Born into the world of entertainment, Deja Riley is a star in her own right. And if her last name sounds familiar, it is because she is the daughter of legendary producer and King of New Jack Swing, Teddy Riley. But rather than rely on her father's connections and last name, Deja chose to forge her own path into the entertainment industry. Going from dancing professionally with the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and the queen herself, Beyoncé, to now becoming one of the most sought-after MIRROR home fitness trainers, a lululemon global ambassador, and the creator of her own fitness brand, the Sweaty Smiles Squad.
In an exclusive with xoNecole, Deja opens up about her professional dance background, transitioning into a career in fitness, being an advocate for Black people in the fitness industry, and the importance of 'Deja Dailies' to her self-care routine.
xoNecole: Let's first get into your dance background. How long have you been a dancer and how did you begin dancing for some of our faves?
Deja Riley: Dancing is actually something that I've always done. My parents put me in dance at the age of three so it's always been a huge part of my life. Once I started competitively dancing at 12, I started taking it more seriously. When I moved to LA at the age of 19, my first dance job was working for Laurieann Gibson as her assistant. She was a huge mentor who gave me my first celebrity gig which was on Dancing with the Stars with Lady Gaga.
Since then, I have danced for Britney Spears, J.Lo, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, and the list goes on and on and on. So it's something that will always be a passion of mine. And I think that that is why I love dance fitness so much. It's because I get to incorporate both my passion for wellness and then my passion for dance as well.
xoN: What made you decide to transition into the health and fitness space?
DR: I've just always had this inclination to move my body. I love movement of all kinds. It varies from yoga to HIIT workouts. I love kickboxing. I love boxing. So at the age of 27 or 28, I was transitioning out of the dance industry. I remember being on the football field at Super Bowl 50, dancing behind Beyoncé with all of the glitz and glamour and lights. And I still felt small. I felt like I was not enough. And my mental health is important. So when I started feeling that way, I knew that it was time to shift. It was time to switch gears into something a lot more fulfilling for not just my body, but also my spirit and my mind.
It took six months to a year for me to fully make the transition. But I had already been working out a lot so I decided that I wanted to lean into fitness even more. At first, I was like, maybe I'll do some fitness modeling. Then I was like, maybe I'll go into personal training. And I landed in group fitness where I started my fitness journey as a leader.
"I remember being on the football field at Super Bowl 50, dancing behind Beyoncé with all of the glitz and glamour and lights. And I still felt small. I felt like I was not enough. And my mental health is important. So when I started feeling that way, I knew that it was time to shift."
xoN: As a Black woman in the fitness industry, what hurdles have you had to overcome?
DR: That's a great question. Representation is so important. Especially because when I was a little girl, I didn't have very many examples of that. But we have more today. And it is up to trainers like me and other, Black and brown women to continue to pave the way and show our young Black women that you can lead a healthy and happy life. I think that is part of my mission, as a trainer, as an advocate, as an activist. I take that responsibility very, very seriously. In terms of obstacles that I've had to conquer, it goes back to the very beginning of my journey as a dancer.
I was oftentimes faced with this idea of tokenism. Like there can only be one of us in the group, or there can only be one of us on the platform. And that's not true. Combating that narrative is so important. It's not competing, it's about sisterhood. When negotiating my contract for lululemon and MIRROR, I had to seek advice from other mentors in other industries because I didn't know anyone within our industry to help me navigate that. So now mentoring people that come after me is very important. I currently work with an organization called Fit For Us which advocates, supports, and continues to push the agenda forward for Black wellness and fitness professionals. That is near and dear to my heart.
I've done things like fireside chats, one-on-ones, and being transparent about fair wages and what other Black fitness professionals should look out for in their contracts. I think it is important that we continue to band together and teach those that come after us on progressing and pushing forward. And that's what I'm on a mission to continue to do.
"In terms of obstacles that I've had to conquer, it goes back to the very beginning of my journey as a dancer. I was oftentimes faced with this idea of tokenism. Like there can only be one of us in the group, or there can only be one of us on the platform. And that's not true. Combating that narrative is so important. It's not competing, it's about sisterhood."
xoN: As the daughter of super-producer Teddy Riley, what was that journey like making a name for yourself and not relying on your father?
DR: I think what is often perceived by the public is that I got to where I am, because of my dad, and it's quite the opposite. We can never escape the name. My siblings and I work very hard. We all have different careers in different industries. And we all do our best to let our work and our character speak for themselves. My dad instilled in each one of us a very strong work ethic. So it was never an option to only lean on my last name. I always had to work for everything that I had.
When I was in the dance industry, I had to audition just like all of these other dancers and work for the job. My dad wasn't making phone calls to choreographers or artists for me to get the job. But I think that I do have the privilege and the honor of being able to get industry and career advice from somebody like him. He has paved the way for so many in the music industry, and I'm hoping to do the same in the fitness industry.
xoN: How do you prioritize yourself and approach self-care in your busy life and the different titles you juggle day-to-day?
DR: I make self-care a priority every day. I couldn't put out radiant, joyful energy in the world if I didn't start with me first. I use my 'Deja Dailies' -- my own internal assessment I roll through -- to set the tone for my day. I meditate first thing in the morning and take time to read and journal. I usually get into my favorite book of the month, read articles that challenge my brain or inspire me and then take time to journal and take into account feelings that I need to get out on paper and release.
I make it a priority to get nourishment into my body, which could be through food, music, or movement, so I find space to dance or run, or whatever I need that day to feed my soul. I make sure to intentionally set the pace of my days; even if that means going to bed early or waking up earlier, ultimately I do what's necessary to be my best self each day.
"I make self-care a priority every day. I couldn't put out radiant, joyful energy in the world if I didn't start with me first... I make it a priority to get nourishment into my body, which could be through food, music, or movement, so I find space to dance or run, or whatever I need that day to feed my soul."
xoN: What are some sustainable lifestyle changes that people can incorporate into their lives?
DR: So I'm going to give a little bit of motivational advice, and that is you have to do something that you love. If you don't find what resonates with your heart, you're eventually going to quit doing it. There are so many ways to move [your body]. Also, "Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can."
That's actually a quote from Arthur Ashe. I think we oftentimes forget that he, like many others, had to start somewhere too. So I go back to that phrase often. And if you get overwhelmed, from looking at the entire staircase, just focus on one step, focus on being present.
For more of Deja Riley, follow her on Instagram @dejariley.
Featured image courtesy of Deja Riley