Private Dancing and Dance Instruction: Create Your Own Job

20 03 2010

By Janine Loechel

Lily Simmons performing at the annual Bellies For Life breast cancer fundraiser on March 6, 2010 with UIC Belly Buttons.

Lily Simmons, a belly dancer for ten years, turned her hobby and passion into a well-paying job. While no “typical” or regular jobs exist for a professional belly dancer, Simmons created her own positions as a dance instructor at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Recreation Center and as a professional private dancer with Aloha Chicago Entertainment (ACE), a group of professional dancers and entertainers.

Originally from Macomb, Illinois, Simmons attended Western Illinois for a degree in Religious Studies and was part of a belly dance troop in her free time. Then, in September 2007, “I took a big risk and transferred to Chicago with the idea that I wanted to break out,” said Simmons. Once she arrived in Chicago, she made the switch from student and group dancer to instructor and private dancer, while anticipating graduation from UIC.

Since there are few jobs that require a professional belly dancer on staff, Simmons had to send out dozens of inquiry e-mails offering her skills. “You’ve got to take risks, put yourself out there, [and] see what happens,” said Simmons.

She sent out an e-mail to ACE, a Hawaiian-themed group of entertainers including hula and fire dancers, asking if they needed a belly dancer.  To her delight, they replied, “Actually, we do!”  Since 2007, Simmons has professionally danced through ACE, at weddings, anniversaries, bachelor parties, night clubs, and even conventions.  For approximately 30 minutes of solo dancing, duet dancing, or dancing in a choreographed set, Simmons makes on average $80-$120 per event.

Although there is no set schedule for private dancing, “at the same time, that’s what makes it interesting,” said Simmons.  The varying locations also give her interesting traveling opportunities. “I’ve been in places from the [Chicago] Shedd Aquarium for a wedding reception to people’s basements for a 50th [birthday].”

Her most successful gig was at a bachelor’s party in a Serbian night club. Simmons explained that she was being tipped in $20s, and she earned $500 for 30 minutes of dancing.

Simmons performing a belly dance/Ballywood fusion to song “Chaiyya Chaiyya”. Photo courtesy of Simmons

At these gigs, Simmons enjoys the freedom of improvisational belly dancing, which is a skill she introduces to her belly dance students at the UIC Recreation Center. Although she never anticipated becoming an instructor, she said the process was, and still is, easy. She explained that in order to become any type of instructor or fitness leader at a gym, all one has to do is complete a fitness certification class, which takes about four weeks.

Even if a class does not already exist in a gym, dance, or art studio, potential instructors may be able to create a class. For example, the UIC Recreational Center has flyers on its bulletin boards asking gym members for fresh ideas on new classes, fitness groups, or programs.

While instructor hours are steady with a fixed hourly wage, Simmons only teaches for one hour once a week, but extra hours are required. She chooses class music and creates class choreography on her own time. “Two minutes can take me over two hours to choreograph,” said Simmons. But where instructing lacks in pay, private dancing acts as a supplement.

Simmons stresses that anyone can become a fitness instructor or private dancer,“The only things you need are the drive to take the risk, and a great deal of confidence in what you do, because you’re putting yourself out there.” Simmons, claims to be naturally introverted. “In class, I’m just an Average Joe—usually quiet,” she said. “So if I can do it, anyone can.”

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