How to listen to your dreams—and act on them
By Susan Biali, MD
You probably didn’t have to finish medical school before you finally got to study, perform, and teach dance, but that’s what happened to me. Ten years ago I was a depressed emergency medicine resident, and becoming a dancer literally saved my life. You might be living the opposite experience: perhaps you’ve danced all your life and wish for change in your life.
Regardless, whether you’re a studio owner, part-time teacher, dance student, or professional dancer, take the time now, at the beginning of a new year, to refine your life. The seven steps outlined here will help you create a life that reflects who you are and will help you thrive, both physically and emotionally.
These steps form the foundation of my book, Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You. I came up with this formula after analyzing why and how my life had become so much more satisfying after having hit rock bottom, in order to provide others with simple tools to positively transform their own lives.
Step 1: Allow yourself to be you
My life went wrong for decades because I continually tried to be the person others expected me to be and do what they expected of me. How much of your life is a product of other people’s expectations, or of attempts to fit in? When was the last time you honored who you are by acting on your inner voice, no matter what the world might say?
My epiphany came on a dark night after a 36-hour shift in a cardiac care unit. At home in my tiny apartment, I considered ending it all. At that moment, one of the senior residents called to say that she was very worried about me and that she had been authorized to give me a stress leave.
She also gave me a bizarre homework assignment for my time away. She said, “Please think about who you really are and what you might really want out of life.” The concept rocked me to my cells. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that what I wanted or loved might count, or that I might have a choice in the matter.
Stop here for a moment and ask yourself: who are you, really? And what do you really want out of life?
At first, I didn’t have a clue about who I was, but I did know one thing: I wanted to go to Cuba. (I’m Canadian.) Booking that trip was the first time I really listened to what my soul wanted as a next step. I went, and that decision continues to pay off today, on a bigger scale than I ever dreamed possible.
One night in a darkened theater in Cuba, I watched as a phenomenal Cuban salsa dance team burned up the stage. Suddenly I remembered that as a child I had dreamed of becoming a professional dancer (Solid Gold style, for those of you who remember). My parents refused my pleas for lessons, but I practiced for hours anyway. I was a dancer long before anyone decided I should become a doctor.
That night in Cuba, I knew that I would get my life and myself back by dancing. I resigned from my residency, got my medical license as a general practitioner, and signed up for salsa dance classes. What happened over the next few years proves the power of doing what you dream of, even if the rest of the world thinks you’ve lost your mind (which people told me constantly).
I performed with local dance teams, began to teach workshops, and then fell in love with flamenco. That led to brief periods of study in Spain and eventually to four years in Mexico. I had my own little flamenco and salsa dance company in Los Cabos, performing at private events and conferences. I was even asked to teach the occasional celebrity the fundamentals of salsa. I still can’t quite believe that it all really happened.
What would you do if you couldn’t fail? What would you love to do but are afraid to start because you think it’s too late? Do you have a “crazy” dream but fear you don’t have what it takes, that you’re not good enough or lucky enough to get what you want most from life?
Our dreams and “crazy” ideas live inside us because our most authentic, rewarding life experience—our true purpose—will come about when we follow those inspirations. In my experience, following my heart step by small step led me to places I wouldn’t have dared to dream of.
I started learning salsa when I was 28 and had my first flamenco lesson when I was 31. I started getting paid for flamenco performances when I was 33. I’m almost 40 now, and I continue to be surprised by the opportunities that come my way.
What would you do if you couldn’t fail? What would you love to do but are afraid to start because you think it’s too late?
Here’s the most important part: I’m not a great flamenco dancer, far from it. If you saw me dance, you (likely a seasoned dance professional) might shake your head in disbelief. Yet it appears that my passion for the dance, my love for this art form, my modest talents, and my unrelenting belief in my dance dreams have been enough for the journey.
Be your true self in all that you do, and you’ll be amazed by the things that start to happen.
Step 2: Learn to love yourself
Do you take proper care of yourself? Or do you put the happiness and demands of others, such as your students or their parents, ahead of your needs?
As a dancer, chances are you’re highly disciplined and have learned to dominate your body. We learn to push through pain and exhaustion and reach for our goals no matter how much it costs us physically, emotionally, socially, and financially. As an entrepreneur, I also know how much work it takes to start a business and keep it running.
