Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers perform the mazurka in Coppélia (Angela Sterling, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet)

Building Character: What Happened to the Popularity of Character Dance?

Most full-length classical ballets feature several character dances—troupes of dancing peasants, parades of visiting princesses. Today, those dances are often seen as "filler," interludes to give the principals a breather between classical variations. But back in the 19th century, when many of these ballets premiered, character dances had deep cultural significance. Ballerinas, equally versed in character and classical techniques, would perform character dances in stand-alone programs. (Picture a Paris opera house full of cheering crowds, demanding multiple encores after their favorite star performs a knockout mazurka.) How did something that used to be so popular, and once provided critical context, fade from prominence?


From Romantic Nationalism to Romantic Ballets

Most of the full-length ballet "classics" premiered in Europe during a time when people couldn't travel very easily. The character dances that can feel extraneous today were originally intended to give a clear sense of a different country's culture.

"Character dance came about during the Romantic ballet period, roughly 1830–1850. This was when Romantic nationalism occurred," says Anthony Shay, professor of theater and dance at Pomona College. Romantic nationalism was a European philosophy that looked to peasants for "pure" examples of dance, music, language, and folklore. Romantic nationalists thought that rural people enjoyed a close relationship to the land, and thus their cultures reflected an authentic sense of place, untouched by outside influence—a point of pride during a period of rapid political change. The philosophy was also a way for European nations to assert their superiority as they fought over fluctuating boundaries and overseas empires. "Folk dance came to be considered part of the essence of a nation," Shay says.

Choreographers worked character dance into ballets, where it made crowd-pleasing appearances alongside burgeoning classical technique. Susan Leigh Foster, distinguished professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at University of California, Los Angeles, says that many Romantic ballets featured a plot with an inherently dancey main character—a sylph, or a doll—and then add character dance to establish a sense of place. That's how we ended up with La Sylphide's Scottish reel and plaid kilts, and Coppélia's showstopping mazurka scene, which screamed "Polish" to 19th-century audiences.

In reality, character dance was so stylized by the time it hit an opera house stage it could hardly be considered authentic. "Choreographers would take a few steps that looked very characteristic and use them to signal to the audience that they were seeing something exotic," Shay says. Ballet patrons were wild about character dances, but not about the people who originated them. They didn't want to see dancing peasants; they wanted to see their favorite ballerinas interpret peasant dances. "There was no actual folk material transported into any of the ballets," Shay says. For all the supposed national pride in folk culture, there was still a clear hierarchy separating folk dances from their stylized counterparts.

PNB dancers in Coppélia (Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB)

From Abstraction to Character Companies

It's hard to determine exactly when or why ballet training, which once celebrated virtuosity in character and classical techniques, began to prioritize the classical. We do know that by the end of the 19th century, ballet had consolidated as a universal training regimen. "Ballet was seen as broad, abstract and 'untainted' by localized folk dances," Foster says. "The basic shapes and movements of ballet started to become mathematical shapes." By the late 20th century, "character dance" referred to dances in ballets and to ballet classes that referenced specific locales and contrasted with the more elevated technique of classical ballet.

A century after character dance was first used to signify national pride, totalitarian rulers in Europe, including the USSR's Joseph Stalin, began to stage character dance performances for similar purposes. "You couldn't have actual folk dances, because those weren't appealing to powerful people. They were a sign of backwardness," Shay says. Instead, character dance was used to assert national superiority, even as its contextualizing role in the ballet repertoire faded away.

At Stalin's request, a dancer named Igor Alexandrovich Moiseyev created the first folk dance company, giving it a professional identity separate from classical ballet. The "folk dance" he created and staged, however, was an invented tradition. "Moiseyev took the character dancing he had learned, and altered into a new genre of dance to represent multiple groups," Shay says. The Moiseyev Dance Company still performs today.

Connecting to the Source

We know very little about how character dance factored into 19th-century ballets. But we can still educate ourselves about historical references and contemporary, authentic folk dance, which will make ballet richer for audiences and performers alike. "You can't leave out character dance," Shay says. "It has been much reduced in popularity and in what it signifies, but you can go deeper." To help students feel closer to a ballet's original context, Shay encourages them to take classes in folk dance styles—and to remember that all dances are created in a particular time and place, by a particular people.

Latest Posts


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.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
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).

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search