Professional Development Through the Lens of Belly Dancing
by Wendy Meluch
Photo Credits: Robert Davis and James Pepper Henry
posted February 7, 2015
Hindsight may or may not always be 20-20, but time to reflect always brings a broader perspective and deeper understanding. I know this both as a professional belly dancer and as a museum consultant. Recently my dance and museum worlds intertwined when I took time to reflect on my personal and professional evolution in dance and in business.
It began, appropriately enough, on the dance floor at the opening event of the Western Museums Association’s (WMA) 2012 Annual Meeting in Palm Springs.
In a playful exchange with a conference colleague, I got out my finger cymbals as we danced. Over dinner I found myself describing to my new dance floor friend my discovery of belly dance almost 30 years before, and my 20+ year career performing, teaching and directing. That conversation helped crystallize in my mind what had been somewhat foggy ideas about my development as a dancer.
Over the next few weeks, the veil lifted further and I saw that my developmental path in dance maps perfectly to my development as a consultant, and in fact could serve as a useful framework for understanding personal or professional growth in any number of arenas, not just my field of museum evaluation.
Phase 1: Activist (Emerging Professional)
As I considered my motivations to study and share the dance, and how those motives shifted over time, I saw that they fell into three phases. The first phase I call activist: Having grown up with poor body esteem, my initial reactions to both finding belly dance and realizing that I was good at it, turned me into what I now describe as an activist. I was out to prove that I could do this, that I could be lithe and beautiful.
When I first started consulting in museums, the emerging professional phase was much the same as being an activist for my dancing self – I put a lot of energy into making contacts with colleagues and working hard to prove my abilities to them, as well as to myself. New to the stage, and new to consulting, I reached high and pulled hard for dance gigs and museum contracts that pushed me to the limits of my ability. There were a lot of nervous moments while preparing for a performance or a client meeting when I’d ask myself angrily, “Why do you do this to yourself?!” But each success made me feel validated and capable. That invigorated and inspired me to get out there and do it again!
Phase 2: Hostess (Mid-career Professional
As I got more confident and comfortable in each world, I was able to relax and enjoy them more, moving into phase two. As a dancer, I think of this phase as hostess because I had reached the point where I was less nervous and more able to focus on the audience. My motivation became less about proving myself, and more about connecting with the audience and having fun with them. Similarly, many years of success as a consultant built my confidence as an expert mid-career professional, such that I could relax at conferences and have more fun with colleagues while being clear and solid about the project work that needs to be done.
Dancing skill is critical, of course, but performance is more than the execution of dance steps. To engage and be memorable to the audience, a performer must be emotionally present and responsive. In the same way, consulting with museums is more than knowing about my area of specialty: visitor studies. I need to listen well and be friendly and reliable as we develop our working relationship.
Phase 3: Priestess (Leader)
Many years of performing in a wide range of venues gave me a vast vocabulary of music, dance and audience dynamics. My ability to focus on the audience grew to include consciously receiving energy from them and sharing it back through the dance performance. Still the friendly, smiling hostess, but now with the ability to hold a higher vision of connection and sharing, I had moved into phase three: priestess.
Eighteen years of successfully running a huge variety of research projects makes me a most effective consultant, but it also gives me the experience and perspective to be a leader in the field. As my knowledge and network grow, opportunities to give back to the field, or help move it forward present themselves. I am frequently in the position to bring professional colleagues together for various types of collaborations. Universities, museums and professional associations often invite me to speak or weigh in on issues related to my specialty.
Priestess dancer and leader are rooted in deep and broad experience. They operate at a level which enables them to guide, share and give back to their respective “audiences.”
An Opportunity to Perform Ideas
Just about the time I was pondering these ways of describing personal and professional growth, a wonderful opportunity presented itself in the form of WMA’s WestMusings program, a series of short, engaging presentations by forward-thinking museum leaders. I was excited to be one of the four speakers in WestMusings 2014. And I was especially excited to weave dancing into my presentation, not to mention a terrific costume!
Being invited to be a WestMusings presenter was thrilling, but several things about it were pretty nerve-wracking. While I love public speaking and dancing for a live audience, combining the two was a new and challenging prospect. Most of my museum colleagues were not aware of my belly dance background, and I wasn’t sure how they would respond. My biggest fear was that I would stop getting hired for museum projects. I knew I needed to own this talk, own my status as leader and priestess, and perform well for it to work, so I got professional help.
