Geisha originated as skilled professional entertainers; originally most were male. Geisha used their skills in traditional Japanese arts, music, dance, and storytelling. Town (machi) geisha worked freelance at parties outside the various pleasure quarters, while quarter (kuruwa) geisha entertained at parties within the pleasure quarters. As the artistic skills of high-ranking courtesans declined, the skills of the geisha, who were both male and female, became more in demand.
The geisha tradition takes many of its mannerisms from Kabuki. Male geisha, both past and present, tended to take on the sexual humor of Kabuki, carefully balancing their appeal as to not intimidate their male customers. Male geisha (taikomochi) were usually ugly, previously wealthy men who spent so much money on geishas that they had to turn professional. Popular geisha and Kabuki actors have generally been mutually supportive. The early predecessors of geisha were the female Kabuki actors. Geisha tradition is also connected with Noh, primarily in the Kyoto geisha's dance styles.
As a profession, they are entertainers and conversationalists, much like professional ballet dancers, classical musicians, or party emcees. They do give public concerts, but the majority of their business is in private engagements. Depending on what hanamachi they work in, their "gei" specialty differs. There are geisha who dance, geisha who play shamisen, and geisha who do both. Their clientele are most often businessmen, those with an appreciation for the classical arts and with money enough to pay for the expensive fees.