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."
A college education offers a massive amount of opportunity—not only to further your dance training, but also to prepare for a successful career post graduation. The experiences you have throughout college, and the connections you make in school, can have a real impact on your job prospects once you enter the professional market. So how can you make the most of the remarkable resources available to you on campus? Here are tips from the experts.
Find the right mentors<p><span style="background-color: initial;">In college, you're training with some of the most gifted artists in the business, <a href="https://www.dancespirit.com/college-dance-faculty-mentors-2645286562.html" target="_blank">many of whom can offer you advice based on real-life experience</a>. "The opportunity </span><span style="background-color: initial;">for feedback—which is something that, once</span> you graduate, is not as easy to find—is so important," says Renay Aumiller, assistant <span style="background-color: initial;">professor of dance at Elon University. "Your</span> instructors can give you excellent advice, and also excellent connections to companies." That's especially true if you already have a sense of the city you'd like to dance in after graduating, or a specific dance company you'd love to join—odds are, someone in your dance department knows (or is!) a major player in that city and/or company.</p><p>Additionally, some of the best mentoring happens not between teachers and students, but <a href="https://www.dancespirit.com/peer-mentorship-college-dancer-2631326559.html" target="_blank">rather peer to peer</a>. When else will you be surrounded by so many talented dancers yearning to expand their creative mindsets by collaborating on unique ideas? Connecting with those around you throughout college will allow you to build a close-knit network that will follow you for years after. "There are dancers I met in college that I know will either be part of my career or part<br>of my close circle of friends for the rest of my life," says Christine Shepard, a graduate of Pace University who appeared in two Broadway shows (<em>Head Over Heels</em> and <em>Mean Girls</em>) before even graduating. "Building camaraderie with the people who are going to join the same industry as you is vital." </p>
Stephanie Troyak and Oleg Stepanov in Pina Bausch's The Seven Deadly Sins (Franziska Strauss, courtesy Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch)
Discover your creative voice<p>Because you're surrounded by great dancers eager to work on out-of-the-box creative projects, college is the perfect time to build a body of work that not shows not only your skills but also your unique voice and vision. "I did a lot of collaborations with friends where we just helped each other out, which really helped me develop a profile," says Stephanie Troyak, a graduate of New York University who went on to dance with Batsheva Dance Company and currently performs with Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. "Working with your peers is such a gift, because it allows you to discover your voice as a choreographer. By the time I graduated, I had lots of footage of my choreography, and some great projects to put on my resumé."</p>
Leverage the resources available to you<p>As an undergrad, you have free access to dance rehearsal spaces—which, as you'll realize after graduation, is an incredible luxury! Your school likely also has high-grade video cameras, editing software, and other equipment available. Make the most of those resources while you're on campus. Since production costs and logistics are less of a worry, use this time to think creatively when conceptualizing dance projects and performances.</p><p>Have an idea that requires resources not immediately available on campus? That doesn't mean it isn't doable, especially if you enlist the help of your professors. "If a dancer or student has an idea and the structure for realizing that idea doesn't exist yet, we are always more than happy to work with them," says Andee Scott, associate professor of dance at the University of South Florida. "We help them to figure out ways to manifest their artistic ideas or pedagogical ideas, their choreographic ideas—all of those things." </p>
Christine Shepard (Taylor Rosenberger, courtesy Shepard)
Make the most of masterclasses<p><span style="background-color: initial;">Most colleges offer frequent master classes with experts from the dance world—and those classes can end up leading to professional opportunities. In fact, that's how </span><span style="background-color: initial;">Shepard ended up making her Broadway debut: She met the choreographer for her first Broadway show in a master class at Pace. Reflecting on that experience, she recommends "showing genuine energy" in every master class, so that the choreographer can see your engagement with their material.</span></p><p>You don't necessarily have to wait for your department to arrange a master class with your dream choreographer, either: At many schools, you can take the lead yourself. "USF students have the ability to set up master classes and open up events," Scott says. "It's a wonderful interaction and engagement with communities outside of their current dance circle."</p>
Explore non-dance avenues<p>However rich your dance department's <span style="background-color: initial;">offerings, don't forget to pursue your other academic passions while on campus. Perhaps you have an interest in women's </span><span style="background-color: initial;">studies, or a fascination with science. </span><span style="background-color: initial;">Expanding those parts of your mind through </span><span style="background-color: initial;">various college courses and projects will </span>allow you to diversify your perspective not only as a dancer, but also as a human being. "Do as much as you can and try as much as you can so you get a taste of exactly what you like and don't like," says Shepard.</p>
The college application process can be, well—let's be honest here—downright maddening (#IYKYK). But for dancers, there's an added layer of stress: College dance applicants not only have to get into a school academically, they must also be accepted into its dance program. There's twice as much to prepare for and, on top of that, 2020 has, to say the least, been trying it—are we right?
Fortunately, you can alleviate some of that compounding stress by staying organized. Here are some tips to keep your college-application life in order in an especially hectic season of senior year.
Create a hub for account info<p>While you'll be able to apply to many schools through the Common Application, know that some schools still use school-specific application software, so chances are, you'll be creating and signing into a bunch of different online accounts. To keep this information organized and easily accessible, create a note on your phone or a password-protected document on your laptop. As you start each new college application, jot down usernames, passwords and pin numbers. By keeping all this information in one spot, you'll spare yourself the anxiety of having to memorize it. (And don't go full mom by using the same password for every. single. account.)</p>
Be clear on the application materials you need for each school<p>Each of the programs you're auditioning for will likely have different methods for assessing your dancing. Some will prescreen, which means you'll have to submit a photo, usually standing in a ballet position that is specified by the school, or a video—before you're offered the opportunity to actually audition for the dance program. Others may ask for a specific or additional essay that relates to dance. And some—because 2020 has spared no aspect of our lives—have implemented completely new COVID-era protocols.</p><p>For the same reasons you should create a hub for all your log-in info, consider making one to establish which application materials you'll need to produce for each school. You can make one spreadsheet for all the schools you're applying to or, in a more tedious but ever-effective move, create a separate checklist for each school. That way, you know you're not forgetting to submit important parts of your application package.</p>
Just imagine how good it will feel to get that coveted acceptance letter. (Getty Images/eyecrave)