She’s a Canyon High grad, a horseback rider, a dancer, a dance teacher, an actor, and “Miss Amazing California.” She’s also a longtime Canyon Country resident who lives life to the fullest.
Riley Weinstein, who turns 27 this month, doesn’t let anything get between her and her dreams – not even her disabilities. At the age of 2 she had a brain aneurysm followed by two strokes, which left her paralyzed on the left side. The next few years were devoted to helping her physically catch up to whatever level was possible.
Though she began with setbacks that would cause a lot of us to give up, Weinstein gained a forward momentum that never seems to stop.
“I had to relearn how to do everything – how to walk and talk – everything,” she explained. “That’s where dance came into my life. My mother was a dancer herself and got me into my first dance class at 5 years old.”
The expressive art form became a powerful force for Weinstein. “Dance is my passion,” she said. “Dance will never be out of my life.”
And in a show of tenacity, she didn’t stop at dance lessons.
“Growing up there were not dance classes for students with disabilities,” she said. “So, at the age of 14, I started my own dance class with the help of Becky Graham & Denise Redmond, owner and directors of Carousel Ranch, a therapeutic horseback riding center for students with disabilities.”
Weinstein rode at Carousel Ranch in Agua Dulce from about the age of 5 into her teens.
Love of Dance
“I started volunteer teaching at Vibe Performing Arts Center under the supervision of another teacher and then I went on to Santa Clarita School of Performing Arts, where I taught dance for students with special needs for about six years,” she said. “I also started benefit concerts called ‘Getting the Word Out,’ where we had singers, bands such as Malbec and BlueSky Reality, and we had Jerry Ferris who’s famous for ‘The Bachelorette’ and ‘Switched at Birth.’”
Ferris had emceed a Make a Wish Foundation event when an 11-year-old Riley Weinstein’s wish was granted to have her life story made into a documentary. The film premiered at The Grove in Los Angeles. He also emceed her dancing showcase called “INSPIRE,” and Weinstein has involved other celebrities in her projects, including Alex Frost of “So You Think You Can Dance” and actress/dancer/choreographer Zina Bethune.
Before Weinstein rented space independently at New World Dance, she was a student for about six years at the studio.
“There I was taught by Jessica Shull and started from a teen to adult dancing with her,” she said. “I remember getting so excited to see her every lesson and class because she was more than just a teacher to me, she was a mentor and friend.”
She also took dance classes from Brandy Thilesen, who was creative director, and Terry Bixler, who was owner of New World Dance at the time.
Bixler, who she calls her ‘Dance Dad,’ not only allowed her to teach dance to individuals with special needs, he has supported Weinstein throughout many of her endeavors, including the Miss Amazing pageant.
“He also let me choreograph in his studio whenever students and I needed it for my showcase events and let me use students from his studio,” she said. “I can’t thank this man enough for what he has given me. There’s so much more he has done for me.”
Weinstein is interested in teaching again, but needs to get a group of students together. She needs about 8-10 individuals with disabilities who are interested in taking a class, and she also needs to find a studio where she can rent space.
Calling her style “rhythmic jazz tap,” Weinstein teaches jazz techniques for the first half and tap for the second. “My class is not like any other tap class,” she explained. “Because I have students with disabilities, they learn rhythm and listening skills. Also a little bit of rhythm dance routines with tap.”
In addition to the Miss Amazing Foundation and Carousel Ranch, Weinstein is also involved with the Academy Of Special Dreams, an organization giving artists with disabilities an opportunity to show off their art.
“Miss Amazing is a pageant for young women and girls with disabilities and it’s to help them with confidence, learn social skills and basically just gain self-esteem,” the new statewide title holder explained.
Each participant chooses a “buddy” to help her throughout the day with makeup and hair and get her ready for the verbal introduction at the beginning of the pageant. Buddies also help girls practice their walk onstage, their talent and interview skills.
