Ava Brooks is an up-and-coming tapper you should have your eye on. (Kaitlin Cooper, courtesy Ava Brooks)

5 Standout Comp Kids You Should Be Following—Now

The competition world is filled with so many talented dancers that for one dancer to stand out, they need something special—not just legs up to their ears or seemingly never-ending turns, but something more. For many comp world standouts, it's a certain, special confidence: The confidence in what they, and only they, can offer.

Dance Spirit spoke with five competition dancers who are embracing what makes them and their dancing unique, and who you should be following (if you aren't already).

Jemoni Powe

Jemoni Powe started dancing through an outreach program with Nevada Ballet Theatre that was offered at his elementary school. His friend, he says, "wanted to do it so badly—but not alone. So, I did it with her."

Since then, he was offered a full scholarship to NBT's affiliate school, and has continued to train with the academy. He's also been marking his own mark on the dance world by posting intimate Instagram videos that show his movement innovation process. When he improvises, he really creates—shapes, lines, pathways, ideas, momentum, patterns­—and says his biggest source of inspiration is the physical body. "Analyzing what shapes or movement patterns my body or other bodies can create is where so much of my movement derives from," Jemoni says.

Jemoni hopes to someday take his movement abroad, and dance with one of the many international companies he admires. But ultimately, he says, he wants to become a freelance choreographer, or a resident choreographer for a company.

Quickfire Questions

Favorite song to dance to right now: "Dreams," by Fleetwood Mac

Favorite TikTok dance/challenge: "I actually haven't downloaded TikTok."

Dancer he looks up to: Jonathan Wade

Ava Brooks

The best tap dancing comes in all different styles—free, like the fabulous "Syncopated Ladies;" calm and collected, like tap legends Savion Glover and Barbara Duffy; smooth, like the "King of Slides" Jimmy Slyde. But one trait that's consistent across all great tap dancing is clarity—those crystal-clear rhythms that are perfectly timed. And 16-year-old dancer Ava Brooks possesses the quality in spades, nailing intricate tap phrases with a grace and style that we tend to associate with today's most popular tap dancers. She says hard, consistent work has made her the tap dancer she is today, proving so by following a daily practice regimen.

When the pandemic forced studios across the nation to temporarily close, including Ava's home studio Danceology, also located in San Diego, she dedicated her free time to improving her technique, "whether that be drilling certain steps or going back and working on the basics." But she doesn't see herself dancing in her home studio for long.

In the future, she says, "I want to develop my own show where I not only choreograph, but create my own music for the show, as well." This won't be a tall order for Ava, who already plays multiple instruments, and has started writing her own music. Ava is a multifaceted artist, to say the least, which helps explain why tap is her true passion: "As a tap dancer, you can dance along to the music and be the music at the same time," Ava says. "You can't really do that in other styles of dance, which makes tap dancing so special to me."

Quickfire Questions

Favorite song to dance to right now: "'Come Over,' by Jorja Smith and Popcaan, but I always love dancing to 'Autumn Leaves,' by Miles Davis."

Favorite TikTok dance/challenge: "There's this remix of the Bee Gees song 'More Than a Woman' that's pretty popular on TikTok right now, which I jam out to a lot!"

Dancer she looks up to: Ayodele Casel

Easton Magliarditi

When you watch a video of Easton Magliarditi dance, you are immediately taken by his passion. But you keep watching because his passion never dies out. You can feel it in his release of breath, in the extension of his fingertips, in the suspension of his jumps. He says his passion doesn't just come from within, but also from the materials he's working with. "If I'm loving the choreography and the music, I get lost in it," Easton says.

Easton, who is 15 and trains at the Rock Center for Dance in Las Vegas, NV, has been dancing since the age of 9. He is currently the 2020 Teen Male Best Dancer title winner representing The Dance Awards and the Teen Male Core Performer winner at Radix Nationals. So, what's next for Easton?

He says he wants to do more acting and singing, along with dancing, in the future. "I'd love to work with Cirque du Soleil, dance in a Broadway show, tour with an incredible artist, be in a dance company," he says. "All of it!"

