Leadership Lessons From A Ballet Teacher

A leader, simply put, is someone whom others follow. He or she needn’t have graduated from a fancy business school or even a university. But he or she does need charisma and discipline, knowledge and self-confidence, and be in possession of some skills such as organization and empathy and insight.

A leader can be at the head of a gang or a classroom or a corporate enterprise or, as I realized recently, in front of a ballet class. In this case, a boyish 60-something former dancer named Frederic Lazzarelli.

There we were — a motley crew of some 30 women and men of different ages and varying levels of ability, from all walks of life (one young man is a dentist, another an oil trader; two of the women are pediatricians, another is a finance professor) and regions of the world (Europe, Asia, North and South America), moving in some sort of unison to music, trying our best to follow the combinations being worked out improv-style by Lazzarelli switching comically but with agility between languages as he shouted out corrections over the live piano accompaniment.

In short, he had managed to corral a group of otherwise unconnected people into a joint effort drawing out the best they had to give, attempting new levels of execution and having a good time to boot. If a leader is someone people follow willingly and with abandon, then Lazzarelli is certainly a leader — and, given the diversity in his classes, a global one, at least in the world of dance.

From Performer To Teacher

Most ballet teachers were themselves, professional dancers, some of them quite accomplished. Indeed, it is virtually the only way dance has been handed down through the centuries since Louis XIV opened the world’s first professional dance school in the middle of the 17th century. But the transition from star performer to teacher (or, in business parlance, from super-salesman to manager) is not an easy one for anyone. It involves much more than an ability to dance or perform–indeed the ability to dance becomes almost secondary, superseded by the ability to teach and to manage a large group of people, keeping them focused, moving and happy. And coming back! This is both production and customer relations rolled into one.

The French-born Lazzarelli (Italian father, French mother) began studying dance at age 11. He comes from what he calls “an athletic family” (another brother danced with the Los Angeles Ballet) and has been teaching for some three decades. He’s danced with such prestigious companies as Opéra de Karlsruhe with Germinal Casado, the National Ballet of Portugal, and the National Ballet of Mexico, and mounted productions, including with Mime Marceau, the professional school of French mime Marcel Marceau. Since leaving the stage, he’s also worked as a choreographer for various companies around Europe and with the prestigious Saisons de la Danse in Paris. In 1986, he returned to the fold of the teacher who formed and helped launch his professional career teacher, Yves Casati (of the Paris Opera Ballet; Casati himself only “retired” two years ago at the age of 80!).

You can find Lazzarelli virtually every day of the week at the barre of Le Centre de Danse du Marais or Elephant Paname near the Opera. “It’s not much different from when I was dancing,” he told me once. “I’m constantly in class.” And he has never, ever, missed one. Never, ever not shown up. No sick days, even when a dance-related back injury recently rendered him unable to stand up straight for ten days.

Mind Over Matter

“If I’m feeling ill, I change my mind; if you’re tired, it’s you who decides to continue or not,” he exclaims, sounding more like Deepak Chopra than a French dance teacher. “I turn the negative thoughts into positive ones. You have to overcome the negative physically and mentally,” he explains. “Dance did this for me during a tough childhood. It saved me.”

This Article originally appeared on Forbes and is featured here with Author permission.


Shellie Karabell
Shellie Karabell
Shellie Karabell has spent more than 40 years in international broadcast journalism, including executive news and management positions in her native USA, Europe, the USSR/Russia and the Middle East for ABC News/WTN, Dow Jones Broadcast, PBS, AP Broadcast and CNBC, responsible for news coverage, bureau management, and budgets of several million dollars. She has specialized in business news since 1982, covering hundreds of tier-one international companies and executives. As a TV correspondent in Europe, her coverage included the release of the American hostages from Iran in 1981; the Pan Am 103 crash in Lockerbie, Scotland,1988; the civil war in Lebanon in 1983; the civil war in Yugoslavia in 1991-92, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. She is a recognized expert on Russia, having started her coverage there in 1986 (including interviewing Boris Yeltsin and Edvard Shevardnadze) and continuing to the present day, and living/working in Moscow from 1996-1998 for ABC-WTN. Before moving to Europe in 1983, she was a chief news editor and field reporter for ABC Radio Network News in New York, and the business anchor for Satellite News Channel. From 2009-2013 she was Director of Media Relations and Editor-in-Chief of INSEAD Knowledge, the business school's online business magazine. Born in Philadelphia, PA, she has a BA in English from Pennsylvania State University and masters work in political science (Penn State) & Russian History (NYU) and lives in Paris.

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  1. When I was ten years old I read an “Archie’s” comic about Archie and Reggie making fun of a fellow male student that did ballet. Moments later, all three of them were jumped by some muggers. That ballet dancer not only held his own, he sent those muggers running. A day later, Archie and Reggie joined the guy in ballet class.

    Ballet is a both a very physical and very mental discipline. It’s more than focus and dancing — it requires a strong mind-body connection — the same kind used in sparring, strength training, and public speaking. The only negative with ballet is the flexibility exercises. They’re way too often misapplied resulting in too much strain on the joints.