How can learning dynamic moves on the dance floor help you become a more dynamic leader? Dance and business may not seem to jibe, but dancing actually can revolutionize how you work with partners, staff, and clients. I should know: I’m a leadership and business coach and professional dancer who has applied what she learned on the dance floor to create a thriving company I love.
After facing challenges such as a broken heel on stage and rainy outdoor performances, I understand how moments like this have supported my growth as a professional. I’ve become more resilient, creative, and confident, thanks to these experiences.
My clients, both private and corporate, also have enjoyed discovering the intersections between dance and leadership. I’ve brought dance concepts—such as why leaders become stronger when they know how to follow, or why releasing control is sometimes key to creating the best outcomes—to offsites, private coaching sessions, and workshops. Thanks to dance, I’ve watched CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, heads of nonprofits, and solopreneurs have aha moments that changed who they are as a leader.
My new book, “Dance Adventures: True Stories About Dancing Abroad,” features stories from authors around the world who share their own incredible tales about how dancing abroad catalyzed their personal and professional growth. To drive this point home, I asked a few of them, as well as leaders from several other industries, how dancing shaped their leadership. They’ve learned how to:
Improvise at a moment’s notice: Alvin Ailey dancer and contributor to “Dance Adventures” Courtney Celeste Spears has flexed her leadership muscles as a professional artist, the co-founder of ArtSea Dance, and a student in Harvard Business School’s Crossover Into Business program.
Courtney cites dance as the genesis of her versatility and adaptability as a leader. “Being a dancer has forced me to learn to adjust quickly to various scenarios,” Spears says, noting times when there have been last-minute venue or costume changes. “This is an important leadership skill. While people are still trying to figure things out or to accept the fact that change is happening, you’ve already seen it and figured out how to move forward. This makes others look to you for guidance, which naturally makes you a leader.”
Follow: The founder of management consulting firm BGSD Strategies, Michelle Coyle went far beyond her comfort zone in her first zouk class. “I started in a follow role and struggled because I am not a follow in life!” she says. “I’m a dominant, assertive CEO who is used to calling the shots.”
She had a breakthrough in her understanding of leadership, however, when practicing steps with a friend:
“I create the space for you to step into!” he explained.
In this moment, Coyle understood that this was not just the next step for her as a dancer, but also as an entrepreneur. She needed to make space for her team’s expertise and delegate so she could focus on growing the business.
Cultivate resilience: “Learning theater dance, tango, and salsa made me a far more confident Marine commander, counterterrorism officer, and professor,” notes Howard Gambrill Clark, who is now president of think tank Narrative Strategies in Washington DC. “It taught me that if I make a mistake or come across in a way I wish I hadn’t—whether I’m teaching in a class of international students or speaking to a division of Marines—I can come back from it.”
Clark first had this realization when he was performing fight choreography during a performance of West Side Story.
“I wiped out,” Clark reveals. “I worried that people would judge me, but then I realized that brushing myself off and learning from what happened is what counted. It was a very freeing realization that has allowed me to try things and push the envelope in my career.”
Influence how people see you: Criminal defense lawyer Tom Koerner has been juggling his law practice with his organization, Gottaswing, since 1994. Dancing has aided his legal career, he says.
“Competitive dancing and courtroom work are very similar,” Koerner explains. “There is a performance aspect, and you have to consider how the audience perceives you and how to portray yourself as confident. To do this well, you need to learn to think on your feet and stay aware of how you come across to others.”
Negotiate more effectively: Dance helped Nikki Hibbs find a blind spot in her work as a contract negotiator across various industries.
“Reading nonverbal cues is something you need to do as a leader in my field, and it is a skill I didn’t realize I lacked until a year after I started dancing,” Hibbs relates. “As a blues follow, I am constantly paying attention to my lead’s body language.”
This observation proved useful during a negotiation. “The other party was communicating that everything was going well, but I noticed the room was warm and they weren’t taking off their jacket,” she says. “Their shoulders were also slumped, and their arms were crossed.”
With time, Hibbs discovered the other party wasn’t sure they could complete a contract, and she was able to pivot negotiations accordingly.
Find—and own—their voice: Nick Williams, renowned swing dance instructor, says his experience growing the balboa scene in the late 1990s in Los Angeles helped him cultivate the confidence to create his brand.
At that time, the balboa community had very strong opinions about the dance, Williams explains.
“Initially, the community often talked about moves and styling as binary,” he says. “We used the words ‘always’ and ‘never’ in our classes. Something was either balboa or it was not.”
After watching the various styles of original balboa dancers, however, Williams understood there was more space for creativity and innovation. He began to base his movement off of what he saw these dancers doing, rather than following the “rules” of the modern-day scene.
“It set me on a path of taking my learning into my own hands,” Williams says. “It helped me develop initiative and taught me not to wait for permission from others to develop my own thing.”
Williams’ efforts to find his own style worked. He has been traveling the world teaching balboa and other dances of the swing era for the last 20 years.
Between my own experience and the interviews above, it’s clear it doesn’t matter if you’re a new dancer or a seasoned professional: If you’re learning to dance, you’re learning how to be a better leader. You’re stepping your way to more self-awareness and—ultimately—success!