Quickfire Questions

Favorite song to dance to right now: "I love dancing to any song by Dermot Kennedy—his songs are so raw, and just amazing."

Favorite TikTok dance/challenge: Jeremiah McGilberry's choreography to "May I," by Flo Milli

Dancer he looks up to: "I look up to dancers and choreographers like Travis Wall, Mark Meismer, Teddy Forance, Tessandra Chavez, Katy Tate, Talia Favia, Chaz Buzan, Brian Friedman, and so many more."

Iliana Victor

Iliana Victor has the makings to become the next ballet or contemporary ballet star, currently in training at Premiere Division, a ballet school located in NYC. Not only does she have legs for days, unreal facility, and a quality of port de bras that makes every moment look effortless. But, really, she's all that, and more.

What's most striking about Iliana's dancing is her focus—the way she uses her eyes and face to tell a story. "Every movement should have an intention behind it. And if one person is touched by my dancing in that moment, then I'm happy," she says.

Iliana says her mom always knew there was something special about her, even at ages 2 and 3, when she'd dance for any audience she could attract. "I would improv for everyone that visited our home," Iliana says. Her mom eventually put her in ballet and contemporary classes when she turned 10—and the rest, as they say, is dance history.

Quickfire Questions

Favorite song to dance to right now: "Mount Everest," by Labrinth

Favorite TikTok dance/challenge: "Slow Motion" challenges

Dancer she looks up to: "I definitely look up to my mentor Alison Stroming—she's so amazing. I'm also truly inspired by Misty Copeland and all that she has accomplished. And I also love Dusty Button. I really love that she's an edgy ballerina!"

Ian Stegeman

Ian Stegeman may only be 12 years old, but his dancing reads more like that of an adult, in all the best ways. His continuity makes his movement run on like a long-winded sentence. His groundedness is something that most dancers take years to develop. And he performs just enough for you to capture what he's conveying—nothing forced, nothing disingenuous.

To watch him is to feel like you're watching a professional in a young dancer's body, a quality which he attributes to his observant nature. "I love watching and learning from my peers and other dancers," he says. "But my teachers at Woodbury Dance Center are the best, and continue to help me develop this skill."

Ian's not sure exactly where he sees his future, yet, but says he would love to eventually go to college for dance and choreography.

Quickfire Questions

Favorite song to dance to right now: "You," by Keaton Henson

Favorite TikTok dance/challenge: "Because of You," by Ne-Yo

Dancer he looks up to: "Zach Manske. He is my mentor and has choreographed my solos for the last four years."

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Photo by Lee Gumbs, graphic design by Nyamekye Smith. Makeup by James Perez, styling by Joey Thao, styling assistance by John Jimenez, hair by Nina Mercado, braids by Champagne Jones. Deja Riley as stand-in model throughout.

Taja Riley: On Her Own Terms

Everyone has a Taja Riley story. Janet Jackson has a Taja story. (When Taja was just 17 and was hired to perform alongside her, Janet Jackson picked Taja up in a limo and they spent a day—seven hours, to be exact—together at a hair salon.) Rihanna has a Taja story. (She hand-selected Taja for her Savage X Fenty show.) Parris Goebel, Wade Robson, Mia Michaels, Joe Lanteri, Ne-Yo, Nicole Scherzinger, and the casts of "The X Factor" and "Glee" all have Taja stories. Brian Friedman, Taja's longtime mentor, cites "out-of-this-world" Taja as one of his greatest and earliest inspirations. And Travis Wall, who grew up dancing with and choreographing for Taja at his mother's studio, Denise Wall's Dance Energy in Virginia Beach, VA, has said, "There's not a stage big enough for a star as big as Taja Riley." So what does a star do when no stage will suffice? She builds her own.

That's precisely what 28-year-old Taja is doing now. In 2021, Taja will introduce the world to her company, TKO Quarantainment, a wildly ambitious project that combines all of her greatest passions and talents. And, in doing so, she's revealing a deeply personal behind-the-stage-and-screen look into her life, involving a cult, a broken engagement, a ton of self-awareness, and a whole lotta hustle.

