Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: Episode 32

Dara Orlando Handelman

Dara Orlando is somewhat of a Thespian legend.

Before she became the working mom/corporate executive she is today, she was one of my very first dance students at Spring Valley. She brought her dance studio training to my classroom, helping me to build the foundation for a long and prosperous career. She also discovered her penchant for comedy in my first Thespians fall drama, The Worst High School Play in the World where, as a sophomore, she hilariously played a queen whose crown was a car hubcap. She spent the rest of her time in high school dabbling in different facets of theater, learning how to focus lights in crew and singing and dancing in the musicals and of course, making people laugh.

Her legendary status in Thespians is not a story I can share in full – it is the sacred, traditional stuff that my students would not want me to reveal. Let’s just say, her name still crosses the lips of Spring Valley Thespians today. Her generosity at the end of her time in high school has become a source of strength and good fortune for over 20 years of theater students, and after Dara’s story is told, it tickles me to share with them that this person is real, was sitting where they once sat, and had given something special of herself to many generations after she was gone.

After Dara graduated high school in 1999, she went to UC Berkeley to study history, then hopped the pond to get her Masters at the London School of Economics. After grad school, she entered the work force in advertising and marketing, and has climbed the corporate ladder in the 15 years since. Now, she is a Vice President and strategic marketing leader for JP Morgan. Not too shabby, Ms.Orlando.

Dara is, and always has been, brilliant, quick-witted and kind, and I was so honored that she took the time away from her two young girls and her busy life to chat with me.


Dara described her teenage self as someone who was more self-assured than she realized in some aspects and in other aspects was wildly self-conscious, probably more than she needed to be. At the same time, I think she was very clear on who she was. She sees that clarity as a thread of fortune in her life, starting from early on in high school. Shedding the shroud of self-consciousness was the toughest part of adolescence. What helped with that was all of the arts opportunities at her disposal.

High school Dara had a lot of creative energy. When I wasn’t doing school stuff, I was creating something; writing, dancing, singing…something.

That abundant creative energy was well-utilized at Spring Valley High School. Whether in dance class or in Thespians, she could pour it into lots of different projects for the stage.

While she seemed very clear about who she was, she also understood the stresses of her over-achieving, perfectionistic tendencies and gravitated to the things that helped her to manage the chaos of adolescence and stay focused and regulated. What helped her the most was the sense of constant community around her. Despite the chaos that often obscured her mental picture, having others around her gave her the support she needed when she needed an ear or a shoulder to lean on.

I have very specific memories of sitting in that music room during a rehearsal and somebody from Thespians…we were talking. That to me was the thing that grounded me throughout high school.

The social variety that came with the Thespian community was a boon for Dara. For the most part, schools track students in classes according to academic prowess or grade level. Coming to drama practice after school exposed her to people who she might never otherwise have met, particularly older or younger kids. It was really refreshing.

Transitioning into adulthood

As an adult, Dara definitely misses that boundless access to creative time. Post-college, the constraints of adulting took up so much time and mental space, so the joy of inspired, spontaneous creation got back-burnered for more practical endeavors. Her chosen career path often does tap into her creative energy, but it’s not the same as taking a dance class or creating a character.

On the other hand, becoming an adult has its benefits.

My day to day is better. I just walk through my day and it feels very normal. There was no normalcy in high school for me. Every day felt like a challenge. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of emotion. I just don’t feel that anymore; I feel very settled. There’s an element of “I’m just comfortable with who I am, where I am.”

Dara was kind enough to send me some of her photos from over 20 years ago. Here’s a glimpse of her high school self…

Lessons learned

For an overachieving, independent type like Dara, Thespians and dance provided some important epiphanies that have served her well in her personal and professional world.

It’s never just you

The performing arts, particularly theater, teaches this very strong lesson. Every show requires a careful blend of personalities, an inordinate amount of work ethic, and that sense of community that facilitates a smooth production.

As I’ve become a manager of people and grown in my career, one of the things I enjoy the most is building that community. You want to be around people who you like being around. You want to be able to help people to work together. That’s a big lesson that I picked up there [with Thespians].

Discovering her funny bone

Students often walk through life not knowing what their true strengths are. Dara was always quick-witted with a dry sense of humor, perfect for comedic roles on the stage. Of course, being the opportunist, I took full advantage of her abilities, placing her in comic-relief roles in The Worst High School Play in the World and Rumors.

