Dancing is Life – Things I Learned from Tap

I first took up tap dancing to add a new skill to my musical theater arsenal. I figured that someday my theater group would put on a production of Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein and I wanted to play the monster who, naturally, has a big tap dance number. Ergo I needed to learn to tap.

We never did put on the play, so far at least, but I enjoyed tap dancing so much that I kept up with it. In fact, I’ve been at it so long that it really is surprising that I’m not better at it – especially since I have an excellent, award winning instructor who has an unending supply of patience! But there’s only so much you can teach a moose. In case you are confused I’m the moose.

There are a lot of benefits to tap: improved cardiovascular health, improved coordination, it sounds cool, no one yells at you for making too much noise, and it’s just plain fun. However, over the years I have discovered that a lot of the lessons we learn in tap class also apply to life. Here, in no particular order, are some of them:

  • Keep looking forward: if you keep looking back you are going to fall. What’s behind you isn’t what counts, it’s what’s ahead of you.
  • Working together is easier than working separately: if you can’t figure something out, get help. Supportive classmates (or team mates or work mates) can encourage you and the group to greater things.
  • It takes time to learn a new step: no one puts on a pair of tap shoes and dances like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. As with any new skill you start slowly, build on what you’ve learned earlier until it all comes together.
  • Ignoring the rhythm leads to disaster: if you don’t pay attention to the music and listen to the beat you end up with a cacophony of taps. But together in tempo you end up complimenting the music to create something greater than either sound alone could.
  • Paying attention to the expert makes learning new things easier: there’s no sense in seeking out the best help if you are only going to ignore it and go your own way.
  • Not everyone can be the star: sometimes you get to be the center of the dance number. Sometimes you are supporting someone else. As long as the end result is pleasing to the audience the goal has been achieved.
  • Smile, smile, smile: attitude makes a difference. Sure you can be upset during rehearsal but when it’s time for the show, smile and don’t let them see you sweat.
  • It’s all about balance: if you don’t find your center and keep it over your feet you will fall down. When everything is balanced life is good.
  • Stay focused – especially when everything seems to be spinning out of control: when you are moving in a circle, keep your focus on one point and you won’t get dizzy. Focus keeps you standing and will get you through even the toughest routine.

There you have it. A few lessons from tap that will also support you through life. Oddly enough, they are similar to things I’ve learned doing theater which will probably be a future blog post (go figure).

Now, go learn something new and have fun doing it!

My tap shoes.
My trusty tap shoes.

PS – if you live in or near Monroe County, Michigan and want to take up dance I highly recommend Destination Dance at Monroe County Community College with Director Kellie Lajiness. If she can teach me how to dance she can teach anyone!

All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted.
Photos and words @copyright David P. Wahr

Management Lessons from the Stage: When Your Best Isn’t Good Enough

As I did two years ago, I participated with my local community theatre group, the Monroe Community Players, in the Michigan State AACTFest competition again this year (see Management Lesson from the Stage: Competition for details). For those of you unfamiliar with the competitive side of theatre, every two years the American Association of Community Theatre (aka AACT) hosts a competitive play cycle (AACTFest). This cycle begins at the state level, moves to regional, and finally on to national competition where the 10 “best” community theatre productions will go head to head. This year the festival in Michigan was hosted by Owosso Community Players on behalf of the Community Theatre Association of Michigan (CTAM).

Me and the three Arials who made me look good. Left to Right, Martina Petit, Dillon Sickles, and Besty Brockman.

For the record, the talent pool at this year’s festival was very deep and all the participating groups brought their A game to the competition. Sets were imaginative, costumes on point, the acting was well prepared and rehearsed. It was a weekend of high quality theatre. But, only two groups would be selected to move on to the regional competition by the adjudicators. I did not envy their task this weekend.

For my part, I felt that our production was top notch. In particular, to toot my own horn as they say, I thought that my personal performance was on point. During my big soliloquy the audience was dead quiet (always a good sign) and I could feel them all watching me and sensed that they were right were I wanted them emotionally and intellectually (anyone who’s been on stage knows what I’m talking about).

When the show was over the applause was generous. Afterwards good comments came from the adjudicators and audience members who approached many of us afterwards through the weekend. All signs indicated that we might have a winner on our hands.

But, (and you knew this was coming right?) when the awards were handed out the big prizes went to other groups. We were recognized for several good points of our production – including choreography which is rare for a production of The Tempest, but our director was unique in his vision of this play, and ensemble work for the three actors who jointly played the character of Ariel (pictured above with me). None for me…alas, but not a bad haul as they say. But, our competition journey ended that weekend. Our best, my best, just wasn’t good enough.

