Successful Art Entrepreneur or Belly Dance Dummy?
by Melinda Melina Pavlata, Ph.D.
AKA Melina of Daughters of Rhea
posted July 8, 2012
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…
As 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.
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…”
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.
Years 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.
However: I was wrong; because no matter what, in this context and most others, the best way to value a performer is to pay them. The bottom line is: I gave away a free show. Perhaps it’s time to write my Dummies book.
Text of My Talk
After the MC introduces me, I perform a 3-minute dance with my one-of-a-kind sword-and-dagger balancing act; then theatrically peel off my false eyelashes, unhook my rhinestone earrings, and don my regal, full-length cover-up so I am not in a Belly dance costume during my talk.
However, unlike the other speakers, I was not properly introduced, so when I take the microphone I must first introduce myself and my enterprises, Daughters of Rhea, Cirque Passion and Moody Street Circus Studio, to the group. The text of my speech follows: On Being a Full-Time Arts Entrepreneur
The performance you have just witnessed was an example of just one of the ways that a full-time arts entrepreneur has to multi-task and harness a diverse skill set in order to survive leading her creative, independent and maverick way of life. Choosing appropriate music for the context, heeding its rhythmic and melodic shifts, playing your finger cymbals at the right time and knowing when to stop, dressing for the part, brandishing swords and, when necessary, balancing them on daggers gripped in your jaw while dancing all the while. Figuratively speaking, this is a daily routine for anyone trying to make a living in the arts. It’s not easy, it takes self-motivation, hard work and disciplined practice, risks are involved, and the payoffs are often intangible. However, it can be fun, and it is more often than not on my own terms.
My creative work is an authentic, outward expression of my inner life and moral compass; it brings people joy, and hopefully, it inspires others in their own artistic and intellectual endeavors, which is part of my overall mission.
The truth is, I didn’t just wake up one morning with the epiphany: “I know! I’m going to start a family Belly dance company and build its brand, import a French circus tent, produce shows that combine circus arts, storytelling, and dance – but first, I’ll get my doctorate in medieval French literature and teach at Boston College, because surely that will make me more marketable!” No, all of that happened organically, and I was simply lucky by birth; because I am a second generation performing artist and was raised in an intellectual/Bohemian hippie milieu, I had a head-start in my profession. Thanks to my parents’ artistic lifestyles, I was already trained in the ins-and-outs of living a gig-to-gig life on the margins, in thinking outside the box, in trusting my intuition, in expecting the unexpected, and in resourceful ways of thinking and living that do not require a lot of money.
I had professional performance experience from the age of 2, dancing with my trail-blazing Belly dancer mother, Rhea, to a live Greek band with a costume pinned to my diapers, and turning cartwheels in the Pickle Family Circus ring where my father was bandleader and songwriter. Once again–lucky for me–my parents were (and are) multi-talented, intelligent people with excellent communication skills. My young life was full of travel between cultures and schools. I went to 16 different elementary and junior high schools between the U.S. and Greece, so I was highly trained in adapting to new environments, negotiating with very different kinds of people from all walks of life and adjusting to ever-shifting, greatly contrasting paradigms.
My role models growing up were performance and studio artists, actors, jugglers, acrobats, clowns and dancers, people with inspirational creative gifts and beautiful human values. My parents never groomed me for (or insisted upon) a specific career path – I was simply conceived under the starry California stars, born, and then toted along with them to all their various gigs and get-togethers. (My nickname at the time was “The Little Suitcase”.) I was included in all aspects of their artistic lives and expected to be an intelligent, kind, thoughtful, creative and loving human being before all else.
