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 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."
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!"
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."
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."
Y'all, this season of "Dancing with the Stars" was truly one for the books. And not just because the "DWTS" team managed to pull off a reality TV show in the midst of a global pandemic, but because the dancing was truly some of the best we've ever seen. Like, "We went into the finale with no idea who would win," level dancing.
And with such an iconic season of "DWTS," the finale was bound to be iconic, too—which it most certainly was. We got to see each star recreate their favorite number from the season, and then, of course, their freestyle dance. And as always, the freestyles were one of our fave parts of the season. After all, when you give these pros and celebs free rein of the ballroom, you never know quite what to expect.
So in case you missed last night's episode (or in case you were too busy mourning the end of our "DWTS" recaps until next season) we rounded up all of the best dancing from the finale—and who walked away with the Mirrorball Trophy.
Nelly and Daniella Karagach<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="89fb3cb08381eee52d7630da44e66885"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/La4Rhh-Jdyk?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>We want to take a second to shout out the amazing Daniella Karagach, first-time "DWTS" professional and our ultimate girl crush, for making it all the way to the finale. What a way to kick off your career as a pro!</p><p>Nelly and Daniella were one of our fave couples to watch all season long, and naturally, their freestyle was no different. This was one of the most epic freestyles we've ever seen, complete with gilded thrones, gold bars, fur coats, and, of course, some incredible dancing. Nelly and Daniella moved and grooved all over the ballroom, performing some of the most gravity-defying lifts we've seen in a <em>minute</em>. Also, they danced to "Savage" by Megan Thee Stallion, which was about as amazing as you'd expect. The judges gave #TeamDaNelly three 10s, for a total 30. </p>
Nev Schulman and Jenna Johnson<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="47d648cde6aeb12314e7eb6f65ed51db"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/A-_rl10U5wg?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Nev Schulman and partner Jenna Johnson gave us Old Hollywood inspo in this absolutely <em>gorgeous</em> freestyle. And honestly, after watching this performance, we're going to be mad if we don't see our main man Nev on Broadway upon its reopening. He has serious leading man potential, and the moves to back it up!</p><p>And Nev and Jenna weren't just "Singin' in the Rain"—they were dancin' in it, too. We're suckers for any freestyle that incorporates a dramatic element like *real rainfall* and we absolutely loved this one. The judges did too, giving Nev and Jenna three 10s, for a total 30. </p>
Kaitlyn Bristowe and Artem Chigvintsev<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e5cc816689df18cf9a621fb6ac8ed040"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Rs4XJepU3GQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Okay, while we're on the subject of "DWTS" celebs appearing on Broadway, we would officially like to cast our vote for Kaitlyn Bristowe as Karen Olivo's replacement in <em>Moulin Rouge! The Musical</em>. Because our girl Kaitlyn sparkled like a *diamond* in her Moulin Rouge-inspired freestyle performance last night. </p><p>This freestyle was all about showmanship, incorporating aspects of every dance form from quickstep to Charleston to jazz—and every step was completed with a signature Kaitlyn Bristowe smile. This is a girl who loves to perform, y'all. The judges gave Kaitlyn and partner Artem Chigvitnsev three 10s, for a perfect 30. </p>
Justina Machado and Sasha Farber<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="76422ae9ad8904e909b3fb8d07d3e69e"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/E7asXMRc8WU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>We got to see Justina Machado serving <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EwZ_AzDDM4" target="_blank">Beyoncé realness</a> last night, folks. She started off her *iconic* freestyle dancing with none other than herself—or about 50 versions of herself. And while there are few who can measure up to the Queen B, Miss Machado did pretty darn well. </p><p>Justina and partner Sasha Farber brought all the energy to the ballroom (and of course, we were expecting nothing less from this high-octane couple). They shimmied and shook all over the place, focusing on Latin flair by incorporating elements of paso doble, salsa, and samba. The judges gave Justina and Sasha (you guessed it!) three 10s, for a total 30. </p><p>So after all of that dazzling dancing, who took home the Mirrorball Trophy? Your season 29 winners are...</p>
...KAITLYN BRISTOWE AND ARTEM CHIGVINTSEV!<div id="492fd" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4819e0a99843d289d960f826d843b5a6"><blockquote class="instagram-media" data-instgrm-captioned data-instgrm-version="4" style=" background:#FFF; border:0; border-radius:3px; box-shadow:0 0 1px 0 rgba(0,0,0,0.5),0 1px 10px 0 rgba(0,0,0,0.15); margin: 1px; max-width:658px; padding:0; width:99.375%; width:-webkit-calc(100% - 2px); width:calc(100% - 2px);"> <div style="padding:8px;"> <div style=" background:#F8F8F8; line-height:0; margin-top:40px; padding:50% 0; text-align:center; width:100%;"> <div style=" background:url(data:image/png;base64,iVBORw0KGgoAAAANSUhEUgAAACwAAAAsCAMAAAApWqozAAAAGFBMVEUiIiI9PT0eHh4gIB4hIBkcHBwcHBwcHBydr+JQAAAACHRSTlMABA4YHyQsM5jtaMwAAADfSURBVDjL7ZVBEgMhCAQBAf//42xcNbpAqakcM0ftUmFAAIBE81IqBJdS3lS6zs3bIpB9WED3YYXFPmHRfT8sgyrCP1x8uEUxLMzNWElFOYCV6mHWWwMzdPEKHlhLw7NWJqkHc4uIZphavDzA2JPzUDsBZziNae2S6owH8xPmX8G7zzgKEOPUoYHvGz1TBCxMkd3kwNVbU0gKHkx+iZILf77IofhrY1nYFnB/lQPb79drWOyJVa/DAvg9B/rLB4cC+Nqgdz/TvBbBnr6GBReqn/nRmDgaQEej7WhonozjF+Y2I/fZou/qAAAAAElFTkSuQmCC); display:block; height:44px; margin:0 auto -44px; position:relative; top:-22px; width:44px;"> </div></div><p style=" margin:8px 0 0 0; padding:0 4px;"> <a href="https://www.instagram.com/p/CH9TpIZhHpN/" style=" color:#000; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; font-style:normal; font-weight:normal; line-height:17px; text-decoration:none; word-wrap:break-word;" target="_top"></a></p> </div></blockquote></div><p><a href="https://www.dancespirit.com/dwts-finale-recap-2641457190.html" target="_blank">Another win</a> for #BachelorNation! We're starting to wonder if we should rename this show "Bachelorettes in the Ballroom"...</p>
There's a bit of a Thanksgiving tradition here at Dance Spirit: Every November, each of us editors makes a list of the danciest things we're grateful for from the past year—performances, shows, dancers, choreographers; anything and everything that made us grateful to be a part of the dance world for another year.
