There is much to love about the trend toward differentiated coffee bought and sold according to uniqueness of flavor profile and narrative, about all that falls into the big specialty coffee basket. But, as the previous post also explored, there is also much to consider carefully, much that becomes more concerning the longer it pervades coffee’s special niche and the louder it echoes in the tight chamber a specialist segment inevitably creates. These concerns may have less to do with specialty coffee as a corner of a much larger, older industry than with the role media and technology for instant sharing play in today’s personal and professional lives.
But I do not think it is time, quite yet, to despair. There are lessons we can learn by looking beyond coffee, past the flat horizon of bottom line business to things that out-echo money and brand positioning, to things like performing arts.
Kat Wildish, the master ballet teacher I’ve studied with on and off for nearly a decade, has some favorite sayings she likes to call out as reminders during class. One is, “it’s not my fault it’s just ballet!” to remind us that each movement, however difficult, is rooted in disciplined skeletal alignment tweaked and honed to theoretical perfection over centuries and is not a teacher-devised whim to torture would-be dancers. Another is, “it’s not posing, its dancing!”
This is a particularly important reminder. Much of the grace of ballet is captured in stunning photographs of dancers balanced with legs extended at impossible angles. In class, it can be tempting to glue your eyes to the mirror and wiggle around until you find that picture perfect pose.
But posing is not what dancers were doing when the breathtaking photos were taken. Catalogues of discount leotards show dancers posing; photos of dancers show them dancing. There is a crucial difference between the two. Posing is static and is good for showing off the seams in a pair of tights; dancing active and is good for moving, for flowing seamlessly through one to another. If we can see the seams, it’s posing, not dancing.
This seems to be one ailment plaguing the specialty coffee industry right now, the disproportionate relationship between instances of posing and instances of dancing the dance. Running a small specialty coffee business is a lot like performing a ballet. The choreography is intricate, a lot of preparation must happen before the audience sees anything, and it all demands the illusion of effortlessly being in many places at once. Both ballet and small business ownership require planning with regards to how space and time will be used, the distribution of bodies in a space, and choices about what to feature and what message featuring a certain thing might send.
Poses look exciting. They are captivating and generate deluges of flattering imitation. But dance, like specialty coffee, only works if the transitions are handled as gracefully as the poses. The difference between a trained dancer and someone just learning is that the dancer can make a split second transfer of her weight from two legs to one while also changing direction and doing something different with her arms. A lot has to happen at once, in synchronization, and at high speed.
Specialty coffee is getting lost in the mirror at the expense of agility. Poses are fun; they are what lull us to sleep at night dreaming of becoming principal ballet dancers and barista champions. Poses, however, are artful tricks of perception.
No dancer ever stands still on stage. Even in moments that the audience perceives as stillness, the dancer is still active, making micro adjustments and inhaling just enough to be ready for the next step. A functioning specialty coffee business will do the same. It will not freeze in a pose of two-dimensional triumph; it will be preparing for and engaged in continuous motion, the perpetual movement that turns a good idea into a product, a good product into a full cafe, and a line out the door into a second location.
Specialty coffee can pose for a long time with the same couple hundred pounds of beans. The companies that are really making differentiated, high quality, limited availability, sustainable, traceable coffee dance are the ones you can hardly glimpse in a pose because they are so busy performing their ballet. It’s up to other people to take the photographs that capture an elegant posture. Too much time posing for yourself and you look like the woman at the back of the ballet class, the one who keeps her head at an awkward angle to always see herself in the mirror and can’t figure out why she still has trouble landing a pirouette.
Sometimes, posing is necessary. It’s nice to take a group photo at the holidays. The moment of pause needed to strike that pose should feel like a delicious treat, one earned through so much dancing. Posing is delicious, and because it is indulgent it has to be earned. You get to stand there for the glamour shot because you’ve spent time doing the difficult work of constantly moving through the thousands of difficult positions demanded by a ballet. And, if you dance enough, with focused dedication, then any snapshot of the motion will capture a graceful position and it will look like you were posing, when really it has been nothing but graceful, constant motion the whole time.