Monday, November 24, 2008

The Business of Ballet and the Ballet of Business

Last week I wrote about how ballet is invading the White House. I included a clip of Barack Obama roasting Rahm Emanuel by referring to the similarities between ballet and politics. I also uncovered the secret dance background of comedian Stephen Colbert. Does dance help you succeed in business?

Over at Voice of Dance there is an article that poses just such a theory. John R. Killacky wrote:

Personally, dance gave me poise, self-confidence, musicality, and cultural literacy. I learned to work in an ensemble, as a soloist, or in the background. Improvisation illustrated how group wisdom was superior to solo problem solving. Choreography helped me understand gesture and spatial design. I was able to locate myself in the world. Through dance, I crafted an identity with other gay men as positive role models.

In running a one-person office for Laura Dean and then Trisha Brown in the early 1980s, I relied more on ingenuity than on experience when booking and managing tours, writing grant proposals, working with Boards of Directors and balancing the books. Since I had no prior administrative experience, the dancer in me was often called upon to work intuitively.
While the article appeared in Voice of Dance, and the theme is therefore dance not business, I would argue that Killacky's tale says more about the nature of entrepreneurship than it does about the benefits of dance.

It is true that running one's own business requires flexibility and some of the same insecurity of an artist's life. But it does not follow that an artist's career inherently prepares one for a business career. If that were true ballet companies would always be flush with cash and business executives would be begging for grants. (Ok, that last part has become true, but only recently.)

As we work with dance schools across the nation, one of the most common things we hear is a plaintive "we're a non-profit," which comes as the first sentence in a conversation about what the school cannot afford. In my experience, dance-based enterprises are not famous for their profitability.

That an entrepreneur draws on his dance background is not surprising. Being an entrepreneur can be all consuming. You do not have the safety net of a regular paycheck from an employer and you never know if your top client will suddenly go elsewhere or if that payment you're expecting to cover your costs will come two months too late. It requires all of your skills, cunning and past experience-- whatever that may be. If you were a dancer, you will surely draw on the skills you learned in that field just as you would the skills you learned in books, in school, in the Boy Scouts, at church and in your camping hobby. All of your knowledge will come into play.

My point, of course, is not to dismiss the value of dance. Simply to say that we should measure its value for what it is, not its value in the economic marketplace. This is a harder thing to quantify, certainly and it is why we keep turning to arguments like "dance is important because it helps you with math and science." (i.e. don't worry, dance is preparing you for something practical at which you can make money.) Dance instruction is important because it teaches you dance. Dance is dance's value.

Of course, I welcome other points of view in the comments.

Stocking Stuffers for the Dancer

And while I have you here, and we're talking about business, I wanted to remind you about two books that we have available which make great Christmas gifts for the dancer in your life. First is the new "Dancer's Quote Book."

When I started this blog a couple of years ago, I wished that there was a good book of quotations by and about dancers. I only came across one or two small gift books with a dance theme and so I began compiling my favorite quotes as I read interviews and books. The result is The Dancer's Quote Book, a collection of dance humor and wisdom.

Valery Lantratov is quoted here, as are Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martha Graham, Anna Pavlova, Isadora Duncan, Fred Astaire, Gregory Hines and many others. The quotes explore dance in all its complexity, from technique to body image to pain and spiritual joy. It is available now through as a paperback book or a downloadable ebook.

We also have two copies left of A Child's Introduction to Ballet autographed by Valery Lantratov. (After those are gone, you will receive a copy autographed by the author, but not the dancer.) We believe we have created a book that makes learning about ballet fun for kids. (And their parents too!) Beautifully illustrated by Meredith Hamilton, it has illustrated ballet stories, fun facts, dancer biographies and explanations of ballet terminology and positions. It even comes with a CD with musical selections from the world's great ballets.