It never occurred to me that that’s why you put me there.

Despite all of that reinforcement, Dara, bless her heart, didn’t realize just how funny she was until her senior year in college. She told this story: in her senior year, her sorority pledge class sat together and read some notes that were written about them when they entered as freshmen. Apparently, every single note about Dara was that she was the funniest person they knew, which was a revelation to her.

She reflected on the fact that she was largely cast in the comedic roles, the old crazy ladies, the wilder characters that take some chutzpah to play. She was never dressed in the elegant costumes that many of her straight-woman peers had worn, rather she was the one with the hubcap for a crown or the frumpy brown cocktail dress, a fact that she lamented in her adolescence. Now, she looks at those experiences and understands completely:

Everyone has something that they’re good at. You always put me in the comedies and there’s a reason for that. It’s okay to be strong at something.

Something she also learned in dance was that you can be good at something and not great at something, and that’s okay. She, like so many of us who immersed ourselves in the dance studio environment, wanted to dance like Misty Copeland. Alas, there are scant few of us with that level of talent. It took a little while for that reality to sink in for Dara: It was a bitter pill to swallow.

Building community

Dara has come to truly appreciate the people around her, particularly in her work environment. Dealing with the stress and chaos that creates drama and the time spent working on something with high expectations, community has been the thread that keeps her world together. It is the same whether you are in high school or a giant corporation; you want to build a community that feels good. When you spend so much time with the same individuals, it is in your best interest to find ways to bond with them. Her take on building relationships:

For me, it became a life source. In the same way that theater was a life source in high school, I think the community at work became a similar kind of life source. Ultimately, the message is: it’s just people. You forget that behind a big brand, it’s just more people.

How has Dara changed?

I’ve grown into myself.

While she had a good sense of who she was and what made her tick back in high school, she started putting all the pieces together in college. Her self-confidence was strong to start with, but over time, she was able to build upon the strong foundation and step forward for projects and work responsibilities that perhaps she would otherwise have felt doing so would be premature. Part of that goes back to being pushed out of her comfort zone. In high school, she was asked to take on roles that she never would have picked for herself.

Another part of that growth was her decision to go to college at Berkeley in California, 3500 miles from home. She remembers that the only stipulation her parents had regarding her college choice was to stay in the continental US. She took them at their word.

I just knew that I wanted to do something different. Knowing that, even in those moments when it’s scary, it grounds you.

What would Dara tell her young self to help ease the way?

Young Dara wouldn’t listen to old Dara.

I hear that, and we got a good chuckle because I think she’s right. Young Dara was quite headstrong and self-possessed. She was also fraught with the internal emotional baggage that adolescence brings. As the older, wiser version of herself considered the cluttered, perfectionistic, over-achieving nature of her younger brain, she wished for her younger self to embrace a smaller headspace:

Every single thing feels very big. Ultimately, so much of it is so small. In the end, you can find your people almost anywhere. You can find yourself in a lot of different places; there’s not one solution to every single problem. You can choose how much drama you want to give something.

We talked about the importance of mindfulness in our daily lives. I try to teach the concept every day; Dara became a certified mindful business leader. In her training, she was taught that people practice mindfulness in multiple avenues: some love meditations, others take up activities they can focus on exclusively for a while to manage their dysregulation. She recalled how in high school, dance was that activity, the headspace she needed to be in to keep herself centered and calm. For a while, it was the only thing she sought to manage herself, and after high school the glimmer for dance dulled.

The important takeaway from waning interest is the necessity for having multiple activities in your toolbox. Being able to pick and choose your mindful strategy du jour keeps each of your favorite things special. When one strategy is not in the cards, another is easily within reach and at the ready for you.

What does Dara grapple with now?

A two-year-old and a four-year-old.

We had another good laugh because I remember those days, trying to juggle being a full-time working parent. There are moments when I just don’t have it in me to help you through your toddler brain. There are days when I’m very good at it and days when I’m just like, “girls, leave me alone.” That’s the hardest part; with little kids, they don’t yet know how to do anything on their own. There’s not even a moment when I get a sulky teenager in the bedroom and I get a half and hour break. It’s just all us, all the time.

