they know it) - so they're going to budget for those special events, versus going to other events. It doesn't mean they care less about those events or think the price is wrong - they are simply conserving their time/money for what they believe will advance their dance more.

Student Base: And this is where I think it all comes down to. You can keep expanding as long as the demand exceeds the supply (and the supply would be teachers/events/etc). But where are the new students?  I'm not talking the usual crop of dancers in the hobbyist range who will come across a dance class at their local fitness center and fall in love.  Or see you perform at a show or restaurant, and want to take classes. I think this group is a wonderful standard that has been pretty even across the board for the last several decades.  No, I'm talking about new dancers under the age of 30 who are just coming into dance. The teens and the college-age folks who are excited about the dance and want to keep going. Before you start yelling at me "But I'm 18/24 and I love bellydance!" - yes, I know there are some of you out there (whom I love dearly!) - yay! But there's a whole lot less of you compared to when *I* started in my early 20's.  So where are the rest of the young dancers? What are they into? Why are they not interested in bellydance? I have my theories on this too which deserves another post unto itself.  But if we can figure out how to attract that market, it would mean an increase in students - which would feed everything else (though it's not a solution unto itself).  You can't have more teachers than students.  And right now, the majority of this whole economy is based by dancers for dancers (and hence a major issue for continued growth.)

Apathy: Lastly, when events/teachers are easily accessible - when there is a wide choice of workshops and shows to attend, things become less precious.  Especially if the quality of any single event is less than stellar, then the market is less likely to take a risk, even if it's a different show/people entirely. One moldy apple can really spoil the bin.  This tends to be especially true in large cities, where a lot of different events happen often at the same time or closely.

So in summary, basically we had a huge new explosion in the bellydance community/economy starting around 2000.  Tribal attracted a whole student base, and Fusion even more so as it reached new inspirations and sources.  The Bellydance Superstars latched into the college-age market with the music festival circuit (remember Lollapalooza?) and pulled more folks in to the weekly classes. There was a demand for more and more classes. More people started teaching. More events started happening. (Somewhere in here I will insert the issue of the larger economy crashing - where a lot of folks lost their jobs/got laid off/etc, and they switched to more creative/independent means to make ends meet - teaching dance, producing, vending, etc. And few recognize how hard it is when you make your hobby your job.)And the teachers and events continued to expand in number, while slowly the student base shrank. So now the toilet bowl has stopped up and has reached its capacity. We're at overflow with nowhere to go until things dry up  and we've been holding at this overflow point for the last couple of years.

Maybe it just all needs to get flushed, and things will follow a new wave in another decade or so - which is what history seems to indicate.

Some events will continue to work the times, tap into the market effectively and prosper (or break even). Other events will just stop happening. Some teachers will keep with it and others will move on.  There will be less classes, less events, less resources. And perhaps it will be missed and people will treasure what they have and support it more.  Perhaps there will be another new innovation/spark of inspiration that will kick things off again. It's the circle of life, but with more glitter.

In the meantime, what do we do?

If we're producing events - ask ourselves, who benefits? Is it a quality event? Does it support the community and is supported in return? Are we reaching our market and interacting with them effectively?  Are we networking with other producers to prevent overlapping, combining efforts to build better events?

If we're teaching classes/workshops - why do we teach? What do we offer that's different? Are we offering our students the best experience and material possible? Are we investing in our own education?

And ask ourselves, what can we do to support quality teachers and events? What we can do to expand our study of bellydance - the dance itself, the music, and culture.  How do we reach out to the larger community and interest them?

And here's to the newest prop in the bellydance world: the almighty plunger.


  1. Very well written, Tempest. I look forward to reading your subsequent blog about how to tap into the base of young women who aren't dancing with us. I have my theories, too, and I'm curious to see if we're thinking the same way. :)

  2. This speaks to Frank Farinaro's fb missive of a year or so ago. People look at this profession and think it's some untapped market. It's not and so they end up bleeding the collective economy dry.

  3. Brava. Issues such as these often overtake our troupe business chats. It's wonderful to see them reiterated by such a spokesperson.

  4. What are your theories as to why younger folks aren't interested in fusion belly dance? It has and always will be a fringe artform regardless of Lollapalooza, bdss and people like Shakira popularizing it. I read an interesting article yesterday about a shift in capitalism. I had never considered how many industries are losing billions of dollars in this information age. It will continue to be an interesting shift to many people's benefits and detriment.

  5. What are your theories as to why younger folks aren't interested in fusion belly dance? It has and always will be a fringe artform regardless of Lollapalooza, bdss and people like Shakira popularizing it. I read an interesting article yesterday about a shift in capitalism. I had never considered how many industries are losing billions of dollars in this information age. It will continue to be an interesting shift to many people's benefits and detriment.

  6. I feel belly dance teachers themselves are partly responsible for the drop in student numbers. When I was in the UK last year, I found it hard to track down belly dance classes because they didn't advertise! The teachers'attitude was that if someone was "serious" about belly dancing, then they'd find their school - and the teachers didn't want "wiggle and giggle" students. My concern was that no one can "get serious" about belly dancing if they never get a chance to experience it. With the disappearance of dancers in restaurants, where is the younger dancer going to even come across belly dance, unless there are "wiggle and giggle" classes being offered?

  7. As always, your honesty and insight are inspiring and motivating. Thank you for prompting us, urging dancers to take stock, take a deep breath and move forward, whichever way that may be, which feels most fitting and "right". I love dance and look forward to the fresh wave that must be on our horizon, for the waves will never cease... and we will never run out of dance concepts to learn.