Everyone who wants to speak in front of a group should learn how to dance.
You don’t have to learn how to dance well, but you should give it a try. Dancing teaches you how to take an aural expression of emotion (music and sometimes lyrics) and interpret it as a purely physical expression of emotion. You may have heard about Albert Mehrabian’s studies regarding the importance of non-verbal communication in message delivery.* Your physical expression can have a huge impact on the message you are getting across, and learning to dance teaches you how to maximize the power of physical expressiveness.
Dance lessons and exploration can be even more important for people who are shy or naturally guarded with their expressions. When you tend to restrict your movement or control your face when speaking with someone, being required to use only your body to emote can be enormously freeing. Communication breakthroughs happen when you discover how you can demonstrate incredibly specific and powerful thoughts in, for example, the way you raise your arm or move your hand and fingers. It also teaches us to be comfortable with our bodies, aware of how they move and how much control we can exert over them. For someone who is uncomfortable in their own skin, overly concerned about where they put their hands when speaking to an audience, or mistrustful of the signals their expression might send, dance lessons can give permission to explore their expressive bodies in a safe environment.
There is also a marvellous language boost to be had. We’ve all been in situations where you have something you desperately want to communicate, but can’t say out loud. Dance can teach you how to deliver unvoiced messages with a tilt of a head, a shoulder shrug, a glance, or even a subtle change in your posture. Are you in a meeting where you want the committee chair to be aware that you are not in agreement with a point of discussion, but due to office politics or hierarchy you can’t come out and say it directly? Imagine being able to get that point across by slightly shifting your position in your chair and changing the angle at which you hold your head and neck. The effect can be incredible! What’s more, you learn how to be in control of this sort of communication. This means you also learn to control your body enough to prevent you from physically betraying thoughts you would prefer to keep hidden.
I’ve taken classes in several dance forms – ballet, jazz, ballroom, hip-hop – but the one that I’ve stuck with and that has had the greatest impact on me has been belly dance, particularly raqs sharki (classical Egyptian style). I started belly dancing over six years ago as a way to get back into shape, and since then I’ve participated in festivals, been a member of a performing troupe, and have done solo performances at local Greek and Lebanese restaurants. When I started dancing I was hardly thinking of it as a method of improving my communication. Later, when I started coaching interpersonal communications, I was floored at the impact it had on my methods and techniques. When performing belly dance, I was stripped of my verbal skills and had to communicate the message of the music – often sung in languages neither I nor my audience understood (if I did, it was because I found a translation of the lyrics) – through gesture and expression. A hip drop, an arm raise, an arabesque, a longing glance became key communication tools.
It hardly matters what style of dance you try, they’ll all require you to listen to some music and then respond to or interpret it with your body. They’ll all involve emotion and expression. I’ve learned loads from every style I’ve tried out, and I do believe there’s a style out there for everyone. You just need to be willing to explore.
Just like with exercises, you might have already thought up of a hundred excuses why you can’t try dance. Let me address a few of them up front:
I’m not in good enough shape/too old/too uncoordinated/too overweight/don’t have enough rhythm/etc to dance!
- Dancing will help get you in to shape. It will teach you coordination and improve your rhythm; I say this a a person who broke her arm falling off a couch. Pop into an adult dance class; they don’t require you to be willowy and flexible. People who teach adult dance are incredibly accommodating, and will accept all body types. I dance with people who are rail thin, rubenesque, old, young, beginners, experts, fully physically abled, and with limited mobility. It isn’t important that you are as good as or better than anyone there, it matters that you try it.
I’m too self conscious to dance!
- Dance will help you get over that, and as a result you’ll be more liberated in front of your speaking audience.
I don’t have time to dance!
- Believe me, I understand hectic schedules. But taking a few dance lessons doesn’t mean that you need to commit to spending several hours a week practicing at a dance studio. It can be a quick one hour group class taken a few times a month. It can be a dance fitness class during your work lunch hour. Heck, you can even take out some basic dance lesson videos from your local library and give it a try at home.
I can’t afford lessons!
- There are dance classes out there at just about any price point imaginable. There may even be groups in your community that offer classes for free. There also, as I mentioned above, the library. Most libraries have piles of DVDs of lessons in various dance styles that you can borrow and try at home. I still make use of my library’s dance DVD collection when I want to get in a bit more guided practice at home or try something new. And if all else fails, check out some dance clips on YouTube, put on some music, and give it a go on your own. If you need to lock the door and draw the curtains to get your groove on, go right ahead!
I hate dancing!
- This is like saying “I hate fruit.” It usually means that you either haven’t given it a chance or haven’t explored different styles to find the one that gets you grooving. If one style doesn’t suit you, try a different one. If you don’t like oranges, try cherries. If you liked a style but not an instructor, try that style at a different studio or club. This isn’t exactly a high-risk activity, and there’s no shame in not sticking with a type of dance that doesn’t speak to you. Just try something else. Keep an open mind and be willing to explore.
Be willing to dance!
If you want some inspiration, I strongly recommend checking out the following TED presentation by the LXD (The League of Extraordinary Dancers). The descriptions of the dance artists is positively moving.
*It is worth noting that Mehrabian’s work is frequently misinterpreted; excessive emphasis is places purely on the physical message rather than on the value of the actual words. Words and body are both extremely important, and the degree to which one plays a greater influence depends on the speaker and the message.