Sitting inside one of the studios at Morton’s Dance Center in Landisville, the bass from hip-hop music in an adjoining room pulses and booms, filling the air with energy. Studio owner Elijah Morton and one of his students, Drew Esbenshade, sit in front of a wall emblazoned with the center’s motto: “Always hustle hard. Stay humble always.” Elijah exemplifies the quote, rising from humble beginnings, putting in the work to achieve his dreams, and passing his hard-earned wisdom to his students.
He’s hesitant to talk about his past, because he doesn’t want it to define him, but Elijah’s story is extraordinary. He grew up in the foster care system, bouncing around several different homes in Central PA. While taking graphic design classes at ITT Tech, he came across a YouTube video of a young man dancing. “I was like, there’s no way he’s getting paid to do that—but at the end of the video I saw something come up that said, ‘Book me now.’ I’m like, ‘What? Is this a real thing?’”
The only dancing that Elijah had done up to that point was in a club, but he decided, at the age of 21 and not really knowing anything about the medium, that he wanted to dance for a living. His foster family at the time wasn’t supportive of his new dream, so he picked up and moved to New York City on his own. His story could’ve turned out very differently, but Elijah hustled and trained and ended up meeting a mentor who took him under his wing. “A lot of people call it talent, but I think fear fueled me. I ended up finding some deep connection or deep passion for dance in my heart. It took over.”
Eventually Elijah ended up in Carlisle, teaching at his mentor’s studio. While there, he moved in with a friend’s family. Two years later, the family presented Elijah with adoption papers. “I was 24,” Elijah says, “I just folded in half and cried like the biggest baby in the world. They kept me on the straight and narrow, and they were like, ‘Stay focused. You can do this.’ They believed in my artistic ability, and my ability to coach and mentor, and here I am today.”
By 25, Elijah opened his own studio, and his dance teams have won multiple championships. Huge trophies line the entrance to Morton’s Dance Center—but to Elijah, it’s not about the awards. “When people come through the door, they stay,” he explains, “because they see what’s really going on. They understand the training. They understand the atmosphere, the attitude, the humbleness, the willingness.” They see that Elijah’s commitment to dance goes far beyond technique— he’s the kind of coach that parents call to talk to their kids if they’re getting in trouble, or having a bad day. He’s the kind of coach that takes an interest in the lives of his students outside of the studio walls.
Drew Esbenshade is one of those students. He was a 12-year-old kid when Elijah first spotted him in a breakdancing competition at Field of Screams in Lancaster. “He came up to my mom and I after the battle and was like, ‘Yo, I really want your son to come and take classes with me,’” Drew remembers. Drew’s mother agreed, and Drew ended up finding not only a dance instructor in Elijah, but also a mentor.
“I was also adopted,” Drew says, “I heard about his life, and I was like… being able to understand and being able to talk to him about it, and him opening up to me about that stuff… we’re not that different. It’s crazy because this guy got me to where I wouldn’t have been.”
Now 18, Drew wants to follow in Elijah’s footsteps as a professional dancer. Along with being on Morton’s world championshipwinning dance team, Drew has been in commercials and music videos. He puts in countless hours at the studio, helping teach classes and honing his skills, learning how to audition and choreograph. “Without this man,” he shakes his head, pointing at Elijah, “I would never have gotten these opportunities.”
“This is what it’s about,” says Elijah, pointing to Drew with pride. “If he’s struggling in school, or needs a job, or if anyone in his position needs some sort of guidance, I’m just thankful that I’ve been through it. And then, it trickles down to him, and then he inspires some kid who’s three years younger. And then, the same thing happens in another class. As I walk through here, everybody’s a mentor. So when people are like, ‘Elijah, you’re a great mentor,’ I’m like, ‘I didn’t try it.’ I just believe in being good.”
… And hustling hard, and staying humble.
Visit Morton’s Dance Center on the web at mortonsdancecenter.com to see a class schedule and videos of their performances.