a group of people standing on top of a wooden floor
Jenn Nieder smiles as her son Jake Craig lifts his dance instructor, Stephanie Zlockie, at On Your Toes dance studio in Tavernier. KELLIE BUTLER FARRELL/Keys Weekly

Dancer and choreographer Jake Craig is going places. For the women who know him best, his mother and his coach, his success is not surprising. 

“He’s just super naturally talented and then he has the work ethic to pick up the training,” said Stephanie Zlockie, Jake’s dance instructor and the owner of On Your Toes dance studio in Tavernier. The studio is Jake’s second home; Zlockie is like a second mother.  

“It’s crazy. She’s his other mom. She’s our family,” said Jake’s mom, Jenn Nieder, choking back tears describing the unbreakable bond the three now share.

For the last decade, Jake has rehearsed five to six days a week, sometimes 20 hours a week, perfecting his moves. From ballet to hip hop to jazz, he does it all, flawlessly. “I owe my entire love for dance, my entire process, my growth, my artistry, I owe it all to Stephanie,” he said.

 “Anytime you have a male dancer who has focus and talent, you push it because they are few and far between, ” said Zlockie of her protégé.

Jake Craig and Brookelyn Zlockie performing a first place duet in Orlando in March 2022 CONTRIBUTED

That focus, talent and resilience is paying off for the 18-year-old Coral Shores High School graduate. Jake was accepted to Pace University in New York City, where he plans to study commercial dance. He was awarded the President’s Scholarship, granting him $108,000 over four years at the private institution. 

“I did have options. There’s a lot of really, really good dance programs in this country, but I just thought this one would be the best for me and it’s in New York, so that’s a plus.”

The scholarship Jake received, although substantial, will not nearly cover the entire tuition at Pace University. But his Upper Keys community was not about to let him down. “He’s the kind of guy that you want to get behind,” said David Feder, president of Islamorada Community Entertainment (ICE), a non-profit organization. For the last 28 years, ICE has been granting art enhancement scholarships to local students. “One of our donors, who is extremely generous, was willing to cover the deficit. So now it looks like our commitment is going to end up being $31,000 a year for four years,” said Feder.

Heading to New York City to study dance is the next natural step for Jake. He’s worked for this his entire life. 

“It all started with dance moms,” said Nieder of her son’s early interest in dance. “He was watching dance moms and poring over dance moms and learning how to do all this stuff but he had never taken formal dance classes. Believe it or not, I have a picture of him when he was 2 years old doing the splits.” 

Jake’s family moved to Key Largo from Chicago when he was 8 years old. Nieder quickly signed her son up for formal dance training at On Your Toes. Zlockie instantly saw something special in him, spending the next several years taking him to competitions around the country. 

“It’s not just me who thinks he’s great. These people are noticing him out of a room of 150 dancers,” said Zlockie.

Jake with his team from the Coral Shores High School Canettes dance squad. CONTRIBUTED

Success did not come without sacrifice. Dance lessons and competitions are expensive. The costumes, entrance fees and travel expenses can easily add up to more than $1,000 per event. But Nieder, a single mom, was not deterred. She worked two jobs to support her son’s dream. “I also have cleaned the dance studio every Monday for the last six years to help pay for dance,” she added.

When he wasn’t dancing at On Your Toes, Jake was busy managing and choreographing moves for the Coral Shores High School dance squad, the Canettes. In his junior year, he filled in for a Canette who was sick. “I think that was the moment that I realized that I wanted to be on the field dancing, ‘This is really, really fun,’” he said.

Jake was the only male dancer on the Coral Shores High School squad. Until recently, he was also the only male dancer on the On Your Toes competition team. He admits that it was difficult, especially in middle school, having a passion for something that others may have viewed as unconventional.  Because of that experience, Jake now goes out of his way to mentor a young male dancer at On Your Toes. “I just want to make sure that everyone feels like they belong.”

Looking forward, Jake is not sure where his talent will ultimately lead. Broadway? Perhaps. Film? Maybe. But he is sure of one thing: the tireless support of his mother and dance coach along with the unwavering encouragement from the community has molded him into the confident artist he is today.  

“There’s opportunity wherever you make it,” Jake said. “A lot of times people will blame living in the Keys for not being as great as they could, but I see it as it’s what you make of it.”

Kellie Butler Farrell
Kellie Butler Farrell is a journalist who calls Islamorada home. Kellie spent two decades in television news and also taught journalism at Barry University in Miami and Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. She loves being outside, whether spending time on the water or zipping down the Old Highway on her electric bike, Kellie is always soaking up the island lifestyle. Kellie and her husband own an electric bike rental company, Keys Ebikes.