What a Dancer Can Teach a Startup

Dwight (540x386)Dwight Rhoden is a dancer, choreographer and business owner. When he creates a new piece for his company in New York, he wants to showcase his creativity and his dancers. He also wants to sell tickets. Dance is his livelihood and the livelihood of his dancers. He must appeal to audiences in New York, where his company is based, and around the world where they perform.

In Charlotte, Dwight is a resident choreographer for the Charlotte Ballet, which means he creates new works each year for them to premiere. Patrons of the ballet can underwrite new pieces, and I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to do just that. As a benefit, I got to know Dwight, asked him about his creative process and watched the dancers evolve their work. In the process, I realized there’s a lot Dwight can teach the founder of any business.

 Ideas into Action

You want to start a business. A dancer wants to create a new piece. You look at a blank computer screen. A dancer looks into an empty room.

Dwight begins with a concept, what Twyla Tharp calls the “spine.” It’s the first strong idea around which a piece will be built. Dwight sketches out his strong idea on a single sheet of paper, and then creates initial “phrases”, or eight beat counts, around which he can build. He begins to iterate the steps and combinations. In business, a big idea is put before customers to learn, iterate and transform.

The Troupe

Dwight team (540x353)As with any business, dancers for the troupe are recruited with care. At first, a small team may be a pas de deux –just two working closely together, like a technical whiz with a business founder. With a larger troupe, the dancers make their imprint on the evolution of the piece. They have fun, like the work, suggest a twirl or jump, or a subtle shift in the placement of a toe which changes the pace or look of the piece, not unlike software developers at Apple tweaking features with input from the team.


The choreographer must inspire the best work and effort from his team as he sets his vision and directs the execution. With a new piece, there is no video of the images in his head. No sheet of music or dance to clarify the way. The leader coaches, demonstrates, analogizes, whispers and smiles. Side by side, the dancers begin to flow together as the vision emerges.


Dance is more than continuous movement. The details are deliberated. Dwight corrects the dancer who is touching his hand on the top of the knee instead of the inside right. At first a female dancer lifts the chin of her male partner, and then it’s decided: no, let’s cup the face, which is more intimate. The team works hard at their craft, sweating the essence of every step.


Most art is on a wall, sold to one owner, viewed in one spot for a lifetime. Dance is fleeting and in the moment. How can a legend such as Swan Lake be passed down for generations, performed by dance companies worldwide in essentially the same form?  Like ancient folklore, dance is passed down from person to person, ideally taught to others by someone who has once performed it on stage. The longevity of a dance is like the culture of a company. Some parts may be captured in writing or on film, but the soul of the dance, like the soul of a company, is transferred person to person, as the heart of the story is imbued on another.

Dwight ponders (540x361)A dancer can teach a startup the beauty of a concept, perseverance through failure, boldness in the glare of the spotlight, leadership in the unknown, the hard work of performance and endurance of a great idea. These lessons are “on pointe” for any business.

All photographs courtesy of Dwight Rhoden.

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One Response to What a Dancer Can Teach a Startup

  1. Sharon Reed says:

    Lori, what a beautiful and inspiring piece! There are indeed many parallels between any creative and artistic endeavor and business start-ups and you capture them beautifully in this post.

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