When Justin Gazzillo steps into a room, his vivacious personality and contagious laugh take center stage. His presence holds when he’s actually on stage, where the 11-year-old Pond Road Middle School student reguarly sweeps award ceremonies with his talent as a dancer.
In the last year, he has won five regional titles, two national titles and various top three spots in solo dances. Last summer, he had the opportunity to dance with American Idol winner Jordan Sparks in Las Vegas at the end of a competition, partnering with dancer Lennox Hopkins, who is gained fame from social media.
“Dance means that I can just be me, and I can just feel the music,” Gazzillo said. “It feels so natural to me.”
But the his confidence hasn’t always come so naturally.
At 3, he began dancing in “baby classes” alongside his older sister Julianna, now a freshman at Robbinsville High School. But he stopped at age 6 to pursue baseball, soccer and gymnastics.
“People just didn’t understand a boy dancing—they questioned why I would even let him dance,” said Gazzillo’s mother, Linda Vandegrift.
Gazzillo eventually left soccer to focus on gymnastics. It was while competing in gymnastic that the dance bug came back to bite him again. At 9, he returned to Stewart Johnson Dance Academy in Hamilton Square to begin perfecting his craft.
“I took one class at a convention and fell in love with it again,” Gazzillo said.
Gazzillo has accredited his success to the people who are his biggest cheerleaders: his mother, his dad Michael, stepdad Ken and his stepbrothers. He said no one in his family has ever questioned his choice to dance.
For the last two years, Gazzillo has been adding more dance classes to his week. He used to compete at the highest level in gymnastics with the Schafer Sports Center in Lawrence, but recently had to stop since he wants to focus more on dance.
“It was so hard to choose,” he said. “I was choosing between my friends and what I love. It was like if I quit the gym, I don’t get to see my friends, but if I quit dance then I’m leaving my family.”
Just this year, he choose to step back from gymnastics, and dance in lyrical, jazz, hip-hop, contemporary and ballet Monday through Thursday at the studio. He credits the flexibility and strength from gymnastics helping him become the successful dancer he is today. He will continue to train with the gymnastics team four hours a week. Each weekend is dedicated to rehearsals, shows and competitions.
“It was a hard move—he has good friends there (Schafer), and he was ranked Top 10 in Level 5 in NJ in 2015. It’s something he loves doing as well and the two things work hand in hand,” Vandegrift said.
“Stewart Johnson truly is my home away from home—there’s nowhere else I’d rather be,” Gazzillo said.
Currently, he competes as a soloist; with SJDA’s jazz, hip-hop and lyrical groups; and in the company numbers. He is the only boy in the SJDA company.
But Gazzillo gets to dance with his sister, Juliana. As with any brother-sister combination, they can get on each other’s nerves sometimes, but in the end they are each other’s biggest supporters.
“They really are always there for each other no matter what, cheering each other on,” Vandegrift said. “The fact that they can share this experience is pretty unique for a brother and sister—traveling all over to conventions and competitions, performing in recitals together.”
Gazzillo balances his dedication to the studio with academics and even trumpet lessons at Pond Road. It can be challenging at times.
“It’s like I’m ambidextrous with school and dance,” he said. “I cope with one and do the other at the same time.”
Through all of this, Gazzillo has had to learn how to deal with bullies in school. Almost every day, Gazzillo proudly shows off his title jackets and can be seen doing a saut de chat down the hallway. He hopes one day he can become a dance instructor like his idol and mentor Tyler Stewart. Gazzillo grew up watching Stewart dance, and now performs his choreography at competitions nationwide.
“It was really hard to cope with people making fun of boys dancing,” he said.
Looking into the crystal ball called the future, Vandegrift will support her son in whatever he decides to do with his life, but knows dance will be involved somehow.
“Kids’ dreams shift regularly, and while as a parent you still hold the end game in high regard, you have to allow them the freedom and support to follow their dreams while they can,” Vandegrift said. “I think that for Justin now, dance in one way or another, is probably the end game for a long time.”
Gazzillo added, “I really, really, really—I mean really—want to dance and that’s what I’m going to do.”