Beyond the Super Bowl: Dance Artist-Athlete Taja Riley Is Demanding Better Treatment for Dancers

Eight mandatory rehearsals. One nondisclosure agreement. Zero pay. These were a few of the specifications laid out in a casting call for dancers to be a part of the 2022 Super Bowl halftime show. After news got out that some dancers would be working as volunteers, and receiving no real benefits besides the exposure opportunity of a lifetime, Taja Riley was one of many who decided to speak up about how off-putting and disrespectful this offer felt, as well as how accepting jobs like this keeps dancers underpaid and underappreciated.

Just in time for the most-watched sporting event in the country, Riley successfully spearheaded a movement (on behalf of as many as 400 performers) to ensure that all dancers for the halftime show got fully compensated for their time and energy. For dancers in the community and supporters of the movement who helped spread the issue far and wide, this news felt like a game-winning touchdown—the type that calls for a celebratory dance! But the work doesn’t end there. It’s just one part of a continuous conversation.

Speaking up about the mistreatment of professional dancers is nothing new for Riley, a self-proclaimed dancer artist-athlete who, since the early quarantine days, has sparked some important conversations about the realities of the industry on social media. “We need to start educating people on the state of our community, in addition to being clearer with dance jobs about how our time, energy and influence should be valued,” says Riley, who uses she/he/they pronouns.

Along the way, Riley shared their own experiences in a way that pretty much every dancer can relate to. Now they’re building an entertainment company, TKO Quarantainment Inc., and developing a multitude of creative projects. Riley has put their own career dancing with some of the world’s top music artists to the side to “leap into the unknown” in pursuit of a better future, where dancers are valued and the dance community as a whole is elevated.

Riley recently spoke to Dance Magazine about some of the inequities that dancers have faced on set, from unreasonably low wages to questionable contracts and the absence of credit. “Yes, some of these production companies may be trying to undermine us, but I’m starting to discover that most of them just don’t know, or are following previous patterns,” they say.

The message is now en route to millions of people worldwide as Riley continues to use their voice and platform to heal, inspire and empower the dance community to see the worth of its members, so that the rest of the world can too.

What Sparked the Action:

Having worked with a long list of prominent names like Janet Jackson, SZA, Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez, Riley has experience to pull from when addressing industry issues. Despite the great experiences that they’ve had throughout their career, it was the few bad experiences—and the normalized fear of speaking up about them—that inspired the action Riley is taking today.

Feeling the need to walk out on a dream job in 2011, due to their moral standards being tested, helped Riley to understand the deeper implications of how dancers were viewed in the industry and led them to focus on redefining those standards. “I expressed my concerns with some of the other dancers on set, and there were multiple that felt the same way,” they say. “I was in a state of shock,” but eventually Riley pulled the choreographer aside to express appreciation, and kindly let him know that they weren’t willing to compromise who they were. “In this moment, when I was asked to do choreography that I felt went against my faith, the way that I viewed the dance industry completely shifted, and it actually latched onto my love for dance,” they add.

As a second-generation entertainer, Riley had always viewed themself as a business, and that’s part of the reason they’re fighting so hard for dancers to understand the importance of honoring the craft while honoring personal boundaries.

On Dancers Viewing Themselves as a Business:

“Do you have a mission statement? When you’re working, do you have a vision or a purpose for why you’re there? As a dance professional, that’s what you stand on. That’s your foundation. Who you are can then be broken down into concepts and statements, which can help you organize your value and the definition of your product, which is your likeness.”

These are crucial factors to take into consideration so that dance artists can stand firmly on what they believe in while on the job, and easily discern what they’re willing to stand for, fall for or sacrifice when it comes to certain dance jobs.

Tuning In to “TAJTV”

Taja Riley. Photo by Lee Gumbs, Courtesy Riley. Design by The Circle & The Square

Riley plans for TKO Quarantainment’s debut television program series, “TAJTV,” to serve as a resource to help uplift the dance community. It’s a unique talk show that’ll feature a number of special segments featuring an elite cast of mainstream entertainers, and tap into topics of concern within the industry, while discussing how to build solutions. “I want to be able to show the great parts of the dance industry, as well as touch on some of the things that need more awareness.”

“We’ve already shot some of the pilot, and I’m so thankful to all of the donors to the GoFundMe! We would love to finish it so that we can pitch it for up-fronts.” You can find updates on Riley’s GoFundMe page as they inch toward the $15,000 goal to get the show off the ground and onto television screens. 

The Day-to-Day of a Dance Activist:

As someone who’s working to improve the reality of dance artists, daily life is “unpredictable,” Riley says. “Some days are very empowering, productive and triumphant, and other days feel very sad and draining.”

