An estimated 4.7 million people watched Jaxon Willard dance on NBC’s World of Dance Wednesday night. Through high-flying leaps and balletic turns, Jaxon Willard told a story of personal struggle, a struggle his mother Cindy Willard told LDS Living her son was still going through at the time of the episode’s filming.
“It’s about my feelings towards my birth mom and how I was angry and I felt abandoned by her,” Jaxon explained to the show’s judges regarding his dance. “But then I didn’t know how to share these feelings with the mom I have now because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, and so I’d just suppress all these feelings. But then throughout my journey and my growing, I would just learn that I can’t just be mad at my birth mom because I don’t know the full story, and so I just have to be grateful that I have the family I have now, and I’m just so thankful for that.”
Jaxon’s explanation and the dance the world watched in awe Wednesday were only part of the story.
Cindy Willard knew as a 14-year-old girl that she would someday have a black child. She just knew. When, at 18-years-old, she was told she would never bear children, it seemed to explain her teenage premonition. But after serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Cindy met her husband and they soon had their first child. Four others followed. But after having five children, the problems she had experienced as an 18-year-old resurfaced. When she woke up from having a hysterectomy, Cindy Willard knew her family wasn't complete. It was time for her to find the missing member of her family.
Jaxon Willard was born in Utah to a mother from Atlanta, Georgia, who had come to Utah to place her baby for adoption through “A Act Of Love," a Utah-based agency whose name is strategically grammatically incorrect in order to make it the first listed in the phone book.
“She must have, I can only guess because it was a closed adoption so we don’t know, in desperation opened up,” Cindy said as her voice began to break. “I’m sorry. I still, 17 years later, can’t get through it but she must have opened up the phone book looking for help and called our agency.”
The agency made it possible for Jaxon’s birth mother to deliver her baby in Utah, something Cindy doesn’t believe was a coincidence.
“His birth mother, I believe through inspiration, brought him here so that I could find him here,” she said. “I think it was the both of us being led to get him where he needed to be.”
The Willards adopted Jaxon on Christmas Eve 2001, when he was three months old.
In the years that passed, Jaxon Willard was a mama’s boy but at 15, he began to act different and his attitude began to shift.
With five older children, teenagers were nothing new to Cindy. She thought adolescence would simply run its course. However, when Jaxon, who began ballroom dancing at age 11, auditioned with a group for the first season of World of Dance, the producers of the show contacted Cindy. They wanted to discuss the racism and bullying Jaxon said he had experienced growing up in a predominantly white community in Utah. Cindy denied the interview request due to feeling that this was something she and Jaxon needed to work through privately first.
His group was soon eliminated but when Jaxon said he wanted to audition on his own for the show’s next season, his mother had one request: “If you try out for the show again, you know where they’re going to want to go with your adoption story. . . . So if that’s where you want to go, let us figure this out first.”
Together, the mother and son went through a process of working through these feelings, a process Cindy describes as “really hard.” But this time, when the World of Dance producers asked if they could run with this story of her son’s experiences, her answer was “Absolutely.”
“I’ve always said to him, ‘God gave you this talent because you put all your emotion into it, not everybody gets a way to express it. They have to either figure out how to talk about it or they just let it go and they make stupid choices trying to get rid of the pain. God gave you that gift because he knew you were going to have some hard things to go through,’” she recalls telling Jaxon.
The emotional taxing was not over, however, as Cindy sat and listened to her son tell the show’s producers during one of his first interviews for this season, “I miss my birth mom and my siblings.” He cried and Cindy cried. But then the interviewer asked Jaxon a question: “Jax, do you understand though that you would not be where you are, being able to do what you do, without this mom?” Cindy recalls hearing the question and knowing that the interviewer was being protective of her. The interviewer continued, “You wouldn’t be here without this mom. You wouldn’t be here without this family and the big picture is you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.”
The comments were “not what my 16-year-old son who was angry with me wanted to hear, but it was the truth and it was coming from someone else,” Cindy Willard said. Their experience on World of Dance has ultimately sparked a change and has allowed for a process that Cindy says otherwise could have taken years to work through.
“I hope you all know that God orchestrated this entire show for our family so I appreciate that you are all on board and are doing this,” she recently told the show’s producers in gratitude. “It actually helped, and I feel like it’s a huge gift from Heavenly Father that He has worked this out himself.”
Cindy continued, “By the time the show has aired, he’s back to being a mama’s boy. He’s back to being snuggly with me and he’s back to calling me mama and wanting me to be with him."
Following his performance that aired on Wednesday night, Jennifer Lopez also gave the glory of Jaxon’s World of Dance experience to God.
“For me, God gives us a set of circumstances in life, right? Everybody has their story,” Lopez said. “But then he gives you so much. He gave you so much talent. Honestly, he gave you the ability to fly. He gave you wings on your back by giving you your mom, by giving you your family, by giving you this talent, you know? And without your story, you wouldn’t be able to be the artist that you are today.”
For Cindy Willard, Jaxon is the gift. In a Facebook post on Mother’s Day this year, Cindy described her feelings toward Jaxon and his birth mother.
“Today is a sweet, tender day. My greatest joy is being a mom,” she wrote. “But for 17 Mother’s Days, there have been silent tears of gratitude & heartache shed. A sweet shout out to my baby boys 1st mom, his Birth mom. She gave my beautiful boy what I could never give him. The color of his skin is vital to the spirit that I am raising to be a man. He is growing to be a good, honest, strong, compassionate man. Not just because of me, but because of both of his moms. I will always hold a special place in my heart for you & be forever grateful to you for making me his mom.”