5.  Economics

Other contemporary musicians with less promising careers are less concerned with creative license than tip sharing. [20] Preceding corporate parties, elite gatherings, and weddings, musicians and dancers often settle a salary with the event organizers either on their own or through their agent who receives 10% to 20% of this amount. And the gap between musicians’ and dancer’s salaries is remarkable, ranging from doubled to quadrupled pay for dancers, depending on their reputation.

Despite such inconsistencies in pay, most dancers characterize musicians’ stake in their tips as “greed” since they view female dance performance as physically and socially more taxing. Serap, formerly a folk dancer and a regular of elite venues, brazenly remarks: “Have you ever seen any musician sweat as much as we do? Does he ever have to expose his flesh for tips? Have you ever heard of an unmarriageable musician” (koca olmaz bu müzisyenden?). [21] Conversely, most musicians consider their labor more deserving as they engage the audience with multiple genres for hours as opposed to belly dancers’ fifteen-minute routines. Further, when musicians receive half of the tips, the şef (lead musician) splits it among an ensemble of minimally four players. Internal band hierarchies around age, status, and experience determine the why and how of this redistribution.

In the field, I witnessed intense dancer-musician conflicts over money and contradictory performance goals. [22]  The degree of loyalty and competition for more income varied according to performance frequency (a one-time event or long-term collaboration), level of artistry, shared history, and the reach of gender, generational, and class hierarchies. Numerous dancers shared with me the “tricks of the trade,” demonstrating how a dancer can push cash in the deep corners of her costume in order not to share it with her “rivals.” Such reluctance to distribute rewards, however, often results in poor performance quality. The already underpaid musicians, then, purposefully drown the dancer in fast tempos (koşturmak) or kill the beat (baydırmak, baymak). Once a dancer builds a reputation as a “hit and runner” (kaptıkaçtıcı) or a tip-hider, she risks scrutiny, scorn, and ostracization by musicians, and ultimately, a difficult performance.

How, then, to make sense of Birgül’s rare in-performance authority over musicians and audiences, an authority that most other dancers lack in the larger industry? With more than a decade-long career, Birgül is a popular and sought-after dancer in the tourist and native upper-class circuit. She not only knows the workings of unstable informal economy – Istanbul’s entertainment sector - but also is adept at maximizing her income through covering all her bases, specifically, by working with several agents at once. In addition to her secure yet low-paying ($25) Orient House gig, she often performs at five-star hotel tourist shows, 1001 Night shows, and extras such as yearly corporate events (bayi toplantıları) and elite weddings. [23]

Unlike most other belly dancer, Birgül, with considerable though not national fame, has the economic means to sustain herself and to contribute to her musicians’ livelihood. The musicians still have to undertake other performances or jobs to make a living, but Birgül provides them with new gigs, security, and occasional gifts while she generously shares her tips from extra performances. Thus, besides market transactions, Birgül and her musicians are also embroiled in a web of noncommercial exchanges inflected with local folk understandings of kinship and reciprocity. The musicians regard and respect Birgül as their abla (older sister) or bacı (younger or same-aged sister). Immersed in what Jenny White (2004:84) calls a web of “mutual indebtedness,” they frequently engage in solidary and potentially exploitative social contracts. Further, Birgül has significant cultural capital as a worldly performer with life-long dance training and musical skills: she understands music well enough to both arrange and orchestrate beforehand and to direct the musicians on stage. Also salient are her mastery over a variety of genres and her ability to work the audience. It is this rare combination of economic, symbolic, and cultural capital that substantiates her artistic and social power in this performance space.

Forward | Main page