Coming Into Common Experience: An Interview with Kay Newhouse, Dancer, Event Director, and Nonprofit Leader
Dana: Kay, thank you for being here. I’d like to start by asking you to describe what you do.
Kay: I am a west coast swing dance instructor. I work as a teacher, judge, event director, and performer. In event directing, I address issues of community and social structure. I also consult on community and event codes of conduct and design experiences for people new to the dance. My focus is on the interpersonal communication pieces and the social structures that support our communities.
I am also a chair of the board for Interfaith Works in Montgomery County, a nonprofit that gives people the tools to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. As chair, I work with our organizational structure and how the governing parts are working, which is another way of saying that I oversee how we work together in all different roles to make this system work.
My third major area of work is that I am a parent of two kids. A lot of my time and attention is on these two people and supporting them to become the adults they will one day be.
Dana: I’m already seeing themes emerging in your work between communication and community structures and the health of systems. So how would you define communication?
Kay: The more I’ve thought about this question, the more nuanced I think the answer is. I think a lot of ways, communication is simply a set of tools we use to come into common experience with someone else. We seek a sense of self within interaction. All of our communication tools are to achieve that. We have something to say but what we want to do is find that experience in common with someone else. We say, “I see you and you see me,” and we ask, “Who am I in this interaction?”
In poverty work, there is a truism that says that the human need is to be seen. And in extreme poverty, it is a very direct struggle to be literally seen both as human and to be seen in what you need. It is a fundamental human need! We’re all looking for that sense of, “Who am I and can I be seen by you?”
Dana: That’s my definition of good business and good marketing. It’s based in seeing your customers and asking for the privilege of being seen by them in return.
Kay: I would add a third piece of “Do you value who I am?” That’s something I often really seek when I’m communicating-- that you can be who you are and I can be who I am and we don’t have to be identical. We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking we are only communicating if we are agreeing. I think we’re actually at our best when we can fully state what the other person is saying to us, that we know we’ve heard each other, but we don’t agree at all.
Agreement isn’t what brings us together--being heard does.
I saw this play out in classroom teaching. I was an elementary school science teacher for over a decade and then a preschool teacher for many years working with two year olds in the emerging language stage. I worked mostly with students who presented as delayed in language skills. And the struggle to communicate results in extreme behaviors like frequent tantrums..
One of the magic things I learned was that when I could put words to what the child was trying to say, it reduces all that anxiety.The tantrum dissipates and the bond between the two of us becomes stronger. It doesn’t mean we agree. The kid isn’t going to get the ice cream cone. But they have been heard and that is the most important. The relief is in that.
Dana: This directly reflects on experiences I’ve had in my business consulting. Someone asked me recently what it was like to see my clients have “lightbulb moments.” And I said that it wasn’t “lightbulb” but relief. I know we have the right language when their shoulders drop and they exhale. They’ve said what they are trying to say. Now they can move forward!
Kay: I think when we can really describe who we are, we become more full individualized and ourselves. And perhaps ironically, it is only then that we can truly draw closer to others. We don’t give up our individuality at all when we hear someone out and understand what they are trying to say and we can present ourselves without feeling a need to defend ourselves. That’s true communication.
Dana: It can be hard to do. My clients can have this resistance that wonders, “If I’m this specific and clear about my work, will people walk away from me?” But that specificity actually makes it better!
You are very interested in the feedback loop of communication and infrastructure--how this community or organizational structure creates good communication and how good communication creates and sustains healthy structure. Say more about that.
Kay: I’m a systems thinker. I’m always thinking a few steps back and asking, “What’s really going on here?” I’m also an observer by nature. I like to understand the systems that are happening and how all the parts go together. What are our circles? Who is the person we are now? What is the experience we’re having? What are the cross-sections of this and the planes we are moving along? These things are happening whether we notice it or not.
With communication, understanding the context is key. Systems thinking is a way of understanding what already exists. And when we’re aware of our context, we aren’t controlled by it. We are empowered to make choices instead of being acted upon. Understanding this context is part of how we have respect for ourselves and for others as whole human beings.
Dana: As you describe your classroom for two year olds, I also hear how you structure your dance classes for adults. How did you begin to do what you’re doing in dance?
Kay: I have a long history in dance and it’s not a linear path. But it’s been a meaningful journey to figure out what most interested me and where I could have the greatest influence and impact. Right now, I’m working in two chunks. The first is working with those who are new to our events. The second is working with codes of conduct. I’m really invested in how we describe the social culture we want and the rules we engage by, and how those descriptions strengthen those rules and allows others to have access to them.
