The Road to "Glee"

Once you spot Heather Morris on the hit TV show “Glee,” you’ll sit on the edge of your couch anxiously awaiting her every scene. As the unintentionally hilarious airhead Brittany, Heather delivers priceless one-liners with deadpan seriousness.

“Brittany can figure certain things out, like cheerleading and performing, because those are her passions,” says Heather. “But she doesn’t pay attention to anything else!”

Heather nails this obtuse character so perfectly that it’s hard to believe she’s a dancer first and an actress second. “Heather has incredible comedic timing,” says “Glee” choreographer Zach Woodlee. Plus, she has the kind of charisma that catches the audience’s attention. As a result, the 23-year-old is now finding out what it means to be famous.

Sweet Home, Arizona

Heather didn’t start out with an acting career in mind. Born in Thousand Oaks, CA, and raised in Scottsdale, AZ, she grew up around dance. Her two older sisters took lessons and Heather’s mom put her into classes as soon as she could walk.

Choreographer Brian Friedman remembers when Heather came to his school, The Dance Source, at the age of 7. “The first time she took my class, I thought, She’s a star,” says Friedman. “I put her with the 9 to 11 year olds and she danced circles around every one of them.”

Heather threw her heart into her dancing. She took jazz, tap, ballet, hip hop and tumbling. Plus, she says, “I attended every competition and convention possible!”

But more than winning any medal or title, one tragic event made a major impact on Heather’s life: Her father died of cancer when she was just 14. His death still motivates her today. “I do everything for my dad,” Heather says. “I wish he were here to experience this with me now.”

The City of Angels Beckons

After high school, Heather enrolled at Arizona State University. But after a year, the lure of auditioning for “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 2 drew her to L.A. Although she didn’t make it onto the show, she fell in love with the idea of a Hollywood dance career. “I said, that’s it, I’m moving to L.A.” And she never looked back.

“I worked my butt off all day, every day,” Heather says. She landed her first gig within two months, and soon she was dancing in fashion shows and at local clubs. Heather hit the big time when she booked a 2007 world tour with Beyoncé (and later became one of her “Single Ladies,” performing with the singer on “Saturday Night Live” and the “Today Show”). But a major turning point in her career came when she nabbed a tiny role in 2008 in Fired Up—a movie Zach Woodlee was choreographing.

“Heather came in as a double for a tumbling part,” Woodlee says. But she was so impressive that he added her into more scenes. “Once you work with Heather you don’t want to stop,” he says. “Her work ethic is unparalleled, and everyone loves her.” After the film wrapped, Woodlee started bringing her in to assist him on other projects, including episodes of “Eli Stone” and “Swingtown,” and the movie Bedtime Stories.

Then, Woodlee was hired to work as the choreographer on a new show that was creating a lot of buzz in the industry: “Glee.” Heather had just turned down a second tour with Beyoncé when she got a call from Woodlee. He wanted Heather to teach the “Single Ladies” dance to Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt, for an episode they were preparing to shoot. A week later she was cast as Brittany. “I didn’t even read for it!” she says.

Being on “Glee”

“Working on ‘Glee’ is the coolest, most fun thing ever,” Heather says. But it is work. Between rehearsals, filming, and a live tour, it’s a full-time job and then some. Cast members have to memorize lyrics and choreography—and then there’s the acting! Heather has to simultaneously recall her character’s back-story and her blocking.

But being a dancer gives Heather a leg up. “I have an easier time with things like spacing and movement,” she says. “As a dancer you’re aware of what’s around you.”

Woodlee adds: “Dancers have a different sort of discipline. Heather’s first response is always, ‘Yes, I can do that.’ ”

Next Up

With the show garnering so much attention, Heather is finding herself in the spotlight more than ever before. “It’s weird,” she says. “People want to do things for me, like drive me around in a golf cart. I’m like, I can walk—I’m a dancer! But it’s awesome how much positive attention we get.”

But no matter how successful Heather becomes as an actress, she says she’ll always think of herself as a dancer first. She still goes to class—not just because it’s her job, but because it’s fun. Friedman sees a future in which Heather uses both of her talents: “Keeping dance in your back pocket and using it as a secret weapon is incredible,” he says. “I think Heather should follow in J.Lo’s footsteps.”

And how lucky are we that we get to watch?

 

Fast Facts

Birthday: February 1, 1987

Most played on her iPod: The entire album xx by The xx

Favorite movie: Atonement

Favorite dance movie: Moulin Rouge!

Must-see TV show: “‘Glee’... duh! And ‘Modern Family.’ ”

Favorite food: Guacamole and chips

Favorite dance class: Jazz Funk and Hip Hop with teachers like Tovaris Wilson or Lee Daniel. “There’s no pressure to be good. It’s all about how it makes you feel.”

Who would play you in a movie? “Me!”

Dream dance job: Being a lead in a film like Dirty Dancing, Moulin Rouge! or Nine

Dance crush: Tony Testa. “He’s a dreamboat and one heck of a talented dancer/choreographer/director all in one!”

Advice for DS readers: “Work hard and make sure you’re doing what you love. Take constructive criticism, but don’t

listen to haters.”

Dream co-star: Dakota Fanning

It’s a small Arizona world: Growing up, Heather lived next door to Brian Friedman and she danced with Lauren Gottlieb in high school. Plus Brooke Lipton, the assistant choreographer on “Glee,” went to Heather’s dance studio!

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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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