Before we go any further, I must admit that until I was asked to speak at this meeting, I have never specifically defined myself as an arts entrepreneur. So it’s entirely possible that I’m not. I may be just an over-educated entertainer who got suckered into performing for you all for free this evening! The title “Arts Entrepreneur” sounds really good, but doesn’t entirely feel like me. I feel more like a dedicated spiritual seeker who is constantly exploring and sharing through art the meaning of life in different forms, or like a quick-change artist who happens to have a contact list and several websites in her back pocket. The title Arts Entrepreneur sounds to me like you make a lot of money and can possibly afford a mortgage in Newton. I have a feeling that when I’ve become a “real” entrepreneur of the arts, I may finally be able to afford membership to this esteemed organization. (I discovered when trying to find out about this forum online, my yearly gross didn’t qualify me for the entrance to the club.) Finally, I have this secret and nagging thought that if I declare myself a successful Arts Entrepreneur, I may no longer be a real artist.
Self-questioning aside, let’s say I call myself an Arts Entrepreneur in that I am an artist who has been organized enough to compile and work an email contact list. I have learned how to promote and receive top compensation for my artistic services and creative skills, which I’ve acquired over a lifetime of hard practice, in many different markets all over the world. I have identified and expanded my artistic skill set, and have been able to diversify what I call my “context portfolio” in order to get more gigs. For example, I am a Belly dancer, a profession where the performance opportunities are generally few, but since I am also a teacher with a doctorate, a circus aerialist, a prop specialist with a variety of unique balancing acts, an academic, a juggler, a circus tent and studio owner–and sometimes even a clown–I am invited to perform and teach in many wonderful venues around the world. My success as an artist is based in part on being diverse, dynamic, and interdisciplinary.
I can also own the title Arts Entrepreneur in that, rather than sitting around waiting for people to call me for gigs, I have taken personal and financial risks to create my own opportunities and venues: I bought my own circus tent to feature my talents and those of my artistic colleagues and family. Together with my husband, Czech circus star Sacha Pavlata who is a member of The Flying Wallendas high wire troupe, I have opened my own studio, Moody Street Circus in Waltham, where we share our family performance traditions and skills with students of all ages.
Like my mother, who is still making a living as a Belly dance teacher in Greece (and would have it no other way) or like my father, a singer/songwriter who is still gigging it and playing his beloved guitars daily, I, too, want to keep doing what I love for my entire life. Thus, I must be able to wear many hats, and wear them well in order to make it all work on my own terms. I must be my own agent, producer, advocate, publicist, web designer, director, costumer and makeup artist. I must pay close attention to details and never count my hours. I must always be at work. However, my eye is not constantly trained on the bottom line, but upon lifting up people around me, upon creating a cultural scene of joyful self-expression where people are encouraged to hone their wondrous skills so the world does not lose the richness of its creative intelligence, so independent thinkers can flourish and work together to make the world a better place for everyone.
As I mentioned in the beginning of my presentation, as an Arts Entrepreneur, my product is not necessarily a tangible thing. Sometimes it is simply an ephemeral shimmy, a dance in the air, a generous energy, a joyful spark, a creative catalyst that could potentially be revolutionary if it inspires an original and innovative thought in the right audience member.
Additionally, one of my goals is to make the market for my “product” grow exponentially, so that everyone will understand the relevance of art, bring it more into their daily lives, and compensate artists appropriately for their hard work and profound contributions.
I have enormous gratitude towards my customers, the people who take my dance classes, hire my circus, book their children’s birthday parties at my studio, or recommend me and my company for gigs, because they help to support and sustain this vision and goals.
Today, my approach to Belly dance and circus arts, teaching and performing, or indeed anything in which I am involved, is inextricably linked to what I believe about life, health, happiness, and humanity. I believe we all want occasions to join together in supportive community, that we all want to be healthy and happy, that we all want to express ourselves creatively, that we all benefit from stretching ourselves by learning new disciplines, furthering our technique, and celebrating our bodies in artistic movement. Here are some of the basic life principles that guide me in all my endeavors, and that I think could come in handy for any entrepreneur:
- Live with positive intention, integrity, clarity and strength.
- Be brave and test your boundaries.
- Do not be held back by conventions or fear.
- Taste the thresholds of other worlds.
- Cross borders. See what might happen.
- This is your one and only life. Live it up.
Resources: *TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, formed to disseminate "ideas worth spreading."
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