The Utility of the Creative Process

What Good Is an Ex-Dancer?

by John Michael Schert
with LeeAnn Mallorie

Male dancer

Photo credit: Jonas Lundqvist

After what feels like a lifetime of focus on the mastery of the form, and then the embodiment of the creative process, the average dancer ends their performance career, often in their mid-30s, and then faces a critical question – what next?

Until very recently, the answer to this question has been all but clear. It would seem obvious that decades of intense discipline, long hours of practice, coupled with deep passion and commitment for the craft, would produce a human being with a skill-set worthy of a potent and fulfilling second career. Yet, many retired ballet dancers relegate themselves to becoming teachers of dance – a noble endeavor that only some genuinely enjoy – or transition to a related profession utilizing a portion of their physical intelligence (bodywork, Pilates, yoga, physical therapy, etc.). Having put this much energy into their perfection of the craft, it’s hard to envision doing anything else outside of dance.

What do we know – what can we do – beyond the dance? 

Perhaps my own story has something to offer. I started ballet training at the age of six in Valdosta, Ga., moved away from home to study formally at North Carolina School of the Arts for high school, then joined American Ballet Theatre at the age of 18. I was a founding member of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and worked for four years with Alonzo King LINES Ballet (a company founded by a man I greatly admire and often quote in my current work). In 2004, I co-founded Trey McIntyre Project. What began as a summer project became a world-renowned, international touring dance company based in Boise, Idaho. Out of necessity, I became an executive director, booking agent, fundraiser, staff leader, and board member.

For nine years, I was both a company dancer and an executive leader. During that time, the connection between the two disparate roles started to make sense. As I observed my own translation of skills to relevant leadership action, I started thinking about the utility of the creative process – a process we frequently engage in as we construct, learn, rehearse, and perform a dance work – but one we are not so good at articulating outside of the somatic form. While the audience sees only the final product onstage, we know that what can be observed in a 20-minute piece is only one moment in a cyclical process of building up and letting go again. That is the nature of a dancer’s daily life.

As a dancer and executive director, I found myself moving back and forth between separate roles: from the studio, to my office, to off-site meetings, then back to the studio again. As I crossed these boundaries, my demeanor would change, with the dressing room serving as a sort of portal in which the transition of characters would occur. Like Clark Kent going into a phone booth, I would shift my temperament to be ready for the next scene with the next cast of characters. But there was also continuity: I found that in my capacity as an executive, I would draw upon many of the very same skills I used with my fellow dancers in the studio. I had integrated and generalized a set of practices that proved invaluable in a remarkable variety of domains. More so, I
had begun translating my creative process from one form to another.

Today I am a scholar, producer, and advocate for what I call the utility of the creative process. Through my journey, I have come to view myself not only as a dancer and a creative, but as a thought leader, armed with a host of embodied skills and talents that are not readily recognized, recruited, or refined in the modern corporate world. As a former professional dancer (though I still consider myself a dancer), I hold myself as a “director of physical intelligence.” Perhaps I can also be considered a master of empathy, an artful executor of collaboration, a keen reader of body language, and a skilled conductor of an individualized creative process? Perhaps others like me can also be valued for these unique, masterful assets?

Last fall I began studying ideas around these hypothesized skills as an inaugural Associate Fellow at the New York University Center for Ballet and the Arts. In interviewing late-career dancers from different disciplines, some of the questions being explored in my research included: What is the tangible skill-set that is masterfully embodied by a professional dancer who engages in an advanced creative process? And, where are these skills most needed?

Essentially, I function as a translator, channeling information from one world to another. I am not saying anything new, but finding subtle ways of allowing the pertinent, and vibrant connections to cross over the bridge and become relevant in the “foreign territories” in which I have gradually become at home. Others can contribute in such capacities as well, but there is a gap between what we dancers have embodied in terms of our capacities, and what we are able to verbally express to the non-dance community. It’s true – in many ways, we don’t speak the same language. Yet the growing truth is that the language we do speak, and the skills we do possess, resonate more and more deeply with the unarticulated and often unmet needs of the business, health care, civic government and finance worlds.

What Do Dancers Have To Offer? 

The biggest challenge that prevents us from seeing the value of a dancer beyond his or her performance career is the tendency to derive a person’s worth from the product that person produces – in our case, the dance. We dancers are thus primarily seen as pseudo-athletes exhibiting great beauty, elegance and control. However, I now see a paradigm shift occurring such that the value of a dancer can be determined according to the skills he or she has embodied, as a result of ongoing participation in the creative process itself. In this paradigm shift, we must turn our attention from the uniqueness of the product to the universality of the process.

