Everyone is a Leader, Both On and Off the Dance Floor

Everyone is a leader

A leader can be seduced by the extraordinary attention people give his unique vision and begin to believe that he is personally superior to others. It’s not difficult to imagine Jordan Belfort, the Wolf of Wall Street, jumping into a taxi in New York City and yelling “Hurry, hurry!” The cabby says, “Where to, sir?” “Does it really matter where?” says Belfort. “They need me everywhere!”


In corporate America, the cubical worker will forgive his visionary CEO - who seems to have a far greater vision than his own - all sorts of transgressions in order to facilitate the delivery of the CEO’s  all important vision for the company, much like the way a family/community in the past gathered around and supported the needs of a woman giving birth. Yet, in corporate America, as can be assumed in many other walks of life, a CEO who feels superior to other human beings, like Belfort’s character, will suppress the voices of workers whom he relies upon in order to deliver his vision of the company.

This idea of a leader being the all important muse and dictator, has connections with the ballroom dance world in a couples of ways: 1) most ballroom dance studios operate like dictatorships, where the owner sets all of the standards for dance and customer service and leads by secrecy and intimidation. 2) The dance standards for a given ballroom studio are typically delivered from dance governing bodies, not in a grassroots “this is what people are dancing on the streets” manner or by asking questions like, “what do our clients really need to learn to feel and look like successful dancers?” 3) dance teachers lead the learning process, and the students are subjected to follow. The feeling is that the teacher knows better than the student and the students are only capable of the limitations the teacher has set 4) change, whether that be in dance style or the way studios operate, isn’t embraced. The status quo is the end all.  

Ballroom Dance Chicago operates differently than the typical ballroom/Latin/wedding dance studio, both in how we operate the studio and how we think about dance partnerships.

The Ballroom Dance Chicago team is a group of individuals who are all capable of being leaders and followers at any given time. Our team functions effectively and flows together to create inspiring new ideas every day because of our individual capacities to lead and to support one another’s leadership. In work and learning environments where power struggles and degrading hierarchies exist, each individual is held back, partly because each person’s energy is being divided, spending more time positioning him or herself than actually working to get something accomplished, and simply because no one person can be expected to be a leader 100% of the time. Additionally, no one person can be expected to be a follower 100% of the time. This is not to say that our team exists in total anarchy. We have one designated overarching leader - the owner of Ballroom Dance Chicago - who makes the ultimate decision on any big choices we need to make. The reason this works, however, is that our overarching leader allows authentic leadership opportunities to every member of the team. Everyone’s ideas and perspectives are treated equally because we have all been chosen to be part of the team and each team member is valued. This also helps the overarching leader to get a break from being in charge once in a while, freeing up his mind to explore things other than simply managing the team.

There are similar dynamics in a dance partnership. There is one designated leader and one designated follower; however, we don’t believe the dance is a dictatorship under which the follower must obey the leader’s every command. A leader’s role in dance is to start the idea flowing, to provide the energy and thought behind where the dance is going next. It is then the follower’s role to become a leader him/herself and make a decision on how to interpret that idea. The follower then leads the momentum and nuance of the step and the leader becomes a follower for just a moment, until he can once again take his role back as the leader and execute his next move. All of this takes place rather subconsciously and within only moments, but it is this balance that makes a stable partnership. I’ve often seen couples struggle with this when first learning to dance simply because it is hard to distinguish between leading moments and following moments for both roles. It’s much simpler to assume that the leader is the dictator and the follower simply acquiesces. But, as students advance, they begin to realize that the follower’s choices have much more to do with the dance than they originally thought. If we go back to the example of a workplace team environment, we can see how this flow is crucial to enhancing creativity. If only the leader of the work team dictates, shares ideas, and makes decisions, the team would be very stagnant and all of the followers on the team would probably be pretty uninspired, if not offended by the fact that their voices are never heard. It is the balance of each team member having a chance to speak their mind and be heard as a leader that drives creativity forward and makes for the best possible team they can be.

This concept of a fluid leadership dynamic is not often something that our student come across before learning to dance at Ballroom Dance Chicago. Most of our clients were raised in the United States, which tries to be democratic and to create individual responsibility, but still has relationships reminiscent of dictatorships built into many of its institutions: the traditional classroom and “corporate America.” Both of these examples are training people to seek permission for any kind of individuality. If people aren’t allowed to take creative responsibility, if they are designated only as “the one who executes,” they will not be fulfilled. There is a delicate balance between creating strict executors, and allowing simultaneous leadership to emerge.

When we’ve been trained to exist in dictatorial, totalitarian relationships, we often begin to feel that we cannot do anything but be a support: that we need permission from the current leader to break out in our own way. But that notion is false. The greatest leaders were never asking for permission; the best leaders had an idea and a passion that they followed.


So, how can we find ways of leading when we’ve been socialized to ask for permission? In a TED Talk by Seth Godin discussing how ordinary people become leaders, he talks about the commonalities between those we identify as leaders. The first thing  he states as a commonality is a challenge to the status quo: a viewing of the current situation that leaves the viewer questioning the way things are."What if things weren’t the way they currently are?” is where curiosity and passion take root. This one simple question has proved to be an integral part of innovation and progress. If Steve Jobs hadn’t sought to create a better computer, where would Apple be? If Rosa Parks hadn't refused to give up her seat on the bus, how would the civil rights movement progress differently?

At this moment in our culture, we’re beginning to have greater equality for the LGBT community, specifically in regards to marriage in the US, and it all started because two people saw that the inequality shouldn’t stand, and sought to question it. Now that marriage for any two people is recognized by every state, it’s time to bring that kind of questioning to the dance world.  

At Ballroom Dance Chicago, we are constantly questioning the status quo & the way we perform. We're always striving to find better ways of operating and serving our students.

In the ballroom dance culture we see too many people (dancers, studio managers, teachers, competitors) who are concerned with following the policy and procedures set up by those in charge. There are standard syllabi that most studios and teachers use to teach all of their students, regardless of level or expectations. These syllabi have been used for years and never changed or added to. The reality is that this only limits the abilities of those following the syllabus (both teacher and student). You can be great dancer executing all of the steps from the syllabus with precision and grace, but if you don't push yourself beyond those boundaries, you'll never get better.

It's easy to be okay with just getting by for fear of trying something new and failing.

In his book, “The Risk Advantage,” Tom Panaggio writes that you must sacrifice good for great. At Ballroom Dance Chicago, we are quite familiar with this concept. We know that our service is good, our teaching is good, and the way we do everything is pretty good. We have been successful so far with the policies and procedures set in place, but you will never hear us say "We do it because we always have, and it works great."

The greatest leaders aren't the ones who do all of the risk taking themselves, but rather cultivate an environment in which their followers feel comfortable and confident standing up for what they believe is best. A great leader has the ability to engage their followers and bring out the best of their creativity and innovation.

We want things to always be working better. Whether that is in the administrative and service side of our business or as teachers, or even personally and professionally as dancers.

Everyday, we are taking risks, and sacrificing what is good to take the opportunity to make it better.