So, what do you do when your best just isn’t good enough? How do you react when you know that you’ve given it your all, that you were well prepared, that your ideas were solid and still someone else walks away with the prize? This is something that has happened to most of us, either in a competitive setting or in business. I can tell you what not to do:

Don’t dwell on the defeat.

Don’t blame anyone else.

Don’t complain about bad luck.

Don’t complain about bad decisions or judges.

Do pick yourself up and move on.

Yes, you can take time for introspection. Ask what might have been done better? Maybe you didn’t have the skill set necessary to complete the task (or win the bid), maybe you didn’t have the vision, maybe you were just outclassed, maybe the stars were out of alignment. But, sometimes, surprisingly, the answer is nothing could have. Too bad. It happens. Athletes know this. On any given day even the most talented team with the best leadership can fall to opponents who are less gifted.

And guess what? It has nothing to do with the other team or person having more “heart” or “drive” or just “wanting it more.” Sometimes it was just the other team’s day. Whether on stage, on the field, or in the C Suite, sometimes your best just isn’t going to cut it.

All you can do is to accept defeat gracefully, try not to take it personally (something I often fail at) and prepare yourself to give your best again next time.

Because one thing is certain, if you don’t keep giving it your best you will never find yourself on the winner’s podium!

Prospero's staff lays in wait on the stage.
Prospero’s magic staff lays in wait during rehearsal at the Michigan AACTFest Host Theatre – the Lebowsky Center in Owosso, Michigan. Home of the Owosso Community Players.

Heart of an Olympian

The biggest cool thing I did this month, and a lifetime highlight,  was visiting the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs as part of C3X with NACAS. Here I got to light the Olympic Flame (one of my privileges as the new president of NACAS), was treated to demonstrations in several Olympic sports including judo, fencing, women’s wrestling, men’s boxing, and men’s gymnastics. But the real highlight of the night was meeting several Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

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Lighting the Olympic Flame. Photo credit: Jonathan Thorpe (jthorpephoto.com)

These athletes include: Sam Mikulak and Adrian De Los Angeles (gymnasts and fellow University of Michigan alums), Dan O’Brien (gold medal – decathlon), Sophia Herzog (silver medal paralympic swimming), Cale Simmons (pole vault), Richard Torrez (boxing), Corey Hope (Greco-Roman Wrestling), Sarah Hammer (cycling), Adrian De Los Angeles (gymnastics), Jennifer Page (wrestling), and Mike Tagliapietra (paralympic shooting) and others. All were very friendly and inspiring in their own way.

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With Dan O’Brien and his gold medal!

But, one Olympians story I found especially inspiring: Brandon Lyons’ (paralympic cycling).

Paralyzed from the waist down when he dove off a pier into the ocean on vacation over Memorial Day in 2014 the former Penn State Club Lacrosse player and 2013 graduate found himself in a situation where no one would blame him if he wallowed in self-pity and depression. Losing the use of your legs must be difficult for anyone, but especially for an athletic young man in his physical prime. But, Brandon did not let himself stay down for long and within months he had picked up a new sport – hand cycling – and by the end of the summer was competing in marathons! Now, less than three years since his life changing incident he is training for the Paralympic

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With Sam Mikulak

games in Tokyo (2020). I’m sure just like anyone in a difficult situation he had moments of doubt, self-pity, anger, frustration, and pain but he hasn’t let that stop him. He examined his life and decided to re-focus and re-purpose. I know that he won’t give up on walking again someday – but in the meantime he is showing the rest of us how to tackle life!

To me, Brandon’s attitude is what being an Olympian is all about. Regardless of hardship, regardless of conditions, you keep going no matter what until you cross that finish line. In an age where the goal of being an athlete seems to be money, fame, and glory it’s good to be reminded that the true reason we compete is to inspire and motivate others and, perhaps more importantly, ourselves.

Onward!

P.S. – You can read more about Brandon’s story here.

Brandon Lyons Training

Brandon Lyons on a training ride in Colorado Springs (photo courtesy of Brandon Lyons via PennLive.com)

Management Lessons from the Stage: Competition

For those of you who don’t know, every two years the American Association of Community Theatre (aka AACT) hosts a competitive play cycle (AACTFest). This cycle begins at the state level, moves to regional, and finally on to national competition where the 10 “best” community theatre productions will go head to head. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of participating this past weekend in the Michigan State AACTFest, hosted by Bay City Players on behalf of the Community Theatre Association of Michigan (CTAM) and I took away a few observations that I feel may apply to enterprises everywhere.

