As a competitive ballroom dancer and executive vice president of a consulting firm specializing in business transformation, I need to stay in the present moment in order to make quick “on my feet” decisions. Business and dancing aren’t as dissimilar as you may think. Everyone in your organization, from the mailroom to the executive suite, can improve their business performance by taking ballroom dancing classes, even if they have two left feet. 

I see you scoffing. I hear you saying, “Yeah, right.” Well, indulge me for a moment. What is one of your biggest challenges during a hectic, stressful day, filled with distractions? I’ll bet it’s that you have difficulty staying in the moment and being truly present. If you are not 100 percent focused and paying attention, how can you do your best work?

Now, you might think you’re fully aware, but are you really? Take driving for example. Do you really pay full attention to the road or have habitual behaviors kicked in that cause you to multi-task? Do you talk on the phone, listen to music, or put on mascara? See! Start observing your own behavior and notice when your mind is in multiple places at once. If it is, focus on your breath, in and out, and then slowly bring your attention to one matter at a time. It takes practice, I know. I’ve been doing this for years and it is still a work in progress.

So what does dance have to do with this? To dance is to express music through body movement. It occurs when the mind, body, and spirit are fully awake, aware, alert, focused, and inspired. Now, think about your typical day again. When do you make your best decisions? When the same conditions are present, right?

I coach my business clients that even an attempt at ballroom dance can lead to professional transformation for better performance. Follow my lead as I reveal four main highlights you can apply:

  1. You need to hear the music. How many times are you in an elevator or a coffee shop, so lost in your thoughts that you don’t even realize that music is playing? Or, you have an entire conversation with someone and remember nothing as soon as the chat is over? You must learn to listen and pay attention to the “music.” Music, like business, has rhythms, patterns and repetitions we must understand. Different music types require different styles of dance. Author Susan Sontag once wrote, “Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.” You can’t Cha Cha to waltz music, and you can’t give your best to your team if you’re not hearing what they’re saying.
  2. It’s okay to miss a step. Vibeke Toft, head of the World Dance Council (WDC) education department and international dance champion, advises dancers to let go of being super-organized during competitions. She emphasizes that when you overly focus on the mechanics, your brain gets so caught up with the routine that the artistry of the dance is lost. The key is to give yourself permission to be imperfect. Performer and educator Eloise Ristad taught her stage-fright ridden students, “When we give ourselves permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel.” Fear of failure, criticism, and falling short of expectations limit flexibility and spontaneity. In business, when you stop straining to optimize every part of the day, you actually invite and notice possibilities that were not visible during times of rigidity.
  3. Stretch yourself. Most people aim for doing better at what they already do. That’s not a game changer and that is not what world champions do. The key is to notice what you are not doing. Famed painter Pablo Picasso once said "I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it." What new technique and skill can you apply to your tango? In what subject can you be a beginner again with something new? Try it, then go back to your area of expertise, apply what you’ve learned and see what happens. In business, are you more intuitive or analytical? Do you base decisions on your feelings, or on historical information, patterns and facts? True transformation comes from a combination of both intuitive and analytical thinking. Be willing to relearn and rewire your thoughts so that you can pick up good, new habits. By adding something new to the mix – either more creativity or more analysis, you create hypotheses and ideas that are more nuanced and inventive.
  4. Know your role. In partner dancing, you are either a leader or a follower. It is impossible for two people to lead at the same time. Toft explains that, since ballroom dancing is old fashioned, the culture is for the female to be led by the man. It is not meant to be degrading, nor does it devalue the female’s role. You can only have one captain of the boat. The goal is to look at the choreography as a whole, so that partners understand what needs to be produced as a team. The leader’s steps have more purpose when he knows the follower’s steps. As I noted in my bestselling book, The Four Intelligences of the Business Mind, in business, the same applies. You need to categorize and bucket who is responsible to make decisions, who is accountable for the decisions, who needs to be consulted when making decisions, and who needs to be informed of a decision. It is nothing personal, and it is necessary to ensure that things run smoothly. Also, roles change from dance to dance, and from initiative to initiative. One dance, you may be the leader and at the next, a follower. Be the best you can be at either role.

There’s a lot more we can learn from ballroom dancing that lends itself to the business world - trust, connection, communication, pattern recognition, preparation, and memory. While ballroom dancing is near and dear to my heart, these lessons can be gleaned from other activities that are new to you, whether it be a team sport, painting, or playing music with a band. In order to be present in the moment, you must first stop and listen to the “music”, give yourself permission to be imperfect, begin again as a beginner in something, and know your role. These steps will give you the freedom to invite creativity, mindfulness and innovation into your daily routine. Happy dancing!