Starting a Dance Troupe

So, you and your friend are sitting in your room on a Saturday night dancing to music and looking up youtube videos like this one (Who doesn’t love Shakira?) and thinking, “We should start a dance troupe!” Have you ever had that thought? Have you ever wondered what you actually need to start dancing on a real stage? The answer to what all it takes may surprise you.

Here is everything you need to start a dance troupe:

People:

The first thing you need is actual dancers! This is typically the easiest to get since you probably know at least a few people who like to dance. When asking people to join your troupe, especially friends always consider group dynamics. If you’re going to have any type of leadership structure in your troupe, you will want to organize that ASAP. Establishing those roles, expectations, and responsibilities sooner rather than later can cut down on a lot of potential drama. The last thing you need is for your troupe to fall apart over an argument about a guy. (I’ve seen it happen, trust me, it’s ugly)

If you want to attract dancers that you may not personally know then that can be easy as well. In this wonderful world we live in social media makes it easier than ever to find others with similar interests. Post on Facebook, stalk Instagram accounts of local dancers in your area, or post flyers around your college. If you are in high school or college look into your schools already existing organizations. They may already have a belly dancing group established. If not you can look into starting one.

I know when I looked into starting a belly-dancing organization at Texas A&M it was surprisingly easy. They had me sign up for a class online, which gave me all the information I needed. They were also kind enough to offer to to connect me with an adviser to assist with any technical details. See if your school offers a similar service. You can also post a flyer offering auditions at local bars and coffee shops. Or anywhere else you think you may be able to find fellow dancers.


Practice Space:

Dace space is important, but a practice space does not necessarily need to be a dance studio. However, if you have access to one that would be the most ideal. For those of us who don’t live in mansions with a free dance studios in our basements, here’s some alternatives.

The best teacher I ever had taught out of our friend’s garage. She cleaned the garage, hung a few mirrors on the wall, used some curtains to hide the power-tools, and voila! Instant dance studio. The key to turning a garage (or any room) into a dance studio is the mirrors. Mirrors can be found at most large locations like Target or Walmart for only $20

It can be incredibly beneficial to see what you are doing as you practice. You also need space. If you are going to perform on any stage, even a small one, it will typically be at least as large as a standard room if not many times larger. That is why it is important to not practice in your bedroom where you are having to dance around a bed, but rather in a living room with your couch moved out of the way, or even in your backyard (or a friend’s backyard) with some free space that isn’t taken up by a pool (Falling into the pool is generally not recommended).

If you do not have access to any of those spaces, I know of one last option for you. Most gyms will have some sort of dance room or racquet ball court. One with a dedicated dance room that would be ideal, since they should already have mirrors on the wall. Check their class schedule, and see if you can use the room when there are no classes in there. If you cannot find a dance room, try looking for a racquet ball court. These tend to be a bit more spacious, however they do not have mirrors. You can bring some mirrors from home and lean them against the walls.

Just be aware if you do this option your rehearsals may not always be private, and you may get some onlookers or run into issues with the gym staff. Always be polite and respectful and ask before you bring in large pieces of equipment like a stereo or mirror into a gym. The last thing you want is to get kicked out of the middle of your practice by an angry staff member. In my experience though, especially if it is a small group, most gyms don’t mind you using their room as long as you are a member of the gym and don’t mind the lack of privacy.

You can also consider looking at martial arts studios as they typically also have an open space with mirrors on the wall. My troupe was able to work out a deal with a local martial arts studio where we were able to rent the space for only the cost of the lights as long as the owner’s wife could join our troupe. This was a great way to get another excited dancer AND a practice space all in one! This was a no-brainer decision, and she quickly became one of the best dancers in our troupe.

If none of these options are available to you, that is when you may have to look into paying for spaces. If you know where you want to perform, then you can potentially make a deal with the venue to let you practice there, in agreement for bringing in a large crowd on performance day. You can also ask about coming in during non-traditional hours and seeing if they may give you a discount for that. Most venues do not open until later in the day. So if you are your group are willing to come in early especially during the weekday than you may be able to get a better price on using the space. It never hurts to ask for a discount!


Music:

Besides the actual music, you also need a way to play that music. That is where most of the problems come in. While most professional venues will have a sound system, a lot of the smaller or outdoor venues that you may be starting out at will not. You may also want to consider a sound system if your practice space does not have one built in. Your phone will not and should not be able to provide the necessary sound for the large practice space you will need. (Can you imagine accidentally turning up your phone volume loud enough to be heard over an entire large outdoor venue? Ouch!) If your practice space is small enough that you can hear the music through your phone speakers, you need a larger space to practice.

What my troupe did was each chipped in a little bit towards the sound system. Our group collected tips at each performance, and we agreed as a group to not take home our tips, but instead save them to buy the sound system that we wanted. This worked fairly well for us.


