"Dancing into Confidence": A Conversation with #Girlboss Jessica Melck

Ausome interviews Jessica Melck, a dancer, choreographer, and artist who gets candid about her journey to confidence and career success.

Jessica Melck (above).

It’s graduation season, and to celebrate, Ausome is introducing you to a recent graduate in our #ausomecommunity: the extraordinary dancer, choreographer, artist, and writer Jessica Melck. Melck is from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and is a long-time loyal and active member of the #ausomecommunity. Melck recently received her BFA with a concentration in printmaking and a BSE in Art Education from Millersville University. With her incredible energy and charisma, Melck has shared her journey with us, discussing everything from Lizzo and Bob Fosse, to her rewarding job as a dance teacher and choreographer at a local studio, to both the challenges and rewarding aspects of having ASD and ADHD. 

Hi Jess! Let’s start with a fun fact about yourself, and a dream you hope to fulfill. 

JM: (Fun Fact:) My parents were born and raised in South Africa and moved to the states before I was born. I also have family in England and Australia. I’d love to visit my family in Australia someday soon!

(Dream I hope to Fulfill:) I hope to inspire my students to embrace their creativity. I also hope to continue spreading information about autism to help people have a better understanding of what autism is like.

If you could describe yourself in three words, what would they be? 

JM: Creative, loyal, and caring.

What are your hobbies and interests?

JM: I’ve been dancing since I was five, and it actually helped me overcome a lot of my social anxiety. I also make art and write stories. I also like learning other languages from time to time! Most recently I’ve been working on Spanish and Japanese.

Jessica Melck (left), dancing in self-choreographed"Blue Lips" duet.

That’s amazing! Ok, walk us through a typical ‘day in the life.’

JM: Currently, with the quarantine going on, I’ve been struggling a lot to function in a way that is productive. (I was basically nocturnal for almost two weeks, but I’ve been working on fixing my sleep schedule.)

Before the quarantine, I was student teaching, and my schedule during that is pretty similar to my summer teaching schedule, so I think I’ll try and wrap that all into one.

Usually, I set a couple different alarms for myself because it’s very tough for me to get up and just go right away, so I like to give myself fifteen minutes just to gather my thoughts. Sometimes I skip breakfast, but I try to at least eat a granola bar when I can. Then I would go to school (or work) and teach until about 3:30. Then I usually have dance classes that start around 5, so I try to eat a quick dinner before that and I use my evenings to plan what I’m teaching the next day.

I usually like to have a little more of a busy schedule because when I’m not being active, I find it a lot more difficult to go to sleep.

Please name three famous people/fictional characters/historical figures/cultural icons who you admire the most. Also, please briefly explain what it is about them you admire.

JM: Currently, I absolutely LOVE Bob Fosse! Last year I choreographed a production of Pippin at my college and it was an absolutely amazing experience! Even now a year after the show happened, he’s found his way into my artwork and I see his influence in my choreography still!

I’m a super big fan of super heroes, and they actually got me back into making art in high school. My favorite would have to be Wally West (Kid Flash). He was dedicated enough to recreate his uncle’s experiment to get his super speed when he was just 13 years old, and I really admire that! He’s also always so upbeat and funny in the show Young Justice particularly, and I think seeing how confident he was helped me a lot.

Another choreographer, but I absolutely love the work of Kate Jablonski! I remember seeing her dances for the first time and I was truly blown away! Her dances inspired me a lot to want to become a better dancer. One of my favorite dances she did is “On the Radio.” Another is her dance to “Some Nights.”

Jessica Melck (middle, center).

Autism is manifested differently everyone who has it. I feel like a lot of people still have such a narrow view of what autism looks like, and I hope that continuing to circulate information about autism will help more people to understand.

Super cool...so on the topic of choreography, tell us what kind of music you’re into. Do you have a favorite genre? Who are some favorite musical icons? What’s on your playlist these days?

JM: I have too much music! I feel like I have different music for different situations. I love musical theatre, so a lot of what I listen to while I’m walking around or driving is music from Musicals I like. A lot is from shows performed by Starkid on YouTube. I really just like songs that will make me happy!

Right now I’m really enjoying some Lizzo songs as well. I’m currently getting back into Never Shout Never (who used to be my favorite band.)

One of my camp kids described my taste in music well. He said, “half the stuff is music we all know, and the other half is weird, but a good weird.”

