Learning on your feet

Oh, the things we can learn by listening to the stories of passionate people!

I spent a half-day of my vacation at the Martin Agency this week, engaged in a “Creative Practice at Work” workshop put together by The Alternative Speakers Bureau. The Bureau was founded by Richmond siblings Noah and Mica Scalin to introduce business leaders to creative thinkers, and approaches.

About 40 (mostly familiar) faces gathered downtown. After some post-breakfast sword swallowing, we quickly split into three groups. Each group was assigned a presenter. I landed, fabulously, in the tap dancing group!

Tap dancer Jenai West quickly dove into her own personal story of discovery, moving from Ohio to New York City and falling in love over several years with tap. As the English major with no dance experience developed basic taps skills, she found herself as a student-volunteer at an international tap convention – being shadowed by star Gregory Hines as she cleaned a convention room.

Her encounter with Hines is where she drew some major life lessons from her creative passion. As they began a tap “conversation “ – the dance master and the novice – Hines told her, “Don’t do what I do, do what you do!” Their brief “tap dialogue” inspired her to find her own voice in dance, and her decades-long dance career has given her a framework for life. Among her beliefs:

  • Collaboration is a key aspect of dance, and of a creative life. In tap, Jenai says, there are two ways to collaborate. “You can trade,” she says, “which really is just having a conversation. You listen to what the first person has to say [in their dance] and then you respond in your own way.” Or, she continues, “you can steal. In tap dance, stealing is considered a compliment that can be done verbatim (as long as you give credit) or by putting your own spin on it.”

  • Find freedom in limitations. This can be limitations that already exist, or limitations that you impose on yourself as a form of challenge or to force yourself to engage in new ways. “Create your own limitations to focus your voice, or to challenge yourself to find new ideas,” Janai says.

  • Let go of preciousness, or the idea that you have to protect or hide your passions, or your dreams. “You never know how people will respond until you let go of preciousness and put it out there,” she concluded.

She then invited our small group to break into smaller teams and create our own rhythm – use beats to translate a familiar piece of music. (That was a lesson in itself for my partner and me!)

During the final hour, all of the groups reconvened as Noah and Caitlin Kilcoin of the Greater Richmond Chamber facilitated a debrief around lessons learned from all three workshops, and general lessons about creativity in the workplace.

Craft, discipline, passion and a willingness to invest yourself in tangible ways were all themes that threaded through the morning. And, I swear, my feet have been moving differently all day.