  • Deadlines are crucial: each group performing in an AACTFest works under the same rules. 10 minutes to set up your production, 60 minutes to perform, and 10 minutes to strike (take down). Exceed any of these deadlines and you are disqualified regardless of how brilliant the show is. LESSON: it doesn’t matter how good you are. Get your work in on time. There may be an opportunity to fix or update something later – but miss the deadline and the sale/project/etc. is gone forever.
  • You will be judged on your work regardless of resources: all groups at AACTFest are judged by the same criteria. Obviously, some groups had more resources to work with than others, but the goals remained the same. LESSON: do your best no matter what resources you have (or lack thereof).
  • Innovate: don’t come into a project trying the same old thing that others have done before. The shows at AACTFest which do the best, with judges and audiences, are the ones that literally bring something new to the stage. Hamlet is a hard sell to most audiences. Give it a steam punk look and a fresh techno hip-hop vibe and you’ve just blown peoples’ minds. LESSON: you can start with the same old service or product, but be sure to freshen it up often. Don’t be afraid to dust off an idea that’s been sitting around a while and see if you can make it new again.
  • Celebrate excellence: only two groups move on to the next level of competition at the state AACTFest (plus an alternate) but many groups are recognized for smaller outstanding contributions. LESSON: find the good in everything you do. Maybe the whole project isn’t a winner – but there are things you can still take away and celebrate. Maybe even learn from!
  • A little competition never hurt anyone: win or lose it the groups who participate in AACTFest come away with a better understanding of how they compare to others in the same field. They better know their strengths and their weaknesses and become better groups in the process. LESSON: you don’t know how good you are until you compare yourself to someone better or, at least, just as good.
  • Someone is always watching and judging: I don’t think this needs to be explained any further.
  • Popular opinion does not always carry the day: occasionally, a play that everyone seems to like won’t win. This is because the judges have their own ideas and criteria that differ in critical ways from the audiences experience. LESSON: remember who you are really selling your product to. Just because you and your team likes it, doesn’t mean that the customer will.

These are just a few thoughts I had. I’d love to hear yours regarding mine.

Onward!

Management Lessons from the Stage: Applause not Necessary

I saw a meme on Facebook recently which stated, “I do it for the fame…said no stage manager ever” and this got me to thinking about how this could apply in any workplace.

For those that don’t know, the stage manager is usually considered the second most important person in the production of a play right after the director. And when the play opens, he or she becomes the most important person to the show. Not because this person is a great actor, set designer, choreographer, lighting technician, costumer, dancer, etc., etc. No because the stage manager makes sure that each show starts on time, runs smoothly, and ends as planned. The stage manager is responsible for the literally hundreds of details that go into making a play succeed – and has to make sure that the actors get on stage when they are supposed to as well.

And how much credit does the stage manager get when the show is done for a job well done? Though he or she might hear the applause the stage manager knows none of it is for him/her. Sure other members of the production may say “nice job” but when they walk down the street no one is going to say “hey, great job stage managing last night!” Nope, it’s not about fame for these people – it’s about being part of a team and the satisfaction of a job well done.

How does this apply in your workplace? I’m willing to bet that in your organization you have someone who is working tirelessly to make sure that every project goes right. Who doesn’t make sure that s/he is noticed in a staff meeting, who doesn’t stand up to ask yet another useless question in organizational meetings just so everyone knows that they were there. Nope, I bet you have someone who is working for the satisfaction of being part of a team and the satisfaction of a job well done.

So what am I getting at? Simple:

Be sure to thank that person – often.

They don’t need applause but they do need encouragement and to know that someone notices.

Onward!

Lessons In Management: It’s All Show Biz

Every now and then someone asks me what I get out of theatre. I usually give some sort of glib answer like “attention” or “standing ovations.” But the answer is really more complex than that. For example, it occurs to me that many of the methods used to put on a show can be directly related to any business project. Don’t believe me? See below the steps that a director goes through to “manage” a successful production and see if they don’t fit your next project.

Set the Goal

A show starts, like any business project, at the beginning. The first thing a director needs to determine is “what show are we doing?” In some cases this is determined by an outside force (i.e. board of directors, committee, or producer – a.k.a the “supervisor”). The director starts with the script, which is in essence the bare bones of the play. Just words on paper waiting to be brought to life. Read and study the script. Understand what the playwright was trying to achieve. Research, research, research. You need to know the script (plan) better than anyone else on the team. You can’t guide people to a goal if you don’t know the way.