And while our lists might look a little different this year (okay, a lot different) we're still pretty darn grateful to be a part of the dance world. So without further ado, here are our #gratitude journals, 2020 edition.
Thomas Ford, Contributing Editor
I am most thankful to you, our readers—a generation that champions inclusion and progress. You're why I'm here, and why I get to tell incredible stories at the intersection of dance and important cultural events. I'm grateful for the small strides our beloved dance community has made in the wake of renewed calls for racial and social justice. I'm thankful (honored) to have reported on the obstacles that Black women face in the dance industry, to have chatted with the coolest #TikTokers in all the land, and to have been invited to be a part of the talented Dance Spirit and Dance Media teams.
Nyamekye Smith, Assistant Editor
I've been channeling gratitude in every possible moment to get through the numerous challenges this year has presented the world with. When I thought about the biggest contributor to my sanity throughout everything (COVID-19 and life in general), dance resonated the deepest. Whether I was watching a mind-blowing dance-filled production, taking a fun online class, or freestyling while sitting on my bed, dance took my mind to all the places I couldn't go physically in 2020.
I'm thankful to have taken my first class from Parris Goebel. (Who knew it'd be via Instagram live?) I'm thankful for the wild creativity behind this year's SavagexFenty show, and Parris's creativity on all levels. (Okay, I guess I'm just generally thankful for Parris Goebel). I'm grateful that I had the chance to experience my first socially-distanced dance convention at Monsters of Hip Hop! Although dancing in a mask is no joke, getting to step outside of my tiny bedroom and really dance after months of isolation—without being overly-cautious about space—was much needed. I'm also really thankful for JaQuel Knight for creating the Dancers' Relief Fund and Thom White for creating the Zoom-inspired dance concept video that truly blew my mind.
I'm forever thankful for the joy that dance continues to spread during tough times, and the fact that it serves as a means for us to reflect, heal, learn, and grow in so many ways. The dance world has always naturally intertwined with positive movements and messages that push the world into a more positive space, and I'm beyond thankful to be a part of it.
Amanda Sherwin, Managing Editor
This year, I'm filled with gratitude to be part of a dance community that is more creative, resilient, and compassionate than ever.
I'm thankful for the dancers who opened up about their quarantine experience in our #SocialDisDancing series, reminding us all that we don't have to face this year alone. I'm also thankful for the ways that dance has been used as activism, from fundraising to protests to starting long-overdue dialogues on uprooting racism in our schools and studios.Finally, I'm thankful for all the ways dancers have turned this joke of a year into...just that. From laughing about virtual class struggles of which we can all relate, to the wonderful wacky world that is dancer TikTok, relatable dance humor is at least 50% of how I've gotten through 2020, so by all means keep it coming!
Cadence Neenan, Senior Editor
It's been a tough year, folks. And while I'll be the first to admit that I don't feel thankful every second of every day, I do feel thankful for the amazing, vibrant, ever-changing dance world at least once a day. I'm thankful that I get to spend every day reading, writing, and talking about this amazing, vibrant, ever-changing world, and that I get to work with colleagues and coworkers who love it as much as I do.
I'm thankful that we got a season of "Dancing with the Stars," pandemic edition—and that we made it through that season without a single case of COVID-19. Hats off to the "DWTS" team for that one! I'm thankful that the dance world has found a home on TikTok, and that people from around the world have used the app as a place to connect over their love of dance. (I'm also grateful that TikTok produced #Ratatousical.) I'm thankful that many of us took this moment on pause to reflect, and start having some tough conversations around race, racism, and difference in the dance world—as overdue as they might be. And I'm thankful, especially, to all of our wonderful Dance Spirit readers for making my job so meaningful (and fun).