Being present for your children is so important, and when we feel we can’t, the implications are scary. We are beholden to their care; we chose to be their parents, and yet sometimes the energy is just not there. Just when we are running out of our parenting life force and need time that we don’t have to recharge, that’s when we can easily slip up, start yelling, and do the damage that parents fear they might inflict on their children. Our greatest desire is to be present and enjoy our babies in that small window while they’re still young, for each and every milestone in their lives.

Our greatest challenge is being able to sustain ourselves for all of those precious moments, especially when we have careers that we are also passionate about. We take our work home with us, which means that mentally, we are sharing that same headspace with our kids’ time. Dara’s job requires her to travel, sometimes internationally, which means keeping close tabs on the daily things at home is even trickier with business functions and time zone differences. She wants to be able to “do it all,” but the reality is steeped in compromise; something always gets sacrificed.

Sage advice

Dara had some words of wisdom for today’s adolescents and 20-somethings who are getting through their cloudy, chaotic transition into adulthood:

You’ll get through it. We all got through it. You’re going to have bad times and big emotions. Some of it feels really good and maybe overpoweringly so.

Probably one of the most valuable pieces of advice that we can offer high school kids is this:

Don’t worry about everybody else. You worry about you. Everything else is just noise.

Know thyself

I asked Dara what she think matters most right now. Without pause, she stated, staying grounded in what you want. She told the story of the battle of the Bio class. She was sitting in her guidance counselor’s office as she was making her schedule for the next year. Her mother wanted her to take AP Bio and Dara was dead-set against it. She knew she didn’t like science, didn’t want to put herself through that torture, and advocated well for herself. Part of the battle in adolescence is knowing yourself, and putting yourself on the right path for you, not what anyone else’s expectations might dictate, no matter how well-intentioned they are.

Despite her mother’s insistence, headstrong Dara did not take AP Bio, and it was the best decision she made for herself. Instead of trudging through a class she hated, she took the honors class instead and made more headspace for AP History, which she ultimately pursued as a major in college. In the end, you have to know yourself and trust that you actually know what is best for you. When you embrace that, you take ownership of your life, and you start to understand that the only person you really have to answer to is yourself.

If you know who you are, the rest of it is fairly easy.

Adolescents might not know everything, but they know a lot about what makes them tick. By making the logical choices about the little things, the ones that make sense for them, it makes the big picture stuff a little less daunting. While we don’t want kids to sweat the small, less-important stuff, we absolutely want them to own their sense of self, and that is usually dictated by the smaller choices they make about their lives.

The road less traveled

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Sometimes, the direct, linear path is not the one we take to reach our destination. In school, in life, we are often taught the easy way forward; go into this program to do this thing, in order to get there you have to do that. The truth is, not everyone follow the same path to reach their goals.

It feels like you have to follow certain steps to do certain things; there’s no direct path. Sometimes you have to fight for it because you don’t follow that path. Stay true to what you know.

She told her story about getting into advertising: Big advertising agencies recruit almost exclusively schools with an advertising program or Ivys. She went to neither of those programs in college. Despite the questions and doubt raised by everyone around her, Dara moved forward and created her own path. I was laser-focused. I want to work in an ad agency and I will not stop until I get there. I took a circuitous route, but I ended up there.

It’s so true. I followed a similar, very non-linear path to teaching. More than 25 years later, I’ve had quite a satisfying career that I’ve taken great pride in crafting in my own vision. Sometimes, you just have to follow your gut and cut your own path to get to where you want to be.

Self-care strategies

The life of a corporate executive/working mom is not an easy one, and it is very easy to tip the scales out of balance. Dara has a few practices that help to level herself out.

  1. Taking a deep breath. With the combined demands of work and parenting, finding the time just to take a deep breath is a challenge. Sometimes I have to pull myself, literally, into the bathroom, and just breathe.
  2. Reading a novel. Often, she has to resort to her phone to read on the Kindle app when her kids are playing in the other room, but it does the job. It centers me; it takes my brain out of what I’m doing and it allows me to think about something else. Novels give her the escapist world to slip out of the reality of life for a little while.
  3. Knowing when to ask for help. Overachieving perfectionists struggle with this. But, Dara is very aware of the need for “me time,” whether it is in the form of a nap, an hour to herself, or a walk outside. She is fortunate to have a partner who is ready and willing to give her the breaks she needs to come back in stronger and more centered.

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