Reflections on the Dance of Leadership

By Susan Petry

In the ’70s, I took a workshop with Barbara Dilley. In it we were doing a “leading/following” exercise. It came my turn to lead the group and I poured forth all kinds of movement, feeling brave and clever. A discussion followed, and Barbara queried, “Were they following you”? Stunned, I realized I had simply run my own show, and indeed what’s the use of being a leader if there are no followers? I had not been asking, where are they, what do they need, can they see me, what is happening? This lesson, and all its nuances, has continued to inform and deepen my approach to teaching, choreography, and leadership for 35 years. Today, it is called “servant leadership,” or “leading from behind.” By whatever name, my commitment to sensing, intuiting, standing behind, prompting others to lead, has grown through practice these past nine years as chair of the Department of Dance.

Susan Petry at the Sullivant Hall construction site.My guiding principles as a leader have been informed by my work as a dancer and artist. Dance is an excellent paradigm for administrative work: ethical treatment of others, co-creation in the moment, attention to detail, “Partire del terreno” ( judgment of space as termed by Italian Renaissance dancing masters), perception of patterns and self-reflexive skills. While my choreographic work often centers on the theme of vulnerability in the context of tenacity, so too I see administration as honoring capricious human nature in the context of structures that must have consistency, fairness and transparency.

It has been an astounding stretch, working under three presidents, three provosts and three deans; seeing through the transition from the College of the Arts to the College of Arts and Sciences; the transition from quarters to semesters; and the renovation of Sullivant Hall. In my time, I will have seen through five retirements, three resignations, and seven hires, a program review and re-accreditation. I have ushered in a complete transition of administrative staff, the establishment of a permanent costume staff, an outreach position and an interdisciplinary production manager. We have continued the department’s legacy of integrating professional artists and scholars, grown our town and gown relationships, re-framed the role of Laban studies, increased study abroad, graduated our first PhD students and established new funds. Digital literacy and writing run through our curriculum, and diversity as well as health and wellness is celebrated through multiple avenues and projects.

None of this has happened without exceptional faculty, dedicated staff and inspiring students and I thank everyone I had the pleasure to learn from over the years. My many small strategies, coupled with a distributed leadership structure, a dose of luck and a dash of humor, has made for an exhilarating, exhausting, generative, challenging and fascinating nine years. When leading from behind, one wishes to ultimately be the vessel and the conductor but not the thing itself. It is my hope that I have been asking, where are they, what do they need, can they see me, what is happening? I am thrilled the department will move forward in the very capable hands of my successor, Susan Hadley. With joy I move back to the studio, stage, camera, pen and paper, to teach and create, as well as continue an active role on the board of the National Association of Schools of Dance. As Helen Alkire said on her 100th birthday, “Let’s think about the future”!

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