Monday, October 24, 2011
GETTING "PRO"-ACTIVE: THE MECDA PROFESSIONAL DANCE CONFERENCE AND RETREAT
It’s been about two weeks since MECDA Professional Dance Conference And Retreat.
This was not a “regular” dance workshop weekend; actually, there were no dance classes at all. It was more like Business College for belly dancers who were about to turn pro, or professionals who wanted to up their game. The first event of it’s kind in the belly dance community; this event is something that has been needed for quite some time. Most dancers are taught everything they need to know physically and kinetically, but there seems to be a huge lack of general awareness on how to conduct your artistic career as a business.
I would have actually written about this marvelous event sooner, but in truth I’ve been kind of too overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information that was shared at the event…consequently, I’ve also been too busy putting in to action everything I learned there!
There were lectures and classes covering a wide variety of material, and all of them were designed to assist dancers in reaching their career goals and increasing their income by improving promotional skills, running classes and troupes efficiently, learning cost-effective production tools, using social media for branding and marketing, preventing injury, negotiating for gigs and so much more.
Aside from myself, the teachers were: Zahra Zuhair, Julie Eason of The Belly Dance Business Academy, Angelika Nemeth, Amara, Devilla, Nadira Jamal, and Mesmera. Penny Collins held private coaching sessions, each day began with Lori Edwards guiding participants through an early morning yoga session, and photographer Lee Corkett of Weathervane Studios was on hand for those who wanted to book a full professional photo session.
The scheduling was done so that all of the classes repeated at different times, making it possible for those who were teaching to attend the classes that were scheduled concurrently. This was an awesome feature from an instructor’s point of view- at most events, many of the teachers don’t get a free moment to take any other classes, even though we would always like to.
I was particularly excited to take Julie Eason’s classes. Her online Belly Dance Business Academy is a fabulous resource, and she is a wealth of information!
The Conference was held at the lovely Hyatt Resort in Newport Beach, CA. The spacious rooms were spotless, the staff laid back and friendly, and there was a luxury spa on the premises. The workshops were mostly conducted in the conference rooms surrounding a beautiful garden patio, which also was where the meet and greet was held the first evening, under twinkling lights strung through the trees. The mixer was a great way for everyone to break the ice and get to know each other. The invited guests of honor were Mher Panossian of Hollywood Music Center, Suzy Evens of IAMED, popular dancer Heather Shoopman, and the legendary Harry Saroyan mingled with participants and shared their insights into the business side of belly dance.
From the meet and greet right on through to the Instructors Q&A on the morning of departure, I can’t even begin to describe the wealth of knowledge that was shared not just in the classrooms, but over dinner and drinks,on beds in hotel rooms, or at one of the three swimming pools, or the twenty five- person - capacity Jacuzzi, which was always chock full of belly dancers! Every night, the hot tub was crowded with women, sharing wine, sharing ideas, and on one occasion busting into a spontaneous belly dance water ballet!
In addition to the late-night Jacuzzi gab-fests, there was also plenty more time to have fun and to relax. There were many Conference attendees-only activities,including a beach bonfire with S’mores, a drum circle and a breathtaking fire performance by Luna Moon. The instructors all performed in a beautiful outdoor amphitheater located on the premises, equipped with professional sound and lights. It was such a joy to see the wide array of different styles of belly dance presented, not to mention the different “generations” of dancers who were performing.
Speaking of fun and relaxation- notice I did not say “rest and relaxation”- tireless MECDA volunteers the incredible Kaminga sisters, Trish and Lia, not only worked all day like Energizer Bunnies, but had the stamina to party like Raq Stars every night, too. They had a full bar set up in their room, where they held a rousing, cutthroat dominoes tournament every night!
For the last evening of the retreat, there was a pajama party-themed movie night, which included plenty of hot buttered popcorn and a smorgasbord of movie theater concession-stand type junk food, plus a pajama fashion show (See? I told you we were all mature, business-like professionals!) and a special screening of the incredible documentary “Afghan Star”, which was brutal and uplifting at the same time. There was also an impromptu screening of "Underbelly", the documentary director Steve Balderson made about my dance career in 2008. That was such a surprise-I had no idea they were even thinking of showing it! But considering how close all the participants had become during the course of the conference, I didn’t feel the least bit uncomfortable watching the film in a room full of people!
In fact, that magical, close-knit feeling and hyper-intense camaraderie were perhaps the best part of the entire weekend. I know that different degrees of bonding occur at most dance festivals, but this was somehow different. For the entire weekend, everyone let down their personal guards: the participants openly shared their secret hopes and dreams, as well as their innermost fears or feelings of frustration. The instructors shared knowledge and know-how that was mostly acquired through years of learning the hard way, through trial and error and without any sort of mentoring.
Throughout the course of the event, everyone became astonishingly candid with each other. At the very start of the weekend, many discussions focused solely on business, but in exponential magnitudes, the conversations became more and more personal. Similarities in life paths were shared, and not just as in dance being everyone’s chosen profession. Various dancers revealed their unique and intensely personal skeletons in the closet…yet the moment somebody mentioned something highly private, others chimed in about their own experiences, or with tales of their battles with same sort of issues. The amount of laughter, tears, and, as Oprah would say, “A-Ha Moments” were countless. During other events, I have never seen such open weeping during the saying of good byes as I did at the end of this weekend!
Belly dancing has been an art for many millennia, with the wisdom being passed down from mother to daughter… and in a modern way, this is exactly what the Conference felt like. It was beyond inspirational to see how Angelika Nemeth, Mesmera, and Zahra Zhair- true pioneers of our glorious dance form -coped with some of the issues that still face dancers today…but on their own, and without a support system! When I started dancing just over two decades ago, there was no internet, email, cell phones or social media sites…. and they all had at least fifteen years of experience before me under their bejeweled belts. This point was irrevocably driven home when Angelika casually mentioned putting on RECORDS at gigs without live music- the looks of astonishment on the younger dancer’s faces at that moment were priceless!
The original purpose of the Conference had been to bring together a small group of dancers, and nurture them along through the process of making positive life choices, and gaining the know how as well as the guts to take the leap of faith necessary for pursuing a career as a professional dancer. Mission accomplished: that basic principle was acted out in spades, at every moment during the weekend, and then some!
The MECDA Professional Dance Conference And Retreat had been a dream project for MECDA president Blume Bauer, who had been brainstorming it for the past few years. Finally, it came to fruition, through many hours of hard work put in by Blume and the many MECDA members who tireless volunteered, doing everything from co-coordinating schedules to making up delightful gift baskets for each participant.
But even though it was designed specifically for belly dancers, I could easily imagine this event growing to include to include dancers of all genres, as well as variety artists, circus performers and even actors, it was that extraordinary!
Though I’ve rattled on for quite a few paragraphs about this, I cannot even begin to stress how valuable this entire experience was. I am not sure if the dates have been set for the 2012 Conference, but you can check the MECDA website periodically for information: http://www.mecda.org/
In the meantime, check out Julie Eason’s Belly Dance Business Academy:
Think seriously about The Conference attending next year… you owe it to yourself, and to this lovely art form!
Layla Soleil during her photo session w/ Lee Corkett
Luna performing at the beach burn
Mesmera, DeVilla, Angelika Nemeth and Princess, pre-show
The slumber party