Currently, I’ve been listening to the music from Starkid’s new show Black Friday. It wasn’t my favorite show of theirs, but I like the music!

We’d love to know more about your relationship to dance and your role as a dance teacher /choreographer. What is it that you love about dance? What types of dancing do you do, specifically? When/where/how can we see you perform? Who are some of your dance-inspiration figures? Anything recent projects?

JM: I love that dance allows me to express my emotions in a way that I can’t always say with words. I also love how dance can be used to tell a story!

I’ve tried almost every style of dance (ballet, hip hop, jazz, musical theatre, tap, contemporary, modern and lyrical). My favorites are modern, contemporary, tap, jazz and musical theatre.

Sometimes I post videos of different combinations I come up with on my instagram @awkward_jess, and I also have a dance teacher Instagram @missjess_umdgc where I have some videos with my students and campers. For the 2020/2021 dance season I’m actually starting a performance team for my studio, so I’ll definitely be keeping my social media updated with those performances! I have a duet I did with my roommate up on YouTube (Awkward Jess).

As for inspiration, I talked about Bob Fosse and Kate Jablonski earlier, so I’m going to talk about other inspirations...

I was inspired a lot by my first modern teacher that I had, and I still am very inspired by her. I also love Lucy Vallely a lot for her contemporary style. Also, my tap teacher from my senior year of high school was a big inspiration. I improved so much that year as a tap dancer, and that had a lot to do with the training he provided.

Hopefully I’ll be doing a small summer showcase this summer! I wasn’t able to do my last college recital, so I’m trying to do something small so I can at least see a smaller version of what the dance I was teaching would’ve looked like.

A slideshow of Jessica Melck's artwork, shown above.

Amazing. Now, let’s talk ASD & ADHD. How old were you when you were first diagnosed with/learned that you had autism? What was your experience like in that moment: Was it a positive experience, a negative experience, or neutral? How has your relationship with identifying as a person on the spectrum changed or evolved over time, if so? What influenced these changes?

JM: I was first diagnosed in the second or third grade. I also got diagnosed with ADHD around the same time. For me, it was a pretty positive experience. My mom always told me it was something that made me special and unique. When I told my friends at school, they were intrigued to learn more, and supported me fully. I was also very lucky to be part of an amazing graduating class at my high school. For the most part, everyone was there for everyone. Even if you weren’t close, we all cared about each other’s well being.

I’m still not sure if it’s because I went to college in a rural area, and maybe the general population wasn’t as used to diversity, but it wasn’t until college that I began to feel truly misunderstood. However it was because of these events that I’m actually even more vocal now about my autism, so that I can educate people, so that others don’t have to experience what I did.

What was your experience like growing up? What are some challenges you may have faced, related or non-related to being on the autism spectrum? Of these challenges, which have you overcome, which persist? What methods have you used which have helped you on your journey?

JM: Growing up I always struggled to focus long enough to do homework. I also dealt with a lot of social anxiety, and was very nervous to speak up in class. Up until halfway through high school, those issues persisted and my social anxiety even got worse. I had a very small group of friends, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I struggled at making new friends.

I think what really helped me was when my (now) boss asked me to assist in teaching one of her classes. That experience helped me become a lot more confident speaking in front of people, and I got to continue assistant teaching my senior year as part of my graduation project.

I continue to experience anxiety in certain social situations, but certainly a lot less now than I did then.

College was where I experienced some not-so-great interactions from people due to their views on autism. For instance, there were people who claimed I used autism as an excuse for everything, instead of understanding that reflection and self-awareness are integral components of dealing with the challenges that ASD and ADHD may present in any given moment. For instance, when I am in a situation where I’m feeling like my ADHD is affecting me a lot one day, I know that the most helpful thing to do is to simply be self aware; in the moment; and to just notice, “oh, I seem to be hyper today”...and to proceed to make conscious adjustments accordingly. 

Essentially, the people who could not understand this process just wanted me to “mask.”

At the end of the day, those experiences have really taught me to trust my instincts more, when it comes to who I let into my life.

A method I’ve adopted when I try to get artwork done is that I've started bringing earbuds with me to art classes to listen to music while I’m working. This has helped keep me from getting distracted, so that I can get more work done in class.

I also have a solid group of friends who are always willing to provide help and to offer me guidance when I need it most. 

