Alex Clayton (right) and Robert Kleinendorst in Arden Court (Paul B. Goode courtesy Paul Taylor American Modern Dance)

"The Performance That Changed My Life": 7 Dance Pros on the Shows That Hooked Them

Can you recall the moment you knew dance had to be it? For many dancers, that lightning struck during an utterly unforgettable performance—something they watched early in their training, or at a moment when they needed an encouraging boost. Dance Spirit asked seven industry leaders about the performances that made the biggest difference in their careers.


Alex Clayton (front) in Concertiana (Paul B. Goode, courtesy Paul Taylor American Modern Dance)

Alex Clayton

Dancer, Paul Taylor Dance Company

"When I was growing up in Kentucky, the dance companies I'd see—especially local ensembles—were comprised of predominantly white dancers. It seemed like there were always two or three coveted spots for dancers of color. I couldn't really fathom dancing professionally, because how hard would it be to enter a field in which there were so few spots available?

"My world instantaneously got larger between my junior and senior years of high school, when I saw Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It was galvanizing to see all these beautiful and muscular Black bodies—just like mine. That was the impetus I needed. I started training at the Louisville Ballet School, and after high school I went to Stephens College in Missouri for dance. Through it all, I kept the image of watching Ailey onstage in my mind, and made it a goal to train at The Ailey School. That goal became a reality in 2013 after college. Having looked up to the dancers in the company for so long, it felt like destiny."

Nathalia Arja performs in Firebird (Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Miami City Ballet)

Nathalia Arja

Principal, Miami City Ballet

"When I was 8 years old, my mom gave me a DVD of The Royal Ballet's La Fille mal gardée, starring Lesley Collier and Michael Coleman. Mom had a whole collection of ballet DVDs, but La Fille was always my first pick. I was obsessed—I watched every day. It was so beautiful. I loved the playfulness, the jumps, the sweet romance—there's a bit of everything. Lesley was so wonderful in her pantomime, and her connection with Michael was so real that it felt like I was watching a film. She's not performing for the audience—she's just being herself in her element."

Jasmine Harper (Trellis Evans, courtesy Harper)

Jasmine Harper

Commercial dancer

"Watching 'So You Think You Can Dance' and 'The Wade Robson Project' on TV changed my life as a dancer. I'd watch every episode. On 'So You Think,' Robson's 'Ramalama (Bang Bang)' especially stood out—I think I'm just a Wade super fan!—as did Travis Wall and Martha Nichols' performance of 'Steam Heat.' I actually performed a trio to 'Steam Heat' at my studio in Rochester, NY, after we saw it on TV. But watching the shows as a whole made a professional career seem really tangible. I'd see kids coming from dance studios, going through the audition process, and making it. That proved to me that if I put in the hard work to get to their level, it was something I could do."

Maleek Washington (Eric Politzer, courtesy Washington)

Maleek Washington

Freelance dancer and choreographer

"I was just about to start high school when my mother and I saw Complexions Contemporary Dance Company's first-ever performance. I'd seen a lot of dance by that point, but nothing spoke to me like this did. I was floored. It gave me the validation that dance was possible for me, and I wanted to move like those dancers. Desmond Richardson was, of course, the star, and to me, he looked like a football player—or like a guy I'd see walking in my neighborhood. But he was also so smooth and elegant in his movement, and his flexibility was mind-blowing. While we were there, my mom read Desmond's bio and saw that he had gone to Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. It was right down the street! In that moment I thought, OK, that's where I'm going. The performance really changed everything for me, and gave me a clear direction."

Andy Blankenbuehler

Broadway choreographer

"I remember watching Singin' in the Rain for the first time when I was 11 years old. The moment of Gene Kelly actually singing in the rain hooked me. My career hasn't led me to do big, sweeping romantic shows like that dance. But it showed me just how joyful dancing could be—as well as masculine and sensitive at the same time.

"A few years later, my dance teacher brought in a video of Michael Jackson's 'The Way You Make Me Feel.' That was the first time we learned choreography that felt famous. It was so outside my world in Cincinnati, OH. We could do something the stars were doing! Jackson's 'Smooth Criminal' video also impacted me deeply. There's even a section in the In the Heights choreography called 'smooth criminal,' because it plays on the video's iconic, sharp start-and-stop movement vocab."

Adji Cissko (RJ Muna, courtesy Alonzo King LINES Ballet)

Adji Cissoko

Dancer, Alonzo King LINES Ballet

"Really, my first inspiration was music. My dad is a musician—he plays the kora, a Senegalese string instrument. He'd play for hours, so there was always music in my house that made me want to move. When I was 6 years old, my mom's best friend gave me a Tchaikovsky CD that had music from Romeo and Juliet, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. Without ever having seen the ballets, I'd listen and create my own movement. The first ballet I did see was the Bolshoi Ballet's Nutcracker. My grandparents lived in Russia, and we went to a performance during one visit. Of course the music resonated, but what really stuck with me was that there was such an ease to the movement. It was flowing. I wanted to move like that."

Jessica Tong in Counterpoint by Kyle Abraham (Todd Rosenberg courtesy Hubbard Street Dance Chicago)

Jessica Tong

Associate artistic director, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

"In my late teens, I saw Batsheva Dance Company perform a version of Decadance. In one part, a naked woman stood downstage with a projection of another naked woman on her body—her skin was used as the backdrop. I was completely blown away. Contemporary dance was still very new to me, and just seeing the possibilities of what dance and art could be was profoundly life-changing. At the time, I had recently moved to New York, and I'd been dancing with Ballet Tech. So I was really figuring out what I wanted to do and taking gigs where I could. Seeing that performance solidified my path and inspired me to focus my energy on a contemporary dance career."

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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."

Which of these four fabulous couples took home the Mirrorball Trophy? (Erin McCandless, courtesy ABC)

"DWTS" Week 11 Recap: And the Winner Is...

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.

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Because there's plenty of dance to be grateful for, even in this dumpster fire year (Getty Images/Sonja Rachbauer)

The Dance Things We're Thankful for in 2020

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.

Oh, oh! AND, I'm thankful for the #SavageChallenge, because, seriously, what would 2020 have been without it? (Thanks, @keke.janajay!)

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).

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