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Producing Belly Dance Events

With Samira, producer of "Belly dance Intensive
Fore by John Clow, Interview by Salome

Great things often come from the most humble of origins, and such is the case of the Las Vegas 'BellyDance Intensive', an event created by Samira. It began during a casual conversation between Samira and Aradia, back in January, 2003. They lamented the fact that few people knew what amazing talent there was in Las Vegas. Now, having recently completed its 6th year, this event has grown beyond Samira's wildest dreams. Not only does she utilize local talent, she imports many of the country's best dancers. Consider the list of headliners scheduled to appear in 2009: Jim Boz, Suzanna Del Vecchio, Amaya, Aubre, Sharon Kihara, and Frederique.

Incredible! But how did it reach this point, this incredible growth? For that answer, I spoke to the producer, Samira. The 'roots' of BellyDance Intensive actually go further back than 2003, to Samira's youth in Utah. When she decided to study belly dance, her second instructor was Yasamina Rogue of the Kismet Dance Studio, and organizer of the Salt Lake City Bellydance Festival. Later, upon moving to Las Vegas in 1996, Samira, using Yasamina's festival as a guide, sought to create a similarly styled event in Las Vegas. In her first year of the Intensive, in 2003, there were 14 instructors, with the only out-of-state teacher: Julianna, of New Mexico. In 2008 there were over 30 instructors!

When asked about her keys to her success in producing this event, Samira's first explained how she uses a 3-tier philosophy in hiring dancer and teachers. The three levels are: local, featured and headliners. Samira never under-estimates the valuable resource of the local talent. Another factor is she used 'diversity' by celebrating the spectrum of the many aspects of belly dance. Every year she offers a smorgasbord of classes, ranging from classical orient, to tribal, to flamenco, etc. . . . Whether the instructors are male or female, older or younger, she never discriminates in attempting to offer a taste of everything at her BellyDance Intensive.

Salome: There are many people reading this who would like to try their hand at producing an event, be it a hafla, workshop or even festival. To help novice producers avoid common pitfalls, can you tell us what mistakes you might have made when the intensive was in it's infancy?

Samira: Well, in the beginning I wasn't very aware of other events. I was 100% in tune with our local scene, but I didn't really pay much attention to other events in the region or area, let alone the country. Now I realize that other events have a direct bearing on everything from attendance at my larger event all the way down to attendance at my local haflas.

Here in Vegas, we have a "community calendar" that most of the local organizers honor. For the most part, all of our local organizers have agreed to keep workshops 2 weeks apart and larger events 3 months apart. On that calendar we also list the big events - so we are working with the larger community, not against it. There are always people who don't want to work within these guidelines, but the majority of the Vegas organizers do their best to support each other's events.

I also learned the hard way that in certain circumstances you need to have a non-compete clause in your contracts. It is really rotten to take a risk on bringing in a big name for top dollars only to have them teaching down the street at another event just weeks to your own. It can hurt your event substantially. I don't think non-compete clauses are necessary for local and newer instructors, but if you are relying on a headliner to create "draw" to your event, then you can't risk having their popularity diminished.

I think that a newer sponsor needs to start small, build their market, and then grow from there. They need to reach out to others to get knowledge, ideas, and support. All too often, I see newer organizers think that it's pretty easy to just throw up a poster and that people will come. It just doesn't work that way. You need to constantly be aware of what the market wants (not just what you want), what the bottom line looks like, and constantly look for strategies to spread the word and market your event/hafla.

Salome: There is a constant stream of events, big to small, all over the country. What advice would you give to make an event stand out?

Samira: Figure out what makes you unique and different. There is a saying that you get "Rich in a Niche" and while I think it's unlikely that any of us are going to get super rich in the belly dance world, I do think it is still an appropriate saying.

