Of business and ballet: What a thousand pirouettes taught me

ballet
Business and ballet, two things that are unlikely to mingle and associate with one another – but in my experience, both disciplines share some mesmerizing common grounds.

Initially, as a way to correct my poor posture, my parents signed me up to do a few ballet classes. With arms flailing and chubby legs fluttering beneath me in the first couple of dance classes, I was the ferocious five year old rampaging through a recital room on a Saturday morning. Despite my clumsy awkward body movements, little did I know at the time that this would eventually become something I preferred more to weekend television or cross dressing my little brother during my spare time.

Till this day, I still reminisce the way the music was able to take my body away as I lived in the moment, adjusting my tempo, my rhythm, my steps. All of a sudden, everything turned into a beautiful harmonious synchronization. It felt like chemistry. At that tender age, I felt like I found my true calling. An amateur career in classical ballet soon followed and I loved it. No-one was more surprised than me to find myself as a regular in the finals of several regional dance competitions years later. I was once an ice queen as Ophelia, a swan in Swan Lake, and even a zebra from a Lion King production.

A couple years later, a strain in my left kneecap put my ballet career on a permanent hiatus. I could no longer sustainably dance for the long hours I once did. If I were to dance seriously again, more effort and considerable time would be required to properly hone new techniques and routines, not to mention the danger of provoking the injuries of my already weakened knee – a risk I wasn’t willing to take.

In most cases, older people look forward to a restful retirement from a life-time of working. How I wish I shared the same sentiment. Very reluctantly quitting ballet, for the longest time I thought I forever embodied my on-stage Tinker Bell character in real life – moody and hormonal. I had a hard time accepting the reality that my ballet career just became a part of history. At the time it seemed like the only positive outcome was that I was finally able to eat a proper meal again. But seriously, what could any deserted dance skills mean to me, to anyone, who can never dance again?

But then, as life continued, I gradually started to notice how my ballet experience has affected me as a person. Despite my initial outburst, and even though I could no longer do fouéttes, I came to realize that ballet has been my competitive advantage in many situations. There were a couple skills from years of ballet training that in the end, meant something to me, and that have stood me in good stead.

So how did ballet help me and what could it teach you?

There is the obvious stuff, like having endurance and making sure you plan for resting time (time off to recharge, aka. a mannipeddi). There is the importance of partnership, the ability to handle the spotlight and pressure, and even that elusive sense that determination is 9/10ths of the battle. And of course, it’s always useful to be able to break out into interpretive dance.

Determination

More specifically in the area of business, successful business leaders need to be comfortable with the intensity of running a company and have the stamina to withstand incredible pressure from all aspects of business (competition, market performance, media perception of your business, etc). If you start every day with an hour-and-a-half class, followed by at least five hours of rehearsals, and performances most evenings and weekends, you know what it takes to work, really work, and what it means to persist, really persist.

Flexibility

There are very few similarities between the forms of ballet and the forms of business. But in terms of the nature of the roles of an artist, leader, and very sophisticated business man/woman, the ability to create, iterate, and evolve a job or routine is a fundamental skill. As a dancer, you have a very rigid and rigorous form, but how can you turn something that is very set and standard into something new and original every time, every moment? Artists are exceptional at this, and this analogy is very similar to being a leader and an executive, adapting and excelling in any given setting.

Connectedness

The common ground between an artist and a leader having the charisma and persona to attract followers, to excite people, to inspire the crowd, can also be translated into the ability to enlist the behavior of many people to move forward in a particular direction. My coach once told me I was an “emotional dancer”; my expressiveness was what defined my career as a dancer to a large extent. I was never technically perfect, but I was utterly devoted to the narrative on a spiritual level. You have to be able to look your dance partner in the eye, and make the audience feel its truth. No matter what magical technology, service or campaign is being implemented, it has to be connected to humanity. In business, I believe that the power of emotional availability is at work, ubiquitously, in any industry. Ultimately, businesses want clients to feel that they are there for them.

Attention to detail

There is a reason why every dance studio comes equipped with large full length mirrors. Apart from acting as an “optical illusion” to make the narrow studio feel that much more spacious than it really is, it is treated as a ‘crutch’ for dancers; to allow them to analyze their movement and reflect on their own execution. As a professional habit, you are conscious about the curve of your arms, the precise state of the pointe shoe, the exact calories required to get through a performance, the list is endless. There is no detail too trivial not to take seriously. Just like how a dancer would be mindful of the specific ways to position the body in a certain routine, one must dive deep into the details of the specific numbers, data, words in a contract for instance, before entering a new deal, an acquisition, a new venture.

Indeed, it seems that ballet and business both share mutual ethos, and that top professionals from both disciplines share a similar mentality. But is there such thing as innate talent that sets apart a world-class leader or dancer? One thing that’s for sure is that talent and ambition are complementary, and never a substitute of one another. No one is an inborn leader, or a dancer. There is no denying that some possess a greater potential in one area than others, but in the same sense that practice is an absolute necessity in order to perform a routine in one fluid motion, if you never intend to utilize your potential, you never know where this power might take you. To find out where your potentials lie, the only way is to try, practice, fail, and continue. It’s a cop-out to say “I wasn’t born with those skills”. You can always continue to thrive and add new skills to your repertoire.

From day one trying to stand in the correct “first position”, to eventually doing multiple pirouettes (twirling in one spot like a music box ballerina figurine) in front of thousands, I now look back at my progression and development from the years of dancing not with melancholy, but instead with gratification and fulfillment. It is true sometimes bad luck seems more pronounced, poignant, pervasive than good luck and fortune – my painful injuries at first seemed  like pointless suffering. Much similar in business, even with the best strategy, the best deal, the best timing, there could always be an element of surprise, good or bad, around the corner waiting to happen. And yet, much different to the philosophy and the fundamentals of dance, my own experiences taught me that one simply cannot always be in full control, all you can do is acknowledge and account for the uncertainties in life. What however, is at you discretion is how cold you want your lemonade served, when life gives you lemons.

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