The Talk of the Town
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.”
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
Summer intensive auditions can be nerve-racking. A panel of directors is watching your every move, and you're not even sure if you can be seen among the hundreds of other dancers in the room. We asked five summer intensive directors for their input on how dancers can make a positive impression—and even be remembered next year.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.
We always love a good halftime performance. And we LIVE for halftime performances involving talented kids. (Fingers and toes crossed that Justin Timberlake follows Missy Elliott's lead and invites some fabulous littles to share his Super Bowl stage.)
So obviously, our hearts completely melted for 5-year-old Tavaris Jones. Tavaris may have just started kindergarten, but during Monday night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the Detroit native danced with the panache of a veteran pro at halftime.