Raksanna’s note: In my last article, “How to Create a Drama-Free Troupe,” I shared tips and techniques about leadership and team dynamics. This follow up article showcases how effectively harnessing the power of the team can allow you to achieve great things. Enjoy!
New York City! Nearly every performing artist dreams of making it in the Big Apple and I’m certainly no exception. For years, I’ve dreamed of bringing belly dance and putting it on the big stage in the world’s capital of entertainment. Off Broadway called and I listened …. And saw the bright lights in my dreams.
The Ground Work
I started traveling the world. I made it a priority to go to Egypt twice a year to study the art form with authentic, world-leading teachers, choreographers and performers. To date, I’ve been to Egypt a total of twenty (yes, 20) times and return this May to represent the United States as part of Randa Kamel’s faculty in her highly anticipated festival, Raqs of Course.
During my travels, I met many women who shared their stories with me – stories that needed to be share with the mainstream community because their stories – OUR stories- shine a light under the glamour and glitz of the stage and into the vulnerability of our hearts and the depth of our souls.
I decided to write a book and then create and produce the theatrical adaptation of the book for the stage. The work resulted in Confessions of a Belly Dancer© and it’s now become a series – both in book and in a touring show.
My team, Raksanna’s Near East Dance Ensemble, played to a standing room only, sold-out house in Chicago for our show’s debut. It was exhilarating!! I shared my dreams about the Big Apple with my team and guess what? They bought into the dream and made the commitment to tour with the show and elevate our art form by presenting our stories and our dance Off Broadway in NYC.
We worked hard. We created a demanding rehearsal schedule, knowing that if we were going to be in NYC, we had to raise our talent and skill level to NYC standards. We identified our strengths and created team responsibilities that helped us achieve our goals. It was tough, rewarding, challenging and inspiring, all at the same time.
Plus, as with all of the tour stops, there was the book that needed to be written, illustrated, laid out and published. Ruth, Linda and I got busy editing, writing and polishing. Most people publish a book with a year’s timeline. Our timeline is ambitious – one book every year – and we meet our goals!
Tragedy Strikes, but Teamwork and Tenacity Save the Day
Then, life happened. Six weeks before our NYC debut, an extremely serious and intense situation happened with my family. With only four hours’ notice, I had to get up and leave my home to be with a family member who was across the country, in the hospital, fighting for life.
I called Ruth, my artistic director and my best friend. I explained the situation and basically said, “Here’s the ball. Catch it. I’ll be back when I can.” She said, “Okay. I’ll handle it. Go do what you need to do. We’ll be ready when you get back.” Then, without a second thought, I left and tended to family matters.
Ruth gathered the team and explained the situation. The current environment looked like this:
– We had a brand new, 15 minute capstone choreography, called Scars, summarizing the essence of Confessions to close the show.I just finished choreographing the piece but the ending needed some work to tie everything together.
– There were three pieces where I was dancing with the ensemble – a change from Chicago, where I only danced in my solo at the end. I would not be there for rehearsals during crunch time.
– The show ensemble included dancers from around the country who were joining in NYC for the show. They also needed leadership and guidance.
– The book was in the initial phases. We had a table of contents and a book cover. That’s about it.
– Logistics in NYC were not finalized and there were many details up in the air.
– There were only six weeks left until the show.
Needless to say, there was a sense of urgency.
Situations like this can make or break a team. There was a lot at stake – not just financial, with money already allocated to theater rental, flights, hotel rooms and more – but also dreams, passions and our collective goal to elevate the art.
What happened next is truly an amazing testament to the power of teamwork.
Ruth called the ensemble together and explained the situation. The dancers ‘circled the wagons’ and got to work.
They divided work into sections, creating sub teams and making their own deadlines for polishing choreography, fine tuning staging and getting the choreography down.
They regarded each other as equals and looked to the team for feedback and constructive suggestions so they could each be their individual best and the team could be as strong as possible.
They stood behind Ruth as their interim leader, willingly giving the reins to her and trusting both in her judgment and her expertise.
Ruth contacted the remote members of our cast to keep them in the loop. Cora Camille (MO, part of the original cast), Carol Tandava Henning (NY), Elena Beck (IL), Elisheva (CT), Queen Esma (NY), Jehan Kamal (NY), Katrina Eady (NY), Lacey Williams (TX), Lady India (IL), Sabbi (MA), Serpentessa (NY), and our first married couple in the cast, Theresa & Ed D (MO), all took the news in and reacted with love and support.
