The Aspiring Dancer: A Business School Parable
The dance floor was packed with MBA students out on the town. The DJ announced, “Hey cats, we’re gonna put on some funky music so y’all can get your groove on. Enjoy.” The crowd cheered as Barry White wafted from the speakers.
Seated at the bar on the edge of the dance area, the second year surveyed the proceedings with an indulgent smile. He was taking a break from the non-stop revelry and felt at peace with the world. Life was good in your second year at business school.
He noticed the throng suddenly give way. A first year emerged from the center of the dance floor, apologizing to people as he stepped on their feet. He reached the bar and collapsed gratefully on a stool next to the second year, looking like a deer that had just escaped the hounds of the Royal Hunt.
The second year was perturbed. “What’s up, Taylor?” he shouted over the din.
Taylor shouted something that the second year couldn’t hear.
The second year gestured to Taylor to follow him, and they made their way to the lounge up front, jostling past the almost three hundred students who had defied the laws of physics—not to mention the city’s fire safety regulations—to fit into the impossibly tiny club.
Despite the fifty different conversations simultaneously taking place in the lounge, it was an oasis of tranquility compared to the cacophony in the back. They settled into a velvet couch.
“Much better. Now tell me, Taylor, what ails you? You look like a man in need of salvation,” the second year said.
Taylor took a deep breath. “The dancing, man.”
“What about it?”
“Two things. I hate it, and I suck at it. I’m not claustrophobic, but in that crowd, I feel my air being sucked away minute by minute. I can’t breathe out there. And I dance horribly. I can’t move without squashing my partner’s toes. I was born with two left feet, though I’m so bad I think someone might have snuck an invisible third foot in there.”
The second year chuckled. “Taylor, I admire you. It takes a man to admit he can’t dance. Don’t sweat it. Nobody will put a gun to your head and force you to dance. If absolutely compelled, stay at the periphery of the crowd and do the old two-step out of harm’s way.”
“If only it were that simple,” Taylor replied. His tone was that of a prisoner who, having evaluated in detail every possible option for breaking out and rejected them all, has resigned himself to digging through the 200-meter long brick wall with his standard issue steel fork.
“What do you mean?”
“Susan loves to dance. She forces me go to every party at school that has the word ‘dance’ in it. I resist, I plead, I protest, but to no avail. Why do you think I was at the center of the dance floor? That reminds me, I need to go back.” Taylor said. He sounded like a kid about to take some bitter medicine.
“Why? It appears to me you would rather take your chances swimming across the piranha-infested Amazon than venture out on the dance floor.”
“I saw Jeff Smith dancing with Susan tonight. He’s a complete weasel, but a damn good dancer. I’ve seen him dancing with her at other parties after I pleaded out. She seems to be enjoying it more and more with time. I’m worried.”
A grim, set look descended upon the second year’s face. “Do you love this woman?”
“Then there’s no time to waste. Although I hear my friends shouting for me to take my rightful place on the dance floor, I cannot shirk my duty to you, and that is to recount the story of Pablo Acosta and Javier Rodriguez, so you might learn from it.”
Taylor said, “I need to get back there. Jeff Smith….”
“Ah, young Taylor, going back and jumping into the fray right now will help you not a whit. It will be a mere short-term fix, akin to plugging a breach in the Hoover with a mud plug. What you need is a silver bullet.”
Taylor sank back resignedly into the couch. The second year embarked on his narrative with all the fervor of an evangelical preacher in the Deep South.
“Pablo Acosta was a native of Colombia. The perception of Latin American men at school is of modern day embodiments of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.: dashing, swashbuckling, fiery. However, if you had to pick three adjectives that described Pablo physically, they would probably be the following: short, stocky, and bald. In other words, Pablo was more George Costanza than Enrique Iglesias.
“What Pablo lacked in physical stature, he more than made up for in other areas. He had a razor-sharp mind, which he combined with a keen sense of self-disparaging humor and a grounded pragmatism that never failed him in sticky situations. Finally, he possessed that elusive quality that women adore in men—kindness to geriatrics, infants, and canines.
“Despite these sparkling attributes, more than a few students wondered what Maria Gonzalez, Pablo’s girlfriend, saw in him. Maria was tall, thin, pretty; the very antithesis of Pablo. But as the poet says, who can fathom the depths of the human heart? And is it not most often the case that opposites attract?
