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Student Spotlight: Jillian Olson of Forté Arts Center

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Picture a dancer, self-conscious and struggling, a back-row regular with a heart of gold. On the advice of a concerned teacher the girl spends the summer at a picturesque dance camp in the mountains and—blaBLAM!—she finds her mojo and becomes a star.

This might sound like a Disney Channel tween movie, but it’s real life starring Jillian Olson. “You know how in movies and TV shows there is always that one character in all the high school clubs and activities? I always wanted to be that person—until I got to camp and started to be that person,” says Jillian, a high school senior and lifelong dancer who describes her “after-camp” self as a “mixture of Sharpay from High School Musical and Blair from Gossip Girl.”

The teacher in this feel-good tale is Pam Simpson, also the studio owner of Forté Arts Center in Morris, Illinois. Although Jillian had started at the studio as a tot and progressed to the competition team, she wasn’t the “typical really advanced, really hungry dancer,” Pam says. When Jillian was around 14 and her mom expressed “wanting her to do more things,” Pam sought to create a “dance pathway” for her meek but creative student, suggesting she take a choreography class and also attend Camp Telaphiba, a summer dance retreat in Copper Mountain, Colorado.

“It changed her life,” Pam says of the camp. “She came back to dance a totally different person. She was a leader in the classroom. She’d stand in front, be the first to go across the floor. She believed in herself.”

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Jillian remembers her former self as “very self-conscious in how I looked physically, how I danced, and how I was as a person inside, to the point where I didn’t like who I was.” In an environment where she could script a new self, Jillian responded to the staffers who complimented and encouraged her, made friends with dancers from around the country, and dared to try new activities like ziplining. At home, “people were comfortable with me being uncomfortable,” she says. At camp, people “saw me as a dancer and as a person.”

Back at Forté, Jillian embraced the role of leader, dancing down front “so people can watch me and see how I love dancing,” sharing her camp experience at a team meeting, and encouraging her younger teammates. At high school Jillian—who was always quiet—became involved in student government, started writing (she won a state award for short stories), and became “the person who brings the body glitter” and leads the chants during football games.

This past summer, recognizing her leadership potential, Camp Telaphiba administration asked Jillian to serve as a counselor-in-training for the summer of 2022. Pam says her student never thought she’d achieve that honor. Thrilled, Jillian responded by writing a lengthy, heartfelt “thank you” that praised all her Forté teachers, called out younger studio dancers for the growth she’s seen them experience, and described the camp as a “toy fixer for broken China dolls” because “this camp has fixed me.”

Today the teenager who often felt unseen talks at length about being a leader. She finds inspiration in Miss Pam as a female business owner, and rather than a technical feat, her “dance goal” is to show younger dancers how to believe in themselves and be happy in dance. “Push yourself to the front and be that person you’ve been seeing on the Disney channel movie,” Jillian says.

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As a studio owner and teacher, Pam was there during the COVID pandemic when Jillian (like so many other young dancers) felt isolated and troubled, advising her to stay strong and trust herself. Jillian told her director that all she could think about was that special moment at her senior recital when Pam would give her a hug and “talk about what I mean to you” in front of an audience of family and friends. “Since I was 6, I’ve dreamed of being on that stage with the graduates,” she explained.

Pam was stunned. Sure, it was studio tradition for her to send off each senior with some heartfelt words, but she never realized just how much that recital moment meant to dancers like Jillian, who weren’t destined to win a first-place solo trophy. Pam says she’s been thinking anew about how studio traditions such as pep rallies and pizza parties, social media spotlights and studio jackets, five-year trophies and 10-year hoodies, function as important milestones in her dancers’ lives.

“In our dance world, we celebrate the high achievements and those technical triple-turn dancers, but don’t always stop to notice the kid in the back who needs the extra attention and love,” Pam says. “Jillian’s is a great story for dance teachers—let’s remember to look out for and celebrate everyone, especially the kids like her who just love to dance.”

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