Video by Eugen Bilankov

WHAT ARE SOFT SKILLS?

Soft skills are patterns of thought, behaviours and communication. They support you in navigating your emotions and how you deal with interpersonal relationships. Soft skills encourage individual and personal approaches to working relations and social encounters.

These skills are identified by UNESCO and the World Economic Forum as the most vital skills of the future. You may have heard people talk about soft skills as 'non-cognitive', 'social and emotional' and 'life skills'.

Soft Skills and Dance

Knowledge that is specific to dance is often implicit, meaning you may not necessarily be able to identify and articulate in words the skills you are cultivating. Yet many of the implicit soft skills found inside contemporary dance practices are regarded as the most important skills needed currently in society – creativity, flexibility, dealing with complexity and uncertainty, understanding and appreciating differences, patience and perseverance, to name a few.

Dancing with others is an important pathway for developing soft skills, because the body plays a central role in how we navigate our emotions, responses and actions: soft skills grow through, with and embed in the body and by encountering other bodies in space.

Through the dancing body we develop awareness of ourselves and others. A dancing body demands sensitivity and perception, which makes dance practice an incubator for soft skill development. When it comes to participatory dance practices in particular, soft skills are vital because human relations are often at the centre of community building and social engagement.

The concept of soft skills has been built up by business and management researchers interested in how one can nurture personal qualities in professional settings. This means there are particular words and attributes associated with soft skills. You might find that there are other attitudes not defined as soft skills that you use to enable sensitive working relationships to take place, or to enable better understanding between people. Within the chapter Activating Soft Skills  you will find how to connect these other attitudes to soft skills.

Below you will see the important soft skills we found in contemporary dance practices.

Map of Soft Skills

This map can be a tool to navigate any physical practice. Most likely you will prioritise different soft skills depending on the context you are in. You may find that some skills help activate others. If you click on the words in the map, you will find a description of each soft skill. You can read more about how the map was developed in the Background section.

Reflective Task - Design your map

First, take a moment to print the map.

Second, grab a pencil and take a look at the questions below. In conjunction with the map, these questions will help illuminate how soft skills interact and come into play in your practice. Feel free to draw or write on the map in response to the questions. You can also add any skills you don’t see on the map, but which feel crucial to your practice and values.

  • What skills intersect, interact, or lead you to other skills?
  • What skill groups or clusters could develop into skills that are not found on this map?
  • What do you consider a personal soft skill?
  • What do you consider to be a social or emotional soft skill?
  • What do you consider to be a soft skill that helps you deal with your environment?
  • What soft skills do you engage with personally when you share your dance practice?
  • What soft skills do your participants engage with in your practice?

The skills identified in the map is not an exhaustive list, but rather a collection of the key skills recognized in the contemporary dance practices observed in the Empowering Dance case studies. Click here if you want to read more about how the soft skills were identified. You can also find more about soft skills in the Dig Deeper section.

Video - Case Study - Why Dance and Soft Skills

This video features the practice of Marcela Santander Corvalán working with the focus group at partner institution La Briqueterie CDCN. Discover how she relates her artistic practice to soft skill development and society.

Why Dance and Soft Skills?

This is written for those of you who would like to think more about why there is a connection between participatory dance and soft skills, and its importance. It is written for those of you who might feel you have to justify your practice to others.

As we have already identified, you are the incubators of soft skills, because many soft skills are enacted through, with and are embedded in the body. Relating with others through the moving body, as happens in participatory dance work, brings an importance to acting with soft skills to navigate various vulnerabilities, needs and potential challenges.

Here are some examples of how dance and soft skills are related:

Leading with soft skills

Think for a moment of your role when working with non-professional dancers. You may be rehearsing a show, guiding improvisation, teaching a dance class, creating a vision for a new dance initiative, or holding a space for sensitive discussion amongst participants. All of these actions are ones that call on leadership skills. To lead well means calling upon many soft skills, such as self-discipline, co-operation, taking care of others, managing information and flexibility and adaptability.

In whatever way you lead, through facilitation, guiding, teaching or choreographing, you may choose to prioritise soft skills. Throughout the guidebook you will return to this idea of leading as a major vehicle for practising soft skills.

Below is an example of what choreographer Liz Lerman thinks about leading:

Choreography is a way of thinking. It is a way of gathering evidence, laying out the pieces, organizing the trail. Choreography is a way of seeing the world.... It is recognizing when someone needs to be told what to do and giving them directions. It is noticing when someone has the skills and talent and capacity and will to move forward, then allowing them the space to do so. 1

Lerman, Liz (2011), Hiking the Horizontal: Field notes from a choreographer, Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, page 281

Her approach describes the soft skill of managing information (gathering, laying out, organising), as well as recognising strengths, self-effectiveness, and taking care of others.

All of these different soft skills contribute to people-centred leadership.

As you go through this guidebook, you may recognise the soft skills in your own practice that give you the capacity to lead through choreographing, teaching, facilitating and guiding in dance contexts and beyond.