“There’s also the physical work and outreach, like contacting media, and a long to-do list for projects in progress: The continual development, executive producing, going out to get people on board, contracting, developing, templating, creating, reading, amending and delegating to the team. Then, of course, there’s leaving space for my emotional work, which I find in my dance training, and even horse training! Awakening myself dance-wise has been crucial for grounding myself during this process. ”

Riley feels the busy schedule is worth it because they’ve focused on the bigger picture: impacting the dance community—and beyond. Inspired by the openness of Oprah Winfrey, Riley is hoping that this movement can have the same impact for dance as major media figures and publications of that level have had on other fields.

On Memes and Bringing Humor Into the Mix:

Many of the memes on Riley’s Instagram page use humor to shine a light on some seriously shady issues that dancers face. “I think that the best way to heal is to laugh and cry,” they say. “Being a part of meme culture is being able to captivate the subconscious of the alter egos inside of you in a way that feels relatable.”

How Others Can Get Involved:

“We must unify! We have so much power, and we’re so much stronger together,” Riley says. “When you read this article, go talk to someone about it. Bring it to your parents, your dance teacher, your dance peers, and have a discussion about it.”

Making Dance History:

The bottom line is that despite the popularity that dance artists have helped make possible for so many brands and music artists over the years, they are often still grossly underappreciated. Riley believes that professional dancers should be treated and paid equally to professional athletes and musicians. For a lot of folks, such drastic change just isn’t fathomable, but Riley continues to push the vision forward and unapologetically highlight the mistreatment of dancers, so that positive change can be applied within the industry little by little.

Riley is inspiring dancers to move past unethical traditions just because “that’s the way things have always been.” Questioning is the new cool. Respect is a must. Dancers are artists and athletes, and should be treated as such. And Riley reminds us of the need to continue the fight for progress: “This whole movement is just beginning.”

Grow Your Knowledge:

The Ins and Outs Podcast

DanceSpeak Podcast

Pro Cheerleading Podcast

The post Beyond the Super Bowl: Dance Artist-Athlete Taja Riley Is Demanding Better Treatment for Dancers appeared first on Dance Magazine.

Relieve Daily Stress With Dance!

Fred Astaire Dance Studios urges people to cut loose on the dance floor to help reduce stress and alleviate anxiety during trying times.

Watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfold on national television and social media is mobilizing Americans to take action by providing humanitarian aid and support for the people of the democratic nation. At the same time, the onslaught of grim news is contributing to rising stress levels throughout the United States. A new report from the American Psychological Association reveals global unrest, inflation, and supply chain troubles are significant sources of stress for Americans. Results from the poll are particularly troubling, given the undue stress people are still coping with due to the ongoing pandemic.

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Fred Astaire Dance Studios is doing its part to help Americans de-stress. Our local studios provide a safe haven where people can briefly cast their worries aside and let their bodies move to the music. While reducing screen time, eating a healthy diet, and meditation can all help reduce stress, we recommend hitting the dance floor. Here are a few reasons dancing is the best stress reliever.

  • Boosts Mood. Dancing releases endorphins, which are natural painkillers and can help elevate mood and improve focus.
  • Fosters Creativity. Dancing provides a creative outlet for expressing your emotions in a positive atmosphere. Trying out new routines is a great way to keep your mind busy and active, another great stress relief habit.
  • Soothes Body. Dancing helps increase flexibility, which will help relieve the tension and stiffness caused by stress. Make sure to do your stretches first though!


Fred Astaire Helped Americans Cope During Stressful Time

Our founder, Fred Astaire, brought ballroom dancing to the masses during another stressful time in American history. During the Great Depression, watching films showcasing Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing their hearts out helped many Americans weather a period in history full of hardship. Astaire took his commitment to helping the American people a step further when he co-founded Fred Astaire Dance Studios in 1947. He wanted to establish a chain of studios under his name to make sure that his techniques would be preserved and passed onto the public, and that’s a legacy we are proud to carry forward to this day!

Is Dance “Enough” to Meaningfully Address Something Like Black Lives Matter?

2016: I was asked to create a duet for RAWdance (Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein) in San Francisco at a time when my heart was caught in a perpetual state of reeling from the constant murders of African Americans by law enforcement, most recently the murder of Walter Scott, who was shot in the back in South Carolina after being stopped for a nonfunctioning brake light. I knew I had to address the killings, but I didn’t know how. I felt incompetent, my work felt inadequate. So after a career dedicated to the intersection of choreography and social activism, I created Enough?, a piece that asks whether dance can meaningfully address social movements like Black Lives Matter.

