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Into the Belt: Tips on Tippin'

By Piper

The tradition of tipping dancers who perform in public spaces by tossing coins at their feet is an ancient one, practiced throughout Europe and the Middle East. Karol Henderson Harding writes that "In classical Greece, a woman from a poor family tied a sash around her hips and went to dance for her dowry in the marketplace. Spectators threw small gold coins at her, money which she then sewed into her bodice and hip-belt as decoration, since she had no where else quite as safe to keep them." In some parts of Greece it is still customary that in lieu of wedding gifts, guests will pin cash on the bride's wedding dress while she dances during the reception.

How do you feel about being paid for your dance by having a stranger tuck dollar bills into your costume? Some dancers feel that this form of tipping degrades belly dancing by equating it with stripping and lap dancing. Some dancers feel that having a customer place a tip in a bra strap is OK, but no where else. One local dancer I know considers her hips to be like her "pockets" so she lets people put money in her costume, but only when they put the bills in the sides of her hip belt.

In the Plaka in Athens, Greece, where I started my performing career, customers would tip the dancer by throwing a handful of bills over her head while she danced. You showed class by NEVER touching this money with your hands during your show; a waiter would go and pick it up for you after you left the stage. Every now and then, an enthusiastic customer might get up to dance with you for a moment or two and then pull out a large bill, lick it, and stick it to your perspiring forehead. This practice may seem, well, rather disgusting as well as unsanitary to the uninitiated, however, it is actually common not just in Greece, but through out the Middle East and North Africa.

I learned how to "go out for tips" when I began working at the Arabic clubs that proliferated in and around Athens in the 1980s. Unlike the simple Greek tavernas, the Arabic clubs were fancy, with plush carpets and chic decor. They had great bands and real stages with good lighting, plus they paid well. I wanted to work in one of those places! The problem was that in order to work there, you had to use part of your show to dance up to each table to collect tips. I felt that this was like begging. Then I was told that the dancers had to split their tips 3 ways, 1/3 to the dancer, 1/3 to the band, and 1/3 to the house! I later learned that this is common practice throughout Europe, but at the time I was stunned. Since my tips were often more than 3 times what they paid me, it seemed to me that I was paying them to dance there! However, when you make your living by dancing seven nights a week, that kind of money is hard to turn down. Additionally, the music was fabulous, so I made my peace with tipping. These days, women are as likely to tip as men, and in some dance circles not accepting a tip is an insult to the tipper, so take that tip and smile!

 

TIPS ON HOW TO HANDLE TIPPING BY PIPER:

 

Decide what part of your costume you are comfortable with having people tuck money into, then be friendly and firm when presenting this option. If you don't want people to touch you at all, try going around with a basket or tambourine that you have already placed a few bills in. Members of Suhaila's troupe go out into the audience with the large clay water jars that they use for the "pot" dance to collect contributions.

If you want to be tipped, and you don't have a friend with you to get the tipping started, look over the audience ahead of time for a friendly face. Explain to that person that you pay for your costumes with tips, give him/her a five dollar bill, and ask to be tipped with it at a particular point in the show. Most people are very helpful and glad to have a chance to participate.

When people are putting tips in your costume, look at their eyes, not their hands. If someone is going to grab you, you will usually see it in their face. Do not assume that men will be your only problem. I once had a woman try to burn me with her cigarette. I am quick on my feet, so she didn't succeed, but was haunted for years afterwards by the look in her eyes.

Learn to dance on your toes and then quickly drop so that your hips are above your heels, only a foot or so off the floor, and then step backwards and up again. This move has saved me from someone who wanted to put his hand inside my hip belt on several occasions (twice they were fathers with their whole family right there, so go figure).

Be ready to quickly twist in the direction away from anyone tucking a bill into a bra cup.

Remember that you are in charge of the show. If you are fast enough, no one but you and the potential perp will know that someone tried to grab you, so keep moving and keep smiling. I once had a giant (he must have been 7.5 feet tall) scoop me up like a baby and kiss my stomach. He then stood there, grinning, holding me at least 5 feet off the floor. As all the possibilities of what I could do raced through my mind including screaming and poking him in the eyes, I realized that I REALLY didn't want him to drop me. "Put me down now," I said firmly with a smile. He put me down and I continued dancing. What else could I do? The show must go on.