I want us to do a better job of letting each person have their own significance and role in our communities. What I want around me is a healthy, happy space. And I think it works best for each of us to have ways to be the individual that we are in a way that is valued in that space, where we can value and be valued. My work supports that.
The reason I moved into event directing is because I wanted to have the ability to push back on a system that sometimes suggests unhealthy metrics for success our our dance. As with all things, the things we measure become the things we value. If we don’t set the things we measure according to the things we do value, then the measurement drives the value system. That’s a dangerous place to be in
Competition culture can suggest that you are more important if you win more contests. Most of us don’t really believe that! I wanted to build a platform that owns the fact that most of us don’t believe you are more valuable if you win things. Even most of the people who are winning regularly don’t believe that -- sometimes even winning creates a place of loneliness and anxiety, for people who see themselves as only being valued by others for winning. For all of us, it’s healthier to have more ways to assess meaning and success and value in what we’re doing.
With my work, it’s about being able to find ways to be and feel seen as being valuable to the people around us. The code of conduct is really just about the idea that, when we’re a healthy community, there are all kinds of ways to take care of ourselves and others. And it empowers us to articulate what we need, to give permission to say that, and find what we need in this community. When we give permission to set boundaries, we allow the people who care about us to honor our boundaries and hold others to them, so everyone is safe and feels comfortable. It gives us language to describe who we are in every interaction.
A code of conduct is a written document that captures that on paper. It doesn’t by itself establish it. It’s a mode for conversation around it and a tool for larger themes to come to the surface. It establishes what is already happening or what we are working towards.
Dana: “What we measure becomes what we value. If we don’t set the measurement well, it drives the value system.” How does anyone decide what to measure?
Kay: I would say that most of us don’t consciously decide on or choose our metrics. We don’t decide how to measure what is most valuable to us. And then we don’t even decide what is most valuable to us so we can figure out how to get there.
Dana: Yes! The decision is there but it’s easier to avoid.
Kay: Instead, we jump straight to, “What can we measure?” And then we say, “How am I doing at this thing?” when we never defined what success meant to us in the first place.
There are metrics that are easy to see and easy to measure. But what is easy to measure is not necessarily the most important. At Interfaith Works, we’re working on CEO performance metrics and program metrics. How do we know if our CEO is doing a great job in this context and the goals for our work? How do we understand how our work is having an impact if what we say we are doing is giving people the tools to life themselves out of poverty? What is most significant may be long-term or diffuse but makes the real difference to human experience.
With dancing, whether you win contests or not is easy to measure. But most of the other things are harder to quantify. When I work with newcomers, I ask them right before they go to compete for the first time about what their goals are. They say things like “I want to try a new thing” or “My friends are doing it” or “I want to make friends”. Almost never does someone say “because I want to win something.” And yet an hour later, when they didn’t make finals, it’s hard to retain that sense of having accomplished the thing they set out to do. Identifying and speaking the thing we find important - before we measure the thing we don’t find important - can help to keep us focused on what is important.
Winning is fun, there’s no denying that. It’s very public which is part of the fun. The other things we love, most of which are found in social dancing, don’t have public measurements. It’s just one person on the other end of our hand who says, “It was an amazing dance!” or “We had a great time!” Even if that’s what we sought and our first dream, we have a habit of substituting wins because they give us numbers and they give us public acknowledgement. We don’t always give ourselves permission to value what we value and let it be!
Dana: We’re looking for emotive ways of measuring as well as numerical ones.
Kay: I think I would use the word “noticing.” Measuring connotes a quantitative measure and something we need to acquire more of. The search for measuring things can take us away from what is the most core. When you feel like a whole human being, when you are seen and acknowledged by the people around you, when you are at peace with who you are, that is not a state when you are moving toward something else. Our most valued things are “states” or an emotional place. To sit with that and notice and feel the feeling--it’s enough. A state of being is more than enough.
Dana: What I’m also hearing is that measuring can become a substitute for the hard work of deciding what we value, what is important, and how to be. I’m thinking specifically of the struggle my clients face in defining their core approach to their art. “How do I make decisions that will work for what I actually value? What business structure do I want to create for myself as an artistic professional?”
And by the way, no one knows how to be an artistic pro! No one! No one has any idea! Anyone who has done it successfully has created their own system.
Kay: Those questions indicate just how wide open this space is! And that’s anxiety producing but also where the richness comes from.
