10 Career and Leadership Lessons Dance Has Taught Me

Image by Gerd Altmann

Image by Gerd Altmann

I didn’t grow up with dance and I’ve never been a professional dancer. There were no dance lessons in our little village, and there was no internet. I discovered my passion for dance in my 20s, although with my business jobs, I didn’t make enough time for it until much later. Today, I wouldn’t want to miss dance in my life ever again; it’s become an integral part of my weekly routine. It’s the one thing I miss the most when I travel to places where I can’t find dance classes as easily in the cities where I’ve spent the greater part of the past 36 years: Munich, Madrid, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, and New York.

Dance is not only a pastime for me. It’s a way to relax and power up, to release oxytocin and raise my vibration. When I dance in the embrace of one of my favorite dancers, it’s like I’m on cloud nine, on my high-flying disc. It’s like perfect co-creation to the beat of music that goes under my skin. It’s embodied communication. Dance is also my preferred way to stay fit… The dance classes I’ve taken, like Samba de Gafieira in Brazil, and West African Dance, Afrobeat, House and Congolese Ndombolo Dance, which I’m currently practicing here in New York, have kept me fit in many ways: They are very high energy and cardio… in a word, a good, healthy sweat; they usually include a very intense warm-up that strengthens my muscles; and the technical aspects of these dances as well as the choreographies challenge my brain cells. So I don’t only get to stretch my body when studying dance, but also my mind. – But wait, it doesn’t stop here! Dance has also taught me a whole lot about leadership, business presence and teamwork. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. CONFIDENCE. You cannot be on a dance floor without confidence, and even less on a stage. Even in class, moving your body in an unfamiliar way in front of other people until it gets more conditioned into the new movements can be daunting. (I’m thinking of my Afrobeat classes, where every single time I wish I was born in Ghana or Nigeria!) So unless you’ve danced all your life or you limit yourself to dancing at home, dance requires a certain level of confidence.

  2. MAKING THE ASK. In partner dance scenes, and especially in the more “macho” scenes like Salsa and Argentine Tango, we followers (usually women, though gladly that’s changing) often depend on leaders (usually men) to ask us to dance… unless we summon up the courage to break the rules and ask. At some clubs, that means walking all the way across the room and possibly getting a “no” with everyone around you watching. But believe me, the “yeses” I’ve gotten have been worth it!

  3. SAYING NO. And then there’s the flip side of the coin: I learned to say “no.” When I absolutely don’t feel like dancing with someone, I reserve the right to say “no.” This usually doesn’t have much to do with the dancer’s level, but rather the way they lead and how connected they are. Are they present in the moment, are they committed to communicating well (apart from having decent body hygiene). Which brings me to the next point:

  4. COMMUNICATION. Dance is all about non-verbal communication. In partner dance, being a good follower means I must be able to interpret all the subtle clues and signs the leader is sending out to me. If I didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to communicate in a harmonious way. It wouldn’t look nice, but most importantly, it wouldn’t feel good. In all dances, whether they require a partner or not, we communicate with the rhythm of the music, the instruments, other people around us, and possibly live musicians or an audience. Communication isn’t only about words; it’s about our entire person, our body language and our energy, which is the perfect segue to:

  5. PRESENCE. Dance has changed my body, my posture, and most importantly, the way I use my energy. It has made me more aware of my body and my energy, and its role in my business and speaking presence. It’s one of the reasons I’ve developed the concept of a Body-Conscious Presence as part of my Powerful Leadership Transformation (PLT)TM process. When we are fully present in our body and in our energy, magic happens: Our visibility increases and people suddenly hear our voices.

  6. SELF-EXPRESSION. Dance is about self-expression, and life is about self-expression. Because of this, our career is about self-expression. We’ve all been given very specific talents, gifts and natural strengths that favor and lead us to our purpose. And we all have the right to use them, to express ourselves as who we are deep inside. Leaders have the responsibility to uncover these natural strengths and talents in their team members so they can be their best selves at work, contribute their unique creativity, and to ensure that their diverse team members are respected when they do.

  7. CREATIVITY. There’s no one human being who is not creative. We all are creative in our own way. Dance is different for every single person. The same music will bring out completely different movements or choreographies in two people. In partner dance, my preferred leaders are those who come up with their own style, who take all the elements: music, rhythm, steps, movements, pauses… and create something unique from it. And that’s what we also tend to value in leaders in business, isn’t it?

  8. DIVERSITY. There is an infinite diversity of movements. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you go on YouTube and you get surprised with moves you’ve never seen before, unique choreographies. It’s just fascinating how much dance teaches us about the tremendous value of our differentness, the richness of diversity, the abundance of creation.

    Dance has been a rich lesson in diverse cultures. It has given me insight into how people with different cultural backgrounds think and live, how they express themselves. It’s amazing how much story goes into every single movement… I’m thinking of the orixá dances I came in touch with in Brazil and the Caribbean, though this is really true of most dances.

  9. INCLUSIVENESS. Dance brings together people from all walks of life. It’s a passion that people from all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds share. Thanks to travel, global mobility and the internet, Japanese people dance Tango and Hip-Hop, and Germans (like me) love African, Latin and Caribbean dancing. In dance, we can come together and celebrate the beauty of music and movement.

    Having said this, some dance scenes are all but inclusive. As a person who goes dancing on her own a lot, I often encounter cliquish scenes. Being the only white person at some events or classes has earned me (often innocent) comments at the entrance, like “You sure you’re in the right place?” unless I arrived with my (black) friend and dance partner.

    Unfortunately, some dance scenes can also be quite toxic (just like workplaces), and there’s often unhealthy competition, especially among women (just like in workplaces), which is of course unfortunate. – Dance ensembles, on the other hand, wouldn’t function without inclusiveness. In a dance company that performs together on stage, excessive competition just doesn’t work. It would affect its performance; it would even be dangerous. Which brings me to:

  10. TEAM WORK. In a dance ensemble, the dancers build on each other’s strengths, they rely on each other, and they need to be able to trust each other to an extent that their lives depend on it: They must be able to trust that they are not dropped, that someone catches them in acrobatic or aerial moves. They take risks together and they share the risk. Just like it’s supposed to be in any other work team. In fact, “ensemble” means “together.” Dance team work is “together work.”

Our passions tend to be closely connected with our purpose, even those who are seemingly unrelated to the work we do. I’m curious about how one of your passions has impacted your business or career.