Here's why every dancer should be paying attention this year. (Getty Images/Jenny On The Moon)

The Dancer's Guide to the 2020 Election

With the 2020 election right around the corner, many have taken to social media to rally around the need to vote. This is especially true for members of the dance community, many of whom are concerned about how the election will impact not only the future of their careers, but also their human rights.

The beauty of the dance community lies in the diversity of the people that make it up, those of all different sizes, races, genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds. Yet many of these intersectionalities are at risk—and so is the future of arts in general, due to COVID-19. It's because of these reasons that leading dancers find this election cycle to be one of the most important—if not the most important—in our lifetime.

Dance Spirit spoke with five dance stars about why they're voting this November, what issues they're most passionate about, and how you can get involved, even if you're too young to register.


Gaby Diaz

"Especially with this administration, and how openly they have been trying throughout these past four years to get rid of the National Endowment for the Arts, I think voting in this upcoming election is incredibly important," says Gaby Diaz.

The importance of arts funding has never been so vital: With Broadway shut down until next summer—and potentially longer—and seemingly every dance company across the country affected by the pandemic, art is at risk of not surviving the long term.

"Throughout this pandemic, what are people turning to?" Diaz asks. "People want to watch TV shows, we want to watch movies, we want new music—we are turning to the arts to help us get through this difficult time, so I think the arts are essential."

She adds, "Those of us who have the privilege and the opportunity to speak up need to amplify the voices of marginalized communities and actually help them. In the arts community, we see all kinds of people every day and we love it. It inspires us, it's part of our culture, and it's beautiful."

James Whiteside

For James Whiteside, voting access is a topic he's particularly passionate about, after seeing both the amount of people who don't vote, and the large number who are impacted by voter suppression.

"I've been using Vote.org to get information, which is a fabulous resource where you can find out if you are registered and where you are registered—or if you're not registered," Whiteside says. "I'm a big fan of Fair Fight Action, which is Stacey Abrams' organization that fights voter suppression."

Like many other dancers, Whiteside is concerned about how the current administration will impact and change human rights laws should President Trump get reelected this November. The topic is front of mind for Whiteside, and it's why he's encouraging all to check their voter registration status and polling location, vote early if possible, and continue to educate themselves on both sides of the partisan divide.

"Remember that it's not about you, it's about everybody. Learn as much as you can on both sides of the issues, which means understanding not only what's happening in your Facebook and Instagram and TikTok feeds, because those are all going to be algorithmically biased. Getting a bipartisan or a nonpartisan view of the issues is vital."

Barton Cowperthwaite

Since the start of the pandemic, Barton Cowperthwaite has homed in further on his political advocacy, writing letters with Vote Forward to underrepresented voters and increasing outreach to not only encourage voting, but to help explain the vital importance of doing so.

"The message that's resonating with me right now is that voting is an act of coming together to empower leaders who accurately represent us," Cowperthwaite says "Voting is about making our voices heard so that the people who make policy decisions are making decisions based off of the widest breadth of our population. If not everybody votes, then our leaders won't accurately represent the population who empowers them."

An important issue to Cowperthwaite is the environment and the impact that climate change will have on our future. "Just on a level of being alive, that is probably the most important issue facing the human race right now."

He continues by stressing the importance of educating yourself on issues that may not directly impact you personally, but others around you, saying, "As dancers and artists, we need to be looking at issues like protections for gay rights, trans people, how the changing of the tax codes have reduced the incentive to give charitably, and, of course, the kind of complications in access to health care that we could be facing."

When it comes to researching topics up for debate, Cowperthwaite suggests going straight to candidate websites to learn more, and pulling information directly from the source rather than just on social media.

"There are just so many positions up for grabs right now other than just the presidency. And that information is available—you might just have to put in a little bit of footwork to uncover it."

Jason Williams

For choreographer Jason Williams, the importance of voting is clear: "It's our duty as American citizens."

And when it comes to issues that Williams is most passionate about this election cycle, his human rights—and those of other Black, POC, and LGBTQ+ individuals—take center stage.

