When young girls dream about growing up to be dancers, they often hold images in their minds which are narrowed by ideas of femaleness that come from the world around them. At three and four years old, they are already filled with images of reed-thin ballerinas wearing pink tutus and frozen smiles. Very early, they’ve gotten the message that dancing – like other activities – is all about being delicate, dainty, and pleasing to others.
Wouldn’t it be amazing, if from day one, girls knew that there are many kinds of dancers and many ways to dance? That it’s about more than being dressed in pink or being delicate or pleasing or dainty?
As 16-year-old dancer Taja Riley says, “Young people limit themselves as to what they can do as dancers. Dancing and artistry is limitless.”
I can tell you one way to expand the minds of young female dancers – go take them to see Taja Riley.
My mind exploded when I first saw Taja Riley perform on stage. It was two years ago, at the New York City Dance Alliance National Season Finale. Taja, in the running for the title of 2006 National Junior, and was set to perform her solo for the judges and audience.
I remember sitting forward in my seat when Taja walked – make that strutted – onto the stage. What I noticed right away was how fully she inhabited her body, and how raw, fierce, and unapologetic she was in the way she moved. I was devastated that she didn’t take first place, but was happy to hear that she took the title of National Teen in last year’s Season Finale with a performance called My Philosophy.
At this year’s Season Finale, Taja stepped down from her title of National Teen. Before doing so, she performed a piece called Assassin. Dancing to Portishead’s song Machine Gun, she literally stepped into the role of a female assassin, pushing her body into unsettling contortions which suggested a struggle for life. Clearly, she had lost nothing of her fierce grace, athletecism, and raw power.
I approached Ms. Riley in between dances and asked for a chance to interview her. We caught up over the phone shortly after her return to Los Angeles.
Q: How does Taja describe her dance style?
A: Jokingly, Taja says: “Psychotic,” “Vogue-ish,” and “in the style of a Drag Queen.” And, in a more serious tone: “I’m still discovering exactly what my style of dancing is and can’t really put it in a category yet because I train in almost every style.”
Q: What does Taja do to prepare for a performance?
A: As Taja puts it, “Dancers are actors who can dance.” So to get ready to perform, she focuses on getting into the character and the mood of a dance. To prepare for her performance of Assassin at this year’s NYCDA closing night gala, she researched what it meant to be a female assassin. Taja rented Tomb Raider and Mr. and Mrs. Smith in order to study the famous lady assassin, Angelina Jolie: How does she move? What is her demeanor like? How does she approach a situation?
Q: How did Taja get her start in dance?
A: First,Taja got involved in gymnastics. After two years of that, Taja’s mom, who had grown up dancing, put her daughter into a “rinky-dink dance studio.” When the director of the studio found out that Taja had skipped the studio’s group performance and instead gone to the Spice Girls concert dressed as Scary Spice (her passion at the time), she kicked Taja out of the studio. In retrospect, Taja sees the event as a blessing. After all, it’s what prompted her mom to transfer Taja into the now-famous Denise Wall’s Dance Energy.
Denise Wall, the founder and director of her dance studio in Virginia, keeps sending dance stars out into the universe. Three of her students – Danny Tidwell, Travis Wall, and Jaimie Goodwin – were winners or runners-up in the television show So You Think You Can Dance. At the NYCDA National Season Finale, her dancers walk away with countless awards for both solo and group performances.
At seven, after the Scary Spice incident, Taja entered the world of Dance Energy. When she was ten, Denise chose her Taja to be in a junior dance company. Denise was piloting the company with three people who were younger than a typical company member. Around the same time, Taja competed for and won a regional scholarship with the NYCDA. The scholarship enabled her to take NYCDA classes for free and compete in different cities under the umbrella of Denise’s junior company. It was the first time Taja realized she could be in the dance world and also be herself.
Q: Does Taja help choreograph or pick music for the pieces she performs?
A: Travis Wall usually choreographs Taja’s solos. He gives her the go-ahead to do whatever she wants for the last 30 seconds to a minute of a song. With the green light to improvise, Taja will do just that. And here’s the kicker: Taja will improvise in those last 30-60 seconds during the actual performance, surprising even herself with the outcome!
Taja likes working with dancer/choreographers such as Teddy Forance, people who demonstrate interest in the students’ perspectives while choreographing a piece. “He [Teddy] is someone who respects your mind.”
Q: Who are other artists that Taja regards as kindred spirits?
A: Taja first mentions that she is a huge fan of Bjork, greatly admiring the way that the singer/actor consistently steps out of the box and stands by her individuality. Next in the lineup comes Beyonce, who represents the epitome of what Taja aspires to be – a nonstop performer whose career comes first. Notes Taja about Beyonce: “No man directs her.”
Third, Taja mentions other dancers – Jillian Meyers, Travis Wall, Teddy Forance, and Randi Kemper. Says Taja of Travis, son of Denise Wall, “He has raised me in the dance world. I could never see myself as a dancer without him in my life as a mentor, friend, teacher, and icon.”
Taja also talks about her connection with dancer Jaime Goodwin, who was a NYCDA Senior Outstanding Dancer and a top ten finalist in the television show So You Think You Can Dance. Says Taja of Jaime: “She is like a sister. She works for what she has. She stays humble and grounded. She pushes me to work harder.”
Q: What’s great about being Taja?
A: Taja is clear that her strong peer network is a huge and positive part of her life. “I can’t imagine being a good dancer without friends,” she comments. “I appreciate being around people who have ideas of their own, people who don’t take things for granted.[…] I get to see and work with the people I love every day.
Q: What’s hard about being Taja?
A: Finding time and energy for dating. As Taja summarizes the situation, “Dancing is my boyfriend.”
Q: What does Taja do when she’s not dancing?
A: “I dance!” To blow off steam, Taja engages in contact improvisation. She also likes to watch movies, play soccer, read, draw, write, and take photographs.
Q: What’s Taja’s take on the television dance competitions?
A: In Taja’s eyes, a television show shouldn’t be the peak of a dancer’s career. “It’s easy to lose sight of what you came on the show for.” She also notes that it’s risky to get too cocky too soon; emphasizing that the important part of being a dancer is the never-ending process of observing, learning, and growing.
Q: What’s next for Taja?
A: Taja, who just finished a round of performances with the Monsters of Hip Hop Show, is going to be a busy lady in the coming months. For starters, she’s touring around the country with the New York City Dance Alliance, along with dance buddies Jaimie Goodwin and Sabra Johnson.
Taja is also involved in The Zodiac Show, a live performance showcase featuring new and established singers, rappers, aerialists, and poets. Carmit Bachar, a performer and Co-producer of Zodiac, describes it as “an edgy, rock ‘n’ roll version of Cirque du Soleil.”
Having recently signed on with Clear Talent Group, an agency for singers, dancers, actors, and models, there’s clearly more in the works for Ms. Riley. Stay tuned!
Q: What is Taja going to do to celebrate your birthday this year?
A: Taja hopes to celebrate with a group of close friends. One of her ideas is to go hear the band M83. Another is to go to Vegas to see Bette Midler perform.
Q: What kind of impact does Taja want to make through her dancing?
A: In Taja’s own words, “I want to be a legend. I want people to say ‘She changed my life.’ I want people to learn from me, even from my mistakes, to feed off my energy, to be inspired and motivated. I want to help people find what their purpose is in life.”
Photo Credit: Denise Wall Dance Energy