Choreography:

Youtube is an excellent resource for choreography. There are countless videos ranging from the most basic how-to tutorial, to incredibly professional and beautiful performances. This can be a great (and free) starting place to begin learning choreography. You can also consider asking some of the local dancers in your area. When I wanted to connect with other dancers I found Victoria Teel. I was lucky enough to work with her when we were both still in college. She later went on to perform on BellyDance SuperStars. Now she teaches belly dance classes online, and sells the fans she uses for her Teel Fan Method. Taking classes with her, or any other professional bellydancer, is a great way to get choreography. The major drawback being that it won’t be free.

Don’t underestimate your own creativity though, you can do so much just by taking the time to practice. I would spend an hour or two before all of my training sessions with Victoria practicing by myself, and if I thought of a great move I wanted to remember I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget it. There were so many times when I would just be playing around and think of some great choreography, but forget to write it down or record it. Your phones video camera can be your best friend when practicing choreography! Don’t underestimate the value of writing down and recording choreo like I did! Trust me my performances got so much better when I started watching my recordings and taking notes. I would suggest you do the same.

You do not need a fancy camera to record choreography, but having a tripod might not be a bad idea. There were many times when our troupe would have to find an innocent bystander to take a video of our practice because we didn’t have a way to prop up a phone properly. Asking a friend works, but man there were times when having a tripod would have really helped us. You can get them for cheap on amazon


Costumes:

We have talked a whole bunch about bellydancing costumes in our previous article “From Bedleh to Baladi”. For learning about all the differences between the different types of costumes definitely check that article out. We also have an article talking about the differences between making and buying a bellydancing costumeSo check out these articles to learn more about costumes.

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A name and brand for your troupe:

Coming up with names can be the most fun part of starting a dance troupe. There is a reason why people pick out baby names before they are even close to becoming parents. So it is very possible that you have names in mind already.

Your name doesn’t have to be perfect right off the bat though! Names, logos, and styles can all change. But what is most important however, is your brand. If you want to be known as the family friendly middle eastern dancers, rather than the sexy and sensual belly-dancers, that’s important to establish early on when forming your troupe. This will define your brand. Having a dancer who has a more sensual style can be a great thing! If that is what your
troupe wants. However, if they do not want seduction and instead want to be branded as more family friendly than there are now different brands within a troupe, making you look disjointed, and may cause some venues to not want to work with you.

This is not to say that any one brand or style of dance is better than the other. The exact opposite can be said about a troupe wanting to be more seductive, and a dancer in that troupe wanting to be more family- friendly. There should be no discrimination within a dance troupe. I am only offering experience from the perspective of someone who started a troupe in a relatively small town in south Texas, where everything is bigger in Texas including the differences in responses we would get from others about our troupe. We would have performance venues think we were strippers, and were not only okay with the idea but wanted it. (Needless to say- we didn’t work with those places). While other venues would only accept us if we were wearing certain, more conservative outfits.

What we did is have one group of dancers that was more engaged with our performances at bars and music events, and another group of dancers more engaged with our family friendly events. We were all part of the same troupe, we just branded ourselves differently for different events based on the nature of the crowd, venue, and performance. Being aware that venues may ask you about branding, and being prepared for an answer is important. If you are in a large city the style may not be as important as it was in Texas, but differentiating yourself from other troupes they might already know will be.

I would recommend picking one person from your troupe who will be the coordinator for your performances. This person (or people) will be responsible for representing your group. So pick somebody with appropriate social skills, who can ask the questions necessary to find out what type of branding is necessary and what the expectations of the venue are. Having that go to person is part of your brand, they are identified as one of you. So it can be completely appropriate to have one go to person for the bars and music event venues, and another for the community-oriented family-friendly events.

This is what we did and it worked well in part because it took the burden of being the single contact person off of one individual. However, once a venue has made a connection with a member of your troupe, I would not recommend changing this person often. As once venues gets to know a group, if they constantly are interacting with different people within the group they can get confused. They will want one person who is their go to person, so they know who to call.


Places to perform:

Whew! What a lot of work so far! But now that we’ve made it this far we’re finally ready to start talking about WHERE you’re going to perform! Finding venues is a simple matter of networking. Find local bars in your area that have local musicians come and perform. Look for community events, horse races, talent shows, campus-wide student activity events, or anything that you can think of really. The chances to perform are practically endless!

Once you have identified a list of potential places to perform. Spend some time preparing before you pitch to them. Know what dates you can perform on, how long you can perform, what your set list will be, if you will be open to recurring events or not, if you will be asking for tips or not, etc. These will be standard questions asked when starting to work with a performance venue. Just know that not every place that you may want to perform at will be a good fit for you. Be prepared to talk to 5 places, and even if 4 say no and one says yes, this means that you have your first performance venue for your very first dance performance as a troupe!


Drive and Passion:

There can be many logistical issues with starting a dance troupe, but if you have the energy, drive, and passion, there is no reason you can’t start your very own dance troupe. Even if you have 100 hurdles between you starting your troupe, and fail 99 times, just remember what Thomas Edison said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Combine his resilience and the “Just keep swimming” attitude of Dory and you’ll have the winning combination of characteristics necessary to start a dance troupe.