In your dance of life, is your shadow leading?

In your dance of life, is your shadow leading?

  • January 12, 2015

I’m watching Fred Astaire effortlessly tapping away with an unusual dance partner: his own shadow. Who is leading?

In the famous scene from the movie Swing Time, the incomparable Fred commands the dance floor, with a triplicate version of his oversized shadow following his lead. About halfway through the sequence, as Fred pauses for dramatic effect, the shadows keep going with their own dance. Fred struggles to catch up with his shadows and takes the lead again. After a brief Battle of the Steps, the shadows give up and walk away, as Fred confidently concludes his routine.

Fascinated by the scene, I wonder whether the creative minds behind the idea were thinking about the metaphors embedded in the choreography, or were drawing an analogy to the dance of life.

In Eastern philosophies, our life is considered to be like a body, and our environment, its shadow. When we move, the shadow moves. When we stand still, so does the shadow. The teaching goes: If you don’t like the dance your shadow is doing, you yourself need to break out into some different moves.

In theory, this makes perfect sense. In practice, however, many of us take a more passive approach to the dance of life: We sit in our seat and watch the shadow.

We criticize that the shadow is moving too fast or too slow. We lament that we don’t understand what the shadow is doing. We insist that the shadow can Tango by himself, because we prefer the Mambo, thank you very much. We complain that our bossy shadow is leading, again.


It’s a shadow. Unlike Fred Astaire’s quirky dance partner, our shadow does not put on his own show entirely independent of our steps. It moves when we do. It stands still because we do.

I can already hear you protesting: ‘Now wait a minute, I can’t control what my environment is doing! The people around me have their own dance of life going.’ You’re right. Just like other people are shadows in your dance of life, you are a shadow in theirs. How and to what extent you can influence someone else’s – i.e. your shadow’s – dance of life is a topic for another day. Right now, I want you to answer this question:

In your own dance of life, are you allowing your shadow to lead?

Do you defer to the person in front of you, because he is the boss or has more experience? Do you let someone else make the decisions because it’s not worth a fight? Do you follow the dancers around you because you think they have the better moves? Do you put other people’s ideas and needs ahead of yours because these folks have more important roles?

If you answered Never, stop reading. I’m working on a different blog post for you. If you answered All The Time or Probably Too Often or Hmmm, then ponder this follow-up question:

Are you waiting for your shadow to lead?

Be honest with yourself, because this is where the juicy stuff hides: Where are you waiting for the other person to take the first step onto the dance floor? Where are you waiting for your dance partner to tell you which way to turn? Where are you waiting for someone, anyone, to take the lead in your own dance of life?

And why are you waiting?

Stepping out first and possibly looking like a fool? Scary. Waiting for someone else to make the mistakes? Safer. Suggesting we do something different and possibly starting a fight? Very scary. Waiting to hear what the other person wants and making it work to keep the peace? Much safer. Taking the initiative and possibly taking the blame when things go wrong? Really scary. Waiting for other people to come up with a plan and letting them shoulder the responsibility? So much safer.

As a peacemaker, I’m all for safety and harmony. Yes, taking the lead triggers a lot of fears, some of them entirely justified. Yes, taking the lead may start or increase a conflict, at least initially until you’ve had a real dialogue. And sometimes, taking the lead means taking a hit—flashback to my last sparring practice, a different kind of dance—or taking the fall.

It’s tempting to wait for someone else’s move. Less scary. More peaceful. Sometimes, waiting may be the better approach. But before you make waiting your default position, consider this: Do you feel empowered when you wait and follow? Are you content with your shadow being the permanent lead in your dance of life? Are you living true to yourself, or are you living like a puppet in someone else’s choreography, for the sake of safety and harmony?

These are not easy questions. Your answer may be different every time you ask. Your answer may be wrong sometimes. That’s okay. The dance of life is an experiment in motion, not an exact science. So keep an eye on how you and your shadow are moving. And every now and then, ask yourself: Is my shadow leading?

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