By Kenyatta Victoria
Jayla Sullivan, 34, knew that her joy stems from dance because it released her from the shackles and burdens of societal standards. The Buffalo, New York native started dancing when she was ten years old and working as a competitive gymnast, but one day her coach decided that she and her teammates should take a ballet class. It changed her perspective on dance.
“Instantaneously, I just kind of fell in love with it. It made more sense moving to music and letting it take control,” Sullivan said.
As she let the music guide her, she decided to quit gymnastics and asked her mom to let her enroll in dance. She embarked on her journey of dance styles such as jazz and tap for a year which fueled her passion for more. Dance was always an escape from the outside world for her, but she also had to battle many internal conflicts regarding her confidence.
“I always hated freestyle. That was the worst thing for me because I would see all these people doing tricks or technical elements that I was still working on, and I felt like I just didn’t bring that much to the genre,” she said. “Moving into my adulthood, I realized choreography is going to look different on each body…you can have ten people do the same thing, but it’s going to look different on each person. So that freestyle is that moment for you to just put it all out there. It’s become one of my favorite parts of dancing. You just get wrapped up and lost in the music.”
Sullivan values having a safe space as a transwoman, specifically in dance, because she has not seen herself represented in mainstream media.
“I want specifically trans-identifying people to be able to walk through a space, a little more weightless, a little more validated knowing that they deserve it,” she said. “People need to know that it’s okay to go out for things [and] that you deserve to take up the same space as a cisgender person.”
Growing into her adulthood, she noticed she would see and hear more harmful opinions than she would like to from the outside world, whether it was body shaming or gender shaming. She needed to find more freedom in her environment
So Sullivan decided she wanted to take a leap of faith and become a contestant on Lizzo’s reality show “Watch Out for the Big Grrrls.” “I feel like gender expression is a very teetering fine line. It’s mostly cis-gendered men and women that are a part of that dance world, so I didn’t necessarily think that I would belong,” Sullivan said. She almost missed her audition due to her battle with self-doubt.
While dwelling in her thoughts about thirty-six hours before the audition cut-off time, Sullivan received her sign. Lizzo pointed out that her audition description welcomed cisgendered and trans women to audition for the show.
“I was like, ‘maybe I do deserve the opportunity to go out for this,’” she said.
She then realized the worst she could hear was no and that she would never know the answer unless she tried. The biggest obstacle she faced during and after the show was shutting out the intrusive thoughts that ran through her mind. There were times when she pivoted into thinking she was not good enough, but she continued to affirm her worthiness.
As the show continued, viewers could see Sullivan realize her joy matters. Spoiler alert: In episode four, titled “Naked,” the ladies have to dance in front of a glass door, write something on it, and then break the glass. Sullivan decided to write her name symbolizing that she would no longer be in her way, thus fully amplifying her joy.
“Being able to break through the mirror was [that] moment where you can finally exhale,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called derogatory names because of my gender, LGBTQ slurs, [or] been fat-shamed…you can point out all these things, you can misgender me, you can do whatever you want to be rude, but what else do you have that you truly have against me as a person?”
Throughout the show’s journey, she was affirmed in knowing that her joy deserved to be represented in mainstream media by people in and out of the queer community. “There’s been a lot of people that have reached out to me,” she said. “[There] are cisgender white women living in religious communities that are raising their children and are finally seeing [and realizing] people do deserve love, they do deserve acceptance, and I think that’s the most beautiful thing.”
Sullivan never imagined having a large platform where people could see themselves through her. “I feel like because people haven’t seen somebody like me…that makes them feel like ‘oh, my gosh, I am valid, I deserve to be seen, and I deserve to follow my dreams,’” she said.
Through this new platform, she can give herself the encouragement and advice that she did not have back when she started dancing at ten years old. Being able to be the visibility that the next generation wants to see is what fulfilled Sullivan the most.
“If I have anything to say to the ten-year-old me, it’s that ‘you’re not going to understand yourself necessarily. People aren’t going to understand you, and you’re gonna go through a lot of BS in your life…over time, you’re going to know that you deserve to be seen, you deserve to be loved, and you are beautiful in who you are,’” she said.
As Sullivan embarks on her new journey, she remembers to be the joy that other people need to see.
Cover Image by Wesley Carvalho
Photo courtesy of Jayla Rose Sullivan.
I am Kenyatta Victoria, a cross-topic journalist and graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. I’m 23 years old and passionate about covering stories about music, pop culture, LGBTQ+ stories, upcoming artists and entrepreneurs, and more. I have my bachelor’s degree in Mass Media Arts concentrating in journalism from Clark Atlanta University. My passion for storytelling started when I realized I loved the feeling of telling stories about underrepresented voices in the entertainment industry. Follow me on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.