Dance, Non-verbal Communication, and Collaboration

With a career that started in dance and then moved into the business realm, Sheila Peters has experienced how the Dancer’s Skill Set© has provided her with capabilities that give a noticeable advantage in business relationships and interpersonal communications. Examining her experience, Sheila realized that thought leaders in non-verbal communication, interpersonal relations, knowledge development, and learning all point to a set of enabling capabilities that mirror what she learned in developing the skill set of a professional dancer.


The proposition that presented itself was: “What if I could teach others, individuals who weren’t trained dancers, these same skills? Would it be possible to distill what has been learned through years of daily dance training into a set of simple exercises? And, through these exercises help others:


  • Improve intuition in a way that would enable decision making and interaction
  • Be more adaptable by improving one’s ability to learn
  • Create more connectedness with others and within oneself


And, most importantly, learn all of this in the same way a dancer learns: by doing, moving, dancing, and having fun.


In decision making and in social settings, how we draw conclusions about information or relationships starts with an intuitive sense followed by reasoned understanding.  Improving awareness of our intuitive sense through deep listening and a stronger sense of self, especially one’s physical self, improves how we function inside and with others.


In Daniel Goleman’s adaption (Working with Emotional Intelligence, 1998) of the work of Salovey and Mayer he summarizes emotional intelligence into five competencies: Self-awareness, Self-regulation, Motivation, Empathy, and Social Skills. Goleman draws a clear dependency between self-awareness and the other competencies described. As Goleman points out, self-awareness is aided by intuitive comprehension experienced as a somatic or kinesthetic response (49). He goes on to point out that self-awareness can be developed through practice (239) and gives examples of how emotional awareness and changes in emotional states can be altered through physical activity (238) or meditation.


Our body language gives our words emotional context – it explains what we mean and does it in a very complex way which we process at a subconscious level. Though studies of facial expressions and gestures have been done to try to systematize non-verbal communication, the complexity and depth required to understand what is being said non-verbally makes real time analysis difficult.  Given the preverbal nature of our non-verbal exchanges, rather than rationalizing these exchanges and making them more explicit, the simpler and more accessible approach to comprehension is to foster better intuitive listening by improving our mind to body connectedness.


Building on a capability that is such a critical part of all human communications requires that we strengthen the connection between intuition and the physical self. When we eliminate the distraction of the mind we can see, feel, and act effortlessly.  Our intuitive sense of others is nothing more than our subconscious telling us what it’s already heard through our protoconversation with another person’s body.


These non-verbal patterns, what Colwyn Trevarthen (The Self Born in Intersubjectivity: The Psychology of Infant Communicating) calls protoconversation, are a baby’s first interactions and form our first, emotionally based, interactions with another.  These pre-verbal conversations stay with us as adults and are how we build rapport on a tacit, subconscious, level with others.  Being pre-verbal, what is communicated and our awareness of these exchanges with others is intuitively sensed but often not explicitly understood.


In dance, physical practice is used to improve self-awareness and develop an essential core skill: the ability to optimally observe, imitate, and practice the movements of others. A key measure of a dancer’s ability is her adaptability.  Dancers cultivate the skill to learn and replicate a variety of movement styles.  As a result, those trained in dance develop a natural and intuitive ability to see and mimic movement. Their deep awareness of the body translates into a stronger intuitive sense.  By continually learning new movement, the dancer exercises her intuitive self.  By observing and replicating movement not through rational analysis but solely by doing, the dancer develops an enhanced capability to acquire tacit knowledge.


Ikujiro Nonaka (The Knowledge-Creating Company, 1995) describes the relationship between tacit and explicit knowledge and how knowledge acquisition starts as tacit information which is acquired through “observation, imitation, and practice”.  Being able to easily gain new knowledge, specifically being able to absorb and internalize tacit knowledge, becomes a critical indicator linked to long term adaptability in the modern work environment.  (Unpacking personal adaptability at work, David O’Connell, Eileen McNeely, Douglas Hall, Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, Feb, 2008).


Through movement practices like dance, we can learn to get out of the head and into the body; to get better at sensing ourselves and others.  Movement based practices like dance or the martial arts are designed to develop both the self-awareness and the learning skills that are a critical part of the non-verbal exchanges that are the basis of all communication.  With the enhanced awareness of the body that is the natural byproduct of a disciplined physical practice comes greater ease in our non-verbal patterns.  We begin to tell more with our bodies making ourselves easier to understand and we see more in others.  The dancer’s “seeing”, a core capability in the Dancer’s Skill Set©, is experienced as a stronger intuitive sense.


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©The Dancer’s Skill Set, 2010. Not for reproduction or reuse without the express permission of Sheila Peters.