In the heyday there were dozens of places to work and I might venture to say maybe around the hundred mark. Every kabob stand in every suburb of LA decided to have a dancer. And as popular as Belly Dance was as an exercise or an empowering activity in the '70s, very few took it to the next level. The owners, all from various Middle Eastern countries, were particular about the look of the dancer, and of course they wanted someone who could dance, but I'm not sure which was the most important qualification. I can think of maybe a dozen dancers who were really popular & were ubiquitous on the scene. There were maybe a dozen more dancers who weren't as in demand but found their niches. Some clung to the Persian clubs, and some were only popular in the Greek and Armenian clubs for whatever reason. Most of these dancers faded into obscurity, & many of the dancers one still hears about really never were popular in the clubs, but found their niche teaching. Not naming names.
The wages varied quite a bit from place to place, but they weren't big bucks. A small restaurant with a lunch show might have paid $15. Evening shows ran anywhere from $25 a night to $60 a night on the high end during these few years. So if you were working 6 nights a week and 2 afternoons that obviously wasn't a living wage, even though the cost of living was low in those days. Going on the road with a group like Guy Chookoorian's maybe paid $350 to $400 a week for 6 nights a week (and without tips because they were stage shows). A private party might have been $75 to $150 for a show.
|Kamala performing in late 1970s|
So tips were where the money was at, and the audiences loved to tip. The restaurants were all about getting tips in the belt, & for the less discriminating ladies the bra. If one was squeamish about tips on the body they just didn't work the restaurants. Since a dancer was motivated to make a lot of money to live on, we were very aggressive about getting tips - a real competitive sport. Many of the restaurants had their regulars who were known to tip the big bucks. They would show up with stacks of hundreds and of course we would be gathered around those tables like piranas feeding on a piece of meat. There would be yearly parties that were just tip fests. We would be in the changing room after a show unfolding hundreds of bills of every denomination. The Arab clubs were a different story. Money was given to the waiter to shower on the entertainers. With a variety of musicians, singers and dancers, there would be a sizable pile to sweep up after every act, to be divided among the entertainers and in a few cases the club would take a cut. Occasionally an enthusiastic audience member would climb the stage to personally shower the person onstage with money. When the Saudis came in, the place would be abuzz with anticipation of showering bills. I remember one occasion at Ali Baba's a small group of Saudis came in and took a shine to me when I was dancing. One came up and showered hundred dollar bills, and I mean a pile of them! I was thinking of how I could pay my rent and put money down on a new car, and did some real fancy footwork grabbing bills with my toes, a little kick of the bill into my hand to be stuffed deep in my belt! The musicians of course could see every sneaky move, and they were salivating over the majority of bills still on the stage. When I got done dancing I did a few more sneaky toe grabs before running to the dressing room, and at the same time the chef, the owner & waiters - just everyone ascended on that stage groveling & slobbering over the money.
So every night there would be a new pile of money to put in the drawer or the closet. I think that's why it was so easy for many to get involved with drugs. So much cash hanging around the house. For me I was saving for bigger things.
London, which I will discuss next, was a whole new level of tip craziness. It was the second home of the wealthy Saudis, and they were happy to show off their wealth, especially with a bit of the devil's drink in them. There were hundred pound notes thrown in ridiculous amounts, and even gold jewelry! Just crazy. I was the first dancer of the night and usually didn't want to stay until 5am to retrieve my share, so the next day I was handed a paltry share of the money collected throughout the night. I didn't care, I was way too shy to be demanding. I always had a fear of somehow having to give in to something I didn't want to do for the money. I can't tell how many times I was offered a Mercedes Benz or some other fancy thing if I'd go off with some guy (which I never did).
Because Bellydance was my sole income source I never danced gratis. Even for a fundraiser there was usually something in the budget for entertainment. I just felt it would be a slippery slope to do free shows of any kind. I had various charities I supported or volunteered for, but not with dance. Because the majority of us followed this rule, we were able to keep this a paid profession. This changed drastically in the 1990s with the advent of the "professional hobbyist" dancer. I'll cross that bridge when I come to that time period in my blog.
So there was good money to be made as a dancer. Many of the ladies raised children, bought houses and travelled the world with the money they made. With the help of a husband, I am one of them.