"Marginalized people—Black, gay, queer people—make up a lot of the entertainment industry, and especially the dance industry. Our whole lives are at stake, and many privileged people outside those identities just kind of turn a blind eye because they're not directly affected," Williams says.

With the recent momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as two Supreme Court justices calling the Marriage Equality act into question, it's never been more clear that the 2020 election is about more than just politics. Lives are at stake, and that's not something Williams takes lightly.

He stays politically engaged by researching, questioning, and turning to numerous news outlets for coverage, as well as following LGBTQIA and Black political leaders online to keep updated on hot-button topics. But Williams also stresses the importance of having difficult conversations on a regular basis with those who are different than yourself, and not just through social media. And that's something that anyone, regardless of age and whether or not they can vote, can do.

"My advice to young dancers is to have difficult conversations with your parents and friends. If you are at a studio and you have one Black or LGBTQIA friend, and you think that they might feel marginalized, just ask if there is anything that you can do as their friend. The more that we communicate, the more the more walls can come down, and we can all stand together and be unified as a country."

Liam Redford

"The best way to start being politically engaged is always just to educate yourself," Liam advises. "You can spark up conversations with family and friends who can vote and educate them with what you have learned, asking what's important to them and seeing if they're registered to vote."

Because while you might not be able to vote now, you will be able to in the near future, and being prepared for when that day comes is essential.

Liam has been staying politically engaged by frequently signing petitions and fundraising for important causes by teaching dance classes. He often contacts his representatives, and volunteers to make calls and assist in any way he can.

"As younger people who can't vote yet, it's easy to feel like our voices are silenced. But I'm going to be voting in the 2024 election, so whatever is decided right now will affect me as an adult."

And Liam believes those within the dance community have a particularly great opportunity to advance the conversation or, as he puts it, "kick-ball-change the world."

"Art is a great way to help people rethink things," he adds. "There's so much that is available to young people nowadays, that it's almost silly not to be politically involved."

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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."

All the tips you need to get through the college application craziness (Getty Images/insta_photos)

How to Stay Organized in the Pandemic-Era College Dance Application Process

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

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.)

Be clear on the application materials you need for each school

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.

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.

Just imagine how good it will feel to get that coveted acceptance letter. (Getty Images/eyecrave)

Keep photography and filming simple

If a school requires you to submit photos or videos, take the directives about filming seriously. And be sure to respect any creative parameters a school might put on your submissions. The best rule of thumb: Keep it simple. Put on basic dancewear, pull your hair back (no whispies!), photograph head-on, and film without making any edits or adding special effects.

As a bonus, if you keep your videos relatively simple, you may be able to reuse some footage for different applications. Double-check the filming parameters, and see if there's anything you can repurpose for multiple schools.

Know your deadlines

Once you've established a list of schools that you're going to apply to, create a separate spreadsheet for the deadlines of each. (Yes, another spreadsheet!) But remember: As dancers, you don't just have a deadline for the application; you might also have a deadline to register for your audition and even one for submitting photos and videos for prescreening, so be sure to allocate space in your spreadsheet for those important deadlines, too.

Don't wait to ask for recommendations

Your teachers, both dance and academic, are overloaded with work in these crazy times, and on top of that, have students upon students requesting recommendation letters. Try not to be among the students who wait dangerously close to a deadline (you know who you are!) to ask for a rec letter. Instead, consider asking for yours early in the school year (that's right, now). By reaching out early, before mobs of other graduating seniors start asking too, you reduce the likelihood that the person writing your letter might rush through it or write something generic.

Ask someone you trust to read your essays

You've written tons of essays throughout your high school career. But writing a college essay—in which your every word feels like the difference between getting into a school or not—is a whole separate beast, so don't be afraid to have someone you trust (a parent, dance teacher or academic teacher, or maybe even a close friend who's an avid reader) look over your essay(s). In addition to finding grammatical or punctuation errors that you may have missed, they'll, hopefully—and more importantly—be able to tell you if they think your essay genuinely speaks to who you are, because they, more than most people, really know you.

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).

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