Lessons from the Dance Floor

Categorized as: on October 17, 2011.


Photo courtesy of Danielle Cerullo on Unsplash.

Many of the tools I need for work can be found on the dance floor.

by Suzanne Skees

Disclosure: I am a very slow learner. That may be why I’ve been in school my whole life, earning 2 masters’ in my twenties, devouring books on topics from child psychology to Tibetan Buddhism, and auditing classes in Spanish and architecture. However, my thick-headedness does not serve the Skees Family Foundation well. And 7 years into this business, all I know is the vastness of what I don’t know. So this year (2011-2012) has been dedicated to serious education—beyond scrolling through industry news and strolling conference sessions. This year, I’ve enrolled in programs with the Association of Small Foundations, Stanford University, and The Philanthropy Workshop West. My hope: to roll this education into a payoff in efficiencies and strategy for this organization.

However, thousands of pages of theoretical readings, hundreds of lectures with industry gurus, and required projects—both individual and collaborative—feel far beyond my ken . . . Till I remember that pretty much all the tools I need for work can be found on the dance floor.

I’ve written about dance before, comparing international development to joining in the tribal dance of a local community; i.e., absorbing the indigenous culture and inquiring, rather than prescribing, as a social-change peer.

A few years ago, I decided at midlife to fulfill a childhood dream and learn to dance. My life felt heavy and full of obligations, and I felt humorless and serious. Frankly, this dorky Midwestern woman needed to shake my hips. And since I revel in exercise, I chose zumba, a Latin-inspired dance workout.

Soon enough, I had my chance to step and swivel to upbeat music in blended styles of merengue, salsa, hip-hop, and Bollywood. However, I did not learn soon enough. For months—years really—I stumbled over myself, grimacing at my image in the mirror. I felt embarrassed at my lack of dexterity and apologetic toward my counterparts, some of whom knew the steps well and nearly got run over as I pivoted left instead of right.

But zumba is both forgiving and inclusive. Colombian choreographer Beto Perez, who invented zumba by accident in the mid-1990s, calls it a “calorie-burning dance fitness-party,” inviting millions of (now 12 million) new dancers of all ages, shapes and sizes, to “join the party.”

I could have dropped out. Classes took time, and showing up took more humility than I knew I had in me. But for some reason, I stayed. Maybe it was the soft prints of Degas ballerinas beaming down from the walls of our sunlit California studio, reminding me that I now had the chance to give myself the dance lessons my parents could not afford when I was a little girl.

More likely, it’s been my classmates and teachers. From my classmates I have learned to shrug and laugh when I stumble—and we all do—and to hug each other even when we’re drenched in sweat. We form community; and although we know little about one another’s families and jobs, we know Graciela’s favorite African moves and Roy’s penchant for dancing barefoot. We move from the stress of exterior life to the joy of interior awakening, as we leap and prance and forget the world.

My teachers have taught me some incredible lessons, too, that I hope to apply to my job. As often happens outside the dance studio, not all teachers reach me; however, I have my favorites. Two of three, like me, never danced till halfway through life—and they have shown by example how to chisel our bodies and hone our minds. Bonno, herself a lifelong drummer, taught me to “listen to the music” instead of trying to memorize the choreography. She’s led her classes through profound changes in her own personal life and shown us that cardio will boost our brain chemistry on any tough day. Desiree taught me to embrace the imperfect image in the mirror, to glow from the inside out, and to laugh really loud at everything silly in us and around us. Turns out, there’s a lot to laugh at. And John taught me to amp up my intensity to a more vigorous workout, yet also to take it in stride when we completely blank on what we’re supposed to be doing right now. He’s taught me both fierce dedication to the work, and quick re-setting when mistakes get made.

What I’ve learned on the dance floor applies to social change, too:

  • Anyone can do this.
  • It’s OK to be a beginner, to make mistakes, and to keep trying.
  • No one gets to seamless without putting in untold hours of unseen sweat and effort. (It takes, as Malcolm Gladwell notes in Outliers,10,000 hours.)
  • And in the end, the effort becomes effortless, because we merge with the music and forget to worry about whether we’re doing it right.

Gradually over time, my own dance workout has shifted from daunting to exhilarating, and my body knows how to follow, even when the song is new.

As in zumba, social change would become chaos if not for choreographed steps. We need to listen to the music, map out our plan, and then bring a whole room full of people with us when we press “play.”

This year, I hope to practice some new steps in cross-sector collaboration, media planning and advocacy, social-entrepreneur development, impact and mission-related investing, and strategic administration of this very small foundation with our huge dream of equal opportunity in the world. If I can listen to the tune flowing through the reading assignments, and hear the beat as professors and mentors count time, perhaps I can fall into step with a new class of dance.

Meanwhile, you better believe that I will hit as many zumba classes as I can, to clear my head in-between long work hours, and to shake some creative new ideas out of this old brain.

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