Payton Johnson panicked when she saw the missed call. Ever since a grueling seven-hour dance audition in Chicago in late January, all she thought about was getting that phone call. She knew if she got it, she was in.

After all, The Juilliard School only calls if you’ve been accepted.

“I talked to people who are at Juilliard now, and they told me if I get a phone call from New York, drop everything and answer it,” Johnson said. “If they’re calling, that means you got in.”

A physical therapy appointment already scheduled for that day kept Johnson noticing the call until the ringing stopped. Staring excitedly at the number with the New York area code, Johnson knew this was the call she had waited her entire life for, but she couldn’t believe it had actually come — and that she missed it.

“I freaked out once I saw the area code,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know if I should call back, or if they’d call me back. I was completely at a loss. I was so mad at myself for not answering it.”

Trembling as she fumbled for her phone, Johnson took a break from her shoulder treatment to make the call. Minutes later she was speaking with Juilliard artistic director Lawrence Rhodes, who said she along with 23 others had been selected out of 456 applicants nationwide for acceptance to the renowned university.

The seemingly farfetched dream of going to the country’s top performing arts school was going to come to fruition, and she found out just 10 days before her 18th birthday.

More than a month has passed since that life-changing phone call, but the memory is still fresh in Johnson’s mind as she prepares to graduate from the University Laboratory School next month before heading to The Juilliard School for the start of classes Sept. 5.

She was still beaming about it recently one Monday afternoon as she sat inside a place that’s been a “second home” for her over the years: The Jean Leigh Academy of Dance.

“These people are my family,” Johnson said as she glanced around the studio she’s trained at for nearly 11 years. “I could do the weirdest things around them, and they don’t even care.”

For nearly 20 years, Jean Leigh has stood in its current location off Lockhart Road: Just take a left before the railroad tracks and go about 500 feet past the Kids in Motion day care center.

Since she was about 7 years old, this has marked the end of the daily journey for Payton, who’s made the trip from Baton Rouge to train at the Denham Springs dance studio “five, sometimes six days,” her mother Lori Johnson said.

The car rides weren’t that bad: They also served as Payton’s designated nap time, a way for her to rest up for another day of training or wind down once it was over. It’s probably the main reason she never got a driver’s license.

“I don’t want to get it because that means I’d have to drive here and I’d lose that hour of sleep coming here and hour of sleep going back,” Payton joked.

Even with the car rides, there hasn’t been much rest for Payton on the way to her dream of being accepted into The Juilliard School.

Her life has centered around dancing, ever since she followed her older sister into a dance studio when she was 2 years old. By the time Payton was 5, Lori said her youngest daughter was able to mimic what the older kids were doing — and sometimes do it even better.

“I don’t think she ever had any idea what she was doing, but she was doing everything really well, and people started to take notice,” Lori said.

One person who took notice was Tamu Ortenzio, who saw a 6-year-old Payton at Tari’s School of Dance in Baton Rouge. Payton recalled Ortenzio making her lift her leg above her head and hold it there as the dance instructor surveyed every slight move or minor flinch.

After having Payton perform a series of moves, Ortenzio approached Lori and asked to privately train her daughter.

“She said she knew Payton could go places,” Lori recalled.

The dance lessons began in Baton Rouge but relocated to Denham in 2007 when Ortenzio got on board with Dianna Jones, founder of the Jean Leigh Academy of Dance, which was also where Payton’s older sister, Caitlin Johnson, trained.

Shortly after coming to Jean Leigh, Payton was placed in classes with students more than twice her age, though she was only 8 at the time. Eventually, the instructors had the gifted but shy Payton demonstrating the movements and techniques in front of the entire class, something that took her some time to adjust to.

“I was always the youngest one being put in front of all the dances, and the older kids were always talking behind my back,” Payton said. “I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was doing everything right, but people thought I was slowly taking over or something, and I didn’t want that. I felt like kind of an outsider sometimes.”

Those insecurities eventually gave way as Payton delved deeper into the world of dancing and began experiencing the thrill of performing before large audiences in packed-out venues.

One performance she vividly remembers came in sixth grade, when she performed as Clara in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular at the Grand Ole Opry. At the time, Payton was having difficulty mustering the energy and desire to continue with her intense training, wanting a normal life that afforded her time for friends and fun.

But that all changed once she stepped on the Grand Ole Opry stage.

“It gave me a new love for dance, being able to perform in front of an audience at the Grand Ole Opry,” Payton said. “That changed something.”

However, the most important performance of Payton’s life didn’t end in any applause.

On Jan. 27, Payton and nearly 100 other hopefuls auditioned for Juilliard’s dance division at the Hubbard Street Dance Company in Chicago. After surviving the first three cuts, Payton made it to the final stage of the audition, which was an interview with the judges.

Payton recalled feeling nervous at the start of the interview but calming down once it became “more like a normal conversation.”

“They wanted to see if you had a normal life outside of dance, but I was like, ‘Nope, that’s pretty much it,’” Payton said.

After that, there was no contact from Juilliard until Payton saw a voicemail pop up on her phone during call a physical therapy appointment on March 13.

Once Payton called back and Rhodes informed her of her acceptance into Juilliard, the first person she dialed was her mother, who cried on the phone with her excited daughter. Payton remembers her physical therapist even shedding a few tears.

She then made a call to Jones, who had given Payton last-minute advice during a late session before the Chicago audition. But Jones, or “Miss D.,” as Payton often calls her, cut that practice short, not needing to see any more of the flawless routine.

“She had everything that she needed to go into that audition fully prepared,” Jones said. “That’s what she had been training for all those years. She was ready.”

After years of long car rides, late practices, aching joints and nerve racking performances, Payton has been able to wind down a bit. She recently took a spring break trip with friends to Pensacola — the first vacation and week-long break from dancing in her entire life — and is set to graduate from the University Laboratory School on May 19.

Now that Juilliard is a reality and no longer a dream, she said it was “all worth it in the long run.”

“In order to get to where I wanted to be, I knew I had to make certain sacrifices,” Payton said. “I had to be here at Jean Leigh 24/7 working my butt off. Yeah, it stunk that I couldn’t have much of a life outside of dance, but I can now say that I’m going to Juilliard.”


David Gray is the Lifestyle editor at The Livingston Parish News. He can be reached via email at You can also follow him on Twitter @davidj_gray.

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