“Oh yes, one other thing. Pablo was by far the worst dancer at school. I am probably committing blasphemy just by using the words ‘dance’ and ‘Pablo Acosta’ in the same sentence. He possessed all the qualities of a great dancer except the three most important ones—grace, rhythm, and timing.”
The second year paused and signaled the bartender to refill his drink. Taylor, meanwhile, craned his neck frantically, presumably trying to spot the errant Susan boogeying it up with Jeff Smith. The second year gave him a disapproving look, and Taylor sank back in his seat. The second year continued.
“As I was saying, Pablo was to dance what the Yugo was to autos. Compounding this was the fact that he was from Latin America, where salsa and merengue are inextricably linked with the daily fabric of life, and a person who doesn’t know how to dance might as well fill out an application for de facto exclusion from societal activity.
“When the Latin American Club organized their soirees, they waited till everyone had their fill of tapas and tequila, and then put on salsa music. As other couples whirled round the room showing off the latest moves from Havana, Rio and Buenos Aires, Pablo stood to the side, looking more out of place than Pat Robertson at a NAACP convention.
“Pablo was distraught at these social functions, not merely because he could not dance, though that was part of it, but mainly because Maria would not dance without him. He loved her deeply and hated to see her miserable. He had tried to overcome his fear of dancing by leading her on to the floor once or twice. After a few collisions, one of which resulted in an embarrassingly tangled mess of limbs on the floor, he had given up, resigning himself to a future devoid of dance.
“Maria was an excellent salsa dancer, and a part of her undoubtedly itched to get out on the dance floor. However, if she did feel resentful due to Pablo’s ineptitude at dance, she showed no trace of it. She was a rock, standing stolidly by his side— literally—as he paced the fringes of the dance floor.
“Maria talked Pablo into joining a salsa class, and he had agreed, albeit half-heartedly. After a few lessons, however, he quit, claiming the hour-long commute to class each way was too time consuming. The word on the street was that he was such an atrociously bad dancer that he stood out even amongst beginners.
“So they chugged along, Pablo and Maria. Like all couples, they had their good days and their bad days. The good days, I am happy to say, outnumbered the bad. The bad days, however, more often than not, coincided with Latin American parties or with other social occasions where a dance floor was at hand.
“Pablo got a summer internship in New York, so they spent three months in Manhattan. Their ability to sample the Big Apple’s thriving salsa scene—Copacabana, SOB’s, et al—was crimped by Pablo’s inability and unwillingness to dance. He made it up to Maria on their last day in New York, getting her some nice Tiffany jewelry. And I mean really nice.”
“You mean…,” Taylor began.
“That’s right. Pablo and Maria got engaged in New York, to the delight of their friends and family,” the second year said, waving goodbye to a gaggle of students exiting the club.
“When Pablo returned to school after the summer, everything seemed fine in his little world. However, every silver lining has a cloud. The worm in Pablo’s apple went by the name of Javier Rodriguez, an incoming first year student.
“Javier, like Pablo, hailed from Colombia, and had worked at the same firm as Pablo before b-school. His application had been dinged the year before, the school preferring to admit Pablo instead. Some have speculated that he had it in for Pablo because of that incident. Others have surmised that Pablo and Javier had been bitter rivals for Maria’s affections, and by choosing Pablo, Maria had left Javier craving vengeance. I personally think both explanations are overly melodramatic, based more on conjecture than on fact. I will say, however, that when Pablo heard Javier was now a co-student, he felt like King Arthur must have when he saw Lancelot walk through the gates of Camelot.
“Javier Rodriguez—how do I do him justice? Take a spoon of Antonio Banderas, add a dash of Marc Anthony, toss in a pinch of Carlos Santana, mix well, and … you get the picture. Javier was as dashing as Pablo was stolid, as darkly handsome as Pablo was lumpy. Husbands clutched their wives and boyfriends held on tighter to their girlfriends as Javier walked by, because there was not a woman completely immune to his considerable charms.”
“Reminds me of Jeff Smith,” Taylor muttered.
The second year continued, “Javier’s charms were enhanced by his prowess on the dance floor. He had won a national salsa title in Colombia, and in his second month at school, he led the dance team to an easy sweep in the national Business School Latin Dancing contest. Believe me, I was just as surprised as you that such a competition exists. Given this, I hope you agree with me when I say that a man would have to be a complete ignoramus to allow his lady love within a hundred yards of Javier Rodriguez, especially Javier Rodriguez on a dance floor.
