How to Dance Your Way to Entrepreneurial Success

Five lessons entrepreneurs can learn from pro ballroom dancers.
How to Dance Your Way to Entrepreneurial Success
Image credit: Willy GS | Getty Images
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It’s almost time. You’ve practiced for weeks. You are looking the part. You got a good night’s sleep before the big day. You’re in sync with your team. Now, it’s your time to shine -- on the dance floor. I’ll bet you thought I was going to say something else, didn’t you? But, there are actually many unexpected parallels between the worlds of entrepreneurial success and professional ballroom dancing. Here are five lessons entrepreneurs can learn from five pro ballroom dancers, even if you have two left feet.

1. Commit by letting go.

When it’s show time, dancers must overcome hesitation and fear to perform in the present moment. If a dancer is unsure, their movements are timid and lack impact. Only by fully committing to the steps do they have the potential to shine. As professional ballroom dance coach Yana Mazhnikova shares, “Being committed to the movement and your partner creates clarity and speed.”

Related: 10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to a Business Partner

Once you are committed to a routine, partner or business initiative, you will figure the rest out. With over 57 million views, 82-year-old Paddy Jones viral video of performing the salsa with her much younger partner on Britain’s Got Talent demonstrates the power of commitment in action by letting go.

2. Don’t overdo it.

In dancing, there is a rulebook to follow, with a minimum standard that must be met to place in a competition. You would think that, to win, a dancer would try to perform the most difficult or complicated routine. However, great dancers exceed expectations, yet stay within the boundaries of the rulebook. Over-delivering and performing far outside of expectations can actually disqualify a dancer. Even though a move might look beautiful, certain activities are not within the scope of the competition. Dancing with the Stars judge Carrie Ann Inaba repeatedly and often controversially deducts points when contestants perform “lifts” because they are against the rules, no matter how beautiful they may look. 

In business, we may fall into the same trap, especially with customer service. Over-delivery is to deliver outside the scope of what is expected, such as offering free product to a dissatisfied customer. While occasionally beneficial, it may be unsustainable in the long-run. Keep it simple. Don’t over-deliver; instead exceed expectations, such as providing on-time service, within the pre-set requirements of the business relationship.

Related: Silicon Valley's Kumail Nanjiani on Never Playing It Safe

3. Cheer on your competitors.

World renowned choreographer, coach and Dancing with the Stars judge (Danish edition) Allan Tornsberg says that the best way to deal with your competitors, both friendly or otherwise, is to cheer for them from the sidelines. Use their performances as inspiration for your own. If you’ve performed already, just let yourself enjoy the beauty of other artists.

In business, look for things competitors do well and compliment them when you run into them. This is how we evolve socially and pave the way for future generations to treat others as they’d want to be treated. An unlikely friendship and great example of this comes courtesy of good buddies Elon Musk of Tesla and Larry Page of Google. In an interview with Charlie Rose at TED2014, Larry Page confirmed that he’d rather give his money to Musk than to charity, because he “had confidence [Musk] will change the future.”

Related: If You Want Success, You Have to Go Out and Get It

4. Learn to delegate.

Vibeke Toft, head of the World Dance Council (WDC) Education Department, says, “As a dancer, when you think of choreography . . . you become focused on every single moment. When you’re so focused on every single moment, your brain becomes occupied. When your brain becomes occupied, you’re not free to feel.” Her advice is let go of the need for perfection so you can open your mind to the creativity and emotion. 

What does this mean to the entrepreneur? It means you need to delegate. Not only does hyper-focus on the “steps” slow down your progress, it also makes you unable to see the bigger picture of what you’re trying to accomplish. By delegating, you can review your teammate’s work from a fresh perspective and make sure it’s in line with expectations, while also freeing yourself to focus on other things. When you micro-manage, you are too ingrained in the details to see what might need tweaking or improvement.  Virgin’s Richard Branson recently sang the praises of delegation to see the bigger picture, naming it as one of five skills and abilities that successful entrepreneurs share.

Related: How to Overcome the Fear of Starting Your Own Business

5. Mistakes can be opportunities.

Slavik Kryklyvyy, current pro partner to Dancing With the Stars' Karina Smirnoff, says that many interesting pieces of choreography come from dance mishaps. “If it happened, you can somehow play around that mistake, and you say, ‘Oh, I can make this special. I can develop something from it.’ Or your teacher notices and advises you to use that movement in a new way.”

In business, you, your coach, colleague or partner may discover a new opportunity stemming from something that may have started off as a mistake. Don’t push away mistakes; cultivate what may grow from them. A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that when we practice a movement (i.e. dance), the brain generates an extra boost of memory to recognize errors. When learning new routines or fixing our errors, the motor memory identifies and addresses the gap between the error and the fix, which triggers a new muscle memory to shape and expedites our learning process.

As an entrepreneur who is the co-owner of a consulting practice and also a ballroom dancer, I’m not just talking the talk, I am also walking the walk. Or, should I say, dancing the dance. By opening yourself up to inspiration from those at the top of their game, no matter what it is, you’ll up your own acumen and performance.

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