"When I am in a situation where I’m feeling like my ADHD is affecting me a lot one day, I know that the most helpful thing to do is to simply be self aware; in the moment; and to just notice, “oh, I seem to be hyper today”...and to proceed to make conscious adjustments accordingly. Essentially, the people who could not understand this process just wanted me to “mask.”

In which ways (or not) has being on the autism spectrum had an overall influence on your identity, or shaped your journey?

JM: I feel like I associate a lot of who I am with my autism. I am very proud of it and I feel like I wouldn’t be who I am today.

I always struggle to put an answer like this into words. 

Overall, though, I definitely think that I’ve had a lot of positive experiences from having autism, and I’m especially glad that I had many positive experiences before going to college, as I’ve since decided to turn the situation into an opportunity to educate people who may not have a nuanced understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD.

Who are some key people who have helped you on your journey? How so?

JM: My mom helped me a LOT. She knew that there was something different about me, and went through a lot of trouble to get a diagnosis for me. She raised me to know that having Autism and ADHD was a positive and integral aspect of who I am, and never let it stop me from doing what I wanted to do.

My best friends also have helped me a lot while growing up. They were always supportive of me while growing up, and we’ve been best friends since kindergarten.

My boss was also very helpful for me in my journey. She’s helped me so much in gaining confidence and leadership skills, and my dance studio has quickly become a second home where I can always feel safe.

My roommate for the past two years was especially helpful during my struggles at college. She was probably my biggest advocate and helped me get through my toughest patches of time.

How do you envision yourself in 5-10 years? Any goals you’d like to achieve, places you’d like to visit, books you’d like to read, jobs you’d like to have, people you’d like to meet?

JM: I’d love to move out into an apartment and to continue to teach dance at my studio. I want to start an after-school art program, and maybe become a substitute teacher as well if I have the time.

I have been working on some different writing projects since high school, so I’d like to finish those up! I also want to try to put some more time into making artwork for myself, so I can maybe start selling some stuff.

I’d love to travel more! I’ve done quite a bit of traveling in my life, but I’d still like to visit lots of other places!

There are so many books I want to read! I want to finish the Harry Potter series and I want to finally finish Fangirl (I got about halfway through both before getting distracted.)

As for people I’d like to meet, I always get anxious meeting new people when they are people I look up to. If I could, I’d love to meet some of my favorite drag queens! (I’m a big fan of RuPaul’s drag race). I have such an appreciation for the art of drag and I think it would be such a fun experience!

"I feel like I associate a lot of who I am with my autism. I am very proud of it and I feel like I wouldn’t be who I am today."

Tell us about your proudest moment in life.

JM: My proudest moment was definitely when we were in the final rehearsals when I choreographed Pippin. For the second or third run through of the show, the director invited some guests in for a viewing, and one offered me an internship on the spot!

A close second would be when my dance “to Zero to Hero” hit the stage. It was the second group dance I ever choreographed for my studio, and I had to leave the backstage because I started crying immediately; I was so overwhelmed with excitement.

Jessica Melck's featured choreography in Bob Fosse and Roger O. Hirson's Pippin.

If you had a Ted Talk, what would be the title and topic of your Ted Talk?

JM: I love Ted Talks! I think if I did one it would be titled something like, “Dancing Into Confidence,” and it would be about dance’s influence on my life as an autistic individual, and how dance has helped me to cope with my social anxiety.

Please tell us anything else about having autism that you would like us to know/understand/experience/consider.

JM: I struggle when it comes to processing information, so for instance, I need to hear things like instructions multiple times just to understand what is being said. The same goes for reading. I’ve found that what helps me a lot (especially when watching movies or television) is having subtitles turned on, so that I can intake information visually and auditorily. This has helped me immensely!

Jessica Melck, above.

What is one thing about autism that you want people to know?

JM: The most important thing I wish people would understand is that autism is manifested in different ways for everyone who has it. I feel like a lot of people still have such a narrow view of what autism looks like, and I hope that continuing to circulate information about autism will help more people to understand. 

Ausome encourages you to keep up with this #girlboss. To continue staying connected with Ms. Melck, visit her social media handles as shown below. Or, visit her profile at www.weareausome.com





Facebook: Jessica Melck

Youtube: Jessica Melck's Youtube Channel

This interview was conducted by Sofia Bianchi, Founder and Creator of www.weareausome.com, and a student at Columbia University.