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Dance Your Way into Social Intelligence

[Guest blogger Jerianne Heimendinger is a health, wellness, and fitness consultant who holds a Ph.D. from the Harvard School of Public Health. While at the National Institutes of Health, she helped develop the 5 A Day program. Renee interviewed Jerianne for the previous blog: 5 Nutrition Tips for Sustained Energy: Hint, Coffee’s Not One.]

I was a nervous wreck, pacing rapidly up and down the backstage hall, minutes before our show, Peak at the Arts: Global Artists Exchange Festival. What was I thinking when I signed up for this? Would I forget all the dance moves in the glare of the stage lights? Was I too old for this giant step out of my comfort zone? Would I make a total fool of myself? I can look back now and see that I was in a space of “not knowing” that would turn out quite well for me as a leader—but at the time it felt daunting.

Our dance piece differed from the polished, professional companies who performed before and after us on our community’s most prestigious stage. We were a mix of about 40 dancers and non-dancers, ranging in age from 6 to 66, including all body types and shapes, plus people with disabilities. We were a group of strangers when we began many weeks earlier. I often wondered why I stayed—taking precious time away from finding paying work as a nutritionist. I had stepped into the world of art and out of the comfort zone of my science. Like my uncertain footwork during rehearsals, sometimes the two sides of my brain gracelessly collided.

To make matters worse, we were dancing with live drummers—I couldn’t discern changes in the music to mark the beginning of a new movement. As a comfortable leader who typically has a much better idea of what I’m doing, I suddenly had to meld in and simply follow the group. As a follower, I found myself wondering what our leaders thought they were doing. Exactly where were all these strange improvisational exercises headed? Then I began to see some of our improv movements show up in the final choreography. Aha! So this was to truly be our dance.

That sounds like a great concept, until you’re waiting backstage for the big show, facing a crowd of strangers and friends, bookended by other performances by consummate professionals. I really didn’t know how our performance would go, and that was pretty terrifying.

Too late, darling, you are on! I ran out on stage and my adrenalin did the rest. Some sort of alchemical magic happened, transforming live drummers, dancers, and audience into resonance with each other. It felt great! My sister, a leader in the arts community, was in the audience and said our dance moved her to tears! Not, thank goodness, because we were so awful. But because of the joy we exuded and the sense of community created by our diversity of people, color, and movement. Others echoed her emotions.

Yes, it was worth stepping out of my comfort zone; allowing myself to be in the “not knowing,” a space in which new possibilities can be born. Although this effort did not lead me to a new job, or a new dance career, it left me with a pearl of joy in my heart that spreads to and inspires others. It is this kind of joy that helps create what Daniel Goleman calls social intelligence, activating the powerful social circuits in the brain that inspire others to be effective.

Our community dance was an example of mirror neurons at work—the subset of our brains’ circuits whose only job is to detect other people’s smiles or laughter and mirror them back. Imagine worksites where this happened more often! Thankfully, social intelligence is now considered a hallmark of a good leader. One way to strengthen the social circuits in your brain is to find that extracurricular activity that makes you smile and give it more space in your life. Which activity will you choose?

Photo courtesy of Peak at the Arts