How Building a Nonprofit is Like Learning to Tango

Posted on by Deborah Farris

Lesson 1: It’s All About Timing

Sometimes you have to jump right in or you’ll miss the opportunity. Other times, you better hold a few counts before taking the next step or too much will happen too fast. Think Tango rhythm: slow slow quick quick slow or quick quick slow slow—whichever best suits your style and situation.

Lesson 2: Start Small

Begin with the basic step which gets you heading in the right direction. If you don’t have the strength in your thighs or flexibility in your back be careful on the big lunges. As in nonprofit, work within your means.

Lesson 3: Build Strong Relationships.

You need to be flexible, not rigid. Learn when to pick your battles and place value on strong partnerships above all else. As in any good relationship, know when it’s your role to lead and when to follow.

Lesson 4: Don’t Let Money Stop You

I had a conversation with a young woman last week about starting the business of her dreams—a rural creative arts center. She told me she didn’t have the money. I told her not to let money stop her—start small, take a step at a time, fill a gap. She said she didn’t want to go into debt. She missed my point.

Lack of funding can in fact promote even greater creativity and resourcefulness. Identify a need, use your talents and the resources at hand—I’ve kept a Post-It note of this quote handy for 15 year: “Do what you can with what you have where you are.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt).  Take a risk. Try it out, test the waters, do your calculations. Be economical and make it sustainable. What you think is important might not be for someone else. Gather the data that supports your perspective and go. Prove that it is.

Lesson 8: Facing Rejection

The tango was first rejected by the conservative 19th Century upper class. They found its passion and fire inappropriate for their lifestyle. But in France, it attracted enthusiastic fans and before long all of Paris was dancing. It spread and slowly the upper class joined in. In the end, the Tango became a standard dance around the world.

Lesson 5: Dealing with Disappointment

I’ll use a little Tango history for this one. Argentina and Uruguay are divided by the La Plaba River. During the 19th century, as part of a plan for development, immigrants flocked there hoping for work and prosperity. Dreams didn’t come true for many and they had to live with poverty and crime. The strength of the human spirit rose above the situation as people turned to music and dancing to distract themselves from disappointment! An interesting thing happened. With all the different backgrounds, African and South American styles started to blend with the polka and waltz of the European styles. Tango slowly began to form.

Lesson 8: Believe in Yourself

If you don’t feel confident, pretend that you are until you gain the experience and tools necessary to make it real. Think dancer posture: stand tall, straight spine, chin up, and lift your eyes off the floor. Steady your torso and keep moving, even if you screw up. In the end, it’s about learning to overcome and conquer your fears.

Much of what I needed to know to help build a nonprofit I’ve learned from dance. As our faculty teaches Tango to more than 1,000 students across Greater Milwaukee it’s apparent the lessons go far beyond the steps. Like building a nonprofit, the greatest resource you can draw from is passion and fire. We didn’t have money when we started Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap. We had an idea and started small. Word traveled, partners stepped up and funding came along. Eleven years later the program continues to grow, as does the rest of Danceworks.

Dance improves quality of life. It provides healthy social interaction, reduces stress, improves emotional health, provides strength, flexibility, and discipline. You can witness this on May 20th, when 45 schools come together at the BMO Harris Bradley Center for Danceworks Mad Hot Ballroom Competition.

The dance is within all of us, connecting us to each other and to the rhythm of life. What are you waiting for? Don’t give up on a dream. Get moving and join the dance—5 6 7 8!

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For additional registration help, be sure to check out our step-by-step instructional pdf.

(Photos: Auer Avenue and Greenfield Schools. Danceworks teaching artists: Jessica Fastabend, Danielle Lemancyzk, and Emily Bowlin.)


Welcome to my blog, where I'm hoping to share a little bit more about the heart and soul behind Danceworks…what makes me tick, what keeps me inspired, and where I can share some of the stories worth telling.

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