Working with a TED-style speaker coach helped me hone my message and understand how to use the stage. I counted on her to be honest with me about all aspects of the performance. We worked remotely by Skype, first on the talk itself, then my spoken presentation, and then the whole performance, dancing and all. It was the first time she had seen me dance and she was relieved, “If you weren’t a good dancer this would never work, but you’re amazing!” The whole process and her responses to me built my confidence and made me eager to get on stage.
In my ten-minute talk, Leading the Dance, I was able to introduce the three developmental stages and describe them briefly. I also performed short phrases of dance with moves that I felt embodied the attitude of each phase. As a performer, stepping in and out of dancer and speaker modes was exhilarating; a compelling opportunity to experience these very different ways of relating to an audience woven together seamlessly.
October 8. 2014, Big Springs Theater located at Springs Preserve in Las Vegas, Nevada
This Dance Continues
I am continuing to think and speak about these three phases of professional development, the belly dance analogy, and other life lessons found in a belly dance career. The ten-minute WestMusings 2014 talk does not broach the subject of body esteem, for example, and can only touch on tips and tools for professional growth. I look forward to exploring these and many related issues more deeply on stage and off in the coming months and years.
Video Credits: Music by Light Rain used with kind permission from Doug Adamz.
Costume design and creation: Alnisa (Robin Wood)
Speaker Coach, Stephanie Weaver works with all types of public speakers including TED-style presentations and keynotes.
Writing and choreography: Wendy Meluch © Meluch 2014
Other Westmusing 2014 Speakers:
Micheal Wall, Vice President of Research and Public Programs, San Diego Natural History Museum.
His talk was called Naiveté, Origin Stories and the Venn Diagrams of our Lives (It was much funnier than it sounds!)
Paul Gabriel, Educational Consultant and therapist, San Francisco. His talk was called SexMusings.
Sven Haakanson– Curator of North American Anthropology, Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Washington. His talk was called Repatriating Knowledge and Inspiring Change
Ready for more?
- 9-17-02 Raven and Zephirah Dance In Light Rain
"…dared to go public with a depiction the sensual, sexual nature of belly dance and have managed to do so in an artistic way."
For its first year, the NYCairo Raks Festival produced by Bellydance America and Mohamed Shahin created a notable event with star-studded performances, authoritative workshop instructors and opportunities to meet dancers from around the world. I was fortunate to have the chance to perform in the open stage, watch all the gala shows and partake in several of the workshops.
I have read many times that “Gypsy” is a bad word because they prefer to be called “Rom.” Therefore, it is disrespectful to use the word in any form. I beg to differ.
- 11-16-14 Color, Graphic Design for Dancers, Part 2
Now we’ll delve into applying colors in marketing materials, returning to the ever-present concepts of hierarchy and legibility introduced previously.
Exploring and blending these disciplines has long been my “secret sauce.” Centering and breathing, conscious transitions, body and soul awareness–from footfall to fingertip and beyond–nourish and replenish my dance.
- 10-17-14 Retirement, Is There Life After Dance?
Perhaps this was my mistake; I had a plan for my dance career, and I was not shy to tell it to everyone who would listen.
- 9-30-14 An Evening of Egyptian Music and Dance, a Report from El Leil
Amina and the Aswan Dancers did it again! The sold out show at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts was another stellar example of the kinds of show their fans have grown to expect and they have not yet been disappointed.
Like every area, the UK has seen an ebb and flow in the popularity of belly dance, the economic impact and the rise in popularity of fusions styles has changed the dance from when I first started twenty years ago. Yet I see a strong, healthy and supporting scene posed to expand when disposable income in the general population increases.
- 9-6-14 Don’t Come Whining to Me! An Open Letter to Aspiring Young Belly Dancer
If you audition for a Greek restaurant – do NOT come to an audition with anything other than Greek music.
The refugee children were dressed in sweatpants and T-shirts, like school kids anywhere in the world. The coach was in a tracksuit, and his stern voice echoed over the young crowd. It could easily have been a basketball game, or perhaps a rehearsal for a play, that was about to begin in this gymnastics hall. But this was a dance rehearsal