I spent 10 years dancing in the Lion King. Here’s what it taught me about Operations and HR

By Zara Bartels

On October 11, 2018

I never made the decision to become a professional dancer. I started out tagging along to my sister’s dance lessons when I was just three years old - when it’s such a central part of your life, you never really notice that you are heading for a career in it. You can probably say the same of Operations… I think the best Ops people are born, not made.


I took my first real steps into dance at home in Port of Spain, Trinidad, while attending the Caribbean School of Dancing. When I moved to New York after High School, I took dance with me.


When it came to looking at colleges, my dad laid down an ultimatum. I could study dance, but it also had to be a ‘real’ academic degree - that meant no conservatory education. In the end, I studied in the inaugural class of the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program. Looking back, my dad couldn’t have been more right. At that school, I got the best of both worlds - incredible dance training, but also a complete academic education which inevitably influenced my future career decisions with realising I liked business.


Straight out of college, though, I was done with dance. I had been dancing hard for the last four years and my senior year was particularly difficult - while I loved doing it, it was also very draining emotionally.


As it turns out, dance was nowhere near done with me. I was offered the brilliant opportunity to work for Disney on The Lion King musical. Burnt out or not, that was just too good for 22-year old me to turn down.

By the time I retired from dance aged 32, I’d spent 10 years working on the Lion King. That decade was the most beautiful, challenging, memorable, and frustrating time of my life, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.


For sure, it was also a stressful job. Working in a West End musical is high-octane, high-pressure thought-puzzle. Even with all your ducks in a row, it really can be touch and go getting that show on stage.


Folks in other industries talk about stressful deadlines.

In theatre, you have a deadline every single working day - and that deadline cannot be moved. It was a real baptism of fire and one that taught me some incredible lessons that I’ve taken with me into Operations. Here’s a couple of those lessons:

1. Never make a decision without all of the information


As the Dance Captain of a major musical, you have to have an absolute understanding of exactly what is happening across the whole production, from the moment the curtain goes up until the second it comes down.


In theatre, each performer has their own ‘track’, which is essentially a map of all their movements throughout the show. This includes their dance choreography performed onstage, their entrances and exits, and their costume changes - including when and where they happen, and where they wait in between scenes.


It’s the dance captain’s job to know every single track inside out.


There are plenty of good reasons for this. If I have to make a last minute change to the choreography, then I have to be absolutely certain where I am asking them to move and when. If I’m going to ask a dancer to change their exit wing - I better be damn sure that there isn’t a multi-tonne prop coming onto the stage from that wing at the same time!


Believe it or not, Operations is not that different.


In Ops, you are expected to develop efficiencies - usually, that means amending processes so that you can improve the performance of the business. To do that you need to have a crystal-clear understanding of your team’s processes so you know how your changes will affect them. Without that knowledge, your changes could create far more trouble than it’s worth.

2. Think creatively, and think fast


With a large production like The Lion King, there are so many moving parts involved that something is almost guaranteed to break. When it does, you have to move fast and think sideways to make sure that curtain goes up.


I remember one Saturday night I was walking back over Waterloo Bridge, enjoying some summer evening sun before a show. When I arrived at the theatre, there was an ambulance outside - one of those moments when you realise what kind of evening you have ahead of you!


It turned out that the understudy who was due to play Zazu that evening had been having severe heart palpitations. The understudy had lost his voice, while the principle was on holiday in Australia. A few minutes later, I was on the phone to an old performer who had left the show a long time back.


He told me that he had dinner plans. I said to him “...Nah, I don’t think that as much fun as doing the show this evening. There’s an Addison Lee on the way.”


He arrived about 45 minutes later. We rushed him through backstage with at least three makeup artists working on his face and at least two people trying out costumes on him, all while teaching him the new choreography and running through his lines with a cast he’d never even met before - let alone rehearsed with. The curtain went up, and that night was one of the best shows we’d done - there was so much fresh energy in the cast.


Working in Operations - especially in a startup - you are going to come up situations where you’ll need to think sideways to get the result you want. You can’t get hung up on the problem - you need to ask yourself:

Life after theatre


I loved every moment at The Lion King, but eventually that lifestyle wears you down. In my 20s, finishing work at 11pm was perfect - I could head straight out to the club to meet friends, where we knew all the doormen by name. But as you get older and your friends and family start having kids, you have some choices to make.


I remember so clearly when I found out my first niece was born - I was literally waiting in the wings about to go on stage for Can You Feel The Love Tonight. I went on stage sobbing with joy because I was an aunt. That was one of those moments when you realise it’s time to make some decisions about how you want to spend your Saturday night.

For me, a career in Operations was an obvious next step. Like I said, I think good Operations people are born not made, and what I had achieved as Lion King dance captain meant that I knew I’d have the transferable skills needed to excel.  

Long term, I want to pay it back to the Caribbean. Everyone in the Caribbean is a natural entrepreneur - it is packed both with talent and imagination. The problem is that there aren’t many routes available to scale with your ambitions. I’d love to create an incubator or accelerator to support the latent potential there. I guess I want to make it easier for the next dancer who wants to go into business!

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