1991: I was finishing Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams, my first commission for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a work juxtaposing the early 1900s stories of my sharecropper Creole­ grandmother in the swamps of Louisiana with my own stories as a gay African American in New York City’s East Village at the apex of the AIDS pandemic. The work called out the sexism, racism and homophobia that extended from my grandmother’s era into my own. One night after rehearsal I participated in ACT UP’s (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) takeover of Grand Central Terminal at rush hour in order to bring that evening’s commute to its knees and force attention to America’s anemic response to the AIDS pandemic.

And take over we did. Being part of hundreds of screaming protesters taking up space in Grand Central turned an act of desperation into an act of empowerment. AIDS received the attention we demanded. What AIDS did not receive was empathy. We were hated by the understandably livid commuters; they spat at protesters, shouted AIDS-phobic slurs, and the event was one step from erupting into violence. Our protest was necessary and I was honored to be there. But I wondered what the impact might be if the commuters could deeply feel the enormity of the grief that propelled us into this takeover?

Creating this empathy was not the purpose of our takeover. But it became the purpose of my art-making. Without losing the political urgency of my work, I now wanted to create those bridges of empathy that would better transcend the boundaries of difference and allow the disenfranchised to shout tales of their personal and political histories while also allowing viewers to see themselves in the lives of these very disenfranchised. As a politics major at Princeton, I understood that a necessary first step in oppression of any kind is to dehumanize the oppressed. At that protest, my mission consciously became to “re-humanize.” Urban Scenes remained an urgent calling out of racism, sexism and homophobia, but the piece became less about those “isms” and more about the eternality of devastating loss due to those “isms.”

David Roussève performing in Stardust. Yi-Chun Yu, Courtesy Roussève.

1991–2016: I created a body of work with this new mission at its expressive core. These works often contained text that told the nonlinear narratives of marginalized BIPOC and LGBTQ people. But it was dance’s ability to speak deeply through an abstract metaphoric language that gave these works their emotional wallop and potential to jump the boundaries between us. I knew how to speak most accessibly through text, but I knew how to speak most deeply through dance. If the goal was to create bridges, then abstract kinetic languages were the stepping-stones to those bridges. And making work in this way was enough.

Until it was not.

2022: With the advantage of time, I look back at the creation of Enough?. I had entered the studio filled with both the despair of watching the slaughter of Black bodies and the hope of watching the response by millions that became BLM, as if life were a roller coaster plummeting between heaven and hell. That roller coaster became the core of Enough?.

The piece begins with the first in a series of projected tweet-like text passages: “I have been thinking a lot about what a dance can ‘do’.” We see the performers, Ryan and Wendy, in stillness as Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come” begins, a recording that is lushly beautiful even as it calls for deep change. The dancers begin one long single phrase of sumptuous movement that matches the lushness of the music. As Aretha hits a gospel-inflected high note and bends it as only Aretha can, the text passages read “YUUUUUUMMM!!” “Did your heart jump like your toes were skipping ’cross the clouds?” The intersection of words, music and dance feels sublime. The dancers repeat the same exact phrase over and over, all the while dancing faster and faster; the swirling curves of lushness slowly transform into a jagged thrashing frenzy. At the apex of this superhuman speed the intersection of words, music and dance feels like a whirlwind of despair. Media coverage of Walter Scott being shot by law enforcement is projected into the work as the core of Enough? is revealed to be a searing indictment of the murder of African Americans. The text reads “A dance can show you how my heart feels when I see that video.” “Because that video makes my heart feel like Ryan and Wendy are dancing.” “Right now.” “A dance can tell you how quickly life moves from toes touching clouds to hearts mired in hell.” Aretha’s voice ends. The only sound is the dancer’s gasping breath as Ryan and Wendy fall to the ground exhausted. The final passages of text read, “Yep, dance can do all that.” “But when I see that video, I am left to wonder…is it enough?”

Enough? altered again my choreographic tactics towards­ creating socially engaged choreography. The text asks whether­ we can act while its deeper undercurrents—the movement—insists that we must act. The “narrator” (assumedly­ the choreographer) is less someone to identify with than a neutral voice to propel the conversation forward. Questioning the adequacy of my own response invites you to question the adequacy of your response; our viewing the news footage “together” asks whether your heart also feels like Ryan and Wendy are dancing when you view an assault on Black bodies. Enough? does not seek empathy towards a character. It seeks empathy towards a political movement; it seeks to spur you into action not because you care about the narrator, but because you care about Walter Scott, because you care about humanity.

I went to protests. I made donations. But when I was truly lost I did the one thing I could rely on: I made a dance. Was that Enough? That is for the viewer to decide. But tapping into the immense power of performance to provoke, to prod, to move, to have heartfelt conversations in a seemingly heartless time—that felt like the most important thing I could do.

Choreographer/writer/director/filmmaker David Roussève has created 14 full evening works for his company David Roussève/REALITY.

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