Book Review: Dancing Bears by Witold Szablowski

Book Review: Dancing Bears by Witold Szablowski
Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny
Genre: History

EBook | 256 pp. | Penguin | | 1st Edition
Buy on Amazon
4.5 rating

Dancing Bears by Polish journalist Witold Szablowski is one of those “serendipity” reads that comes by as a reference from another book. I found it mentioned in Uncharted, by Margaret Heffernan, and was immediately curious about it, so I got the Kindle version.

The book is a journalistic investigation in pure journalist style. The author builds a remarkable parallel between the history of the last dancing bears of Bulgaria, trained to dance for humans and liberated after the country joined the EU. A park was build for them, as gaining freedom again was not as easy at it sounds. 

The second part of the book draws the parallel with the situation in other countries: Albania, Romania, Ukraine, Poland. All somehow joined in their faith of freedom after the collapse of communism, but all in the same situation of finding it difficult to cope with the gained liberty, and all failing back, somehow, with some old tyrannies features.

A large part of the world gained freedom, for which it was not prepared. In the most extreme cases, it wasn’t expecting or even wanting it.

Witold Szablowski, Dancing Bears, page xiv

The Story of the Dancing Bears.

The story of the dancing bears was first told to me by Krasimir Krumov, a Bulgarian journalist I met in Warsaw.

For years on end, he said, these bears had been trained to dance, and had been treated very cruelly. Their owners kept them at home. They taught them to dance by beating them when they were small. They knocked out their teeth, to make sure the bears would never suddenly remember they were stronger than their keepers. They broke the animals’ spirits. They got them drunk on alcohol—many of the bears were hooked on strong drink forever after. And then they made them perform tricks for tourists—dancing, imitating various celebrities, and giving massages. 

Then, in 2007, when Bulgaria joined the European Union, the keeping of bears was outlawed. An Austrian organization called Four Paws opened a special park in a place called Belitsa, not far from Sofia, and the bears were taken from their keepers and relocated there. Gone was the whip, the brutality, the nose ring that—according to the people from Four Paws—symbolized the bears’ captivity. A unique project began: to teach freedom to animals that had never been free. Step by step. Little by little. Cautiously. 

The animals were taught how a free bear is supposed to move about. How to hibernate. How to copulate. How to obtain food. The park at Belitsa became an unusual “freedom research lab.”

He then went to Bulgaria to investigate what this freedom lab was, and he learnt a few things about freedom and the dancing bears:

  • The bears are given their freedom gradually, in small doses. It can’t be given to them all at once, or they’d choke on it. 
  • Freedom has its limits; for the bears, the limit is an electrified wire fence. 
  • For those who have never experienced it before, freedom is extremely complicated. It is very difficult for bears to get used to a life in which they have to care for themselves. Sometimes it simply can’t be done.
  • For every retired dancing bear, the moment comes when freedom starts to cause it pain. What does it do then? It gets up on its hind legs and starts to dance.

It repeats the very thing the park employees are trying their best to get it to unlearn: the behaviour of the captive. As if it would prefer its keeper to come back and take responsibility for its life again. “Let him beat me, let him treat me badly, but let him relieve me of this goddamned need to deal with my own life,” the bear seems to be saying.

Witold Szablowski, Dancing Bears, page xv

The Parallel with Young Democracies

The book is structured into two parts, each composed by the same nine chapters. The first part is focused on the Dancing Bears, with interviews with the park assistants, the people that once owned the bears, and description of the process on how the bears got their freedom back, and how they needed to get used to freedom.

The second part, the same structure of chapters, looks at nine stories from different cultures, all introduced by a referral to the Bears stories. Cuba, Poland, Ukraine, Albania, Estonia, Serbia, Georgia, Greece. Each country is the setting for one or more very personal, often intimate stories, about individuals that lived the transition into freedom, but has had issues adapting. And in a way, usually, get up and dance like those bears. 

Somehow this gives a partial explanation, from the journalist point of view, of the many anti-liberal tendencies that have been affecting these countries. Autocratic leaders, rampant illegality, excessive control and ruling that are often at the limits (if they don’t change it) of the constitutions of these countries.

An Important Lesson Learned

Why this book here on this blog? The reason is simple. I have been working a lot on concepts of Transformation and Change Management, both in my current and past roles. A topic that is always central in those discussions is the resistance of people to change, often offloading the entire fault of a failed project on the individuals that have been “not accepting” it. 

Plus, the interest that has drawn my attention in Organisation Design, particularly in new models of Self-Organisation and Self-Management, and brought to reality the idea of the Intentional Organisation, have already got my attention to what is the role of individuals in the development of these new models. And rigorously reasoning on the individuals I started reasoning and researching more information on the meaning of work and what it truly means for us. 

This book has helped me focus on a reality that somehow had been invisible to my eyes for some time. Many change projects don’t fail because people oppose them (openly or not). Very often they are successfully implemented, mostly if you measure them during the course of the project lifespan. The significant issues come after the project is completed, in that phase that is called, in consulting jargon, BAU: Business as Usual

Is it maybe because at least part of the people, once the attention of the Project Management Office has disappeared, the Change Agents evaporated and the SteerCo is focused on the next project when facing difficulties (a bug in the system, a process that doesn’t work, an angry customer), simply cannot avoid starting dancing again?

Isn’t that what also happens in organisations, once we set people free from the burdens of traditional bureaucracies? We have been discussing a lot with many people on why there are not many more cases of successful organisations able to scale these new organisational models. Since the early seventies, there have been forms of experimentation on alternative organisation models (Semco is just one of these examples we have explored through the book Maverick). However, only a few have survived their leaders.

After reading this book, the question that comes to mind is how do we ensure that people get really freed from the laces of bureaucracy, and truly embrace the new paradigm that so many suggest, from Laloux to Corporate Rebels, to Humanocracy?


What this book tells us, is that we need to consider everybody in any change or transformation process. We often focus on the elites, the top people that are following us. What about the rest? We often fail to understand their needs, what is the meaning of work for them, why they engage with our organisations.

We have been so much focused on resilience this year, that we don’t consider that what those bears where displaying are precisely that: resilience. In material science, resilience is defined as the ability of a material to withstand elastic deformation without deforming plastically, thus coming back to its previous form.

The bears that were not taught how to be free simply came back to their original status and started dancing again.

Definitely a must read for any person that deals with Change and Transformation, and for any Human Resource professional.

Did you read this book? Discuss your ideas here below.

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Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny
Genre: History | Rating: 4.5/5
By Witold Szablowski
EBook | 256 pp. | Penguin | 06/03/2018 | 1st Edition
ISBN: 9780143129745
Buy on Amazon

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