Raven Wilkinson in Les Sylphides. Photo Courtesy Wilkinson.

Remembering Raven Wilkinson, Trailblazing Ballerina

Ballerina Raven Wilkinson passed away on Monday at her home in New York City at age 83. Wilkinson is best known as the first African American woman to dance full-time with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and as a cherished mentor to Misty Copeland.

Raven Wilkinson presenting Misty Copeland with the Dance Magazine Award in 2014. Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima for Dance Magazine.


Wilkinson was born in New York City in 1935. She fell in love with ballet at age five while attending a performance of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo's Coppélia. In a 2014 interview with Pointe, she recalled the experience: "I remember being so overwhelmed by the orchestra, the curtains, the lights, that I started crying." For her ninth birthday, her uncle gave her the gift of ballet classes with Maria Swoboda. In 1951, Swoboda's school was purchased by Sergei Denham, the director of the Ballet Russe, and he began culling dancers for his company. Despite being recognized as talented, Wilkinson didn't make the cut. After multiple auditions, Wilkinson said a friend pulled her aside and said, "Raven, they can't afford to take you because of your race." Then a student at Columbia University, Wilkinson was undeterred; after her third audition in 1955, at age 20, she got in. Shortly before he passed away in 2013, former Ballet Russe dancer Frederic Franklin, who'd given class at Wilkinson's final audition, told her that he had pushed the company's leadership to take her.

Wilkinson's six years with the Ballet Russe were filled with both happiness and hardship. In her second season she was promoted to soloist, and danced a number of leading roles including the waltz solo in Les Sylphides. But Ballet Russe was primarily a touring company, and Wilkinson had to combat extreme racism during trips to the Deep South. In 1957 in Atlanta, Georgia, a hotel owner refused to let her stay with the rest of the company; Denham sent her back to New York and instructed her to rejoin the company once their tour took them closer to the Mason Dixon Line. Wilkinson also experienced run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan, most notably in Alabama, where (as she outlines in the picture book Trailblazer) two members stormed into the theater and interrupted a Ballet Russe performance. Throughout these years, Wilkinson's colleagues protected and supported her: "If it looked like there might be trouble after a show, company boys would appear at the stage door to escort me," she told Pointe in 2014. Denham continued to cast her in soloist roles regardless of where the company was performing.

Wilkinson with her younger brother and parents. Courtesy Wilkinson.

The Ballet Russe was very international, and with her fair complexion some of the other dancers urged Wilkinson to say that she was Spanish. She often lightened her skin with makeup for performances, but she refused to hide her identity if asked about it directly. Earlier this year, Wilkinson told Pointe that she attributed this pride to her upbringing. Though she grew up on 150th Street in Harlem (above what she called "the Mason Dixon Line of New York"), she and her mother often faced questioning when spending time in other parts of the city. "People were curious because they had a certain idea in their mind of what African American people were like, that they didn't speak well or weren't well-clothed or were poor, and they didn't believe my mother and I were African American," she said. "They'd ask, 'What are you?' and my mother would say, 'We're American.'"

In 1961, Wilkinson left the Ballet Russe. Despite her classical training and professional experience, at auditions she was told to try African dance or jazz instead. Eventually her friend Sylvester Campbell, a black American dancer working for the Dutch National Ballet, urged her to join him in Amsterdam. Highlights of her Dutch National career included Balanchine repertoire and the Swan Lake pas de trois. Wilkinson found the culture of the Netherlands to be much more accepting. "They weren't interested in what you were, but who you were," she said in our interview earlier this year. In 1974, a homesick Wilkinson returned to New York and was invited to join the New York City Opera. She stopped dancing at age 50, but continued on there as an actress until 2011, when the company folded.

Wilkinson, center, with colleagues in the Ballet Russe. Photo Courtesy Wilkinson.

In her later years, Wilkinson developed a special friendship with Copeland. Wilkinson first discovered the then-teenage dancer while watching a TV program highlighting her in a variation from Don Quixote. "I took one look at her and knew that she knew what dancing was all about," Wilkinson told Pointe. I fell to my knees saying, 'Please god, let her make it.'" Copeland writes in her memoir Life in Motion that after hearing Wilkinson's story in a documentary on the Ballet Russe, she spoke about her so often that her publicist finally tracked her down so the two dancers could meet. "She is humble, hilarious, and so full of funny, poignant tales that she never repeats one," Copeland writes of Wilkinson. "We speak the same very rare language: that of a black classical ballet dancer." When Copeland made her debut as Odette/Odile with American Ballet Theatre in 2015, Wilkinson, along with former Houston Ballet principal Lauren Anderson, joined her onstage, arms overflowing with flowers. Copeland's breakout success has also helped bring Wilkinson's story back into the spotlight: Wilkinson was featured in the 2016 documentary Black Ballerina, and last year a picture book based on her life titled Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson was published with a forward by Copeland.

Earlier this year I asked Wilkinson if she had advice for young dancers who might feel discouraged, or who don't feel they fit into the slowly-changing world of ballet. "In the darkness and the futility of the moment you have to get up and keep going, put one foot in front of the other. It's only in trying and keeping going that you achieve," she told me. "You can't expect that it's all going to happen for you just because you're out there pointing your toes nicely. You have to open your mind and heart, and you must believe in yourself and have faith and hope."

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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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