During my fellowship at the NYU Center for Ballet and the Arts I met a retired dancer, Elyssa Dole, who had recently graduated from the NYU Stern School of Business – a fellow translator. According to Elyssa, this mastery of process makes dancers not only creative, but also practical. Through the creative process, a dancer learns how to pause mid-course, and adjust the goal as many times as needed in order to seek true innovation – iteration over failure. A fascination with “how we get there” is one hallmark of this process, as is a level of comfort with “less than ideal outcomes” along the way to success. Thus the characteristic of exceptional creators of dance may also translate to the process of running a start-up.

I feel artful communication is another great example of this. Through the training required by an early career in dance, the dancer becomes a master of nonverbal communication. As a dancer, you are a poet. You understand how to use your body as an effective tool for communication. You are practiced not only at sending out the appropriate messages to your audience and fellow dancers, but also at receiving the subtle signals that enhance your communication abilities.

Former Forsythe dancer and collaborator, Dana Caspersen has taken these ideas into the field of conflict resolution. In her book Changing the Conversation, she outlines practical, transformative principles distilled from her work in conflict. Caspersen offers readers guidance that is aligned with the practice of a dancer: building the capacity to define, recognize, and choose between actions being taken to achieve a goal in challenging and changing environments. Caspersen locates the power of these principles in the discipline of practice – the ability to come back to the basic actions that make up communication (like perception and expression), and meet them with a fresh eye every single time.

It goes without saying that a big part of leadership is about being seen, being visible and being exposed. These days, command-and-control practices will only get a leader so far. Rather, the best leaders have the capacity to be transparent, which makes them more compelling. As dancers, many of us also have that skill. We know how to find the most direct and honest way of communicating, and allow it to register with others. We make ourselves available, vulnerable and exposed, in order to build a relationship with our stakeholders – the audience. We are present.

As a result of going through the creative process, and continuing to live with it daily, we have arrived at certain skills and attributes that are assets in other contexts. Contexts that need them. And contexts that can pay well.

Who can make use of these skills? 

According to Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, G.P.A.s and IQ don’t predict success in today’s work place. Rather, excellent 21st century employees will have the ability to learn on the fly. They will be practiced at emergent leadership – taking and handing off the reigns as needed in a given situation. And they will be able to participate without ego in collaborative team endeavors, bringing a sense of humility and personal responsibility to the process.

These are capacities that many professional dancers, and practitioners of other artistic forms, have developed and honed. These are capacities that the workforce needs – and they are in short supply. The majority of our traditional places of work have not afforded the context, nor the kind of training, that would enable these skills to be masterfully developed. How does one teach flexibility and agility? How does one incentivize better listening? Or the ability to get a better “read” on a room?

Much like the career trajectory of a lawyer or a specialist in finance, a lifetime of practice in the creative process of dance produces a level of mastery with a concrete set of skills. While the skills are somewhat less tangible, I propose that the utility of the creative process, and the skills that it produces, are as valuable as those of other technical disciplines. These skills include interpersonal nonverbal communication, empathy, peer-to-peer coordination, self-expression, and deep listening. They also include the capacity to adapt to change without crisis, to intuitively read the body language of a situation, to balance the intrinsic and extrinsic factors of a project, and to make use of the known while tolerating the sense of the unknown.

These skills are somewhat elusive – not only to those in the business world but, frankly, to dancers themselves. In many cases, they are so deeply embodied that they are like the water in which we swim. And that’s a good thing. Yet it can become a barrier behind which the value of a lifetime of practice gets lost in translation, as it can, in a standard corporate interview process.

When I speak about “The Utility of the Creative Process” to audiences around the world, I often start with a demonstration of the choreographic process. The communication, leadership, empathy, listening, observing, and embodied skills inherent in the process may be difficult to verbally articulate, but they are viscerally easy to see and feel. In a recent presentation at the inaugural Lincoln Center Global Exchange, I invited a dancer and friend, Marcelo Gomes, to join me on stage. Though we had been colleagues at ABT, we had never worked together in this creative capacity where I was the “team leader” and he the “team member.” I took Marcelo through several minutes of the choreographic process to create a “phrase,” slowing things down for the audience to observe. I offered him a structure to cognitively inherit. I showed him that I saw what he had done and commended it. He responded by physically applying the information, embodying it. Then I expected him to adapt to a new piece of insight garnered collaboratively through our back and forth exchanges.

