How The Dancing Accountant brings her personality to work

Nancy McClelland turned her passion into a feature for her accounting firm.
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· 5 min read

Nancy McClelland was still in her early days of working as a fully licensed CPA, about a decade ago, when she took the opportunity to introduce herself to one of her idols, accounting software consultant Doug Sleeter, at the accounting technology conference he founded and led. Sleeter took one look at her conference badge, which included the name of her firm, The Dancing Accountant, and the next day, McClelland was on the main stage to open the conference, participating in a group routine to Pharrell Williams’s “Happy.”

When people talk about what could open doors during the course of a financial career, they might point to education, credentials, and upskilling. But for McClelland, bringing her full self to the job—her “multidimensional character,” as one of her clients puts it—is a large part of the secret sauce.

Being the Dancing Accountant is in one sense two different things: McClelland is a dancer performing with several groups, and she also serves as an accountant to small businesses in Chicago. But The Dancing Accountant is also a singular identity and a way of doing business for McClelland that emerged from her choice to change course in her career and her passion multiple times over 30 years of professional work.

In that same time, she says, accounting itself has changed, to allow professionals to bring more of their personality to the work. McClelland said that these days, being that open and communicative personality is an advantage for financial professionals, in a way it wasn’t when she was getting started.

McClelland keeps a note above her desk that reads, “Be an authentic reflection of yourself.” She looks at it every day to remind her of the guiding principle she brings to work and life.

True north. McClelland’s advice to other finance professionals: “So as long as you’re reflecting your authentic self, people are going to remember that and it’s what has led to the connections that I have with people in the accounting world,” she said.

“You think of accountants as having the green eyeshade, their head’s down, and they don't communicate with anyone around them, they just crunch the numbers,” McClelland told CFO Brew from her home office in Chicago. By contrast, she regularly performs at clients’ events, in full costume, and said it has helped her grow her business and connect with clients.

McClelland is “kind of like the exact opposite of any accountant I’ve ever worked with before,” said Jessica Wobbekind, executive director of the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce, which also happens to be a Dancing Accountant client. “They typically are just more serious, and Nancy is such a warm personality…She really puts her heart into it; she gives her all.”

Winding path. McClelland wasn’t headed for a career in accounting from the start. She was a music major in college at the University of Michigan, who only entered the world of accounting when she took a job as a music theory teacher at a performing arts school near her university, while still an undergraduate, in 1992. That job was half teaching, and half office management with bookkeeping responsibilities.

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“Not surprisingly, I was the only person who applied for that position, because that is just weird,” McClelland recalled. “But it was perfect for me.”

McClelland quickly came to realize that in a community of creatives, she stood out for her organizational skills, and spent four years after graduation as a business manager for a violin maker. After moving to Chicago and a brief stint in an accounting job at a nonprofit, McClelland decided that she was best suited for a role that involved more communication, and she hung out a shingle to work with a client base of small businesses, like a cafe/bar/event space and a cooperative grocery store. McClelland took classes on the side, toward a masters in accounting, so that around the time she turned 40, she was a fully-minted CPA. Her firm charges hourly for its services, with a flat fee for tax returns, and employs eight part-timers.

Making the leap. Also around the time she hit 40, she decided to finally pursue her dream for a creative outlet. Talking with a friend about hitting that age milestone, McClelland recalled saying “I have to say by now I really did think that I would have already started taking [go-go] dance lessons.” Her friend’s retort of “Why not?” turned into an immediate search for dance lessons in Chicago, and McClelland found a class with Go-Go dance group The Janes the very next night. After a couple of months of classes, McClelland was invited to join the dance group as a performer.

Soon after the combination of her new license and new after-work hobby, a client introduced her to someone as “the dancing accountant,” and the name seemed like a revelation. “I filled out that DBA paperwork the next day,” she said.

These days, McClelland is a bit of a celebrity in both accounting and dance. She’s a sought-after speaker for audiences of accountants, and now performs with three different dance groups—including the ’80s-aerobics-inspired Fabulous Ladies of Fitness and “glam marching band” Clamor & Lace Noise Brigade—at large events like Chicago SummerDance.

Sea change. McClelland sees her own transformation as something that the profession has undergone alongside her over the past couple of decades.

“Bookkeeping used to be a lot more about recording data,” she said, but now, technology has removed a lot of the busywork and “clients aren’t paying you to get the data into the system; they’re paying you to tell them what that data means.”

With that change in practice has come a change in the types of personalities who succeed in accounting.

“It is much more not just acceptable, but maybe even desirable, to have people in traditional CPA firms or to have people in corporate accounting jobs…to be a dancer, to be a creative type, to have a loud personality, to be passionate and to express [yourself,]” McClelland said.

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CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.