Denise is captivating. She moves her hips effortlessly to the music, holding her upper body erect and confident. Her feet seem to manage themselves and even her skirt plays along, flirting with the edges of her frame. She exudes calm, adult sensuality that her dance partner accepts and amplifies. Denise is a designer who’s learned how to tango.
I could write a book on Denise’s journey toward the tango. How she managed corporate brands and marketing budgets for most of her career. How she decided this life didn’t belong to her. How she moved from place to place in search of the best tango teachers. But a book takes time and Denise has a more immediate and practical message for us.
As I review Denise’s updated portfolio I can see her transformation goes beyond dance. Her layouts are more sure. Her compositions more cohesive and clear. Her style is evident but not overpowering. Her work no longer seems forced or a result of “for hire” status; instead, it seems to be a natural expression of her life, a partner rather than a project. I ask her if learning to tango made her a better designer and entrepreneur. She considers the suggestion then admits that yes, dance influenced the way she works and how she approaches opportunities but what it really did was reveal her weaknesses. The habits and fears that initially hobbled her on the dance floor were the same tendencies that restrained her as a designer and entrepreneur. The lessons that helped overcome her fears on the dance floor are the same that improved her design practice:
1. Befriend your fear. In learning to dance, Denise explains, our fear is based on how we see our self. We imagine we are too clumsy, too fat, too stiff to share the floor with more elegant forms. Befriending our fear acknowledges that while our perceptions are probably correct, they don’t need to define our limits. We can believe we will become talented entrepreneurs even though we fear failure. Rather than trying to ignore or over-power fear, we can regard it as our somewhat overly-critical friend who pushes us beyond mediocre.
2. Join a community as a distinct individual. Tango requires adherence to a traditional structure. Everyone agrees on basic steps, named movements and a prescribed way of moving. They expect appropriateness, but not rote execution. In fact, the most noted dancer is he or she who best improvises within the given structure. The dancer with a subtle spark, a nuanced detail that telegraphs his or her unique interpretation of the traditional and adds a flourish of beauty is the one who earns the audience’s approval. Business communities are no different. Collaboration is chaotic without scope, process and other structures. However, we can learn the “shared language” without becoming a stripped-down version of ourselves.
3. Choose your leaders. With each new partner, Denise exposes herself to an unknown, personally intimate situation which could become transcendent or bumbling. Because of this potential, Denise carefully studies potential partners and consciously chooses her leads. As designers and entrepreneurs, we don’t always have this option but it’s worth seeking. Denise notes that a good leader never forces a follower. They invite and make suggestions. They allow the follower to express herself and add her own style. They understand the context and avoid putting a follower in harm’s way. A good leader never forgets the importance of the follower.
4. Collaborate from your center. The tango can’t be danced alone. Its art lies in the dancer’s connection with a partner, the music, the other dancers. The better the connection is, the more profound and beautiful the resulting performance. To create this connection, Denise needs to be herself, without artifice. She needs to be open and sensitive to a partner’s cues, understanding and accepting his interpretation of the music and its audience and recognizing how and where to blend her own distinctions. The relationship to business collaboration is clear: connect authentically and seek to blend, not bend.
5. “Dance” with your competition. Tango is a social dance. Dancers move counterclockwise around the dance floor and the resulting performance is part self, part partner, part collective. This co-creation dissolves if a couple tries to stand out too much or focuses intensely on besting their neighbors. Since the dance is a collaborative and spontaneous act of creativity, other dancers are a continual source of inspiration. To view competitors only as adversaries is to ignore much of what they have to offer.
I don’t know if or when I will learn to tango, but I have already applied Denise’s guidelines to my work. Whether or not this makes me more successful is almost ancillary. Following this counsel makes my work more enjoyable. I see each day as a chance to learn more steps, find great partners, explore new moves and join communities in co-creating a shared performance. I may even be a better dancer.