On the ground in New York, Queen Esma took the initiative, without being asked, to finalized details for dinner, entertainment and team building experiences. She joined forces with Carol Tandava Henning and Kay, who took to the streets actively creating excitement and promoting the show. They hung posters in local restaurants, passed out postcards and called friends and fellow dancers to invite them to see our work. Carol stepped up as a Platinum Sponsor and financed a PR professional to market Confessions ©. Jehan Kamel and Belly Dance America promoted us and helped get the word out to the dance community.
I am deeply grateful for their support and their love. It made a huge difference.
The team kept on and held steadfast to our work.
The remarkable thing was that there was no drama. There were no power struggles. There was no infighting. The team focused on the work and strengthened the bonds that connected our sisterhood.
My personal situation eased up somewhat and I returned home twelve (12) days before we left for NYC. The team brought their work for me to review and give final approval on. One main project was the new ending – it’s a powerful piece that is real, raw and evokes a reaction from each and every audience member – and dancer involved in the piece. (In fact, my husband cried the first 10 times he saw it and still to this day, struggles with watching our rehearsals because it is such a moving piece.) During my absence, the team worked on polishing and connecting the dots in a way that brought cohesiveness and unity.
They were understandably nervous. Scars was deeply personal to each of us and certainly, I felt a strong sense of ownership to it.
They performed for me ….. and when I saw it, chills ran up and down my spine, raising the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck. The finished piece was everything I wanted it to be – and more.
Then, they ran the show for me so I could provide final feedback and coaching before we departed for NYC.
Their hard work and love for each other shined through. They had made such progress, both as dancers and as a team, while I was gone – it was remarkable and definitely noticeable.
I was so proud of them and so thankful for their love, their support and their commitment to the project.
I felt like we were ready to take Confessions © to Manhattan – that our work was worthy of an Off Broadway production.
The Big Weekend
We departed for NYC the following week. Of course, it was a whirlwind experience. We met with the rest of the cast on Thursday night at Tangine’s, a fabulous Moroccan restaurant that Esma selected for us – the same one featured on T.V.’s Rizolli and Isle’ (one of my favorite shows!).
On Friday morning, the cast spent the morning with a private tour of FAO Schwarz (check them out on the famous piano!), a tour of Central Park and a hot dog and pizza from a street vendor. We had our tech run on Friday night and then on Saturday morning, kicked off bright and early with the dress rehearsal.
Show time came quickly! As with our tradition, we started the night with an exclusive VIP party. Cora of Final Veil celebrated the release of her new CD, Year of the Snake, by singing two songs. Serpentessa brought her snakes to the party and delighted (and scared!!) audience members with her mesmerizing snake dances. And Carol treated the VIPs to highlights from her fabulous show, Blood on the Veil, her personal journey of transformation through dance.
Plus, the book signing and official release of the book, Confessions of a Belly Dancer; New York City took place.
Then, Confessions© played – to a FULL HOUSE!! What an accomplishment – to compete for audience members with shows like Phantom of the Opera and the Lion King, other Off Broadway shows and of course, all the other entertainment that NYC offers. Legendary dancers like Phaedra and Samira came to the show to enjoy the evening. Not only that, but half of the seats were from mainstream community members – the people we wanted to come and share our stories with!
When the final strains of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York played and the lights went down, each of us felt triumphant, elated and like we had danced on air.
It truly was a dream come true.
We returned to Tangine’s for an after-show party and then, woke up early on Sunday for a day of challenging and inspiring workshops.
But Wait! That’s Just the Beginning …
Thankfully, life is returning to somewhat of a normal state for me. My family is healthy and in good spirits. I have work and the bills are paid. Classes are back in session and the team is now working on our next tour stop in Kansas City, scheduled for the weekend of May 16-18.
But as much as things are the same, they are also different.
I’m a better person. It is easier for me to relinquish control and to trust in others. This is a tremendous life lesson and an accomplishment for me because I struggle with control and trust on what seems like a daily basis.
Ruth is a stronger leader. She took the situation and rose to the occasion, demonstrating strength, character and professionalism.
Raksanna’s Near East Dance Ensemble is stronger – as individuals, as dancers and as a team of sisters who share a deep bond and know that together, we can meet and conquer seemingly insurmountable odds.
We work better together, we’re more streamlined and we’re more in tune with our collective power – which is simply amazing. I am humbled by these women, proud to call them my friends and am grateful that they are part of my family circle.
Thank you, Raksanna’s Near East Dance Ensemble.
Thank you Ruth McEachnie, Maria Cerventes, Karri Soyk, Kim Cassidy, Linda Roberts, Sue Wagner, Betsy Rios and Renee Castellano, Thank you for everything. I look forward sharing an amazing future that people only dream of with you.
And now, we’re applying these new found strengths to continuing our journey with Confessions © … and other exciting ventures that are on the horizon!