The time is December 1995, the place is Portland, Oregon, and the subject is bears — dancing bears.
"If you're going to dance with a bear, you'd better be ready to dance as long as the bear wants to," Alan Shiffer, a partner at the Performance Consulting Group in Portland, tells 100 members of the Oregon Chapter of the Institute of Management Accountants.
At the same time, 3,000 miles away at the Harvard Medical School, former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, now a professor of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Arkansas, is giving a speech about her unflagging commitment to fighting public health problems. It's like dancing with a bear. "You don't decide when to stop," she says. "You dance as long as the bear wants you to."
Unfortunately, both Shiffer and Elders are dancing with a myth that's simply not true. First, the vast majority of bears do not dance. Yellowstone Bear Management Specialist Kerry Gunther says that he's seen hundreds of bears in the wild but he's "never seen them do anything that looks like dancing."
It is quite difficult to find bears that do dance. The World Society for the Protection of Animals has been trying to abolish the practice for years; it is torture, it turns out, not training that accounts for the hundreds of bears that dance in the streets of India and Eastern Europe. We did locate the Moscow Circus, which has been training bears to dance for more than 200 years. From them we obtained critical video documentation: a tape of dancing Russian bears, entitled "The Moscow Circus: Dancing Bears and More" (V.I.E.W., 212-674-5550).
It opens with Tatiana Filatov doing a Russian folk dance with a huge, foot-stomping, leg-kicking bear. The moment of truth arrives after only 38 seconds: Tatiana is ready to stop, but the bear is still hopping. Is the bear calling the shots? The conclusive debunking answer: no. Tatiana's husband, Alexander, easily prods the bear off stage so he can begin a dance of his own, cha-cha-cha-ing with another bear for 18 seconds and then convincing the bear to take a bow. Clearly, the Filatovs can stop dancing whenever they please.
We wouldn't recommend trying to dance with a bear in the first place. But if you do find yourself dancing with one, empirical evidence indicates that you will be able to stop whenever you want. The correct consulting proposition, then, is: you don't stop dancing when the bear wants to stop; you stop when you want to. But ask yourself, "Why am I dancing with a bear?"
(Thanks to Mike Francis in Portland, Oregon, for suggesting this myth.)
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.