Notice where you feel resentment; it will show you where you need to take better care of yourself. If you resent getting up in the morning, staying late to help students prepare for a presentation, or fielding phone calls from demanding parents in your off hours, it’s time to make some new rules and draw some fresh boundaries.
What’s the simplest change you could make that would significantly reduce the pressure that you feel, and help you to feel better about yourself and your life? Do it.
Step 3: Honor your body
Has your body been trying to get your attention? How is your energy level? Have you had any recent health challenges?
Dancers are much more in tune with their bodies than the average person, but we’re often more concerned with the body’s form and motion than with the messages it might have for us. This can be especially difficult if you were taught from an early age to push through pain and keep going even though your body longs to stop.
If this resonates with you, I encourage you to begin to listen to what your body is asking for. Does it need to rest more? Does it long for non-dance-related movement, such as leisurely, contemplative walks? Do you need more sleep? What kinds of foods does your body want or need to perform at its best?
When you slow your pace and really connect with and respond to your body, you create stamina and vitality that will serve you over the long haul and help you create a vibrant, fulfilling life.
Step 4: Rescue and revitalize your relationships
Positive, healthy relationships are essential to experiencing maximal health and happiness. The number of positive social interactions you enjoy in your daily life affects how healthy you are and how long you’re going to live. On the other hand, frequent encounters with conflicts, drama, anger, and resentment have the opposite effect, being linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, and a whole host of other health problems.
Where are you when it comes to your relationships? Do you spend enough time with the people you love and enjoy the most? Have you developed your skills in conflict resolution, forgiveness, and unconditional love? Focusing on maintaining and nurturing positive, loving relationships is even more beneficial for you than it is for the other person, so it’s worth the effort.
In your work and personal life, there are likely people who drive you crazy, push your boundaries, and push your buttons. If, like me, you depend on clients for survival, it can be tempting to let them have their way or to allow inappropriate language or behavior. This works on a certain level, but you end up paying a price with your self-esteem and sanity, particularly if you let these stressful interactions continue to bother you long after you’ve left the studio.
Noticing when you feel disrespected and gently but firmly placing and enforcing boundaries works wonders—and it usually earns the respect of others, even if they resist at first. Also, when I find myself obsessing over a negative interaction or situation, I catch myself and instead ask what I need to do next in my own life, instead of wasting time and energy fuming or complaining about the situation.
The next time you’re upset by an interaction, ask yourself where you need to make a change or establish a boundary. If you find it hard to stop worrying or thinking about it, interrupt yourself and ask yourself what needs attention in your own life. Of course you’ll eventually need to deal with the situation, but incessant worrying or ruminating makes no difference in the long run and only causes you to neglect yourself.
Step 5: Get a life
Do you have what you consider to be a complete, fulfilling, well-balanced life? If you don’t, what would that life look like to you?
I often have coaching clients do this exercise in their journals: describe a full day in their ideal life. Imagine an ideal day from the moment you wake up to the moment you lay your head on your pillow at night. How would you divide your time? Where would you be? Who would you be with?
Even if this life seems out of reach, come up with one small step you can take that would bring an element of this life into your present life today. If you’d love to spend an hour over breakfast, enjoying delicious gourmet coffee and reading, maybe you could start by buying yourself a specialty coffee and taking more time over it than usual—whatever resonates with and feels delicious to you.
Step 6: Make room for the divine
What’s your understanding of how the divine, or life’s bigger picture, touches your life? My spiritual beliefs played a huge role in creating the life I live today and got me through the rough stretches along the way.
What do you believe life is really about? Does your day-to-day life reflect that? What changes would make your life more meaningful, both for yourself and for others? What’s your favorite spiritual practice that makes you feel centered and brings you peace? Are you making time for it?
Step 7: Make someday today
Even though I often say that “allowing yourself to be you” is the most important step toward living a life you love, you won’t experience the benefits of any of the preceding steps unless you turn your thoughts into action. Often we put off what matters most until “someday,” telling ourselves that we just have to get through this busy season, this challenging time, this critical business-building year, and then we’ll finally honor ourselves and our lives.
Life doesn’t always wait for us, and we can’t assume we’ve got forever to get there. If the timing isn’t perfect, if you’re insanely busy or struggling with seemingly endless challenges, you can still find moments here and there to take small steps that move you toward the goals and activities that matter most to you.
Be brave. Be bold! As Goethe said, “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”