Then, I contradicted myself, throwing a curve ball in how I wanted the movement to evolve. He responded and I listened to what he was saying nonverbally. Marcelo not only brought my suggestions to life, but he also added depth by tapping into his own experience, and creative history; mining the layers upon layers of embodied practice and past exploration that makes up the dancer he is today. Throughout the presentation, I broke the fourth wall, and illuminated for the audience what occurred in our verbal, and nonverbal back and forth. How this process is the same by which a leader, in any discipline, leads, mentors, educates and manages a team. How leaders can expect from their teams not only execution of the form/directives, but can also bring forth the deep, embodied wisdom and creative choice-making already alive in their collaborators. By example, Marcelo and I illustrated these capacities as the audience looked on in deep-seated kindredness and affinity.

These are not easy skills to learn. Nor are they easy to execute.

Furthermore, these skills are inextricably linked to the capacities and talents we identify as characteristic of great leadership: the capacity to react gracefully to change, mastery of nonverbal communication on a team, drawing upon internal motivation, and translating a vision into reality. These are the talents we frequently write off as unteachable – the ones we envision good leaders to be born with. The “secret sauce.” When I chat with leaders across multiple sectors, these are the skills they themselves have trouble articulating, but at some level know it is what made them successful in their careers and as leaders.

Think for a moment about collaboration.

As a dancer, I loved to partner – working with other dancers in a pas de deux, trio or small group. The exchange was all about empathy and listening. In order to perform well, we would need to read one another’s nonverbal signals. We would need to sense what the other was about to do before they did it. We had to understand the structure in which we were operating, but in the moment, with presence, execute with harmony. As an executive, I started to wonder: How do we create the same kind of cohesion amongst the staff that the dancers were able to produce in the studio? This way of understanding and participating with each other wasn’t simply nice to have, or value added; it was a critical part of how the administrative and production teams became more cohesive and appreciative of each other. It was value. It was our culture.

These are the same challenges that most global firms are facing today: How do you build culture?

In order to make use of these skills, some of the biggest challenges are trust and translation. How do we place enough value on each other (and ourselves), so that we are motivated to have a meaningful conversation about what we may have to offer one another? How do we trust something that is subjective and individualistic and difficult to measure, codify, quantify, and explain?

While my work is currently in the exploratory stages, I have full confidence in the creative process honed during my 15-year career as a professional dancer and concurrent nine-year career as a non-profit executive. There is something worthwhile to be captured here, and I am willing to dedicate the time, energy and patience to uncover what it is. I ask myself daily: What is true in this translation? What is lost in translation between disparate sectors? What pathways are there for the integration of the dance community into other sectors? Where and how should these ideas be prototyped – in what cities, communities, or organizations?

Ultimately, I believe in the creative process, and by proving its efficacy in placing retired dancers as thought leaders into other sectors, we can raise the social validity of professional dancers and the dance organizations in which they work. We can raise the importance and relevance of the dance field as a whole. This relevance can in time be monetized, and help to place these masters of nonverbal communication in levels of civic leadership. Frankly, I believe we may hold – embodied within ourselves – some of the keys to success that our intellectual contemporaries have been looking for.

John Michael Schert

John Michael Schert is an artist, producer and social entrepreneur working in multiple sectors and translating across many platforms. Originally from South Georgia, Schert began his career as a ballet dancer with American Ballet Theatre and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. In 2004 he co-founded Trey McIntyre Project (TMP), serving as the company’s executive director, and a dancer, for nine years. During this time he gained a unique insight into the process and product of art-making. Fall 2014 John Michael served as an inaugural Associate Fellow at the NYU Center for Ballet and the Arts and became an executive producer of Treefort Music Fest in Boise, ID. In 2013, he was appointed the first visiting artist and social entrepreneur at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Through his current work at Chicago Booth John Michael now studies, and lectures on, the utility of the creative process and how the skills and behaviors of creatives can be relevant and valuable to other sectors.

LeeAnn Mallorie, CEO of Leading in Motion, is a dynamic facilitator of movement, conversation and culture change. Her passion is helping mission-driven leaders walk their talk, through body-based mindfulness practices. LeeAnn is a graduate of the PENN Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program and is a certified Somatic Coach.


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