Finance director quit job to become a professional ballroom dancer

October 12, 2020
Belicia Tang

Novell Loh was a corporate superstar. She worked as a management consultant for many years before becoming a finance director at Apollo Global Management, one of the top private equity firms in the world. She enjoyed the many perks of her job: money, a glamorous lifestyle, recognition, and prestige.

Three-and-a-half years ago, everything changed. Novell quit her job in finance, sold her house, and became a professional ballroom dancer.

In this feature article, Novell shares the reasons behind her career change, how she made her dancing dream a reality, and what lessons she learned throughout her transformative journey. This is the story of one woman’s courage to venture off the well-worn path of comfort and familiarity in the pursuit of happiness and artistic freedom.

Growing up, Novell loved dancing and performing. She was involved in many sports, including ballet, hip hop, figure skating and gymnastics, but never considered making a career out of these pursuits. “I grew up in a traditional Asian household with certain family expectations to become ‘successful’. I followed that path religiously and in many ways it paid off– it gave me respect, prestige, and security that society values.”

Five years ago, Novell discovered Latin ballroom dance and was immediately taken by the beauty of this sensual, expressive art form. During that time, Novell experienced tremendous stress and pressure from her job. “My boss was just fired, and I often had to report to the CFO and the board of directors. While it was definitely a great opportunity and experience, I was working many, many hours– 14 to 16 hours a day, consistently. One day, I realized that I was becoming so unhappy, that I needed to rejuvenate my life by doing something outside of work to release stress. So I signed myself up for a Latin ballroom dance class!”

Shortly after beginning her dance journey, Novell knew she wanted to take dance seriously and started taking lessons from former world Latin dance champions, Allan Tornsberg and Vibeke Toft. Her early foundation in sports, coupled with quality instruction and immense dedication to practice, led her to improve rapidly in the art form.

“At the time, I’d go to the studio after work and tried to dance for two to three hours, three times a week. I actually had to force myself to work less at my job so I’d have more time for dancing. I turned down the opportunity to be considered for promotion as the Head of Department. I knew that would mean a lot more responsibility, and less time for dance.”

Despite Novell’s love for dancing, she wasn’t ready just yet to quit a career she had spent years developing, until a series of pivotal life changing events made her question her long-standing life tenets and worldviews.

The first was a reality check with corporate finance. “The world of finance can be very cutthroat. I saw people whom I respected, who devoted their lives to their career, get fired. Not for anything they did wrong, but because of cost-cutting measurements, management changes or other reasons. In fact, the higher-up you get in your career in finance and management, the higher the probability is to get fired! That was quite a wake-up call for me. It wasn’t all rosy up there.”

A second event that completely changed Novell’s outlook on life was the death of her mother, in 2015. “Up until that point, I had never experienced the death of anyone close to me. One day, I was on a vacation in Europe, when I got a call that my mom had gotten into an accident and had a major brain aneurysm. My siblings and I immediately flew home to Malaysia, but unfortunately, it was already too late. We weren’t able to say our final goodbyes.”

Losing her mother was a rude awakening for Novell, who then realized just how fragile and transient life was. “The whole thing made me question why we are on this Earth, and what my purpose in life was. I then realized that the most important thing in life was not money, but time.”

Half a year after her  mother’s death, Novell almost lost her own life. “I was still recovering from grief surrounding my mom’s death. I didn’t feel too good one day, so I went in for an ordinary check-up at the doctor’s office. Three days later my doctor called me and urgently told me, ‘You have to go to the ER right now!’ It was the weekend of July 4th and I was at the beach, so I jokingly asked her, ‘What is the worst thing that could happen to me if I don’t go now?’ She said, ‘Novell, you don’t understand how serious this is. You are at the risk of a heart failure at any point in time.’ I was then urgently admitted to the hospital and transfused with two bags of blood. Bear in mind, prior to this, I was all healthy and young. The next six months were spent in and out of the hospital– going from the oncology department to the gastroenterology and hematology department. It has now been four years since the incident, and even though we never found out the cause of my blood loss, I am now back to being healthy. So I am extremely grateful and consider this my second chance at life!”

Novell’s near-death experience was the final factor that made her truly reconsider what she wanted out of life. “When death knocks on the door, it’s too late. So I asked myself, ‘If I were to die tomorrow, what would I regret not doing?’ And the answer was, undoubtedly, dance.”

When asked whether she experienced fear surrounding the career change, Novell says, “Of course there was fear. I come from a typical Asian family that emphasizes financial stability and responsibility. But I told myself, ‘If I don’t do this now, then I may never get a chance to do it. And if I fail, at least I know I have tried my best.’”

To prepare for dancing full-time, Novell had to figure out how to support herself financially as an artist. She created a plan that would mitigate the financial risks of dancing and make the transition smoother. “I consolidated my finances, sold my house in Chicago and moved out of my luxurious condo in Midtown. I had to find a way to make passive income so I invested my savings in alternative investments. In addition, I also had a big shift in lifestyle. Previously, I used to go shopping at Theory and get my shoes from Kate Spade or Ferragamo. Fine dining and overseas vacation were a norm.” She laughs. “That’s not the case now! But it’s okay, those are just material things. Once you have it, you realize that those are not the things that give you sustained and long lasting happiness. A bag is a bag, whether it’s from Forever 21 or Louis Vuitton. For me, it is the same thing!”

