7 Habits of Successful Arts Business Leaders

Among the essential qualities of a strong leader, Christine Cox of Philadelphia’s BalletX counts making mistakes and knowing when to hold back. In this interview, she talks about how her dance career prepared her to head BalletX, which recently opened a new million-dollar facility.

Christine Cox, executive and artistic director of Philadelphia’s BalletX. Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, courtesy of BalletX

It takes an excellent leader to run a dance company. But Christine Cox, executive and artistic director of Philadelphia’s BalletX, knows that it’s not only hard work that distinguishes a leader.

Cox started BalletX with Matthew Neenan in 2005, using fellow Pennsylvania Ballet dancers during their summer layoff to populate a startup contemporary ballet troupe. Fast forward to 2018 when BalletX opened a new $1 million building, The Center for World Premiere Choreography. Today it not only serves as a home base for BalletX classes and rehearsals, but also hosts choreographic residencies and community outreach programs.

Now the sole director of the company, Cox has learned invaluable lessons along the way. Here are seven tips she shares for new and aspiring directors-to-be.

1. Follow before you lead.

Cox’s journey to BalletX was no cake walk—but the journey made her the leader she is today. As a teenager, she set her sights on joining Pennsylvania Ballet, but it took several auditions and several years dancing for other companies like BalletMet, Ballet Hispanico and American Repertory Ballet before she was ultimately accepted into her dream company.

Cox is thankful for those experiences because they taught her persistence and how to be the fearless leader she is today. “I would do nothing differently,” she says, noting that a great deal of what she learned about leadership came from watching the great directors of the companies she danced for.

2. Be willing to take risks.

Cox left Pennsylvania Ballet in 2006 to give BalletX its own identity separate from Pennsylvania Ballet. It was a risk, but she knew that to grow her own troupe, she had to leave the company she’d grown up idolizing.

3. Don’t be afraid to diversify.

Initially, BalletX’s business model focused solely on performances. But Cox felt the need to give back to the community in which the company had flourished. In 2014 she founded the Dance eXchange: an in-school dance program for 200 third and fourth graders at three public schools in Philadelphia. Based on the award-winning methodology of the National Dance Institute in New York City, Dance eXchange takes BalletX teaching artists and live musicians into the classroom to teach students the basics of dance with a focus on achieving personal standards of excellence.

4. Know that you will make mistakes.

Cox says that making mistakes is part of learning what it takes to be a successful leader. “If you are afraid to make mistakes, you are afraid to try,” she says. When starting the company, some early slipups included missing grant deadlines because they weren’t written on the calendar, or being late to important meetings with stakeholders. Small mistakes add up, and Cox realized that she had to be as serious about the business aspects of BalletX as she was the artistic ones.

5. Surround yourself with people who have the skills you don’t.

Cox attributes her successes to the great relationships she has with her board and staff members, particularly associate artistic director Tara Keating. However, she admits that she’s made the mistake of hiring both dancers and administrators who weren’t, at first, the right fit for BalletX. In those instances, she says, “I try to make it a better fit and work with what I have.”

6. Learn when to hold back.

Cox is very much aware that people judge men and women in business differently. She naturally wears a lot of feelings on her sleeve, but she knows that each day she has to calculate how much of that side of herself she shares with the dancers and her team.

7. Believe in the work.

Having a great deal of integrity about the work she does has not only given Cox immense pride in her company, but it has brought the organization national exposure. By showcasing BalletX to groups of theaters and presenters, having a strong Philadelphia base of support and touring regularly, the company has gotten 14 write-ups in the New York Times in the last six years, and kept eyes on BalletX across the country.

For the latest news on BalletX, see Dance Magazine‘s cover story “BalletX Is Taking All the Right Risks.”

Demetrius Shields is a New York City–based dancer/model, choreographer, educator, arts administrator and writer originally from Detroit, MI. A version of this article first appeared on dancemagazine.com.