Evita Arce dancing with a partner (Eric Brobie, courtesy Arce)

How Social Dance Can Benefit Your Training—and Your Humanity

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing struggle with systemic racism have shaken the dance world. Now more than ever, connection, empathy, and activism must be cultivated in dance settings. And one of the best ways to do that is through social dance forms, which come out of rich and diverse cultural traditions. "It's one of the ways we heal the discrimination, the injustice, the fear," Abdiel Jacobsen, former principal with Martha Graham Dance Company, says of his social dance experience. Here's how social dance can benefit studio dancers as both artists and humans.


What Is Social Dance?

Social dance forms weren't made for stages, but were instead created in streets and clubs, often by members of oppressed communities, as a means of expression and communication. Examples include salsa, swing dance, hustle, and samba, though there are many more. "Social dances tell a story about history, culture, and social justice," explains Francine E. Ott, a lecturer at North Carolina State University, whose work blends hip hop, house, and African diasporic dance. "These dances are a voice of the people."

Abdiel Jacobsen and Kristine Bendul (Christopher Jones, courtesy Jacobsen)

Finding Comfort in Your Identity

Social dance styles tend to emphasize community building over conformity in the pursuit of different aesthetics. That kind of learning environment can help studio dancers gain a greater self-appreciation. Lindy Hop dancer and teacher Evita Arce, for example, knew she didn't want a future in ballet, so she thought she couldn't be a professional dancer. Her professional career, she recalls, "almost happened by accident, because I just kept doing what I loved."

When dancers feel comfortable being their fullest selves, they might also discover more space to challenge societal norms. Jacobsen worked professionally in both the modern dance and ballroom worlds and often faced microaggressions in those environments. But he found acceptance in social dance: "Hustle was the first social partner-dance community where I finally didn't have any fear about my race, my sexuality, or my effeminacy." Buoyed by that support, he and his dance partner, Kristine Bendul, became the first male/female duo to compete professionally as a gender-neutral couple in DanceSport, with each swapping roles of leader and follower equally.

Gaining Skills and Agency

Many studio dancers, accustomed to following highly specific instructions, panic when asked to improvise. But living in the moment is inherent in social dance, where you're often responsible for a partner, or for the community energy. It's a space where vulnerability occurs organically—and that can have real benefits for your dancing overall. "I have students who want all of the information instead of being in the moment and understanding that learning within the social context is creativity," Ott says. She tells her students, "If your voice is louder in your head than me and the music, you're not engaging with what's happening in the space."

Partner-based social forms are especially useful for helping dancers develop confidence and spontaneity. When you're leading or following a partner, "the decision-making part of your brain has to become really adaptable and flexible," Arce says. Those skills can help you make stronger choices in improvisational moments and choreographic processes.

Francine E. Ott (J. Douglas Knight, courtesy Ott)

Embodying History

Understanding the history of social dance forms helps dancers become better-informed artists and humans. "Swing dancing is American history," Arce says. "Its roots are in slavery and the migration of Black people going up to the northern cities seeking freedom." Similarly, Jacobsen discusses the birth of the hustle at the intersection of the Stonewall Riots, civil rights movement, and the end of the Vietnam War. "There was so much oppression in the '60s, and the '70s was about breaking it all down—this idea of freedom and liberation," he says. "When you learn hustle, it's so expansive and wide because that's what it was expressing."

It's important to consider that many styles taught in studio settings have roots in social dance, too. Hip hop and tap, for example, are largely influenced by, and can be considered, social dance forms. But in studios, these classes are often taught facing the mirror, with little to no interaction between dancers, and little to no mention of the styles' rich histories. Seek out teachers and resources who can help you better understand the context in which these forms developed. "You shouldn't learn a dance without understanding its social setting," Ott says.

Dancers who experience social dance forms will step into the future with new skills, a stronger desire to connect, and a better understanding of how oppressive histories have infiltrated our spaces. And they can use all of that to help the dance industry—and the world—move forward.

Arce performing at a social dance event (Byron Hon, courtesy Arce)

Social Dancing While Social Distancing

Social dance forms, particularly partnered styles, have inevitably been impacted by COVID-19. While dancers may be able to stay six feet apart for certain classes, that's not possible for social partner forms. Cue the creative solutions!

Arce and her dance partner, Michael Jagger, started an online Lindy Hop community and education library called Syncopated City back in 2015. During the pandemic, they've found innovative ways to deal with the fact that not everyone is quarantined with a partner: "We started to use stretchy bands, or walls or doorknobs, to replicate the feeling of working off something," Arce says. They've also been holding discussions on Instagram to reinforce that while the physical practice of partner dancing may look different during lockdown, the form can still be studied.

Jacobsen has been going live weekly on Instagram for "Hustle Monday Disco," in which he dances solo and then invites others to submit videos of themselves dancing to the same song. He and Bendul have also been working on projects in which partner dances are adapted virtually, with cues taken from an onscreen partner. Jacobsen hopes dancers will eventually return to their IRL spaces with a greater sense of care for their communities: "I believe this is a chance, if we really honor it, to respect life more."

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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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