Dana: Specifically, I’m thinking of Frank and Victoria Andromalos-Blakemore out in Pittsburgh. They are dance pros within their local context. They aren’t champion dancers [the highest competitive level you can reach in west coast swing]. They have a different metric of what success means. They defined their work as being “soulful builders.” If they get to do that, and they get to make ends meet, then that’s the dream.
Kay: Part of what I hear in that is that they sat down and, facilitated by you, got to the place that they could explain and explicitly state what they are after.
Dana: This is who they are. This is what they want.
Kay: And that gives them the ability to say, “We’re doing what we set out to do.” But for a lot of us, we start chasing the thing we are going to measure without ever making that decision and asking what we really value.
It’s not a one time conversation. It’s a daily thing we need to do over and over again. Who am I? What do I want? What do I find valuable? And the discourse gets us there.
We may find something that feels valuable so we start by asking, “What about this feels valuable?” And other times you say, “This feels hollow. Why?” That’s the nudge to go back to the question of what we find valuable. How do I make that conversation external enough that I can look back at it later? How do I take what I value and put it in words and say it to others?
Dana: And what we value may be the thing we’re already doing at our best. Frank and Victoria have been doing this work for years. This is just putting words to who they are in the community.
Kay: Because they have long moved towards the things they value.
What I see a lot is people who are doing what they find valuable, but they think they are supposed to be doing something else. And so someone who is so good at what they do may feel like they have to apologize because they haven’t met some other metric like becoming a “champion dancer.” There are lots of champion dancers! There is no one doing what Frank and Victoria are doing in the way that they are doing it. The two of them bring what no one else can bring.
We have to give ourselves permission to be who are by looking at it and acknowledging it and externalizing it so we can look backwards and know if we did it.
This is part of why I love working with newcomers. They have access to what they value very easily because they aren’t yet distracted by other metrics. It’s a fresh new engagement. They have this ability to say, “I just want people to be nice to me!” Well yes! That’s what I wanted as well when I came into dance!
Winning is too scarce a commodity. When we go after what we really value it tends to be abundantly available. A competition, at the end of the day, is really just an experience we can have in common. And if you win first place in a thing, you’re only saying you won that thing in that moment. It’s a description of what happened, not a statement of value or meaning.
When we define our work by external metrics like winning, the work becomes hollow. If our goal is to win the contest and we don’t win the contest, then we have nothing. But if our goal is something else like artistry or a value or an experience, we can keep our art whether we win or not. We are more resilient by doing something we find valuable.
Dana: This comes up in conversations I have with artistic and creative professionals. Typically, specific artistic communities and economies sometimes decide that “winning” a particular thing is essential to being successful. There is a sense of, “If I don’t win at the thing my community has decided is the thing to win, then I won’t make ends meet. I won’t have a business with my art form.” There’s a lot of anxiety out there from people who make their money from their art in relation to perceived community hierarchy around what is rewarded and how it’s rewarded. In west coast swing, it’s currently winning at the US Open in showcase or classic.
What would say to an artistic professional from any field who is experiencing that anxiety?
Kay: I think it’s important to separate your creative voice from what it takes to make an income. If you’re trying to make a living from your creative expression, you start to conflate the two things and they require two separate kinds of knowledge. Have both. Don’t think that you have to monetize your freedom to get by.
Dana: I see that conflict. I work from the philosophy that if you can articulate what you do and what you do best, you’ll have your best chance at finding meaning in your work and making money from your work.
Kay: Yes, I agree. But I would clarify that what you just described is the path to being irreplaceable. If you win a contest in a particular year, someone will win that contest next year.If you are getting your value out of winning the thing, then you are by definition making yourself replaceable. If you are finding your value through your unique voice and what you do best and make that sustainable, you are building the place where you are irreplaceable.
Dana: There are even different business models that can serve what you actually want to be doing. If you think the only way can make a living is to be hired at all of the events and the only way to be hired is to win at this prestigious competition, that’s very limiting. But I love it when professionals decide to make their own path and create their own economic model! The people who want what you do will come and get it.
Kay: There’s also a piece of this where if you can articulate what you value, it’s much easier to convince other people that it’s valuable. Marketing becomes a matter of finding the people who value that thing too. If you articulate your core strength, you can bring that to people. It’s growing the pie or pulling up a chair. It’s refusing a scarcity mindset when it comes to our work.
Dana: Kay, thank you so much for this conversation. If people want to learn more about your work, where can they find you?