Sometimes the advantage you have is your proximity to talent. Events like Tribal Fest have an abundance of well-known teachers that are not too far away from them, so it keeps their costs down. Sometimes it's your region. The new belly dance competition on the east coast is going to draw people who would not otherwise make it to the west coast competitions. Sometimes it's the type of education you offer. Tribal Con is a huge draw for tribal dancers in that area of the country. Sometimes it's your ticket price. In this economy and in the belly market, there is an abundance of people looking to cut costs and do things inexpensively (I would also counter that there are people who really want to attend a quality event and are willing to pay for it.) Sometimes it is your expenses. Some places have access to ample space for very little expense. The price I pay for space in a Vegas casino is much more expensive then a community center. For me, I have a couple of things that I think makes my event unique. #1) I am in VEGAS. That's a huge draw. People love Vegas and want to come to my city. #2) My event embraces both tribal & oriental, so people can get their "fix" on any part of the spectrum. And #3) I think we are developing a reputation for being organized, which speaks well to my staff.

Salome: Producing takes money, yes? How can a novice producer stack the chances in their favor to at least break even?

Samira: um...no. I don't agree that producing necessarily takes money. At least not in the beginning. I literally started the Las Vegas Intensive with NOTHING. Ok, to be fair, I had access to free space--which is a definite advantage, but that is something that still could have been negotiated. Truly, it all depends on terms.

This is one of those topics that I think is really determined by your own financial perspectives and mindsets. I've run a business for so many years that I tend to look at things from an entrepreneurial perspective. I operate from a perspective that artists deserve to be paid, that I deserve to be paid, and that attendees deserve the best quality for the trust they have put in us to produce a great event.

There are a lot of new organizers who want to create an event and don't care about making money. Ultimately this hurts everyone. The new organizers spend countless hours to make nothing. That is not a sustainable venture. If you can't make a profit, then you can't springboard the money into future events, deposits, and/or advertising. And who really wants to work indefinitely for no money? Additionally, new organizers don't charge a decent amount for their product. They want to make it affordable for everyone. I do appreciate making things reasonable, but master classes with top name instructors should not be a $10/hour item. The belly dance world is drastically behind the times in this regard.

If you want to break even, you have to plan for profit. And you have to plan for enough of a financial cushion that if things go wrong you can still survive. I usually start by saying to myself, "How much do I want to make for organizing this hafla/event/workshop?" When you figure out how many hours you put into organizing an event and all the responsibility you are taking on...then you really need to honor yourself by paying yourself. Then I work backwards. If I want to make $500 for hosting a workshop, then I work that into the budget. I sit down and calculate ALL expenses. And then I divide that total (including my profit & the cushion) by the total # of attendees I think I can attract. If the price per person looks like something that I'd be willing to pay...then I go for it. But if the price looks high, then I revamp and see if there is any way to reduce the expenses. If the price looks low, then I raise the price and anticipate making more money (or adding a perk like buying gift bags for attendees). You have to PLAN to make money.

Salome: Aside from financial success, how can a producer ensure that attendees have a satisfactory experience?

Samira: Well, this is where the organization and quality comes into play. We've all been to events that seem confused, nobody seems to know when/where etc. We've made tons of mistakes, but we strive to learn every year. For example, last year we got feedback that there wasn't enough healthy food choices available. The truth is that there were tons of healthy options, but obviously some of our attendees didn't know where to find them. So this year when we send out our final welcome letter we will include a more specific list of places to eat.

I suppose the real trick is trying to stay one step ahead. If you were attending an event, what information would you need from start to finish? If someone is coming in from out of town, what are their needs? Obviously they need a place to stay. So do you have that information available to them? They need transportation. Do you have a list of rental car companies, or shuttle services available to them? Do they know what attire to wear? Do they know how to get to the workshops? Is there an information table for them to ask questions? The list goes on. Anticipate their needs and meet them. Start on time, be friendly, give courteous and timely responses to their emails.

Salome: Oriental dance is a niche market, with that in mind, do you think putting up posters and advertising in the newspaper and other mediums focused on the general public are worthwhile? What is the most effective medium of advertising an event?