“I will give Pablo the benefit of the doubt and assume he was blinded by his love for Maria, and by the fact that they were engaged. That—aided perhaps by some overly liberal intake of adult beverages—is the only possible explanation for the fact that when Javier glided up to them one evening during a party and asked for a dance with Maria, Pablo gave his blessings whole-heartedly. Onlookers say that Maria protested initially, but Pablo literally forced her upon Javier.
“Freud might have postulated that this over-eagerness on Pablo’s part was merely a healthy way to compensate for the guilt he felt every time he was standing around a dance floor twiddling his thumbs. Freud had obviously never been around Javier Rodriguez.”
Taylor interrupted, “Could you excuse me for a minute?”
Even in the dim lighting, the second year could make out Taylor’s ashen face when he got back.
“That bad, huh?” the second year asked.
“Bad? They look like they’re trying out for the lead roles in Dirty Dancing! Bad!”
The second year continued. “You might as well have described the first dance between Javier and Maria. At first, Pablo got caught up talking to someone, and so it escaped his attention. When he finally spotted them in the middle of the dance floor, his eyes fairly bugged out. He had never thought of himself as a jealous person. At that moment however, the green-eyed one seemed to have taken complete possession of him. He wanted to push his way through the crowd, rip Maria out of Javier’s arms, and beat Javier senseless. Or something to that effect.
“Thankfully, despite Pablo’s inebriation, his native pragmatism did not fail him, and he noted just in time that this approach would be not only unwise but also dangerous, because of Javier’s clear five-inch, fifty-pound advantage over Pablo. So it came to be that Pablo, having lost his desire to go mano-a-mano with Javier, stayed put on the sidelines, wearing the face that de Niro had employed to good effect in Raging Bull.
“As Javier and Maria came off the dance floor, he kissed her hand and thanked her for the wonderful dance. She smiled, her face glowing radiantly.
“During the drive home, he dared not say anything, because after all it was he who had foisted Javier upon Maria. It was he who had insisted that they dance. A little voice in his head asked, And do you really want to hear her answer to your question? Pablo decided—again displaying his pragmatic side—no.
“That was a seminal night in Pablo Acosta’s life. The next day, he rejoined the salsa class he had dropped out of the year before.”
“Way to go, dude!” said Taylor.
“Pablo did not breathe a word to Maria about the salsa class. He did not want her to think he was doing this for the wrong reasons, though in his heart he knew this was the only reason that would have convinced him to join the same class he had vowed not to go back to. He scheduled his salsa class in the middle of the day, when Maria would think he was at school. If this meant he had to cut classes, so be it. He loved Maria too much for school to come in the way of making her happy.
“The first few classes were pure torture. The instructor was abrasive, especially after he realized Pablo was the same guy who had dropped out the previous year after two classes. Pablo’s co-students—seventy- and eighty-year old retirees who had free time during the day—were also much better learners than Pablo. Pablo’s body simply did not seem engineered for the twists and turns enjoined by salsa. Even a simple hip-shake flummoxed him. Yet, each time he was berated in front of his classmates, he summoned up the image of Maria in his mind, and vowed to put in more effort.
“The flask of whisky he had started carrying with him to class, didn’t hurt either.
“Slowly, excruciatingly, one step at a time, Pablo picked up salsa dancing. Meanwhile, his performance at school deteriorated due to the huge time sink that salsa was proving to be. Pablo did not care; he already had a full-time job lined up, and so did not have to prepare for job interviews. Throughout the fall semester, he threw himself into his salsa class, zoning in on that all-crucial day: December 15.
“As you know, the annual Latin American ball at school, as well as the salsa contest which constitutes its principal attraction , is held the second Friday in December. Pablo had set for himself the audacious goal of winning this competition—qualifying for the finals was the least he was willing to accept—with Maria as his partner. And he wanted it to be a surprise. He wanted to see the joy on Maria’s face when she realized he could dance, to see the radiance in her eyes as they whirled around the room. He got a giddy feeling in his stomach whenever he thought about that moment, a feeling that was heady, almost nausea-inducing.”
“What about Javier?” Taylor asked, a little too anxiously.
“Ah yes. That situation went from bad to worse in a hurry. Pablo could only grit his teeth and watch as Javier and Maria burnt up the dance floor at every possible occasion. It was as if Javier wanted to rub it into Pablo for earlier insults, real or imagined. He delighted in whispering into Maria’s ear while they were dancing, making her laugh. He looked deep into her eyes and made her blush. He slow-danced with her. All through this, however, his eyes never stopped tracking Pablo doing a slow burn at the edge of the dance floor. The more Pablo simmered, the more Javier was spurred on.
