Takes Two


Ballroom Dancing




“Takes Two”  Shel Markel (2014)

Shall We Dance? Kristen Storey and Richard Tonizzo’s Leadership Lessons from the Ballroom Floor

Jane Heineken (Guest Blog)

Although we often discuss the Demons of Distractions, one of our favorite topics is the benefit of positive distraction: those activities that—unlike damaging forces such as the Stress or Fatigue Demons—actually help refresh and refocus you. What you may not realize is how your hobbies can enhance and inform your performance on your “real” job. Our team attended a workshop presented by University of Michigan Human Resource Development organizational development and learning specialist Kristen Storey, entitled, “Leadership Lessons from the Ballroom Dance Floor.” Kristen was joined by her Ballroom Dance instructor, international competitor Richard Tonizzo, and members of the UM Ballroom Dance Team.

Kristen began learning Ballroom Dance on a dare to herself during a time when she was feeling unfulfilled in her career and vaguely dissatisfied in her life. In addition to becoming addicted to the art form, she also discovered, “…how Ballroom Dance and Leadership are integrated in concept and approach.”  Here are the five aspects of Ballroom Dance that have also helped her in her role as a Leader and Educator:

Balance: in Ballroom, balance is a physical and spatial issue. In life, it’s a metaphorical issue; human beings are most fulfilled when they strive to achieve balance in the realms of career, personal finance, social relationships, community service, and health/well-being. Kristen thinks of them as buckets that all need to be filled to sufficient levels to achieve a satisfying life. But balancing your life involves an element of risk-taking: Kristen quoted champion ballroom dancer, Emmanual Pierre Antoine to his students: ‘Sometimes you have to lose your balance to find your balance.’ Successful Leaders continuously evaluate what they are doing right versus where they need to give more or pay more attention.

Self-Awareness: dancers need to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses they bring to the dance floor at any given time. This helps them know what to work on. Ballroom Dancing is evaluated as a partnership; both dancers need to look good. The male traditionally leads, but he can’t always see where he is going; he has to be willing to let his partner guide his leadership through subtle signals. The same is true in the workplace: no one will follow a Leader who can’t support, showcase, and share credit with co-workers. Leadership is more than attacking tasks “like a beast” —it includes cultivating relationships and being responsive to the music and rhythm of the work environment. Self-awareness on the job means staying present and realizing your impact on others.

Teaching & Coaching Mindset: dancers who interact with each other may possess different levels of experience and competence; every dancer has been taught and coached by someone at a higher level. Instructors must be patient and flexible in the ways they communicate information because adult learners come to them with baggage and egos; they may react more negatively to new challenges. A Ballroom student might say, “This new move is stupid!” The instructor knows to translate this as, “I feel stupid because I can’t execute this new move” and respond with, “You just don’t understand the move yet; later on, when you do, it’ll be fun.”

In the workplace, successful Leaders also need to see what they do as teaching and coaching. You should never take for granted that others know what you know, or that they experience things in the same way that you do. Ask questions about your learners; the more you know about them, the better you can draw on similar experiences or make analogies when coaching them. You need to “…leverage a variety of ways to communicate and enable successful performance in others.”

Being Agile: Ballroom dancers need agility, not only to achieve each position, move, and turn, but also to execute their plan on the space of the ballroom floor, which is divided into long and short runs. Pairs have goals for navigating the space, but there are many factors beyond their control that force them to adapt their plans in competition or performance. Their coping strategies include: challenging each other with the unexpected during practices to see if both can adjust, using their powers of observation the moment they arrive in the new setting to plan adjustments to actual conditions, and deploying special strengths to cope with challenges. For example, if the competition is taller and has longer strides, a shorter pair can show off quicker, sharper steps. If the floor is unusually crowded, a pair might need to change up their speed, or even hold back and yield to others until a space opens up to shine. Dancers have to accept that their plan is always changing and will never be perfect: if a partner makes a mistake, they don’t dwell on it—they support them and recover quickly.

In the workplace, successful Leaders are agile in mindset. There are many business conditions that call for adaptability: financial challenges, staffing issues, reorganizations, technology change—even the price of success (resources stretched thinner, growing pains, etc.). Though you may start with a plan, you need to view change as a given and respond quickly to unexpected circumstances while meeting strategic goals and priorities. Be aware of speed, pace, openness, and readiness to move forward on issues with your team. Also, observe other leaders: how does their agenda conflict with yours? Are they pushing the boundaries? Can you “play the game” against them but still be respectful of each other?

Continuous learning: no matter what their level, Ballroom dancers never rest on their laurels. There is always something to improve and something new to learn from instructors and other competitors. In the workplace, successful Leaders never assume they know it all: “When you stop learning, you cease to become a valuable asset to your organization.” Like Ballroom competitors, Leaders can always be asking, “What’s the next thing I can learn and add on to my repertoire?” Staying open to the various perspectives of mentors, inspirational figures, and team members around you can alert you to knowledge gaps that you weren’t aware of having.

Daring herself to dance is a risk that paid off spectacularly for Kristen in ways she never expected. What leisure activities and hobbies do you love to do in your free time? What have you been tempted to try? Your work skills will undoubtedly benefit from an activity that cultivates one or more of the five areas above. As Kristen Storey says, make sure all of your life buckets are getting as filled as possible!

About Geraldine Markel, Ph.D.

Geraldine Markel, Ph.D. is principal of Managing Your Mind Coaching and Seminars and is author of Defeating the 8 Demons of Distraction: Increasing Productivity and Decreasing Stress. She is co author of Finding Your Focus: Practical Strategies for the Everyday Challenges Facing Adults with ADD and Helping Adolescents with ADD and/or Learning Disabilities. At the University of Michigan, Dr. Markel served as faculty in the School of Education. She coaches adults and adolescents with ADD and/or learning disabilities and specializes in working with independent professionals, writers, and graduate students.
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