'I want to make things that I love': ASU grad builds artistry, community through dance

A dancer poses with leg extended against a concrete wall

Photo by Chloe DeMarce


Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

Shayla Eshelman first realized she wanted to study dance after choreographing as a high school student. 

“I’ve been dancing since I was 2, but I didn’t start taking it seriously until high school,” Eshelman said. “We had a prompt where we had to close our eyes and explore. When I opened my eyes, a lot of people were crying. A lot of people said I took them to another world.”

A graduate of Arcadia High School in Phoenix, Eshelman decided to study at Arizona State University after researching different dance programs. During her time at ASU, she has received the Friends of Dance Endowment grant and the Katherine Lindholm Lane Scholarship. Eshelman said she’s happy with the experience she’s had at ASU and the friends she has made. It helped put her future goals into perspective.

“I got to college and realized that I want to make a difference with my work,” she said. “It’s about creating and exploring and continuing to grow. I want to make things that I love.”

Eshelman is graduating in May with a bachelor's degree in dance from the School of Music, Dance and Theatre and a minor in African and African American studies from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She was named the Outstanding Undergraduate Student in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. While pursuing her degree, she showcased her creativity at school concerts and venues around the Valley.

“I realized I can not only make people feel something when I personally move, but I can make them feel something when I create something with other dancers,” Eshelman said. “Seeing my work come alive on other people and seeing them grow helped me realize how much I love it.”

Eshelman is also an effective, experienced leader. In 2023, Eshelman directed the Latin Sol Festival, a free three-day event that brings together Latin-style dancers from around the world to share knowledge with ASU students. She worked closely with ASU clinical assistant professor David Olarte to produce the event.

“Shayla has fully embraced and performed roles of leader and follower beautifully, both in the studio, on stage and in her dance community — inspiring future dance undergraduates to do the same,” Olarte said.

“Shayla possesses an enthusiastic curiosity to learn multiple forms and appreciation for what rich histories these forms provide, a passion to be with others and in community seen in her leadership and service within the dance community, specifically as director of Latin Sol in 2022–23, and an exceptional work ethic which has driven her to excel in producing work that speaks to her identity and culture, and can be embraced from a wide variety of audiences.”

Eshelman shared what she learned at ASU, her advice for high school and college students, the professors who mentored her, her plans after graduation and what world problem she’d like to tackle.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: When I found salsa and then when I really understood more what hip-hop is. The people who helped that were Professor House (Jorge Magana) and Professor David Olarte. And then from there, having Professor LaTasha Barnes come in to even go further in hip-hop helped a lot. The new professors coming in shifted my views. They really help me find the pathway from my freshman year to sophomore year. 

Q: What is your advice for students in high school looking to study dance?

A: I would say that I know it’s hard, but be true to yourself. Understand that there are so many people out there that also dance, but there’s only one you. You are the only you. There’s only one Shayla. There’s only one person with my mind and my creative process who can put out work how I see it. As you’re going through it, know that if you see someone dancing better in a certain skill, you're going to get there in your own way. Don’t stunt your process of growth by comparing yourself to others.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in college?

A: Don’t be quiet. In my years at ASU, there have been a lot of situations that have happened that I’ve felt that because of where I stood in the dance world and my color, there was no right way for me to speak up. Nothing happens if you don’t say something. Not just for seeing bad things, it is for everything. If you feel passionate about work, an event or something you believe in, then I would say don’t let anyone keep you quiet. I had to learn that. Not being quiet also goes with knowing when it’s time to speak and when it’s time to hold it and create something even bigger. 

Q: What professors mentored you during your time at ASU?

A: A huge thank you to my professors. I had a lot of people help me get me to where I am now, like Cari Koch and Cari Smith. I love all of them. The two professors who have helped me the most are Professor David Olarte and Shola K. Roberts. They’ve given me opportunities that have opened a lot of doors to me and opened my mind. I am very thankful for the people who have helped me grow during my time at ASU, including my friends and family. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: My plan for now is to continue to train with Stilo Dance company with David Olarte and Carla León Celaya. I’m going to continue to train in my foundations and my styles, working my craft and getting better. I’m going to work on creating my show that I want to happen in 2025. I’ll be spending a lot of time planning and working on my show. 

Q: If you could solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would start with something small. I would like to fix how information gets passed down from decade to decade, working on getting the right factual knowledge into systems, into books, into young people’s minds and into older generations’ minds. 

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