Home » Member Spotlight – Melissa

Member Spotlight – Melissa

During my first few weeks living in Cuba, I cried every day. Every single day.

It was a bit confusing, actually. I had “hit refresh” in the best way possible – following my years-long dream of immersing myself in the dance culture of this beautiful island country. I had saved up enough money to dance my heart out and my adventure was open-ended. So why was I so sad? This was supposed to be the happiest time of my life.

female travel
Me on the Malecón in Havana, Cuba, 2017

And this wasn’t my first refresh.

When I was in my early twenties I felt conflicted between two passions: politics and travel. After a successful college internship with a governmental relations firm led to my own 5-year lobbying career at the Virginia General Assembly, I kept coming to a crossroads – how would I balance my love for international travel with my passion for advocating for women’s rights and other issues close to my heart? For a while, I was able to do both. I took two exciting solo trips to Chile & Peru and to Costa Rica, while I grew a successful lobbying career.

But I knew I wanted more. After six years in politics, I hit refresh. I moved my clients to other lobbyists, packed my stuff, and headed to Guatemala. I called it a “sabbatical”, but deep down I knew I wasn’t coming back.

This refresh started at a Spanish immersion school in Xela, the second largest city in Guatemala. The plan was to improve my language skills and then keep traveling through Central and South America – “following the dance”, I told my friends. But I fell hard for Guatemala and after a few weeks, I knew I needed more time there.

female travel
Me and my Spanish teacher at my “graduation” from Centro Maya de Idiomas, Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala, circa 2002.

After a few serendipitous twists and turns, I wound up enrolling in a month-long spirituality course at “Las Piramides”. Located in San Marcos la Laguna, a small village on the shores of the picturesque and breathtaking Lago Atitlan with a thriving ex-pat community, my stay at Las Piramides was kind of a “New Age 101” introduction to yoga, meditation and other spiritual practices.

And it led me to La Cambalacha, a non-profit arts project for kids located in the valley of the village. Thus began a mini-refresh in my trip. I would stay in San Marcos to join La Cambalacha in their debut year, volunteering as a dance teacher for Mayan youths.

female travel
Me and one of my students after our first dance recital, San Marcos, Guatemala, 2003.

About eight months later, I was very gratified by the work I was doing but I was starting to feel disillusioned with my love life. I needed a change and vowed to approach romance differently. And literally the next day, I met the man who would become my husband.

He was another American living and working in Guatemala who had just returned to San Marcos after several months in Guatemala City. We met at a “Mars party” – a celebration of the night when Mars was the closest it had been to Earth in 65K years. (This was a very hippie ex-pat community!) We fell in love, but a mere five weeks later, he had to return to the US. His grandfather was dying of Parkinson’s and his family had asked him to care for him in his home of 30+ years in southern California.

female travel
Eating a mango on the shores of Lago Atitlan, Guatemala, 2003.

And, you guessed it, I soon followed and began another refresh. One that lasted over a decade: a Jersey girl living in California!

Fast forward 12 years and we were both worn down by the grind. We had met in a magical place, enlivened by our love for travel and adventure. But since we had moved back to the US, and ultimately settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, we often felt lonely and struggling. Why was it so hard to make friends? Why couldn’t we get our businesses off the ground and really prosper?

We decided to hit refresh as a couple. I quit my corporate marketing job, and we moved to Hawai’i to do a work-trade at an eco-resort for a few months. The plan was that when we returned, I would work on my passion project – a blog and web series centered around my original goals of my Latin American trip, travel and dance! And he had a very promising lead on his dream job with a local non-profit.

Hawaiian rainbows and celebrating after swimming with wild dolphins, Hawai’i, 2016.

Living and working at the Kalani resort on the Big Island fulfilled all of our wishes. The staff was a family – our family. We felt loved and accepted. We flourished as individuals – thriving in all that the Puna region had to offer – adventures in nature, snorkeling, dancing, yoga, meditation and so much more. But as a couple, we were falling apart. I was simultaneously blissfully happy and a complete mess. It was a painful process of realization that, despite being married to my best friend, I was very unhappy. A few months after we got back to the mainland, I asked for a divorce.

Three months later I was in Havana.

female travel
Always bring your fan! Habana Vieja, Cuba, 2017. Photo credit: Sophia Marguette.

The plan was a month in Cuba and then … well, actually, I didn’t have much of a plan. I had packed up all of my stuff and shipped it to my parents’ house in New Jersey. I didn’t know if I’d move back to California or what I would do for work.

But as soon as I arrived in Havana I felt alive again. I wasn’t sure of much, but I was sure that when I was traveling and dancing, I was happy.

And that’s when I hit the BIG refresh button. Back to Jersey for a mere six weeks before returning to Cuba to study dance for several months. To finally go all in on my travel-dance dream project.

Then I landed. And I was a mess. On one level, yes, I was very confused. On another level, it was so obvious. I was grieving. I had given up so much. I had literally JUST filed for divorce a few days before arriving. I was “following my dream” but I had so much healing to do. And I was facing a bunch of personal challenges.

First, of course, I was studying dance day and night. I was pushing myself to pursue goals that stretched me as a dancer. I battled self-doubt and judgment constantly.

I was learning about life in Cuba: how to navigate the communist system, how to learn who to trust with your heart, how to get around Havana, how to deal with the HEAT!

And I was grieving. I was feeling the loss of my ex-husband, our home, our intertwined families, our cats, and most of all, our friendship.

I felt so much pressure. I was so scared that I was blowing my opportunity: not progressing as a dancer fast enough, not getting my show idea off the ground fast enough, not getting over my divorce fast enough.

And at some point it finally occurred to me: There’s only so much one heart and mind can handle. Be patient.

I needed a full year to grieve my marriage, to regain my sense of identity, to listen to and trust my intuition, to learn to be a better dancer, to improve my Spanish skills, to produce a proof of concept for my dance show, and to master the basic daily skills of living in Havana.

Every day that I felt I was failing at one or all of these things I was actually moving forward bit by bit. Poco a poco.

And, now the refresh continues!

female travel
El Prado, Havana, July 2017. Photo credit: Sophia Marguette.

In December 2017, I returned to the US to launch my web series and pitch it as a TV show concept. It’s called “Follow My Lead”. I travel the world challenging myself to dance with the masters – and inspire others to find the challenge that feeds THEIR soul.

I was scared to release the six episodes of Follow My Lead: Havana. It was my first time taking a concept like that from start to finish – directing, producing, dancing, hosting – and it wasn’t perfect. But it was mine. And I put it out there.

The response exceeded my expectations. People have told me they feel happy, hopeful and inspired when they watch the series. That’s exactly what I wanted!

I’m sure there will be other refreshes in my life. But I’m not going back to the way things were. I’m 42 now and for way too long I spent too much energy doubting myself, trying to be “good” and “successful”, and denying my identity as an artist.

Now I see myself as a dancer. My full life force is focused on my “why” in life: To inspire others to have the courage to be themselves so that they can experience their true joy. I do that through traveling the world to dance and sharing my struggles and triumphs.

Right now I’m in the thick of pitching my show idea, reaching out to potential partners, and best of all, planning Season 2! After a quick visit to see friends in Havana, I will be heading to Buenos Aires, Argentina this May to study tango!

Bailamos! <3

Check out Melissa on her website Follow My Lead and on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube

Member Spotlight highlights stories of inspiring women from our She Hit Refresh group. We hope that by sharing their stories of change and travel we can expose the unconventional paths that thousands of women 30 years and older have chosen.  There is no one way to live a life, just your way.

Share this post

Leave a Reply