Listen and Learn
Leadership Skills for Concert Organizers
by Angelika Nemeth
After producing and directing eight major ethnic dance concerts over a period of twelve years, I have learned (and am still learning) some valuable lessons and principles about leadership and human nature that can apply to any situation, be it leading an army, heading a major corporation, or maintaining a smooth running household.
It goes without saying that organization, preparation and delegation are essential. But the main key for me is communication. Great performances are about great relationships.
Every student/dancer comes with her/his own emotional baggage that colors and impedes understanding. Therefore the leader of a project must find the time, however difficult, to have individual conferences at the initial stages, and as needed. I also advise having a post-concert group rap session.
A good communication tool is journal writing. The last time I created a dance for the concert stage, I had every dancer keep a journal. After reading each one, I developed a much deeper understanding of the individual dancers’ weaknesses and strengths. After I had taken the time to read these journals and make comments, everyone felt important and part of something larger than herself. With this technique, I found that many problems could be anticipated, nipped in the bud, and the overall morale stayed high.
Another aspect of communication is stating goals and objectives clearly and establishing deadlines to meet those goals. For example, a dance that I was choreographing needed eleven dancers, but more were auditioning. Having experienced the trauma of rejection myself, I knew that choosing the eleven had to be done fairly and quickly. I taught some combinations from the dance with the instructions that the following week they would be expected to perform these movements individually in front of my assistant and me while being videotaped, and that afterwards we would choose the dancers. I kept my word and did as described. I call this being “ruthlessly compassionate,” a necessary but unpleasant task. Later, some of my long time dancers expressed how much they appreciated the way auditions had been conducted. Nothing was hidden, no favoritism was allowed, and they could review the video later. Simply, the dancers best suited for the job were the ones chosen. Those who did not make the first cut were offered the opportunity to be understudies.
This brings me to another lesson I learned with much pain. If possible, have another trusted expert help you with the audition process, both in feedback and in decision making. Perhaps because I am teaching and producing concerts under the aegis of a public institution, i.e. a junior college, rather than directing my own professional company, this backup system becomes even more crucial in these days of litigation at “the drop of a veil.”
Years ago I had a husband and wife team in my advanced class. Each auditioned for a spot in the concert. The husband made it, the wife didn’t. Eventually, I had to cut the husband from the dance piece due to his lack of improvement in both dancing and acting skills. As a result, the husband proceeded to write a scathing, six-page, typewritten letter to the president of the college stating how unfair and cruel he felt I was, and demanded my immediate dismissal. I also learned via some of the students that he planned to put a “spell” on me and the concert itself. I was shocked by all this, but felt secure that my actions had not warranted such an outrageous response. In hindsight, I should have anticipated trouble from this individual. In class he had a need to always have the last word, a behavior I had not confronted and for which I was now dearly paying the price. Twice all parties involved met in front of a review board consisting of deans and supervisors, at which time we each had an opportunity to state our case. The outcome was in my favor, but with a recommendation that in the future I state my expectations more clearly, and that I always have another instructor/expert present to help me in choosing dancers and dance pieces for the concert.
Another aspect worth mentioning is paying attention to details. Always check the small things, such as a lazy elbow, toes not pointed, not breathing with a movement, not finishing a movement or not enough tension in an arm path. Not correcting such details can relegate a dance to boringly pleasant instead of exquisite. In a long, sometimes stressful rehearsal session when all are tired and eager to go home, it is very tempting to overlook some corrections. But I’ve found it’s best to focus on those pesky details even if it means staying an additional thirty or forty minutes. I have repeatedly observed that a dance is only as strong as its weakest dancer, or to state it metaphorically, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
This segues to one of those universal truths: to achieve anything great, you have to be willing to work long and hard, and that means many hours of rehearsals both on stage and off. I recently heard the actor, Leonard Nimoy (“Spock” in Star Trek) speak about his experience as a film director. He compared it to running down a railroad track trying to keep ahead of the train. The analogy is so apropos. There is so much to accomplish, and usually in so little time. One always feels pressure. Therefore it is important that a director prepare the dancers, especially the novices, about the ups and downs of the creative process. For example, there will come a time when things seem hopeless. However, if they keep their focus on the goal, maintain their sense of humor and just take it literally one step at a time, they will get through the difficulty.
A student once mentioned that the only reason she wanted to dance was to have fun. She was not emotionally willing or mentally receptive to going through the pain and struggle that is part of anything worthwhile, like a professional stage concert. There’s a cumulative toll on people when they prepare for an event of great importance that can be extremely punitive. It comes from endless decision making and never being able to satisfy everybody, inordinate hours, and knowing that everything you do over months of preparation is building up to (in our case) only two days. Only two performances! But what a heightened feeling of excitement, what euphoria those precious moments on stage elicit. You are truly living and experiencing every moment. What joy when the applause surrounds you. There is also the pleasure of fulfillment in the finished product — a dream realized of a beautiful, professional quality concert that not only entertained, but also educated the public about the variety and scope of Middle Eastern dance. And whether you are the dancer performing or the choreographer/director watching, it is all worth it.
I would like to leave you with some words of advice from the president of the Atlanta committee for the 1966 Summer Olympic Games, Billy Paine. “You’re not as smart as you think you are. Listen. Don’t overreact. Learn from others. Be patient.”
Angelika Nemeth has been involved with Oriental Dance for the last two decades. She started her dance career in Feiruz Aram’s dance classes in 1974, and since then has continued to study with many of the great teachers of the field. She has taught workshops in California, Oregon, Canada and England. Angelika has appeared in numerous MIddle Eastern nightclubs in the greater Los Angeles area. She has a B.S. in Education and a Masters in Psychology, specializing in “Transformational Arts,” and holds a lifetime teaching certificate for junior colleges in dance and theater arts. In 1977, she was hired to teach Oriental dance at Orange Coast College in Orange County, CA. O.C.C. continues to offer a unit-credit course in Middle Eastern Dance taught by Angelika as part of the curriculum, and now a two-year certification in Ethnic Dance is also offered. (The O.C.C. Dance Department is rated No. 2 in the nation for two-year colleges.) Angelika’s annual dance recitals turned into major concert events, and were expanded to include Flamenco and East Indian dance in 1989. Her concert, “Ethnic Dance Mosaic” (1991), was attended by close to a thousand people. www.angelikanemeth.com