People are talking about Taja Riley. They’re talking about her movement, which is strong and aggressive. They’re talking about her style—whether she’s dressed for dance class or dinner—which is colorful and edgy. And they’re talking about her personality, which is loud, outspoken and brash. Oh, and the people doing the talking? They’re Janet Jackson, Mia Michaels and other industry bigwigs. It’s only been two years since Taja moved to L.A., and she’s already making a name for herself as a soon-to-be superstar.
Taja’s dance career began at Denise Wall’s Dance Energy in her hometown of Virginia Beach, VA. She started dancing when she was 7, and at 10, Taja attended a New York City Dance Alliance workshop where she was awarded a scholarship to return the following year. “When you first meet Taja, you see a fun-loving girl,” says Joe Lanteri, executive director of NYCDA. “But if you scratch the surface, you find a focused, driven young professional. And she dances with so much intensity. When Taja Riley’s onstage, you watch her.”
Before long, Taja was a regular on the competition circuit. Every year, she returned with a new solo—usually choreographed by her close friend and mentor Travis Wall—that pushed her physical limits. “When Taja turned 12, something clicked,” Wall says. “She became a monster onstage.” Adds Lanteri, “Taja became a celebrity in the competition world. Everyone wanted to know what she was doing. And she did it all with an incredible level of confidence and tremendous amount of humility.”
But when she was 14, Taja’s future as a dancer suddenly became uncertain. “My mom told me that we were moving to Atlanta as soon as I was done with Nationals,” Taja says. “I didn’t want to join another studio. It would have been like joining another family. So I quit dance.” Just four months later, however, the family of another DWDE dancer agreed to take Taja in so she could finish high school in Virginia and perform with the studio. “I had lost a lot of my technique,” Taja says. “I put myself through dance boot camp to catch up. I took six ballet classes a week and enrolled in extra classes at Virginia Ballet Theater.” That year, Taja returned to NYCDA and won the Teen Outstanding Dancer title.
The next step for Taja was moving to L.A. in 2008, where she began taking classes. On the weekends, she traveled with NYCDA as a demonstrator and assisted Brian Friedman at The PULSE On Tour.
Soon, she booked her first job in L.A. dancing in The Zodiac Show, a Cirque du Soleil-esque production. She started auditioning regularly (“It was so overwhelming—I had no idea what they wanted from me when they asked me to freestyle.”) and joined a hip-hop crew. In April 2009, Taja landed her second job, performing on a special segment of “Dancing with the Stars.”
Just a few months later, Taja booked her dream job: dancing with Janet Jackson. She performed in Jackson’s “Make Me” music video, danced with her at the American Music Awards, and went to London to dance in the Jingle Ball concert and on the TV show “The X Factor.”
Since then, Taja’s career has become a whirlwind of nonstop jobs. She assisted Mia Michaels, Brian Friedman and Travis Wall on “So You Think You Can Dance” and performed at the Academy Awards. She danced in Rhapsody James’ Siren Assassins show and was invited to join Erica Sobol’s company, CollidE Dance. She’s even started booking jobs directly, without an audition. “The people from ‘Glee’ called me out of the blue and asked me to be on the show,” Taja says. “I was like, ‘Wait, I don’t have to prove myself to you in person or anything?’”
To Taja’s friends, her success was a long time coming. “Taja is such a special kid,” Wall says. “She can do so much. There’s not a stage big enough for a star as big as Taja Riley.”
Birthday: November 29, 1991
Favorite movie: The Wizard of Oz
Must-see TV shows: “Heroes” and “Gossip Girl”
Favorite food: Pizza
Favorite dance class: Tovaris Wilson’s contemporary funk class at EDGE Performing Arts Center. “Watching him dance is like watching an alien move.”
Dance idols: Travis Wall, Desmond Richardson, Mia Michaels, Ohad Naharin, Jason Parsons, Wade Robson, Pina Bausch, William Forsythe, Teddy Forance, Jillian Meyers and Jirí Kylián
Who would play you in a movie? Zoe Saldana
Dance crush: Hefa Leone Tuita, a dancer for Jennifer Lopez
Dream co-star: Tucker Barkley. “He’s brilliant. I love his energy.”
Advice for DS readers: “Never underestimate your talent. So many dancers get to L.A. and get discouraged. But stay in class—don’t ever stop learning.”