For the interview, participants meet with judges before the pageant. “Some participants do have mental disabilities, so (the judges) will ask them, ‘Do you have a dog? What’s its name?’ I get asked harder questions,” Weinstein said. “They asked me, ‘What makes somebody beautiful?’”
Part of the challenge also, she said, is that you don’t have a lot of time to answer. “The trick to these interviews is you have to basically have a conversation with them. They don’t like when you take too long to answer a question,” she said, pointing out the intimidating factors involved. “One of the judges won Miss Universe, so here I was talking to Miss Universe!”
The pageant participants walk in gowns with male escorts across the stage “and pose while they are saying our special qualities,” she explained. “This year my escort was pretty cute, so I liked that.”
Janice Dosh of Canyon Country was one of Riley Weinstein’s elementary school teachers and she recently reconnected with her former student, who invited her to attend the pageant.
“The Miss Amazing pageant provided such a favorable setting for all the contestants,” Dosh said, “fostering confidence and poise with a lot of positive attention from the audience.”
And because Weinstein has been crowned Miss Amazing in other divisions when she was younger, she knows how to prepare for the national competition held in Chicago in August.
“I’ve gained a lot of skills, I’ve learned a lot about being independent and learning leadership,” she said. “When you’re crowned you’re a leader to everybody else.”
Weinstein’s “pageant buddy” was Sawyer Gordon, a trainer at Results Fitness in Newhall.
“Sawyer is my trainer at my gym … she’s also a friend,” Weinstein said. “She was an amazing buddy this year.”
Training with Gordon and others at Results Fitness has had a lasting effect, according to Weinstein.
“It definitely makes me feel a lot stronger,” she said. “I have a left-sided weakness from paralysis. … Having the physical limitations I do with my disability, (working out) makes the left side of my body a lot stronger. I couldn’t lift a kettle bell at first. I’m now lifting 40 kilograms. That’s like 80 pounds.”
Serving as a buddy was Gordon’s first experience with the Miss Amazing Foundation, which she admired for its message about empowering women.
“Riley has really inspired me,” Gordon said. “As a female athlete and a coach I always like watching people push themselves in whatever way they can, and these girls are doing that. … It doesn’t matter if you have a disability, you can accomplish what you want.”
And in more proof that Riley Weinstein can’t be stopped, she’s been acting for the last few years alongside Hollywood heavy hitters.
“Two years ago I did a show called ‘Scream Queens’ with Emma Roberts, Abigail Breslin, Lea Michele, Jamie Lee Curtis and John Stamos,” Weinstein said. “It was so much fun. I started out getting a guest role; then it moved on to a recurring role on the show.”
She said the show is available to viewers on Hulu. And last year she did a short film for the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, where directors are instructed to cast at least one person with a disability. She played a part in a short film called “Ain’t Woke” by writer/director Cory Reeder.
“I played a teen millennial hit man with Debra Wilson,” Weinstein said. “It was a great experience. Cory Reeder and I are beyond friends. He took me to the red carpet with him last year for it. … He called me and asked me to be his date. He literally went over and beyond for me just casting me in this role.”
Weinstein said she is always looking for opportunities to do more acting.
“I’m hoping for this really big opportunity to do a role for Abigail Breslin. She is writing a show and she wanted to cast me in it to play somebody who is, like, goth, which I’ve never played before,” she said. “That would be so much fun. I love Abigail Breslin.”
Weinstein and her two siblings attended Sulphur Springs Community School, Sierra Vista Junior High and Canyon High School. She graduated in 2010.
She has a fraternal twin named Taylor who Riley says she’s “attached to for life.”
“We are totally the opposite from one another, but we are more than sisters – we are best friends,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine my life without my sister.”
She also has a younger brother whose name is Max.
“I loved watching him grow up,” she said. “I still always remember him as a little boy and am amazed how incredible a man he is becoming.”
Many would agree that Riley Weinstein could use the same adjectives about herself. In less than three decades she’s accomplished more than many of us do in a lifetime, and the sky’s the limit from here. Regardless of what happens at the national pageant in August, one can hardly describe her as anything but “amazing.”