The next important step for Novell was finding a dance partner. Ballroom dancers are well-acquainted with the challenges of finding the right partner. Partners must be of comparable height and skill level. They must share the same long term goals and be able to logistically and financially train and compete together. They also should have good chemistry on the dance floor and be able to get along well enough in real life, as they spend most of their time together training, traveling and competing.

In Novell’s case, finding a competitive partner was tricky, as she started later than most high-level dancers. “The dance life is already challenging, but having to find a compatible partner just makes it 50 times more difficult! But I was lucky– I had a few great dancers who took me under their wings and danced with me.” She currently dances with Sebastian Tomkowski, who she started competing with in 2018. “I call him my ‘Crazy’. We dream and work hard together. We pick each other up when we’re down, but push each other’s boundaries when we’re too comfortable. We’re two very different people, but we both share the love of dancing so much, so as long as we don’t kill each other, we will be fine.”

One aspect of ballroom dancing that especially surprised Novell was how inextricably linked dance was to emotional expression. “In the world of finance, we were taught and groomed to be ‘professional’ and to not show emotion. In dancing, emotions are part of the art, and it’s part of the performance. Not only that, but when [my partner and I] practice, there are a lot of emotions involved. This is because our passion is so tied to dance. Nowadays I have to deal with my emotions that are coming out a lot more– I didn’t even know they were there before! But emotions are important for dancing. Imagine if you danced with no feeling. I don’t care how great your technique is, you’re not going to inspire others with just technique alone. So actually, what used to be perceived as a professional weakness in my former career, is now a strength.

Another challenge Novell faced when switching careers was going from a position of power in the corporate world, to the humble beginnings of a neophyte dancer. When asked how she felt about leaving behind the familiarity of finance and starting from scratch in a completely new pursuit, Novell says, “I honestly never thought about it that way. But in retrospect, I think that is what made the dancing journey that much more difficult. The good thing is, I didn’t think much of it at that time– otherwise I probably would have been so scared that I wouldn’t have pursued dance! So being a little bit naive, and wanting to dream, and following my heart–  I think that was helpful.”

It’s been three-and-a-half years since Novell traded in pencil skirts and blazers for sparkling ballroom dresses and dance heels. While she sometimes misses the hefty salary and sense of power and prestige that came from her former career, she does not regret her decision to pursue dance professionally. “Logically speaking, it makes a lot more sense to be in finance. But there is something special about doing what sets your soul on fire!”

When asked what factors have been instrumental to her career shift, Novell says, “I am very lucky to have the support of my husband, Al. He is truly incredible. While he doesn’t understand my obsession with dancing, he understands that it makes me happy. I also have a great dance partner and excellent coaches. And just being in New York City, where there’s a huge dance community here.”

As for dance aspirations, Novell says, I want to be, first and foremost, a creator, an artist and a dancer. When I first started competing, it was very easy to get caught up in rankings and results, especially when you are in an environment where all the dancers around you are aspiring to become world finalists or champions. Nowadays, I just want to be the best possible dancer I can be. I’m very excited about that, because then I’m not confined to this one narrow funnel that everybody is trying to go through”.

When asked what advice she would offer to those considering a major career shift from day job to an unconventional path or passion, Novell says, “First, have a financial plan. If you don’t have one, then start saving or start thinking about it. You don’t need to plan it all out, but you do need some money for the transition period. Also know that people in art can be successful in a material way. Maybe they become dancers, but they don’t make their money from art. A lot of people get stuck because they worry that if they leave their job to pursue their passion, they will struggle financially. They have all these doubts and fears, that they don’t even give themselves a chance! The important thing is to just start, and to not let fear stop you. Secondly, really understand why you are doing it. Because there will be challenges and rainy days ahead– so it is important to remember the reasons you embarked on this journey. Lastly, it will be helpful to have one or a few people that will be your cheerleader or your support system when the going gets tough. Emotional support is key to keep you going when everything seems to be going against you”.

Some may worry that they started pursuing their passion at too late an age, and therefore would never be as successful as people who started young. To that, Novell says, “While starting young puts you at an advantage early on, it doesn’t guarantee success or a long lasting career. If you started later in life, it is important to firstly, not compare yourself to others who may have had a head-start, but, at the same time, remain hopeful and give your 100% best effort. And secondly, define what success means for you personally.”

Thinking about what dancing means to her, Novell says, “A dancer will never stop being a dancer. Just play music anywhere, and a dancer will turn wherever they are standing into a dance floor. So, I don’t believe there is such a thing as being too old to dance. There’s only a time when you decide you don’t want to do it anymore.”

If you want to hear more about Novell’s incredible story, check out her recent interview on The Dream Career Podcast.

Novell with her husband Al


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