by Amy Smith, with contributions from The Helping Hips
"It’s hard as hell to pull off what looks like a professionally-run fundraiser and show without professionals or training." - Helping Hips member
But pull it off they did. In the past five years, The Helping Hips (THH) have raised over $30,000 for nonprofit charities that benefit children with medical challenges, surpassing their original financial goals and hopes for community participation. Their magic formula: professional belly dancers and musicians, elegant banquet setting, living statues, chocolate fountains, henna artists, and silent auctions with astounding prizes. The secret ingredient: the ability to bring diverse individuals and groups together for a cause. The result: The community - dance aficionados, dance teachers, students, troupes, fans, and friends of the art - who came from as far away as South Carolina and Florida, and as close as next door, to support this effort.
(Note: See the review for this year's gala in "Sequins of Events".)
Silent Auction Directors JoAnne Abdallah and Cynthia Ricciardi on either side of Cherrie Hall, Managing Director of Helping Hips. Living statues (L - R) Amy Oliveira and Christine Oliveira Griffith. Photo by Armandophoto.com
Three of the galas, including this year’s, benefited the Family Coalition for Medically Involved Children, whose efforts support children with complex medical profiles and their families. This small nonprofit group works to educate, empower, and support families while expanding their children’s life experiences through programs such as the Smuggler’s Notch Adaptive Ski Program. “Sage had the opportunity to go to the top of the mountain and take in the breathtaking sights,” said one mother. Getting to the top in spite of the struggles they face was a symbolic victory for this family. Partnering with The Helping Hips and the belly dance community made a huge impact and left the charity deeply moved by the show of support.
Spreading smiles and shimmies
It must be said that the event's success is The Helping Hips' success. This small but mighty group of dancers and dance fans make the magic happen. Founded in October 2007, THH dedicated itself to “spreading smiles and shimmies” through Sunshine Sisters’ shows for elderly and handicapped populations; a newsletter; recognition for community members celebrating a happy occasion; support for those in need; and the annual Helping Hips’ Belly Dance Charity Gala, which has become the main focus for the group.
Planning for each gala begins within a month of the previous year’s event, starting with a debriefing meeting that documents successful strategies and suggestions for improvement, and continues at monthly Helping Hips meetings throughout the year. Volunteers are recruited (between 50 and 60 each year) to populate teams to oversee set-up and breakdown, décor, silent auction/chance drawing donations and tracking, tickets, technology support, venue and food, dessert donations and set up, financial tracking, program booklet advertising and production, the actual evening’s itinerary and creation of the show itself, and the marketing and promotion effort to which THH affectionately refers as “the beast.” From the volunteers who contribute a half-hour at the actual event to those whose involvement totals the equivalent of several full-time work weeks, the most vital members of the event are the belly dance community who rally to fill this resoundingly successful event with good will and positive energy.
SNAFUs and solutions
A few of The Helping Hips’ challenges were addressed aggressively after debriefing each year and some solutions evolved in not-so-elegant, almost comical ways. For example:
Lighting: Lighting the ballroom and stage for the shows and intermissions in a professional way was a challenge because of the age and set-up of the venue. Lighting controls were spread out over two ballrooms - to smoothly light and darken the room required a team of four people trying everything from walkie-talkies to hand signals with no success. Much to the dismay of the stage manager, the lights would unexpectedly dim down or flare up at the wrong time under the control of a well-intentioned volunteer. It was amusing in hindsight but frustrating in the moment. Much of the issue was resolved when THH Spousal Support members Bill D’Agostino and Peter Abdallah climbed ladders, tested various outlets in the rafters, and secured stage lights to the ceiling that could all be controlled from backstage. However, they still had to contend with an antiquated system backstage that involved flipping switches in the dark in response to verbal cues from the other side of the door. A spotlight, on loan from Burt Wood School of Performing Arts, was added this year. Run by a fabulous volunteer, Sam from the BCC theater department, this follow-spot furthered the group’s vision of showcasing the artists and making the night grand. An event with these goals truly needs a lighting designer and professional running the entire evening using a light-control board. Vision and finances collide on this issue though. So for now, the hard-working volunteers flip the switches and man the spotlight.
Staging: With 300 people viewing a show performed at floor level, sight lines were limited. The first stage of tackling this challenge was an attempt to create three levels of viewing: floor pillows in an arc around the dance floor were backed by three rows of chairs set up theater style, and then rented high-top cocktail tables and high stools were placed behind the auditorium seating. Hours spent jiggling chairs and testing site lines seemed fruitless as there were still unhappy patrons. Floor pillow seating did not appeal to women in gala finery and men in nice slacks. And some guests insisted they could not see the show no matter where they were seated.
After much research and the challenge of pitching the idea to the concerned venue (who had just refinished the floors), the gala team, with the help of ProEvent, found the ultimate solution – a portable, temporary stage. Volunteers were needed to set the stage up, break it down, cover it with Marley flooring for protect the dancers’ feet from metal seams, and tie the chandeliers back so the now-elevated dancers’ veils, wings, and flying props would not collide with them. But this effort finally resolved the sight-line issue. Now every seat was a great seat and having belly dance elevated to an on-stage, concert-style performance was in perfect harmony with the THH vision. Literally lifting highly-trained artists up and presenting them to large audiences on all sides as other dance forms in our current culture enjoy is extremely fulfilling and inspiring to all.
Last-minute ticket purchases: A major challenge the planners faced was last-minute ticket purchases, which left the group and venue scrambling to make sure there was enough food, seating, and programs. This was mitigated by offering discounts and VIP reserved seating for tables of 10. Technology-based payment options also encouraged early ticket sales when the group embedded PayPal links into its cyber promotional material and websites.
Promotion: Marketing and promotion throughout the five galas has been – and continues to be – a learning experience. A marketing plan was developed the first year that the promo team promptly ignored. In retrospect, the group’s lofty and complex goals made for a very heavy workload for promotional volunteers. A breakthrough came by using conventional methods such as providing press releases in papers, courting editors of magazines and newspapers, and, of course, sending print materials to dancers, teachers, and dance fans.
The venue itself, Roseland Ballroom in Taunton Mass, had an account with a regional newspaper and split ad fees with THH the first few years. The venue withdrew this support in the last few years but, luckily, this happened just as networking via technology flourished. Now through the use of social media event invitations, membership, and notices in the many belly dance groups, as well as Constant Contact mass email scheduling, “the beast” of marketing and promotion is somewhat tamed.
THH Artistic Director and Volunteer Recruiter, Aurel, at THH Gala 2012
These war stories, accomplishments, and future goals will be discussed at the volunteer party on Sunday, November 25th, when the group toasts volunteers from all five galas, presents this year’s donation to the Family Coalition for Medically Involved Children, and pauses to ponder the amazing experiences they have had as part of the New England belly dance community.
The potential for collaboration exists in all of us: as artists, individuals, neighbors, and community members. But The Helping Hips has made it manifest, through their ability to connect and collaborate in the spirit of good will and for the benefit of the community. It is their superhero power. It is the hallmark of their annual charity event. And at this holiday season - a season of thanksgiving, hope, and light - it is a shining example for us all.