Monday, August 6, 2012

Swing Dance, Creative Collaboration and Leadership

Today's post goes back to a conversation I had when I first met CITYterm's swing dance teacher, Evita. If you follow this blog, you will recognize her from an earlier post entitled "Dialogue and the Paradox of Experience-based Learning."  Click this link and it will refresh your memory and you can watch Evita and her partner Michael in the finals of the Strictly Lindy Competition Finals in Harlem at the Alhambra Ballroom in May 2011. In that post, I was looking for examples of "dialogue" as it related to some of the ideas of quantum physicist David Bohm.

My friend Erik and I are working on a book on what we have learned about creative collaboration and leadership at CITYterm (actually, he is writing it; I am just helping), and we are including a section on how we are using swing dance as a way to get students to reconsider the idea of what it means to "lead in creative collaboration." I thought I would take a break from thinking about "hedgehogs and foxes" to writing about algorithms of leadership as they apply to swing dance.

The idea for using swing dance as a vehicle for teaching creative collaboration was actually hatched one early morning in Harlem when David, a former CITYterm student and teacher, took me and my son Walker to a swing joint called Lucy's on 124th street. It is gone now (I was looking for it the other day), but at that time it opened around midnight for a early morning reverie of dance. I still cannot believe what I saw that night. The Harlem Renaissance Orchestra was playing, and there was a relatively small dance floor that was packed. Needless to say, there were flat tins of all kinds of food--ribs, brisket, collard greens, black-eyed peas--lined up along the wall. But I could not keep my eyes off of one dancer--Frankie Manning (watch this tribute video; it will make your day, I promise).  He was well into his eighties at that point, but he was magical in the way he danced. But what was most fascinating was that no matter who he danced with, it was unique and distinct. And I wanted to know why that was happening.

So, David told me he had just the person to help me unpack this problem and that is how I met Evita. We first met at a coffee shop and spent hours drawing diagrams on napkins and talking about how swing dance worked as a form of creative collaboration.

And, after trying to break down the relationship that exists between dancers as they create a dance, we arrived at an acronym that we thought captured this process of creative collaboration and the kind of leadership it requires. The acronym was SISS-- Suggest, Initiate, Structure and Support.

Leadership in creative collaboration differs fundamentally from other contexts and, as a result,  more dominant forms of leadership are actually detrimental to being able to induce creativity. Think about the common metaphors used to describe leadership. They are spatial (leading from the front), hierarchical (leading from the top), biological (physical attributes) or military (command and control). None of those conditions are going to be useful when you are creating something with a group of people-- even if that group is two people swing dancing. Frankie Manning was applying none of these forms of leadership as he created the different dances he did with each partner.

When I coached soccer I used to tell players trying out to make the team that they had two ways to make the team and get onto the field regularly--they could be "really good" and/or "they could make the other people around them play better than they thought they could." And the people who could do the second way were probably going to play more even though they were not as "good" as another player. This stunned some of the "better" players, but it made for some really excellent teams. Frankie Manning, however, was one of those superstars who could be both. But what he did, I think, was to apply the SISS model. Though frankly, Frankie had internalized this so long ago, it was just a part of who he was. I think what I saw that night at Lucy's was a model for leadership when you are in creative collaboration.

First, the leader introduces a Suggestion. In swing dance this is a physical cue that is an invitation but also a notice. This step has actually been the one that has intrigued Evita the most because she has come to realize that the suggestion is actually the result of the leader "listening" to the music and then forming a suggestion. In short, if the leader is not a good "reader" of the music or a good "listener," then the quality of the suggestion may be limited or unimaginative.

Second, the leader Initiates a move. Having prepared their partner, the leader then actually makes the move he had suggested based on his understanding of the music at that moment.

Now, here is where leadership in creative collaboration starts to differ radically from other forms of leadership.

Third, the leader now provides a Structure for their partner to respond. The structure is there because in Evita's words, "if there isn't a structure, then there is a paralysis of infinite possibility. It is easier to chunk things and be fully present in the moment. The length of Michael's (her partner) arm can be enough of a structure to allow me to know the parameters I have to play in. It also makes the connection between us so much stronger."

Fourth, the leader also provides Support for the response of their partner. Now that Evita is "playing" with what Michael has initiated, suggested and provided a structure for, he needs to provide support for her to complete her idea. But, at the same time, he is "listening" to her response to his initial suggestion (and simultaneously still listening to the music) and ready to suggest the next move.

At this point, the leadership cycle is complete in its first rotation, but this is where the creativity has just begun. As Evita puts it, "Because Michael doesn't know what he will get as a response to his suggestion, it will come as a beautiful surprise to him. But my response will generate (along with the music) another suggestion. At this point, it can become really humbling because you start this cycle of creativity and you can't tell whose idea was whose--and it doesn't matter. At that point, you are creating something you could never do alone or with choreography; you could only achieve that result together. And then, the dance takes on a life of its own--neither one of us controls it--and, if it continues, you just might get Mojo. That is indescribable."

What we have tried to do at CITYterm is to use swing dance as a model for how leadership might work  in classrooms and when students are working on projects. One benefit of this has been that because swing dance is physical and, therefore, when you "know" something, you know it in your body, not just in your head, then the power of what you now know is remarkably deep. For some students, this feeling becomes something they can actually recognize when they are "dancing" in the classroom. It also gives them a completely different way of looking at leadership as an activity.

Here is a last video of Michael and Evita (sorry it is so dark), but you can watch and see if you pick out the the four different parts of creative collaboration that are happening, and when the dance takes over as its own entity, and whether you think they have some moments of Mojo.

The next task, I suppose, is to figure out how to adapt this algorithm in non-swing dance situations. How many different activities do you think this "leadership cycle" applies to in daily life?

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