 

ADDITIONAL ADVICE FROM THE BALTIMORE BELLY DANCE COMMUNITY:

 

Melina: Ideally, clubs would pay performers well enough (at least $150 per performance at your regular 'gig') so that trolling for tips would not be necessary. Of course, being showered with hundreds of bills cascading over your head because someone appreciated your performance is not a bad thing. Nor is interacting with the audience in a family-friendly way.  If the venue permitted it, dancers could develop their own brief instructional flyer educating customers about various tipping customs and the dancers' preference on she would like to be tipped to show appreciation for her performance. I think in part it's a question of audiences being educated -- Americans simply don't know what to do about tipping and want instruction. They generally take the lead from the performer. If the performer sends a clear message either by body language or flyer, the audience generally accommodates.

Cashmere: Well, when I danced for bands the money that was thrown on the floor "before" I danced was the bands money-but, once I entered the floor-anything that was thrown was mine. Now, when I did restaurants many folks did not know that they could "tip" the dancer-so to start things off I would always have my escort-or friend that always accompanying me be ready with a tip half way through my performance-I would dance over to the person sitting in the audience who was actually with me but no one knew that-and of course they would pull out a 5.00 or 10.00 and tuck the bill into my skirt-I would then give them a hug or peck on the cheek and a little private wiggle and that would get the ball rolling for others who wanted the "dancer" to come over to them personally they would need to have that money out - it works great every time! Naturally use common sense-eye up the crowd, make sure that this is a "tipping" type atmosphere - keep those zills on for grabbers and give them a little zing on the hand with if the money is going in the wrong place!

Amirah Ahzar: Depending on the setting and audience, tipping can be either enjoyable or horrendous for the dancer. I had the opportunity to dance at a restaurant for several months and when I went for my last performance, I arrived to find a bachelor party of 25 who came to give their groom a glorious send off. Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of our dancing is not done to cater to the affections of men, as if re-enacting a scene from the age old movie Sinbad. The heart of every serious belly dancer knows that. And I don't know any dancers who actually agree to perform specifically for bachelor parties. But if they show up at the Mediterranean restaurant where you're dancing you should be prepared, at least mentally, for anything. Although the group was basically harmless on that night, I encountered one guy who had too much to drink. At the beginning of my performance, my heart plummeted to the floor as I began hearing him shout, "Come on! Move! Work for this money!" Dismayed while dancing for a predominantly male audience, I began to wonder, "Is this what I've been reduced to?" Intoxicated by more than mere dumbec rhythms, this man had no clue that the last thing on my mind was dancing to appease him or even for the sole purpose of making tips. Frankly, I could care less whether I'm tipped or not. That's not my motivation as a dancer. Some of us dance because it's in our very soul and for us tipping is a fringe benefit. Tipping can be a fun and exciting part of belly dancing for both the dancer and audience, but not at the expense of becoming disrespectful or rude to the performer.

Latifa: I personally *don't* encourage tipping, but that's a personal decision and I know many dancers feel differently. The traditional Arabic tipping method -- showering money over the dancer -- is great, even if it makes the floor slippery. It's the other, more common tipping method -- tucking money into a dancer's costume -- that I don't care for. Your dignity as a dancer is worth more than a sweaty dollar bill, tucked into the wrong place by probing fingers. I don't think that every tipper is trying to get fresh with the dancer -- most aren't -- but it's not worth taking the chance. There's also a problem with getting a tipper on and off stage, or getting away from the tipper's table so you can circulate to other tables, depending on the circumstances. These problems can be avoided if the dancer realizes that she does not have to be a passive recipient in a tipping situation.

Here's one way that the dancer can take an active role in setting the tone for tipping. When someone approaches you with money, instead of letting him (or her) tuck the money into your costume, try this: dance up to the person, take the money yourself, in a very flirtatious way, tuck it into your costume (be cute, not seductive), thank the person warmly, and go on dancing. It's a way to flatter the person a bit, make him/her feel special, and keep the flow of your show going.

Nerissa: Interacting with the audience is a huge part of performing for me, so I always take tips. It's a great way to play with audience members. I've never had a problem with people treating me disrespectfully when giving tips, though a few have tried to put tips into my bra, which I'm not comfortable with. It's easy when that happens, though, I usually say "No" firmly and point to my hip belt. But more often than that, I find people don't know how to tip a bellydancer. At a Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco, the dancers did their whole show on a stage, then came down into the audience balancing large brass pots on their heads and it was easy to know how to tip them. Many people here, I find, aren't even aware of the tipping tradition and sometimes even come up to me after the show when I'm back in my street clothes eating dinner and hand me money. I always appreciate the gesture, but it's more fun to me to take tips during my dance. Though I think taking tips is fun, I consider it part of my salary in some ways. All the costumes and lessons are expensive and what we make from restaurants rarely comes close to covering that. I have always been curious, though, about the tradition of throwing flowers at a performer, which I hear is done in other cultures. Being showered in money is kind of cool, but I would love to experience being showered in flowers like the dancers in Greece.