You know those moments that really hit you and all of a sudden, you see everything with such forceful clarity? Well, my fair share of those moments came from 10+ years of dancing. I honestly believe that everything — or at least everything important — about life can be understood through the lens of dance. One too many times that something made more sense because a parcel of wisdom I picked up from dancing ran parallel to the situation I had to face or overcome. So, as a tribute to my first greatest passion in life, here are a few of the most significant learnings I’ve gotten from dance, and how they go beyond the four corners of a dance studio.
My high school team had this statement shirt that had “Strong individual” on the front, and on the back it said “Stronger as a team”. When you’re on that last cheerleading pyramid sequence of your 3rd full run to cap off an exhausting 3-hour training, you need to be able to draw energy from the person dancing beside you. Teams who don’t communicate or support each other during the routine itself end up with a bad run. From the spectator POV, it may not look like it but you feel as if there was something amiss — you just can’t quite put a finger on it.
At work, you can have strong contributors or individuals brimming with talent. Then they end up working in silos. As a leader, the challenge is for you to make these unique people with different strengths & weaknesses operate like a coherent whole — a well-oiled machine that can really go far because of the confidence of knowing that they have each member to rely on.
A coach once said, “It’s compassion, not competitiveness, that makes a great coach.” And I couldn’t agree more. I fiercely believe that a leader’s first order of business is to make everyone in the team feel wanted, respected, cared for, and appreciated. It’s how authentic you are in how you treat them. How you build them up with their best interests at heart. And ultimately, how you motivate them to connect & communicate with the rest of the pack. Simply put, it’s about the inner workings of the team, rather than the outer incentives to win the trophy.
One thing I learned late in the game is that form beats power. Not a lot of people know this: For the longest time I evaded looking at myself in the mirror while dancing. I was training for competitions, learning hard-hitting routines, repeating them again and again with the goal of making the next run stronger than the last. I honestly thought that being a strong dancer was all you needed to be. Boy, was I wrong.
The real challenge is not gaining more power, but mastering your form. Why? Because form means control. Control means restraint. It requires a great deal of intentionality and awareness, a mindset that champions quality, and an understanding that the path of the movement matters just as much as point A and point B. The mature dancer knows that the true power of the movement comes from its form and precision.
Dance, as in anything in life, is not about how hard you hit, or how fast you go, or even about how complex the steps are. You can hit as hard as you can but are you hitting the right beats, at the right time, at the right angles? Do you know when to rest and when to pause? Are you matching the energy of the music? Are you even listening to it?
I’ve found that form, which is simply how something is done, can significantly depict what the outcome will be. Does a message cut across the audience because of how loud it was delivered or how the message was framed? Is great writing defined by its length or by its content? Is a product great because it’s different or because of how meaningful that differentiation is? Is a campaign or business idea successful because of the size of its investment or the relevance of its insight?
The value of form teaches us that you don’t always need to strike hard to be striking. Practicing control, investing your energy in the right places and the right people, being mindful of how you communicate, and always making a conscious effort to take insightful action, are what allows you to deliver lasting results and a compelling performance.
In dance parlance, there is a term called “doing”. “Doing” as opposed to “marking” a routine means you will execute with full effort in every sense of the word — energy, vibe, confidence, endurance. “Doing” the routine is running it with your whole heart, soul, mind, and body.
“Doing”, as I see it, is basically the epitome of commitment. It’s leaving the fear and the fatigue at the door because it’s the only way to give justice to yourself and your work. By extension, being able to perform does not only begin on competition day or in training. It starts every waking morning, right from the moment you set your eyes on the goal and told yourself, “Whatever it takes.”
Commitment, then, starts from defining your non-negotiables, because only then can you achieve a level of consistency & tenacity that will allow you to reach your goal. It’s acknowledging that you need to do X to achieve Y, and thus will have to stop or do less of Z.
My cheerleading coach used to quote Yoda in almost every training, “Do or do not. There is no try.” It’s a bit harsh when you think about it — that “trying” is not even an option. In hindsight, what he was really saying is that if you do decide to go for it, you’ve got to give it everything. Again, it’s that same definition of “doing”. Because when you speak of just “trying”, you are actually leaving room for doubt & the possibility that you might not go through with it, much less conquer it.
One of the quotes that perfectly capture the value of such deep commitment came from my coach on competition day. Before sending us backstage he said, “When you walk in, you win.” I’d like to believe none of us had any trouble doing or feeling exactly that. Why? Because long before game day, the commitment we displayed had already bred so much courage, consistency, and confidence. We were so ready to take on that stage and win.
“Get out of your comfort zone” is such an overused saying that it has become mundane and lackluster. But what I learned early on is that this is really more of a cycle than just a step you have to take.
A coach was going on about taking new classes and exploring different styles. He reminded us to just keep working on that movement until you’ve gotten used to it. And when that does happen, he said,“Go out and get uncomfortable again.”
Subconsciously, every dancer’s goal is actually to expand that comfort zone. Every good coach and choreographer will remind you time and again that it is completely okay to feel awkward at first. In fact, that is exactly what you should expect. That is exactly what every other dancer goes through. And that is exactly what it takes to unlock your potential.
I remember all the things that I had to learn in cheering & dancing that frustrated the life out of me — new stunts, unfamiliar styles, tough choreography. All these things have helped ingrain a positive mindset towards openness, exploration, and the willingness to suck as a first-timer. I know for a fact that the grass is much greener on the other side of comfort.
Still too often I would find myself going back to that time when dance was life, but not because they were the “glory days”. I wasn’t a professional dancer. I didn’t make it particularly far, nor did I pursue it as a career. I would also admit that the fire isn’t the same as it used to be. But I will always acknowledge this craft as my roots — the foundation that defined the quintessential values that make my life so meaningful up to this day. These life lessons are so rich, timeless, and still so crystal clear that I’m certain that dance has never, and will never leave me, even when I’ve walked out of the dance floor.