Successful Art Entrepreneur or Belly Dance Dummy?

A lovely woman I know from the local Belly dance scene, let’s call her Jane, who was working as an administrator for an entrepreneur’s organization in Boston sent me an email with an intriguing opportunity: “Would you be interested in speaking at an upcoming event about your role as an arts entrepreneur? It is for an elite club of millionaire entrepreneurs who give TED*-style talks about their challenges and triumphs in business. It seems to me that you would be an excellent fit as a successful studio owner, circus producer and performer.”

Immediately, I said yes! A million times, yes! Invitations to write and speak about my creative life are so rare (usually I’m foisting my stories on others, or, of late — just shutting up and dancing), and here I was–being asked to write and participate in an esteemed gathering where business leaders would share talks about how their life’s passions were transformed into successful businesses, about risk-taking ventures and other entrepreneurial insights that opened the universe of opportunities for them.

It was, I thought, such an interesting prospect, and I immediately set to work drafting a talk on my experience as an artist and entrepreneur. I so looked forward to hearing the other talks, of carrying my trusty notebook and soaking in a heady setting of smart people for the rich exchange of information…

red phoneAs the date approached, I was to join into a telephone conference call where the other speakers and I would introduce ourselves, find out more about the layout and flow of the event and hammer out any technical needs for our talks. The call was led by the organizer of the event (a woman whom Jane was assisting), and it was then that I heard for the first time: “…And then our surprise performer will come out and dance… Melina, are you on the line? How long does your dance last?” There was expectant silence on the line as I went mute; my ears filled with the pulsing sound of the sea.

Dance? Performer?

I was completely unprepared for this brand new scenario, and spitting out “WTF?” was clearly not the utterance that a successful arts entrepreneur emits while on conference call with her respected peers. I swallowed what felt a little like betrayal and what was clearly a terrible, warty case of miscommunication between Jane and the organizer of the event. “Excuse me, I have a talk prepared for this event. Jane hadn’t mentioned dancing in her invitation to participate here. I hadn’t thought I was being asked to perform.” “Oh, I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. No, I thought you would do a quick little dance and then you can say a little something if you want…”

Aha!

Here it was, the pivotal moment, the moment where what you say determines what happens, or what doesn’t happen, the moment of which you are either proud in retrospect or in which you feel defeated and ashamed, covering it up with the sands of time and silence and try to forget about it.

Or it is the moment you later write about, pornographically exposing your pride, judgment calls and internal thought processes for all to see, in the hopes that something good can come of it, that you can help someone, somewhere, someday, make the right decision when confronted with their pivotal moment? In any event, it took me a moment to register the gist: my primary function at the event was not as a speaker in a business suit with trendy little reading glasses, but as a sequined entertainer liquid eyeliner artfully applied.

I felt I had to make a decision, right then and there, about whether to do it or walk away. I didn’t want to get into a public conversation about payment for an event that now had morphed into a gig; I couldn’t have a private conversation with Jane to find out more about the misunderstanding and didn’t want to put her on the spot.

Most importantly–fervently, I wanted to give this talk that I had already begun to write! I swallowed all arguments and decided to go through with it, already formulating in my mind how my overall dilemma could be crafted into an interesting performance art piece, a creative form of protest where the glittery entertainer peels off her false eyelashes and dons her glasses for her real presentation as millionaire spectators bend to her powerful words.

dummies bookYears ago, I was asked to dance for free at a reception at an Oriental carpet store. They quoted from the “Dummies’ Book of How to Get Entertainers to Perform at Your Event For Free” (By the way, this book is not yet written; perhaps I should write it.): “It will be great exposure for you, the press will be there, many clients who see you will want to hire you… …yadda, yadda, yadda.” I hadn’t yet written my own personal Dummies Manual for Entertainers, but it would have said: “My appearance fee is a flat rate X and goes up from there. The fee is the same for a 10 minute show as for a 30 minute show. (I don’t always include this in my patter because “less is more”. Sometimes, I’ll throw this in if I am seeking to educate the client.) I continue, “My rate is based on a lifetime of world class experience and investment in continuing education and gorgeous costumes. I am a full-time artist who makes her living from her unique craft. I’m the only Belly dancer in the world to do the balancing act that I do, and I have a family legacy in the art form as well as skill, grace, interpersonal skills, and proven entertainment chops. If you want a cheaper dancer, I’m certain an Internet search will turn one up…” If I am advising a fledgling professional dancer on sticking to her performance fee rate in the face of a client asking for a discount, I might say, “Think about it: How much have you invested in becoming a professional practitioner of this art form? How many hours have you spent practicing your art? How much money have you spent taking dance seminars, buying costumes and cosmetics, assembling your playlist, putting on your makeup and costume, driving to the event, driving back from the event and so on? Know that you are worth your price and calmly stick to it! Don’t sell yourself short and don’t undercut the dancers who know their worth and are insisting on receiving it.”

I danced at the Oriental carpet reception, received no work as a direct consequence of doing so, and felt my goodwill, professional skills, and positive energy was wasted on people who, in the plush back room, were patting themselves on the back for using the script from the unwritten dummies’ book to get free entertainment. Well, I would be a dummy no more …until the millionaire organization came calling!

Jane had respectfully asked me to speak, not to perform, at this event, and she revealed to me in a follow-up phone call that she had no idea that her boss wanted me to perform and not to speak. She would totally understand my backing out, since it was not in the budget to pay me. The event was fast upon us, and I could have expended energy renegotiating the experience and trying to squeeze a performance fee from Jane’s boss; surely they were paying for the space, paying for caterers, etc., but I decided to let it be. I wanted to think of myself as a speaker on par with the others, not as part of the event’s “hired help.” I decided to explore my sinister plan of doing a quick but phenomenal dance and balancing act performance and then dazzling them with a brilliant talk in which I subtly skewer the organizer who has managed to procure entertainment for the event without paying for it. Karate chop, Hi-Ya! I would school them all and the organizer and entrepreneur millionaires would, in a flash of blinding light, understand the importance of valuing artists and compensating them for their entertainment services.

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