Beyond the Balcony and the Dance Floor

By Dawn Skjei Cooley

It's been quite a while since I last joined a mosh pit. No, I am not speaking metaphorically (yet). For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, a mosh pit is an area, usually near the stage at a live concert, where people engage in some pretty full-contact dancing – bodies slamming into each other, usually to loud, energetic music. I loved being in the pit when I was younger, but as I was nearing my 30s moshing evolved into people throwing elbows at the faces of other dancers and I decided that I had had enough.

When my spouse recently got us tickets to one of his favorite punk bands from the 70s and 80s, we decided, rather than getting general admission tickets which would put us down on the floor, we wanted to be up on the balcony with secured seats in case we needed to give ourselves a break. It was worth the extra expenditure, but not because of the seats. Instead, I found that I spent nearly as much time watching the dancers on the floor as I did watching the band (who were amazing). And I saw something I'd never noticed before.

There was a group of young adults, slamming away. Old school – no elbows, just running into each other, bumping shoulders. Full-contact but not violent. As I continued to watch, I noticed that there were a few big, older guys around the edge of where the pit had formed. They stood in front of people who didn't want to be slammed into, protecting them from the dancers and simultaneously allowing the dancers to lose themselves into the abandon of the dance. These guys would also push the dancers back into the pit if they strayed too far, picking them up if they fell down – occasionally even getting the dancers going in a circle pit.

I'd never noticed this role when I had been in the pit in my younger days. I'm not sure if they existed, or if that is a role that has developed over the years as moshing and the pit have evolved. It almost made me wish I was down on the dance floor – these “conductors”, as it were, made the dance floor a safe space not only for the concert-goers who didn't wish to be bumped into, but for the young people in the pit as well.

So now let's expand this into metaphor. Business and leadership guru Ronald Heifetz often refers to the concept of “getting on the balcony” when he talks about leadership. He talks about how our view and experience of something is different depending on whether we are on the dance floor, or if we are able to get up on the balcony. From the dance floor, there is just the music and the dancers, but from the balcony we can see all sorts of patterns. In Leadership On the Line, he writes “The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray [by getting up on the balcony]...[but] if you want to affect what is happening, you must return to the dance floor.” The magic spot is the place of balance, going back and forth between the two, using our experiences on one to shape the other.

In leadership development, we often encourage those in leadership to “get up on the balcony” - particularly when there is a situation that is fraught with conflict. Remove yourself from reactivity, from the heat of the moment, and get up to the balcony and watch the patterns, the process. Then you can go back down to the dance floor with greater clarity about a situation.

But after my experience at the concert, I'm going to add a new role when I talk about the balcony and the dance floor - “Floor Conductor” - for those times when we are on the dance floor and see that space needs to be made, both for people who need to dance a bit more exuberantly than others, and for those who just want to enjoy the music. Floor conductors can help ensure that all participants are able to dance and participate the way they want, and need to, safely.

So get up on the balcony when you want a view of the big picture and the patterns that you can't see from the floor. Go to the dance floor when you want to impact a situation beyond making observations about it. And be a floor conductor when you want to help create a safe place where all can dance however they choose.

About the Author

Dawn Skjei Cooley

The Rev. Dawn Skjei (SHAY) Cooley believes that Unitarian Universalists are called to "Love the Hell Out of the World" and tries to practice this on a regular basis. She is passionate about helping congregations adapt to the changing cultural religious landscape.

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