Dance educator Amy Payne’s heart melted the first time she met Jilan McQuilkin. Amy was backstage, volunteering at a recital for the studio she was going to be taking over the next season when Jilan, then 10, rushed up to her and said, “I am so looking forward to taking class from you.” A special bond was born.
Now 17, Jilan is in her 14th season at Maranatha School of Dance & the Arts in Cape Coral, Florida. Connection is important at this faith-based studio, and Jilan’s life and story show her strong connection to Amy, who she says always seems to know “the right thing to say and when to say it,” to her classmates, to others who share her Asian heritage, and to God.
Jilan was born in 2005 in China, most likely on June 28, during China’s one-child policy population planning initiative that led to the adoption of thousands of Chinese girls. Her adoptive parents held her for the first time on April 23, 2006, when they traveled to Nanchang to meet their new daughter. Jilan says adoption never had a negative connotation for her despite the occasional awkward moment when people realize her parents are not Chinese. “As a Christian, you learn about how God adopts you into His family. That concept was not hard for me to grasp,” she says.
Karen McQuilkin says her daughter showed a natural sense of rhythm and love of music—and flexibility—even as a toddler, and enrolled her at Maranatha at age 4. After Amy took over the studio, she encouraged Jilan to explore various dance genres and character arcs. Amy cast Jilan in the studio’s annual story shows portraying the apostle Paul in “The Divine Echo,” Sorrow in “Hinds’ Feet on Hinds Places,” Colin in “The Secret Garden,” and Gideon in “Pinocchio.”
After completing Maranatha’s STEP (Student Teacher Education Program) training, a by-invitation program that trains dancers to become student teachers and leaders, Jilan—as a sixth grader—became a teacher’s assistant and quickly blossomed as a role model for her peers.
Last season at age 16 Jilan was given her own classes to teach, but when she struggled to keep up the energy in a class of two students she found herself questioning whether she even liked teaching. Her “a-ha” moment came while teaching classes for Maranatha at a local festival. “This ended up being my favorite event of the year! I realized that I fell in love with teaching because of the joy and captivation that students have with dance,” she says. “There’s a special feeling when you help a student understand something, or when they finally execute a move they’d been working on for a while.”
Connection wasn’t always a given in Jilan’s life. Since her adoptive parents didn’t share her race or ancestry, Jilian sometimes felt like she was “in-between,” not belonging truly to one community or another. “I never had some of the quintessential Asian experiences because I was adopted; but when people look at me, I’m still Asian,” she says.
As racial tensions flared during the pandemic, Jilan became more aware of her heritage. “I watched people who looked like me bear the consequences of a virus they weren’t responsible for,” Jilan says. Yet she felt conflicted, almost as if her upbringing made her “less Asian.”
Reading a social media post on the growing vitriol against Asians—a post written by another adopted Chinese girl—Jilin realized there was a whole community of people who felt as she did. “I realized that I was not alone, and that I never should’ve had to feel like I wasn’t worthy of belonging to the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community,” Jilan says. “I remember feeling seen and realizing that no matter what you go through, you are never alone.”
She continues to find ways to grow connections within both Maranatha and the greater community. In her sophomore year, Jilan suggested expanding the studio’s classical style outreach dance company by creating a hip-hop performance group called McCrew. Launched in her junior year, McCrew’s 10 members performed at various community events, Maranatha performances, and church youth groups.
MCrew is not just about serving the community, but also about friendship: Jilan felt there previously wasn’t an opportunity for hip-hop students to experience camaraderie in a team environment. “MCrew is the space to build such a feeling,” she says, “and I’ve seen friendships form and grow through it.”
Amy says it’s in the small, day-to-day places where Jilan puts forth strength of character and integrity—and connection with others. Jilin consistently has a positive and humble outlook, generosity of praise, and a tireless desire to do her best. “She may not even realize the impact that she has on others, and that’s the beautiful thing,“ Amy says “Her leadership is organic; it flows out of who she is.”