“Pablo drew as much inspiration from these episodes as Javier did. Besides, he was starting to like salsa. There’s something to this dance, he thought. I wish I had taken this up earlier, instead of wasting my youth on structured derivatives. The first time he successfully completed a complex turn, he giggled like a child.
“It is a fact of life that most people plateau at a middling level of competence in any activity they pursue. An extraordinary level of effort is needed to push oneself above and beyond this plateau to the rarefied heights that only a few achieve. In other words, Chris Rock cannot suddenly transform himself into Richard Pryor. Pablo understood this axiom as well as anyone, and as the contest drew inexorably nearer, he found himself at the salsa class almost all day, practicing to push his limits.
“The morning of the contest, Pablo was beset with self-doubt. He knew that he had somehow—miraculously—turned into a reasonably good salsa dancer, a classic ugly duckling to swan transformation if ever there was one, but was he even on the same planet as Javier, the Colombian national champ, the all-b-school trophy-holder? The salsa contest would tell.
“The big night arrived. The food and drinks were good but perfunctory; everyone was waiting for the evening’s main event. As Pablo glanced nervously at Maria by his side, the giddy feeling in the pit of his stomach threatened to almost engulf him. This was the moment he had been waiting for—dammit, training for—over so many weeks. All of it would be made worthwhile in the next few minutes. Javier was standing a slight distance away from them, wearing a supremely confident smile.
“The announcer said, ‘The contest is about to begin. All couples who would like to participate, please come up to the stage.’
“Pablo turned to Maria. This was the moment he had been waiting for. ‘Maria, I have something to tell you. I think you’ll like it.’
“Before he could proceed with his speech—he had rehearsed it five times before he finally had it right—Maria said, ‘Pablo, there’s something I need to tell you, too. Actually, there’s something I have to give you.’ She pressed something in his hand, and closed his fingers over it.
“Pablo did not need to open his hand to figure out what the object was. After all, he had selected the stone, the engraving, the style. It was the Tiffany’s engagement ring. Maria was saying something, something about how it was not working out, they were not working out, but it all seemed very far away. Pablo reeled.”
“Time out! Time out, dude!” Taylor said.
“I thought this was going to be an inspirational tale, man! I thought you were going to motivate me. What a crock!”
“If you remember, Taylor, I made no such claims. I merely said you would learn from it. Let me continue, and you can judge for yourself.
“As I was saying, Pablo reeled. He felt he was in a slow-mo film, watching himself from the outside. As if through a gelatinous mold, he watched Maria walk up to Javier, and the two of them then walked to the stage as partners for the contest.
“Though Pablo felt an overwhelming urge to bawl like a ten-year kid, to stumble to the bathroom and puke his guts out – that giddy feeling had by now transformed into full-blown nausea—he did not actually do so. Once again, his pragmatic side came to his rescue. There was no use letting four months of salsa classes go to waste, he reasoned. Besides, he could not lose his dignity before Javier—and most of all, before Maria—by being reduced to a blubbering mess. So he did the only thing possible. He strode up to the nearest woman and asked her to be his partner for the contest.
“The contest was a blur to Pablo. He vaguely remembered whirling around his partner the way he had been taught in class. He faintly heard applause from the audience, people cheering him on. He had actually become a good enough dancer that they did manage to qualify for the finals, where they were annihilated by the Javier-Maria pairing.”
The second year took a long swig from his beer, and regarded Taylor thoughtfully.
“That’s it?” Taylor shouted.
“Almost,” said the second year. “Javier and Maria got married after graduation. They were divorced in less than two years.”
“What about poor Pablo?” asked Taylor.
“Ah, Pablo. When he finally got himself together, he found out that his partner in the salsa contest had been Carolina Sanchez, the daughter of one of the richest men in Latin America. She loved his dancing and was extremely flattered that he had asked her to be his partner. They got married a year later. We visited them last year on the school trip to Latin America. Pablo is now the CEO of his father-in-law’s industrial conglomerate based out of Venezuela, where he lives with Carolina and their three kids. Two months ago, they successfully defended their title as national salsa champions of Venezuela.”
“Damn,” Taylor said.
There was silence for a while. Then Taylor spoke.
“So what was the name of the dance school Pablo attended?”
The second year smiled. “Good boy.”
They walked back to the dance floor.
Copyright © 2002 Gokul Rajaram.