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Ballet dancers should absolutely think about becoming computer programmers – here’s why

Female dancer performing on the back of a male dancer
From pirouettes to intranets … Robert Collins, CC BY-SA

There has been quite a backlash since the UK government launched an advert encouraging dancers to think about retraining in cyber security. The ad, which has since been withdrawn, depicted a female ballet dancer with the strapline: “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet)”, with a message below to “Rethink. Reskill. Reboot”.

The ad was intended as the first part of a government Cyber First campaign to encourage more people into the industry. It was labelled as “crass” by Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, and “not appropriate” by a No 10 spokesperson, after many, including leading choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne, took to Twitter to complain that the advert was “patronising” and highlighted that the government was not supporting the arts.

Some interpreted it as a sinister threat that “dancing was going to be ripped away”. Others detected “the plotting of an Orwellian state deciding its citizens’ futures”.

In my view, as a professor of enterprise who has written on dance and who is also the governor of a leading ballet school, this social media reaction is distracting for a number of reasons. Martha Graham, the American choreographer, proclaimed that a “dancer dies twice” – “once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful”. This first “death” means that they also have two careers.

The age at which a dancer transitions into another career depends on the individual. Some active dancers continue into their late thirties or early forties. After that, they may become choreographers, art administrators or dance teachers, while others become solicitors, builders, farmers, police officers, florists, stock brokers and authors. Rahm Emanuel trained as a ballet dancer and eventually became senior advisor to Bill Clinton between 1993 and 1998, then chief of staff at the White House to Barack Obama and finally mayor of Chicago.

Why computer programming

This extensive list of careers certainly includes computer programming. Kasia, for example, trained as a dancer and ran her own dance studio in Berlin. She developed her own website to reach an international audience and this made her decide to become a web developer. She developed programming skills and combined them with the skills she had developed and refined as a dancer.

Dance as a career involves extraordinarily high levels of commitment, concentration, persistence, passion and training. My own experience is that dancers are exceptional individuals with many interesting and diverse talents and many are also able mathematicians. These transferable skills can be applied to many occupations. Dance and cyber security are both about patterns, rhythms and attention to detail. There is nothing to suggest that dance is not a suitable pathway towards computer programming.

Woman coding at a desk.
More women reqd. Monstar Studio

At the same time, computer science is a very strange subject. It is still possible for amateur programmers to out-compete professionals. The training pathways to a computer science career are still varied. The cutting edge of computer science innovation is not to be found in universities, but in the private sector – and in some cases the bedrooms of teenage programmers.

Consider the strange case of Pikeville, Kentucky. This was a former coal-mining area in the Appalachians in which many people had ended up unemployed as more and more environmental regulations made the industry unviable. Between 2008 and 2016, the number of miners in the state declined from 17,000 to 6,500.

One response came from Rusty Justice, the owner of a land-moving company that had lived off the coal industry. He had realised he needed to transition to a new career. In 2013, he visited a technology incubator and realised there was a shortage of programmers in the local economy and that these jobs could pay around US$80,000 (£61,865) a year. He decided to bring coding to Pikeville by training unemployed miners as programmers.

Aerial shot of Pikeville, Kentucky
Pikeville, Kentucky: out with the coal, in with the silicon. Wikimedia

Justice founded BitSource in a former Coca-Cola bottling plant and recruited 11 ex-miners to create a coding team for the region. The company started by training them from scratch with a 22-week training programme. Part of the rationale was that you do not need a computer science degree to programme. According to Nick Such, Rusty’s partner: “It’s like welding. It’s a trade. It’s a skill.”

One motivation in setting up the company was to prove the American billionaire Michael Bloomberg wrong, after he had said that “you’re not going to teach a coal miner to code”. This was in response to a debate with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg about the extent to which you could retrain people whose jobs had become surplus.

BitSource has demonstrated that it is perfectly possible for coal miners to become computer programmers. And if it’s possible for miners, it is obviously possible for dancers too. As a society, we should encourage diversity and not attempt to close down possible career pathways. Everyone should be encouraged to develop careers that reflect their interests and circumstances.

All the media commentary on the Fatima advert suggests that ballet dancers should focus on their dance careers, but the challenge for a dancer involves their second career when they are no longer able to dance. There should be no constraints on dancers as they shape their careers to meet their own interests and circumstances.

There is nothing to suggest that a retired dancer would be unable to compete in the world of cyber security. The focus of the media and political discussion should not be about closing down pathways for people to enter the labour market. Instead it should be on identifying opportunities for all.

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