The Cult

The word "prodigy" gets thrown around a lot in the dance world. It's a word that works for Taja. At 15, she won the National Teen Female Outstanding Dancer title at New York City Dance Alliance, and by 16, she had moved from Virginia Beach to Los Angeles, ready and willing to go pro with her dance dreams. She earned her high school diploma through homeschooling, and quickly started booking work with stars including Janet Jackson, Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, Brandy, Pitbull, 50 Cent, Justin Bieber, Missy Elliott, and Kanye West. She danced on "The X Factor," "Glee," and "Dancing with the Stars." She became a faculty member at NYCDA, and traveled the world performing and teaching classes.

By the end of 2016, Taja's road got bumpy. In spite of that lengthy—and growing—list of accomplishments, her personal life was heading toward what she now calls her rock bottom. She wasn't dancing much, in favor of DJ-ing, and then she reconnected with her first childhood love. The man she thought was "the one." He wasn't. And, she later learned, he was in a cult. Despite suspect and controlling behaviors—he wouldn't let her listen to music out loud, even though it was her livelihood—they began living together in the ministry homes with the rest of the cult, which she ended up joining. He proposed. God told him to, he insisted.

Six months later, he called off the wedding. It was her wake-up call. "Getting out of that situation was pretty traumatic," Taja says. "There was a suicide attempt. I was dealing with depression. I had to literally start over, and I had negative $113 in my bank account." She sold her DJ equipment, earned just enough money to buy a used car (which she slept in), and signed up to work on Postmates, DoorDash, and any third-party app she could find. "It was like I was in a video game. Game over happens after making it to such a high level. I had gotten to eight or nine levels out of 10, and I lost—and it took away all my coins. Back to level one."

Photo by Lee Gumbs

The Confidence

As Taja worked to rebuild her life and career, she also rediscovered herself. Part of that self-discovery was figuring out, who is Taja, really? "I started developing more of a spiritual center for myself," Taja says. "Rituals to help me find balance, and really emphasizing my mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. I started looking at what worked, and what needed to happen within all facets of my life beyond dance."

She decided to go to London. Within two weeks of moving, she had signed with an agency, booked a movie, and found a long-term Airbnb. After another week, she had booked a job dancing for P!nk at the BRIT Awards. The work was nonstop, and she was teaching classes at three different studios in the city. "I built a fan base, a friend base, and a network," she says. "I felt peace."

In the summer of 2019, choreographer Parris Goebel called, hoping to check Taja's availability to perform with Rihanna at her Savage X Fenty show. Taja submitted her photos and a video, and a few days later, Parris called back. Rihanna loved Taja—and handpicked her to come on board. It would be Taja's first trip back to L.A.

That job and that trip marked a major turning point in Taja's life. Parris told Taja she needed to be okay with showing skin for this job, and Taja said she was, onstage. But they wanted everyone dressed for the show in rehearsal; Parris wanted everyone to feel like it was a comfortable space. "I'm looking around the room and seeing women of all different shapes, sizes, colors," Taja says. "Cellulite, eczema, hairy legs. And I'm in love in that moment. Being present and just seeing all of us and being like, I support you at whatever stage you're in, whatever phase you're in."

After that experience, Taja developed a new comfortability with herself. "I was usually that girl in a hoodie and baggy sweats," she says. "It could be in the hottest room with no air conditioning—Broadway Dance Center in the middle of July—and I will not take that hoodie off, ever. It was psychological. Like taking the hoodie off would take away my magic, my flavor, my swag." But Taja realized that her hoodie wasn't her superpower—it was her insecurity. "After that gig, I was like, you know what? This is how I look," Taja says. "I feel like my eyebrows want to hold hands for the rest of their lives, and I'm going to keep my unibrow!"

Photo by Lee Gumbs

The Kim

Taja's hoodie wasn't just hiding her insecurities, she realized. Her hoodie, her baggy pants, her preferences for suits over dresses were all part of her masculine identity. Her Taja identity. But then, she started to discover, there was another identity within her. An identity named Kim.

