What My Teacher Taught Me: Juilliard’s Kayla Mak on Francisco Gella
March 23, 2023

As a dancer, I am who I am because of an entire village of incredible teachers. But for today, I’d like to highlight one who played a pivotal role in my career trajectory: Francisco Gella. I met Francisco when I was 10 or 11 years old while training at 24 Seven Dance Convention. His class was my first introduction to the world of concert dance, and I loved it. I enjoyed his contemporary-esque movement quality and technique and was immediately interested in his goal of connecting the convention world with the concert world. From that point on, I worked with him regularly at conventions, in master classes, and at his intensive Professional Dancers Institute (PDI), and when I was a senior in high school, he choreographed the solo I would submit to colleges. As I’ve gotten to know him over the years, I’ve recognized the same positive personality traits and characteristics I’ve found in all of my best teachers. He is an excellent mentor.

In a dance studio, a male teacher and a female student hug and smile at the camera.
Francisco Gella and Kayla Mak. Photo courtesy Mak.

If there was one word to describe Francisco’s teaching style, it would be “encouraging.” He had a lot of faith in me, which I found really motivating. He pushed me hard because he knew what I was capable of, even when I couldn’t see it. In his class, he encouraged me to take on challenging choreography. He put so many technical things in my senior solo that I didn’t think were even possible to do on pointe. I struggled with the work at first, and didn’t think I could get it to a place where I felt comfortable submitting it to Juilliard, but I trusted him as he continued to tell me he believed I could do it. His voice was so nurturing, and he spoke with such confidence that I had no choice but to trust him. I chose him as the choreographer for that important piece because he truly understood me as a dancer. That is the kind of training environment I thrive in—with someone who cares and is really invested in the futures of his students.

Over the years, Francisco and I have had many talks about my personal goals, and he always encouraged me not to let perceived boundaries limit me. My biggest concern about pursuing a professional dance career was that my race and ethnic differences would hinder me. I came from a studio where I was the only Asian girl, and while everyone was wonderful and supportive there, it was hard to ever feel totally comfortable. Francisco was the first Asian American artist and instructor I had ever worked with, and seeing his success was reassuring to me. We have this shared Asian background, and he understood my concerns, yet still believed in me and my dreams. When I talked to him about colleges and companies I aspired to join, he told me he genuinely thought I could do it.

In a field outdoors on a sunny day, a female dancer in a purple leotard, white pancake tutu and pointe shoes battements her right leg to the side, standing on a rock on pointe. She rests her left hand on the shoulder of a male dancer in gray tights, who stands profile to the camera with his arms curved slightly behind him.
Kayla Mak and Eric Best at Jacob's Pillow. Photo by Christopher Duggan Photography, courtesy Mak.

And, of course, he was right. I was accepted into Juilliard, where I have been fortunate enough to continue pursuing dance for the past couple of years. In my dance history class, I was actually assigned a paper in which I was asked to write about someone who was influential in my dance life. I chose Francisco and had the privilege of speaking on the phone with him about his background. I learned that he started dancing later in life and that he did it without parental support. He worked so hard to get to where he is today; he has broken boundaries and performed roles not traditionally done by people who look like him. He has succeeded in every way, and I have found it all incredibly heartening.

His life is a lesson to me in embracing my culture. His example has taught me to be true to myself and pursue whatever it is that interests me. Without him, I never would have auditioned for Juilliard. Whatever comes next in my career, I will have gotten there, in part, because of his guidance. He has heard me say this many times, but I am truly so grateful for him. He has helped me so much. Truthfully, all of my teachers have. I am so fortunate to have had the support and guidance of so many incredible mentors. I promise to do my best to make each of you proud.

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