Keeping the Beat with Jump Rhythm Jazz Project

My association with Jump Rhythm Jazz Project (JRJP) extends to early 1998 when Billy Siegenfeld and a cadre of JRJP dancers performed in Lakeway, TX at a Leadership for INstitutional Change (LINC) workshop sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation1. The purpose of their performance was three-fold. First, make rhythm and dance integral in the design of the leadership workshop as an appeal to the auditory-musical and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences of attendees, à la Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences. Second, act as a disruptive force among attendees and prompt them to consider a different line of thinking about leadership – followership and changing roles and responsibilities within a dynamic community. Third, provide a divertissement that would be engaging and entertaining.

The JRJP performance and subsequent question and answer period exceeded all expectations. Those who were intellectually (and physically!) asleep came to life. Those who had difficulties crossing the boundary separating their realities and the views of reality imposed by the dominant culture found a bridge. Those who believed that the most effective leadership was one that exercised control and focused choices were introduced to an open, participatory alternative that obviously worked. To this day, attendees at this workshop comment on the powerful effect JRJP had on them – it was transformational.

At the heart of JRJP is rhythm – the beat. Organized human endeavor is a pattern of communication or sustained conversation through which people give voice to what is important to them, achieve understanding, reach agreement, and garner commitment. Patterns, even conversational ones, have rhythm and voice – who is in what conversation about which topic. Changing an individual or an organization means changing conversations. Effective leaders change rhythm patterns to change conversations; over time, the people within the organization, and eventually the organization itself, change.

Because dance plays heavily on certain dimensions of human intelligence, it is a medium through which societal problems are addressed and different responses considered. A great dance presents a problem or situation for the audience to consider that is within their realm of experience and influence – a type of Theater for the Oppressed as conceived by Augusto Boal only in the form of dance and music. Through these the audience is invited to join the dancers in deliberating on social issues and exploring alternative approaches (recent examples in the JRJP repertoire include “Sorrows of Unison Dancing” and “The New from Poems”).

Building on rhythm and voice, JRJP displays a choreographic technique and musical score that is approachable and familiar. The dancers and the dance are engaging and invite participation by the audience. It is democratic in its purest sense. Democracy, though, carries certain responsibilities. As an organization, JRJP was forced to learn about these democratic principles in the context of its own behavior so that what was demonstrated in the performances was a true reflection of its own experience. The more that JRJP has found this touch point in itself the more engaging it has become with audiences worldwide. But getting there was not simple!

In July 2003, JRJP board members, staff, dancers, and close friends participated in a series of moderated conversations at a planning retreat. The intention was to drill down into what it meant to be members of JRJP and what JRJP needed to do to sustain itself into the future. The outcome of the retreat was the realization of three key points: first, JRJP was a great experience for most, but not all – surprisingly, Billy being the one experiencing the least joy; second, participating in the good things that JRJP had to offer was not associated with a commensurate level of shared responsibility – some, like Billy, had far more to do than others causing him to feel overwhelmed and living a life out of balance; and third, JRJP was heavily dependent on Billy; if he stopped doing what he did JRJP was at grave risk – sustainability was in question. This realization led to several actions including seating an Executive Director so that Billy could focus on being the Artistic Director, expanding the board membership to get more outreach to funders and supporters, defining and strengthening staff positions for distribution of operations among qualified personnel who were adequately paid for their work, and locating a home for JRJP somewhere other than Billy’s condo. These are done. And the level of performance for JRJP reflects this success!

But JRJP is not done. On June 4, 2006 there will be a second retreat. The purpose of this retreat is to make explicit what the company has accomplished, why it was able to do that, how it does what it does, and what that learning means for future activities. While many have experienced the recent changes in JRJP, several are not aware of why those changes happened and their significance for the future. The exercise of participatory democracy as a governing principle rather than hierarchical dictatorship speaks to an effective leadership – followership model. Showing others how to do this through the medium of rhythm, dance, and music is a significant deliverable JRJP can add to its repertoire.

To do this will require touching these past experiences, giving them voice, and building a confidence in moving them forward for others to learn. A different language will need to be developed that recasts what seems to be the same in the eyes of the uninitiated so that they have a very different understanding of what is going on. It is storytelling of the highest order. Between now and the retreat time and energy will be devoted to telling the JRJP story – both what has happened and the dreams for the future. By the time the retreat draws nigh, there will be a lexicon of terms and phrases incorporated into stories of vision and mission and proposals to funders that broaden the sense of what JRJP is up to for the next 5 years. It is a process of bringing the future into the present and giving it voice. JRJP will persist but will not be the same!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Monday, December 5, 2005

  1. Susan Fugate, “Kellogg Foundation Initiative Seeks to Catalyze Change at Land-Grant Institutions,” Journal of Extension 34, no. 5 (1996):

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