Summer 2024

Team Dynamics students Se’Myris Morris, left, and Evan Serynek prepare to lift Sarah Walls in an exercise on nonverbal communication within groups.

Dance of Dynamics

Business management students learn that how you move sends a message.

Last fall, Nina Martin, a professor of dance, showed 20 students how to stretch out like a starfish to take up maximum space. These weren’t fine arts majors honing the craft. Instead, Martin staged a two-day takeover of a Neeley School of Business class for upper-level management students.

Tracey Rockett, professor of management practice, invited her School for Classical & Contemporary Dance colleague to work with her Team Dynamics juniors and seniors. Martin presented a series of exercises geared toward improving awareness of how an individual moves through space. Rockett’s goal was to make her students more effective leaders by expanding their perceptions of power.

Martin began her career as an avant-garde improvisational dancer in New York City in the 1970s. Two decades later, she created Ensemble Thinking, a method of social learning that helps people pay keen attention to their environments and the people occupying them.

Neeley School of Business professor Tracey Rockett, left, shifts gears on her Team Dynamics students by having them spend time with School for Classical & Contemporary Dance professor Nina Martin, who teaches Ensemble Thinking.

“Ensemble Thinking also sharpens perception of how nonverbal communication works in human society,” said Martin, adding that the program sensitizes a person to read the spatial and visual cues that communicate power dynamics. The guy who sprawls in his seat on the subway staring down passengers, for instance, gives off a more intimidating vibe than a small woman with her knees drawn up to her chest, eyes closed and head down.

Far more subtle interactions happen all the time and can impact productivity and job satisfaction, Rockett said.

Ensemble Thinking’s origins date to Martin’s work as a choreographer with Lower Left Collective, a group she co-founded in 1994. The basis of Ensemble Thinking began with Martin focusing on “how the brain makes sense of what the eye sees while it interprets the surrounding environment.”

Social literacy, she said, makes this type of training relevant to future managers who will seek to elicit the best work from their employees. The more those in management become attuned to their own patterns of behavior, perceptions and tendencies, she said, the more effective they’ll be in leading others.

Over the years, Martin has worked with an array of professionals outside the dance world, including software teams. The fall 2023 semester was the third time Martin taught Rockett’s students.

“When I first told them a dance professor was going to lead the class that week, they all looked nervous,” Rockett said. “I know that they were expecting Nina to teach them steps or some kind of routine to perform, even though I told them to expect something completely different.”

The two days of instruction, Rockett said, dovetailed with her class curriculum by showing students how team members read and react to body language. Her students learned firsthand how position, proximity and height levels all matter and shape the dynamics of a group.

Ensemble Thinking

As soon as the management students arrived, Martin told them to push back the tables to create a makeshift stage inside the Hays Hall classroom. She began by leading the group in warmup exercises, which included instructing them to power pose with arms and legs as wide as possible. Then she had them “get really small, head to tail,” in a tight crouch.

“How did you feel?” she asked during and after the movements. “Silly? Productive? Powerful?”

Students in the Team Dynamics management class taught by Tracey Rockett, seated far left, learn how movement can be used as a tool to better understand nonverbal communication.

Business management students, led by professor Tracey Rockett (seated, left), learn during time spent with dance professor Nina Martin (seated, middle) how movement can be used to better understand nonverbal communication.

Heads nodded. All of those things. Martin asked the students to remain silent while forming a circle, telling them to pay attention to nonverbal communication such as eye contact, smiles or pinched expressions. Did they feel awkward? Engaged? Both at once?

Martin then divided the group in half, with eight students taking seats to form an audience. Martin called out the name of one of those still standing, Joseph “Joey” McGuinness, a senior management major from Orange County, California, and instructed his peers to find ways to indicate that he “was the most important guy in the room.”

They pointed, genuflected and encircled him. When another student’s name was called, McGuinness and his peers fell to the ground in a posture of worship.

“It felt embarrassing at first,” McGuinness said. “But this built a sense of camaraderie in the class.”

Students on the sidelines offered feedback, shouting out thoughts on what worked and what didn’t. The roles then reversed.

In a final exercise, Martin put the students in pairs. She instructed them that when one moved, so would the other. The point wasn’t to mirror the action of their counterparts. Instead, Martin wanted them to react so quickly that an observer couldn’t tell which one had the role of leader.

“One of the things I really noticed was how much we were looking each other in the eye,” McGuinness said. “I think you don’t really get that day to day anymore as you’re not looking at people’s facial expressions as much.

“Maybe that’s because of Covid or maybe it’s because our generation is different with our phones,” he said. “Everything is vying for your attention right now, so it felt like there was a real human quality to what we were doing.”

Unspoken Dynamics

To complement Martin’s Ensemble Thinking exercises, Rockett asked the students to read a chapter in Group Dynamics for Teams by Daniel Levi and David Askay that highlights social influence and power.

“The dynamics of power in teams is a major influence on the leader’s behavior, how team members interact, the impact of those in the minority and the amount of influence members have on one another,” the co-authors write.

Ensemble Thinking is used by professor Nina Martin (seated, right) to teach students how “the brain makes sense of what the eye sees while it interprets the surrounding environment.”

Mariana Martinez, a senior from Mexico City who is studying management as well as entrepreneurship and innovation, said the exercises gave her a new appreciation for nonverbal communication. During the sessions with Martin, she said, she learned about “fostering trust, promoting collaboration, facilitating problem-solving, influencing leadership dynamics, encouraging active listening and fostering cross-cultural awareness.”

“What I thought was the best part,” Martinez said, “was that [Martin and Rockett] created a very safe environment in which we all felt comfortable as we did this crazy running around.”

Kylie Daly Pedersen, a junior marketing and management major from the Denver area, said the energy in the classroom felt even more positive on the second day, when everyone had a better idea of what to expect.

“Everything clicked,” she said. “One of the themes that we kept coming back to in that class was perception. And when you are concentrating on what everyone else is doing and not saying anything because we couldn’t talk during the exercises, it gives a lot of clarity.”

Soft Power

Martin designed the exercises to give participants a feel for power dynamics in the room, something the textbook also addressed.

Levi and Askay define harsh power in the workplace as an employee’s formal role at a company — think job title. That contrasts with their view of soft power as “an individual’s characteristics or personality.”

Rockett said future managers need to understand behavior — their own and that of others — to get the best performance from their teams.

“Students at this age don’t necessarily think about how their behavior is influencing others,” Rockett said.

TCU students (back, from left) Evan Serynek, Lexi Chandler, Se’Myris Morris and Sarah Walls spend time learning about nonverbal communication from dance professor Nina Martin, front left, while taking business professor Tracey Rockett’s Group Dynamics course.

During her time with the Neeley students, Martin told the class that “teamwork requires people to step up, even the people who don’t necessarily want to stand out from the crowd. You come into the world with propensities to be extroverted or introverted. But to be able to function in a team, you have to be able to stretch yourself and learn new skills.”

“The goal of these sessions wasn’t just to get the students to feel more confident and more comfortable at being themselves,” Rockett said, “but to improve how they respond to others.

“Leadership isn’t just about spouting off good ideas or being in your head,” she said. “It’s always a back and forth.

“It’s really a dance.”