by Ben Hoole (MBA., MPET., B.Comm)
I long ago gave up trying to define myself by occupation – perhaps in part because I’ve seldom made a living out of one single field of endeavour. I know that I work very long hours doing work that I’m passionate about, that I’ve almost always run my own show, and, like most small business people, I’m underpaid. Despite a 20+ year university education in management, I’ve never seriously considered a corporate career – I’m fortunate to have recognised early in life that self-employment, in industries that are compatible with my passions and values, was the path for me.
I’m no dancer – never have been and I can confidently proclaim that I never will be. I do, however, like to think of myself as an artist, devoting as much of my busy and varied work day as possible to artistic activities such as writing and visual design. I’ve always admired creative people; the search for meaning and beauty and the courage to innovate strike me as precious and fundamental, but sadly undervalued, human traits. Creatives are, in my opinion, a necessary antidote to a world that appears to me to be increasingly driven by the material and the mundane; a world crying out for greater wisdom, humanity and soul.
On reflection, it’s no surprise that I was drawn to (and over 20 years ago married) a career ballet teacher, although, as, at the time, a bodybuilder/ boxer with two left feet, I certainly never expected that a big chunk of my own professional life would be dance related. Nevertheless, that’s the way things turned out, and, together with everything else, I’ve spent much of the past 20 years involved in the management of dance related organisations alongside my wife.
Those of us who have accumulated a substantial number of years working in and around the dance industry would recognise it as a very strange beast; a delicate balance of artistry, vocation, mentorship, profession, community service… and, by necessity, business.
You would think that, to me, it would be all about the business; to be candid, with two master’s and an undergraduate degree I’ve little doubt that I’m one of the most “business qualified” in the industry. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve always seen my involvement in the management of our dance schools as very much a support role, and it’s always taken place very much behind the scenes. My input has also heavily decreased over the years, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, it would be decidedly egotistical and foolhardy of me – after working with my wife for so long – to feel that I have anything unique left to contribute professionally, especially given her own professional credentials and demonstrable expertise. The second reason – and that which is more to the point of this article – is that the delicate balance of characteristics that defines a dance school is dynamic. In my experience, that balance has shifted (at least a decade ago in my opinion) such that “business” is justifiably becoming a dirty word when it comes to dance. I see a business mindset as sucking the artistry, the service orientation and spirit of contribution – the very soul in fact – out of dance; and running counter to the best interests of all but the self-minded and avaricious amongst us.
“I see a business mindset as sucking the artistry, the service orientation and spirit of contribution – the very soul in fact – out of dance; and running counter to the best interests of all but the self-minded and avaricious amongst us.”
This isn’t a phenomenon limited to dance, of course. The same critique could easily be directed to most industries, the professions, government and society in general. I recall studying (perhaps a decade or more ago), for example, an academic paper which resonated strongly with me and which observed that, in our quest for standardisation and centralisation, the professions (teaching was the focus of the paper) are quickly becoming “deprofessionalised”. Those higher level, largely intangible, qualities and competences that define mastery of one’s field of endeavour – the art of exceptional teaching in this instance – are being cast aside in favour of a lower level, but more easily measurable, controllable and duplicable (i.e. good for business) skillset. I know veterans across a range of industries who recognise and lament the trend, and I think that we’ll come to miss these old-timers – these masters of their trades or professions, when they eventually throw in the towel.
This is undeniably a modern phenomenon; one that’s metastasised throughout the arts just as surely as it’s done elsewhere. Which is a particular shame, as in my opinion, the arts are a seldom recognised panacea for our modern obsession with shallow consumerism, materialism, and self-gain. Especially so, too, when working with children – who derive so much benefit from being nurtured as individuals, not commodities, and who thrive on wise and caring mentoring by experienced elders who have walked life’s path ahead of them.
“…the arts are a seldom recognised panacea for our modern obsession with shallow consumerism, materialism, and self-gain. Especially so, too, when working with children – who derive so much benefit from being nurtured as individuals, not commodities, and who thrive on wise and caring mentoring by experienced elders who have walked life’s path ahead of them.”
I’m not suggesting, of course, that being in business is a bad thing, or that businesses are fundamentally evil. Most professional, and even more so most creative, people that I have known find the idea of working for someone else stifling and repugnant. Self-employment can be a liberating vehicle by which creatives can do their thing, and share the fruit of their efforts with the world – and be fairly (and for the fortunate few, well) remunerated for the value that they bring to the marketplace.