Determine Your Needs

How many characters are in the play? Male? Female? Is it a comedy, drama or musical? What are the ages of the characters? How many sets do you need? Costumes? The questions are numerous but like any project these basic facts need to be known and understood before you can fully determine your needs.

Block Your Movements

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In theatre blocking is the process of mapping out the movements that an actor will take during the show. In business, this is similar to the strategic steps or tasks which need to be done to complete the project. In a play the blocking may be basic (go from stage left to stage right) but should always have a purpose such as to make the scene seem more natural or to place focus on a specific characters actions or to set a “tableau” demonstrating relationships of characters to each other or evoke a mood or feeling from the audience. A show that is not well blocked becomes chaotic and random often devolving into a random mess of motion without meaning or, worse yet, a stagnant grouping of people on stage (the audience “sees” first and “hears” second). In business, if there are no set plans or tasks the project can grind to a halt as the team each goes their own way without clear direction.

Set the Budget

Now that you know the requirements to start the project, you have to assemble the resources. As so often with any project you need to know what will it cost. Then you most likely need to look at what you are provided as very few of us get unlimited funds to do anything. Do the two match? Probably not so you need to go through your needs line by line and prioritize to determine which items get the most money and which items you may need to be more “creative” with (theatres may have fund raising abilities which your business will not – but let’s presume you have enough funding to continue with your project).

Assemble Your Cast and Crew

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Now you need to find the best people to help you complete the production. You hold auditions (interviews) and determine who best suits each role. Like the hiring process in business you may not have all the information you need to make the perfect choice so you go with your gut and make the best choice you can at that moment (anyone who tells you they’ve never made a mistake casting or hiring probably doesn’t have much experience with either or are dangerously oblivious to their surroundings).

Set the Schedule – how long do you need to get the production finished? How many hours a day can you devote to the show? Like most workplaces, those involved in theatre – especially amateur theatre – have other things that they need to continue doing along with the show or project. Can everyone make each rehearsal (meeting)? Will they have sufficient time to work outside rehearsals on their specific task?

Know Your Role and Theirs

A director (manager) is a guide to the cast and crew. He or she needs to show the way and understand how each member of the production contributes to the overall success of the show. Likewise, the director needs to understand that he or she cannot do it all alone. This is the same in business, if you don’t know what your purpose is in the project you can fall into the micro-management trap or end up doing all the work yourself.

Rehearse

Rehearsal in show is the same as training in business. The cast cannot perform if they do not have the skills needed. Likewise, your team cannot do their jobs if they are untrained and unskilled. Professional development is a must!

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Follow the Script

The script is your guide. In theatre you usually do not have the option to change this. However, in business, you may be able to make adjustments to your plan as you go along. But even with the play your understanding of the script will likely change during the rehearsal process and you may make adjustments with the actors (blocking, inflection, timing) as you go along to better fulfill the “vision.”

Support, Support, Support

Give your cast feed back. Are they on the right track with their character? Are they learning their lines early enough? Are they doing a good job? Tell them! A cast, or team, who only hears negative feedback will quickly become under-performers. But be careful of praising indiscriminately. They need to trust you to tell them the truth – good or bad. Check in often to make sure that they have the tools and equipment necessary to get the job done.

Re-Cast When Needed

Sometimes it just isn’t working out. It’s the toughest part of a directors, or manager’s, job but you need to know when it’s time for different personnel. But not until you’ve done all you can to support and be sure that the person who is underperforming had everything he or she needed to get the job done.

Know When To Quit

In theatre there comes a point where you need to realize it (the scene, dance, whatever) just isn’t going to get any better and that more rehearsal may only make things worse. Sometimes this point is not where you hoped it would be and maybe instead of a great show you’ll only have a good show but you have to be realistic. Remember that budget item above? You can’t do Broadway on a Andy Hardy (you young ones may want to Google him) “let’s put on a show” budget.

Take a Bow – Or Not

When it’s all over, celebrate. Let your team members take a bow and share in the spotlight. Everyone from the leading lady to the stage hand who opened the curtain made an important contribution regardless of size. When do you take your bow? Probably not until later and not in public. In the theatre the director does not take a bow with the cast but watches everything from the back of the house with a satisfied smile and the knowledge that it all came together as planned. And then the director moves on to the next project!

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I hope this little primer gave you some ideas to be successful with your next project. On with the show!

All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted.
Photos and words @copyright David P. Wahr