"Over the past year and a half, I've been experiencing times where my thoughts aren't my own," Taja explains. "I feel like a completely different person. Like there's this personality shift." She likens it to feeling like a passenger in your own car—with familiar surroundings, but a loss of control and power. She felt it when she was taking classes and the music would turn on, like she wasn't the one doing any of the work as she moved. She calls it an out-of-body experience, one that happened increasingly frequently.

Taja started learning about dissociative identity disorder, and came to realize that this was actually something she had been experiencing—and likely suppressing—for a long time. She was diagnosed by a trauma specialist, who she continues to work with, to this day. "It can lie dormant for years, and then it can really explode," she says. It can also be prompted by trauma, much like what Taja had been through just a few years prior.

She started to forget things, and blamed it on being absent-minded. But soon, Taja noticed she was strongly averse to certain textures and materials. She felt uncomfortable in corners. She didn't leave her home for weeks. She couldn't remember large gaps of time. Once, she thought she had been lying in her bed only to discover that she had left the apartment and been outside on the streets of L.A.—barefoot.

"I was scared to tell anyone," Taja says. "People had recollections of us spending whole nights together and I didn't remember them at all. I didn't even know their names."

Taja worked with her trauma specialist and a life coach, and channeled what she was feeling into a type of superpower. She learned about alters, of which she says she has five. Taja acts as the host, and the alter she feels, sees, or experiences the most is Kim.

Kim is feminine. She is, in Taja's words, "the fully feminine spectrum of how I view myself." Taja is in suits and sneakers; Kim loves dresses and heels. Kim loves to go out; Taja wants to stay in. The recognition of Kim made Taja feel more empowered and confident. And now, Kim is the basis, inspiration, and co-creator for Taja's latest project: KimTV.

The Big Idea

This May, two months into the pandemic-induced isolation, Brian Friedman told Taja about a virtual event he was hosting, where he would be teaching the iconic Britney Spears "I'm a Slave 4 U" choreography. Taja took the class, and was floored by the production, promotion, platform, and community of it all. "It just felt like more," she recalls.

Taja was immediately set into motion. She started dreaming about creating something of her own—an event, a brand, a show, something. That something became TKO Quarantainment, an entertainment company inspired by this time of aloneness. ("TKO" stands for "The Knockout," obviously—but it also stands for "Taja/Kim Owned.")

While many have felt creatively suppressed during this pandemic year, Taja saw an opportunity. "In isolation, I discovered what my potential could be," she says. "I want to use this company as a gateway for other creatives to help tell their stories. To highlight those and spotlight those, especially within the dance industry." Plus, Taja wants to create a network out of TKO Quarantainment—a village of creative people who work together on various projects.

The debut project under the TKO Quarantainment brand is KimTV, which will launch as a three-part series in early 2021. Taja sees KimTV as more than just a TV series. It's a show that exists—much like she does—in multiple dimensions and layers. Something she created for her generation. As she brainstormed ideas for the show, she heard whispers from Kim, she says, saying, "Make it about me." So she did.

KimTV tells the story of Taja's life as a "dissociative identity superhero," she explains. "I see mental health as a super power. We just need to know how we're tapping into it, and to not be scared of it and to really embrace it. We're all created differently, and because of that, we're the same."

Photo by Lee Gumbs

The Next Move

Unsurprisingly, there's no stopping Taja. She's on a mission to help empower the dance community, the Black community, and the LGBTQ community. She wants to help show people what being open about your mental health looks like. She wants to take responsibility as an artist to reflect the times and be accountable.

"I want to see a better world for dancers," Taja says. "I want them to feel well-represented, and valued in the same way athletes are valued. We've always been underpaid, undervalued, and underappreciated behind the scenes. But then on screen, that's what people want—dancers."

She's doing it all, and she's doing it out loud—proudly. "I'm taking this journey publicly, in an exciting and empowering way," Taja says. "I want to promote more adventure than fear and hiding."

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