Warning: I’m about to get kinda sappy. And philosophical. And I’m not even drinking.
Earlier this year, my partner-in-crime took leave of our tap company, The Lady Hoofers, in order to pursue other projects. A few days later, I found myself at a Young Adult Friends Retreat (i.e. a weekend-long Quaker slumber party) at Swarthmore Meeting wondering how the hell I was going to pick up the pieces and keep things running on my own.
The thing is I wasn’t quite as lost as I’d originally feared. Every job I’ve ever had, every boss I’ve dealt with, every company I’ve danced for has been a lesson in the way to do (or to not do) things. I didn’t realize it—in fact, I never really thought about it back in college when all of my friends were attaching “Dance” to their last names and forming their own “companies”—but my entire life has been a crash course in how to run a company.
At any event, during the retreat, I decided to attend a workshop led by Thomas Swain. The Quakers amongst you will know exactly who I’m talking about and if you don’t, you should totally get to know him because he is one of truly inspired people who can look you in the eyes, as you a simple question, and have you in tears three seconds later because he’s caused you realize something about yourself that you never knew before—something that’s going to make everything else seem possible all of the sudden.
At least that’s what happened to me.
The workshop was all about gifts: identifying gifts, cultivating gifts, nurturing gifts, and so on. The notion of “gifts” (meaning God-given talents, skills or abilities) is a popular one in Quaker circles, especially young adult Quaker circles when you put a bunch of eccentric, self-aware 20-somethings who went to small, private liberal arts schools in a room together.
Everybody sits around stressing about what they’re meant to do with their lives; if you haven’t quit your job and gone off to join the Peace Corps, you feel like you’re not doing enough and if you have joined the Peace Corps you’re wondering if you did it for the right reasons and trying to figure out what to do now.
It’s almost comical, but everyone is so damn sincere in their intentions and honest about their insecurities that you can’t help but feel a little better about the state of the world. Now that I’m one of the older “Young Adult Friends” I look at all of the poor undergrads who are freaking out about declaring their majors and the poor post-grads who are freaking out about what they’re meant to do with their lives and I just want to them to relax—the answers will come—but then I remember how I was a few years back (heck—how I was a few months back!) and I know that nothing I can say will convince them. They’ll have to come to these things on their own.
At any rate, during the course of the workshop, Thomas steered the conversation from gifts to needs. Needs, unlike gifts, aren’t something to be proud of. Needs aren’t something you want to admit to other people. Needs are something you’re meant to hide, to compensate for as best you can—at least that’s what I used to think.
“Needs aren’t signs of weakness” Thomas told us. “Needs are opportunities for other to utilize their gifts.”
I can’t remember if that’s exactly how he phrased it but I’m going to put it out there again because it’s important:
Needs aren’t signs of weakness. Needs are opportunities for other to utilize their gifts.
I don’t know about you but I had never, ever thought about it that way before.
And suddenly, asking for help didn’t seem like such a horrible prospect. So I talked to my friends who work in arts administration; I met my old boss for coffee to pick her brain; I scheduled a meeting with the director of Philadelphia’s DanceUSA office. “Talk to me about non-violent communication,” I asked one friend; “Can we swap marketing support for studio space?” I asked another.
I toyed with the idea of trying to adopt the Quaker business method to suit the company’s administrative needs but after further consideration, I realized that a spirit-led, consensus-driven decision making process wasn’t going to be the right course for us.
So I called my brother. “Tell me about the different types of leadership structures you learned about in your business courses.”
“The best businesses are run by a single, strong leader,” he told me. “But not just any leader: a leader who takes ideas from his or her employees.”
I could do that.
I know all directors think their dancers are awesome but mine really are. Most people don’t think very much of dancers—everyone assumes were rather dimwitted, albeit talented, and certainly not capable of doing anything beyond performing—but between the four dancers of our First Company and our four Apprentices, I’ve got “binders full” of smart, creative, multi-talented women.
I knew enough to survey our dancers about their “related skills” before last fall’s auditions even began so I really do have binders full of their qualifications: costuming, video editing, graphic design, social media—and that’s before you rope in the boyfriends/husbands! One dancer’s significant other made lunch for the entire company after our outdoor performance at the Headhouse Farmer’s Market last December; another’s took the morning off work to lend us his band’s sound system. TWD ran interference at last month’s Master Class and when I was complaining about my inability to glean any useful information from the surveys we’d distributed he got quiet for a moment then said, “About those surveys… I was going to tell you this sooner but you seemed so proud of them. They weren’t… well, Nena, you have to write the questions differently to get the kind of data you want.”
It never occurred to me to ask my boyfriend—who writes test questions and crunches numbers for a living—to help us with figure out how to ask the right kinds of questions. Duh.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve appointed a Rehearsal Assistant (who also serves as our secretary at business meetings and one half of our social media team), a Treasurer (who also serves as the other half) and an official Apprentice/Student Representative to make sure that the concerns of our Apprentice Dancers, most of whom are students and don’t have their own cars, are heard at our business meetings.
This doesn’t mean that things don’t fall through the cracks once in a while. I forgot to tell the students, for example, that they have an official representative now, and even though I proofread the flyer for our next Master Class about a hundred times, I still transposed the numbers in the studio address. But this is the great thing about working with people who are passionate about what they do. One of our First Company dancers realized it right away; she texted me to let me know about the mistake and I fired off an email to all of the dancers, asking them to correct the typo before distributing the flyers. Problem solved.
The year got off to a rocky start, but we’re building momentum. Yesterday, we performed at a festival in Chestnut Hill and next month, I’ll be getting interviewed by a local student who wants to write a report on the company for one of her classes. We’re expanding our repertoire, buying new costumes, recycling old ones and moving into a new studio. And—not to brag, but I’m so damn proud of us that I can’t help it—we’ve made it to Broad Street! I just signed a contract for a performance at The Wilma Theater. We’ll be featured during BalletX’s home season this coming April.
I doubt any of my dancers will read this (probably better if they don’t—I think most of them still view me as fairly sane individual…) but if they do, can I just say how inspired I am by everyone’s willingness to step up?
Amazing what can happen when you ask for help.