Middle-school dancer wins big at Junior Olympics

13-year-old collects five gold medals, 23 ribbons at California competition


Jaiden Wettstein, a rising eighth-grader at South Side Middle School, said that when it comes to competitive dance, “You either do really well, or you don't, but it always comes back to ‘why are you doing it?’”

Why does Jaiden do it? “That’s not a question I ever really think about,” he said. “It’s just in me.” After some thought, he added: “I love that it’s fun, challenging, and unique. It’s hard work that I see results from.”

Most recently, such results came at the second annual West Coast AAU Junior Olympic Games for DanceSport in Garden Grove, Calif. last month. Jaiden, 13, and his partner, Layla Maciejka-Eleisawi, a sixth-grader from Oyster Bay, took home five gold medals, a silver and a bronze, as well as 23 first-place ribbons. He said he’s proudest of the bronze medal, because that one came from an older, more advanced category.

The competition lasted for 14 hours, during which Jaiden alternated between minute-long routines and short breaks. Afterward, he was so exhausted, he said, that he fell asleep before his head hit the pillow.

“Dance is an actual sport,” Jaiden said. “It takes lots of training.” He added that he felt proud walking around wearing the Junior Olympic badge, which bears the title, “Athlete.”

For Jaiden, contact sports were always out of the question. He was born prematurely, which left him with lung problems. It isn’t as bad as it used to be, he said, although he still has to carry an inhaler with him at all times.

Beyond health obstacles, Jaiden faced criticism from his peers. “He’s had it rough over the years being a boy dancer in such a sports-driven town,” said his mother, Michelle.

Jaiden said that it was worse when he was younger. But in fifth grade, a program called “Dancing Classrooms” came to Covert Elementary School, and had all of his classmates learning techniques that he had been practicing for years.

“This course made it easier for other kids my age to see what I liked to do in my spare time,” he wrote in an essay that was submitted as part of an arts scholarship application. “Because it was difficult, the other kids were impressed with how good I was at it.”

Jaiden and Layla perform a diverse catalog of routines, including waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, and tango in the “ballroom” category, and samba, cha-cha, jive, and rumba in the “Latin” category. They hold awards for both ballroom and Latin, although Jaiden says he enjoys Latin more, because it’s faster.

Michelle says it’s an exciting time for her son to be competing. This is only the second year that Dancesport has returned as an event in the Junior Olympics since its removal from the games in 2003.

What’s next for Jaiden? After a month of relaxing, he’ll start learning the moves and routines for the next level of competition. He’s also planning to perform with groups of fellow ballroom dancers at events like bar mitzvahs and weddings, and hopes to eventually become a trainer for other aspiring DanceSport athletes.