A leap into the unknown: How Dance major Jayla found friendship and focus at Interlochen

When Jayla started at Interlochen, she wasn’t sure where she fit in within the dance world. Now, as a senior, she’s found her unique strengths and a place of her own within a vibrant interdisciplinary community.

A young girl dressed in white holds up a nutcracker.

Jayla as Clara in Interlochen's 2023 production of The Nutcracker

“There’s an added layer to the challenge because not only are you a freshman in high school, you're a freshman at an arts boarding school. You're not with your parents, and you're going to live with some person that you probably have never met before. It’s really scary to be a new person.”

It took some courage for Jayla Stafford to dive in at Interlochen Arts Academy in fall of 2020. But she’d had a great summer at Interlochen Arts Camp, and felt that this was the next step for her.

“When I heard about Arts Academy, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to go,’” she says.

Jayla came to Interlochen unsure of her direction within dance and wondering if she’d find friendship. In the past three and a half years, she has honed in on her creative gifts, experienced amazing collaborations with students in other majors, and found a community of friends who support her.

Honing in on her gifts

Before Interlochen, Jayla had enjoyed exploring different styles of dance, but didn’t have a driving focus.

“I was doing ballet, jazz, African, tap, hip-hop—a lot of different styles. Coming to Interlochen, it was very helpful to hone in on something, focus on it, and explore it, so that I could figure out what I like.”

Jayla continued her explorations with different kinds of classes at Interlochen, and soon found that her focus revolved around ballet, contemporary dance, and composition.  

“That's where I felt most at home in terms of our curriculum here, which is why now I think I decided that I want to go into more contemporary dance, instead of ballet,” she says.

While ballet might not be her choice for the future, Jayla has certainly excelled in it—and it’s allowed her to discover her physical gifts.

“This year in The Nutcracker, I was Clara, Dewdrop, Columbine, Chocolate, Shortcake, and Mrs. Spice. But my favorite was Dewdrop. She does a lot of jumps, and does them to very happy, uplifting, nostalgic music. I really loved Dewdrop. That was my favorite role this year.”

Anyone who sees Jayla perform can tell that she loves to leap. She credits her instructors at Interlochen for helping her understand and develop her unique physical abilities.

“All the teachers appreciate your own personal aspects of your dancing and your movement,” she says. “They're not restrictive, and they let you explore what your body can do with your anatomy and structure. As an artist, I think that's my favorite part about the training and the teachers here.” 

Two ballet dancers dressed in garishly bright colors leap threateningly into the air.

Jayla Stafford (left) leaps into the air as one of the stepsisters in Interlochen's 2023 production of Cinderella.

I think that acting is the one discipline that I can most closely relate to dance. Working with theatre majors side by side has helped me express myself better through dance.

Jayla Stafford

Collaboration and learning how to act as a dancer

When Jayla looks back on her Interlochen experience, she’s struck by the many opportunities she’s had to collaborate with students in other disciplines and learn from them. Last year, she got a taste of theatre technique when she played one of the stepsisters in the ballet Cinderella.

“That role involves a ton of acting and it was very new to me, but it was very fun—-probably one of the most fun roles I've ever done,” she says.

Since then, she’s had even more chances to experience other disciplines. In the spring of 2023, she went to New York as part of the MUKTI tour, which brought students from every Arts Academy major together for an interdisciplinary performance.

“Working with every single major, integrating my movement, and finding out where there are intersections in our art forms was a very helpful experience for me as a dancer,” she says. “I think that acting is the one discipline that I can most closely relate to dance. Working with theatre majors side by side has helped me express myself better through dance. Learning how to feel my space, and where I am in space, is a habit I have now that came from working with the theatre department.”  

This year, Jayla is taking collaboration to another level through her involvement with Choreographers and Composers, a student group that matches student musicians with dancers to create original staged performances. As she works with music majors, Jayla is learning how to explain the technical aspects of dance in a way that’s accessible to others—a skill that may prove valuable to her in the professional world.

“I'm learning a lot about how to communicate with simpler vocabulary about dance in order for a music major to connect to that, so we can be on the same page,” she says. 

The community here is the main reason that I've stayed for four years, because I feel included. I feel like there are people who understand me on a different level than a friend from back home would.

Jayla Stafford

An atmosphere of community

The most important conversations Jayla is having, however, are the ones she shares with her friends. She says there’s something really special about the community she’s found at Interlochen, and it was evident to her from day 1.

“Starting from the first few months of my freshman year when I was completely new, the dance program here has always had the kind of community where someone will come up to you and say hi if you're sitting alone or not talking. Or they’ll just ask ‘How are you?’ And that kind of energy, especially when I was a freshman, was very helpful.”

Now that her senior year has passed the halfway mark, Jayla has made it her responsibility to keep this culture thriving as best as she can.

“I'm trying to keep the energy going where everybody feels like they have a friend, like they can talk to someone. I think that's a really good part about the Interlochen dance community,” she says. ”That includes just asking ‘Hey, do you want to grab dinner after dance?’ I think that’s something that you don't really find at a lot of other studios.”

It’s not just the overall culture that Jayla appreciates. She’s also grateful for the unusual depth and strength of the friendships she’s found.

“The friendships that I've made here have been so different than the ones that I made when I was in middle school,” she says. “I think it’s because of that arts connection, whether or not they are dance majors. We all understand the importance of writing a poem or writing music notes or doing some choreography. The community here is the main reason that I've stayed for four years, because I feel included. I feel like there are people who understand me on a different level than a friend from back home would.”

Jayla’s not sure yet what the future will hold for her: “I am open to a lot of options,” she says, though she’s especially interested in pursuing her skills with a modern or contemporary dance company. Wherever she goes, she’ll take the in-depth training, collaborative skills, and friendships she found at Interlochen.

Learn more about Dance at Interlochen Arts Academy