Managing information in dance

Another example of a common soft skill is managing information, seen in many professional contexts. There are several processes specifically within dancing that allow you to practice this skill well. These include observing and choice making:

Here improvisor Kent de Spain talks about taking care with your choices in relation to others while improvising or freestyling:

It is the ability to sense how the movements in the present moment relate to movements that have come before, to feel them in space and time, to connect them to movements of others, to frame the content of those movements in the way that carries humanity and meaning, and to use all of that as the canvas for the movements that emerge to create the next moment. 2

De Spain, Kent (2014), Landscape of the Now: A topography of movement improvisation, Oxford: Oxford University Press, page 167

In order to make decisions quickly and with purpose, you activate your senses to get "heightened attention" in freestyling and improvisation:

...a heightened attention allows you to assess the situation, sort quickly through the options and resources, and continue to move with intention, all often faster than the speed of consciousness. 3

(De Spain, 2014: 168)

In bringing heightened attention to managing information you are activating the senses.

When working with others sensorial awareness is crucial to your decision making.
You need to bring sensitivity to what participants need in the moment.
We all must not forget that making decisions based on other bodies means we have to be aware of the responsibility and accountability of our actions.

As a result, taking care of others - another soft skill - becomes an essential and integrated soft skill in how you manage information in dance.

Senses of Motion - Listening Attitude / Teamwork by Eugen Bilankov

Click here to learn more about the visual contributions.

A pathway to transformation

In your dance practice you bring attitudes that help soft skills, like taking care, to flourish.

For example, to create well you need an attitude of curiosity. Curiosity can offer even those with limited dance experience the chance to explore.

When you step into the dance space and open your body to movement with others, it is a moment of vulnerability that needs to be embraced, yet also handled with care.

In the process of moving with another, in welcoming someone, in creating together, connection is made through an open, non-judgemental, curious attitude.

It is exciting to realise that through welcoming these attitudes and soft skills into your participatory dance practice gives the potential for positive relationships to happen. These relationships created could even be transformational.

Here is social justice activist Shawn Ginwright explaining transformative relationships. He says they are

based in those features of life like care, vulnerability, love, curiosity, connection. Transformative relationships are formed when we exchange pieces of our humanity with each other. When we do that, we give permission to others to do the same. 4

Ginwright, Shawn A. (2022) The Four Pivots: Reimagining justice, reimagining ourselves, Huichin, unceded Ohlone Land (aka Berekley California): North Atlantic Books

Socially engaged dance practices that nurture soft skills, such as care, vulnerability, connection, curiosity, even love, might develop the very environment that is needed for transformative relationships to start to grow.

Think about when you invite people together to dance. The gathering together can be considered special by your participants. Dancing often exists as an event outside of daily life and behaviours. Such a special gathering gives permission for new habits and ways of being together to emerge through movement. (In Dig Deeper you can discover more resources for developing your community engaged practice.)

In other words, the soft skills raised in relational dance practices are fertile ground for creating new and better ways of relating to each other.

Creativity and working with others

The creativity that you explore when dancing is important in this context of relating to each other. It can encourage learning, negotiating and problem solving through lateral thinking and creative strategies, all in a joyful context. It can also mean practising taking care and building awareness of others whilst creating.

In life, says Ginwright, [i]t’s often easier for us to name, identify, discuss, and articulate problems than it is for us to imagine entirely new solutions. 5 Yet he argues that imagining new solutions may allow us to move towards a more equitable, inclusive world.

(Ginwright, 174: 2019)

So learning and experiencing positive invitations to create could be one of dance’s gifts. Soft skills built up in movement creativity may allow us the facility to see each other differently.

Dancing inclusively

If your work has inclusion at the heart of your practice as a value, you may well be also practising the soft skills of developing empathy and acknowledging differences. By way of an example, Dance Well (Empowering Dance case study) welcomes people with and without chronic illness, those who live and work in the city and those who seek refuge there. The embracing of bodily difference (through health, culture, identity or political pronouncement) is enacted through:

  • creative and collaborative movement tasks
  • communal decision-making
  • actions and body gestures that state you are welcome and belong here
  • the pleasure in dancing together.

The sense of belonging to the group is strong. Ginwright offers his explanation:

Belonging is the capacity to see the humanity in those that are not like us and to recognise that the same elements that exist within them also exist in us. It means that we have to see the humanity in others, even if they refuse to see the same in us. 6

(Ginwright, 15: 2019)

The soft skills involved in dance practices, such as seen in the case study mentioned above, are made clearer by the values and intentions held and enacted by those who lead.

Let’s practice soft skills

Participatory dance practices can offer something special that in their own way contributes to developing soft skills in the wider world. In the words of community arts thinker François Matarasso, participatory art

opens doors, empowers, challenges, delights and confronts. Because it values relationship and community, because it is an open resource and a human right. Because the world is changing and it helps meet that change. 7

Matarasso, François (2019) A Restless Art: How participation won, and why it matters, London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

The skills of collaboration, taking care, empathy, appreciating difference - some of the soft skills so needed in a complex, fast changing world - can be born and nurtured in the communal dance setting through simple movement tasks, open gestures and shared curiosity to step into the unknown.