In fact, throughout my own business studies, I have recognised an enticing fairness – dare I say goodness – in many of the concepts traversed in higher level management training, at least in theory if not in the way that they are typically implemented. But graduate level management studies are a world away from the typical “get rich quick” sales and administration training that business-minded, growth-obsessed entrepreneurs are frequently drawn to.
Within the dance industry specifically, I too often find myself stifling my umbrage and disappointment whenever I encounter self-proclaimed, unqualified industry experts offering such business advice (generally little more than high pressure sales and money-making techniques) to struggling teachers simply because they have themselves used similar methods in their own businesses to put little bottoms on seats, without regard to their own personal, professional and artistic integrity, to the level of value that they contribute to their clients and wider communities, or to the degree in which their approach to business impacts upon the impressionable young people that look to their teachers as role models.
I’m similarly disheartened when I look upon the self-serving, unprincipled business practices that have become commonplace within an increasingly competitive dance industry, as growth-minded aspiring empire builders throw out their integrity, professional ethics and sense of decency in pursuit of personal gain and business success. Overpromising (and consequently under delivering), misrepresentation, high pressure sales techniques and out-and-out dishonesty have become familiar marketing tools. Teachers seem content to charge their students for training in areas that demand professional expertise but in which they themselves have little to no proficiency or training. And creative theft has replaced artistic integrity and genuine innovation.
I can’t imagine a bona fide artist of good character operating this way. Most genuine creative professionals will, I suspect, proudly acknowledge their deep-seeded yearning for authenticity, contribution, originality, self-mastery and a life well-lived. And yet, it seems, that plenty amongst us seem content to justify such questionable behaviour as being “good business”.
Is it naïve of me to imagine an idealised dance industry in which those who work with children take that responsibility seriously, focusing more upon the wellbeing of the young dancers in their care and less upon their own ego-driven, selfish desires for material wealth and business success? One in which dance teachers are committed to improving their professional skills rather than misrepresenting what they can legitimately contribute to the marketplace? A “community of practice” supporting creatives who passionately labour to bring forth original works of beauty rather than simply ripping off the works of their colleagues and peers? A collective of professionals who willingly and proudly embrace and uphold professional ethics and standards rather than casting disrepute upon the industry that they claim to love? Self-employed professionals confident enough in their individual ability to deliver unique value to their customers that they – rather than employing trickery and dishonest marketing communications to hook any prospective customer who comes their way – are content to clearly and honestly articulate what it is that they bring to a prospective relationship, allowing informed parents to choose for themselves where their children will best fit in?
“Is it naïve of me to imagine an idealised dance industry in which those who work with children take that responsibility seriously, focusing more upon the wellbeing of the young dancers in their care and less upon their own ego-driven, selfish desires for material wealth and business success?”
Yes, dance is, of course, a business. Self-employed dance professionals are perfectly entitled to earn a decent living that reflects their level of expertise and the positive contribution that they make to the lives of their students and their families, and to the broader communities to which they belong. But the business side of teaching dance belongs, I believe, well in the background, supporting the primary professional and artistic fundamentals that make a dance teacher better at, well… teaching dance.
In my experience, genuine creatives and true professionals are rightly focused on mastering their art or profession – just as passionate teachers are fully committed to the wellbeing of their students. They have little choice, really, because art and service – far from being merely money-making platforms – are powerful callings that flow from the soul. I fully understand the justified indignation that artists and professionals feel towards the hacks and hucksters – those with limited talent among us who are simply “in it for the money” and whose actions cast a shadow over the industry and diminish the life’s work of those who seek to live and work from the heart.
“…genuine creatives and true professionals are rightly focused on mastering their art or profession – just as passionate teachers are fully committed to the wellbeing of their students. They have little choice, really, because art and service – far from being merely money-making platforms – are powerful callings that flow from the soul.”
It’s a mistake, I believe, for practitioners to allow business goals and practices to overshadow the artistic and professional, or, worse still, to believe that business can somehow compensate for a lack of professional and artistic expertise. A professional manager, of course, would know that, and a professional artist or teacher wouldn’t even entertain the thought.