Samira: Truthfully, I don't waste my money trying to draw in the general public any more. I've spent money in the newspapers and magazines here, and I just don't have the budget to do it consistently enough to get results. I don't think it is impossible, but I think it's a waste of time and energy compared to the return.

The most economical forms of advertising are free. Word of mouth, reviews in the belly dance publications, forums like orientaldancer.net, and social networking sites like facebook. I suggest starting there if you are a newer producer. Additionally, give flyers to all your local teachers to pass out. When you have finally established yourself and your event, then you can start budgeting for other mediums.

I now have ads in many print and online places, but I didn't start that way. I kept it free or cheap for a long time. Eventually you need to broaden your scope and place actual ads as it gives your business more legitimacy. Also, you need a quality website. You can start with free, but eventually you really need a professional looking website. It speaks volumes about what you offer. You have to think of it as an expanded business card. It very well may be the first impression someone has of your event. What are you saying to your potential attendees?

Salome: Without having to name names, in the six years of your event have you ever had a headliner or featured teacher/dancer be flakey or temperamentally difficult and how did you deal with it? Or, how would you?

Samira: LOL. Well, I have been lucky that nobody has ever stood me up, but we had a near miss once. Now I have a clause in my contract that if a headliner is a no-show they agree to pay me money. That's a pretty convincing statement.

I have had a few very artistic types who kept changing their minds about what song they were going to dance to every 3 minutes during the show. It drove my tech team crazy, but it was a minor issue. A pain in the neck is not the same as impossible to deal with.

Mostly I just let stuff roll off my shoulders. I did have an issue with an artist who was doing a performance with a prop that broke on stage. Part of the prop nearly hit an audience member. After the show I found out that the artist knew in advance that their prop was cracked. For me, that is a pretty big mistake to make. Had the audience member been hurt, I could have been sued. I have insurance on the event, but it was still a risky situation. I had a conversation with the individual to make sure they knew I was upset and why. It wasn't a big deal, and the artist completely understood my perspective. Open, respectful, and honest communication is generally all that is needed.

Salome: Do you jury who performs in your festival or is it first come, first serve? And what format would you recommend to a first time producer and why?

Samira: This is the first year we are having an actual festival. We originally had a hafla on Saturday night that was pretty much open to anyone. In year 5 we added a stage show. The performers for our shows are included via one of two ways. They are either invited (such as the headliners) or they audition with dvd's or youtube clips. We have a selection committee that sits down and hammers out the line up. There are tons of factors and lots of discussion about who gets in the show. It's my least favorite thing to do, but our ticket price demands it.

Our audience members deserve a quality show, so that is what we strive to give them. But we also wanted to create other performance opportunities, so we added the festival. The festival is going to be first come/first serve and all performers must be registered for at least one class.

I realize that this is one of those controversial issues in the belly dance world, but the simple matter is one of economics. I don't have the luxury of space that is inexpensive, and it costs a lot of money to pay for the vending and festival area in a casino convention center. We didn't want to charge dancers to perform and we didn't want to charge people to come watch the festival, so in order to pull that off we needed to do two things. 1) We raised the vending prices because we knew a free festival would attract more attendees and shoppers. 2) We added the requirement for dancers to take a workshop. We know there will be more dancers than time spots available, so we wanted to make sure that the spots are given to those individuals who support the event. Yes, we realize some people out there won't agree with this policy, but I would challenge any one of them to create an event that can survive without the financial backing of the attendees.

I recommend that new sponsors get really clear on the costs involved and then find creative ways to make it all happen. Sell merchandise, sell vending spots, sell advertising, sell sponsorships, sell shows, sell lectures, and (of course) sell the workshops. Eat, sleep, and breathe marketing...but do your best to not be obnoxious about it. I know organizers who turn every single post into something about them and their event. That's a bit obvious. Get to know your community, support them, listen to their wants and needs, and then do your best to give them the best experience possible.