When the Golden Girls of Miami Northwestern Senior High School made headlines for "dressing like strippers" in September 2017, Traci Young-Byron refused to bend under public scrutiny.
As a black woman traversing the world of dance, the longtime artistic director has built up an immunity to criticism--especially when it's baseless. "Had another team of a different demographic worn the same thing, it wouldn't have gotten the same attention," she says in defense of their Kitana-inspired ensemble.
These days, the Golden Girls command more eyes for their Supa Strut, made fiercer by Young-Byron's vivacious chants in earshot. "Sometimes when people mean to do harm, they actually do good," she muses on the millions of views her team has amassed amid controversy.
Nearly one month trailing countless attacks on their character, Young-Byron's "Tenacious Ten" took to Game 5 of Northwestern's football season with signs that ranged from "Sitting 2 Take A Stand" to "We Are More Than A Costume." The peaceful demonstration didn't break the Internet, but it's the moment the one-time "Teacher of the Year" values most. "They wanted to have their own voice," she explains.
"That's my whole purpose: to teach them to be their own person."
At the time of our phone call, Young-Byron is wrapping up a fruitful week of auditions for the Young Contemporary Dance Theatre (YCDT). With at least 180 students under her direction, the founder is relentless in her mission to prepare her students for what she deems the "nature of the beast." "If they want to become professional dancers, they have to have thick skin. It's a dog-eat-dog world," she describes the dance industry.
"It's not easy, and more specifically, when you're African American, you have to be 10 times better than everybody else. Always."
When she failed to make it past first cuts at an audition for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as a recent graduate, Young-Byron had no clue she was on the brink of colliding with destiny. Reeling from the sting of derailed plans, she simply felt off-track. "Because I worked so hard at [dance], I was always chosen for a lot of different things. It didn't necessarily make me cocky, but it definitely made me confident in my craft," she explains. "Up until that point, I had never really heard 'no.'"
The Miami native joined the Inner City Children's Touring Dance Company at the age of three and fell in love with the art form by nine. She pursued technical training in middle school, got accepted into Miami Northwestern's Performing and Visual Arts Center, and ultimately earned her bachelor's degree in dance from Florida State University in 2001.
Later on however, auditions for the Dallas Black Dance Theatre and the Miami Heat Dancers didn't yield in her favor, leaving Young-Byron to face a hard truth. "I felt like I wasn't really prepared. I wish that I had gotten rejected earlier so I would have understood what that felt like."
Young-Byron forged on by launching the Young Contemporary Dance Theatre (YCDT) with 14 kids in 2004, three years after she took up a friend's suggestion to teach dance at a local Dade County middle school. At 21, she discovered a natural ability to connect with at-risk students and decided to use her experiences as both a dancer and product of Liberty City, one of Miami's most notorious neighborhoods, for a greater good.
Within a decade of its inception, YCDT accrued national buzz as one of Miami's most elite dance companies. After several standout appearances on Lifetime's Bring It!, Young-Byron and her dancers took center stage in a docu-series of their own. Void of gimmicks, Step It Up followed "the most feared dance teacher in Miami" and her students as she opened the doors of her own studio--a feat that took 10 years in the making--amid a hectic season of weekly performances. "I can't fake it for TV," she offers as a reason the show didn't return for a second season.
"I wasn't willing to sell myself or give [Lifetime] what they wanted for ratings."
What the cameras did capture was the self-proclaimed Supa Black Girl stand up for some of her strongest students after they were cut from a music video for supposedly not complementing European artist Victoria Velvet in height. "I feel like the dancers who were sitting on the floor are darker in their complexion, and a lot of times they're overlooked," she countered on Step It Up's sixth episode, "Video Villain."
In her early 20s, Young-Byron was cut from an opportunity to tour with a Grammy-winning singer in a similar fashion. "Why do I have to look like the artist? Why is that even important?" she ponders. "At the end of the day, if you have strong dancers behind you, we're going to make you look good."
Colorism was something Young-Byron became well-acquainted with in her field. One year after teaching, she became a dancer for the Miami Heat, an experience she describes as a "love-hate relationship." Over the course of her nine years on the team, she climbed the ranks to assistant choreographer and then to team captain. But her ascension came with limitations as there always seemed to be a ceiling that she just couldn't shatter.
"No matter how great I was as a dancer, no matter how talented I was as a choreographer, I was always pushed aside. I was never the front person because I didn't have the look or I was too dark."
The disparity wasn't hard to detect as she was usually one of three black women on the team year after year. "I felt like I never really got my just due," the longest-reigning Miami Heat dancer in franchise history expresses. "Of course, they gave me a title because my talent was undeniable, but I could never be the face of the team. Sometimes I felt respected and disrespected at the same time."
That feeling loomed when filming MTV's America's Best Dance Crew with her team Fly Khicks (also composed of Miami Heat dancers) in 2009. As the only black woman on the show's third season, the YCDT founder felt out of place in hair and makeup, which prompted her to be her own advocate in more ways than one. "I had to learn how to do everything on my own," she says. "I don't think people intentionally tried to make me look crazy, but I felt crazy."
Signs of change aren't lost on Young-Byron when she considers the progress of her former team today. "I pushed the envelope," she asserts. "I was the black girl who wore the natural hair or who did the quirky and crazy things. Now when you look at the Heat Dancers, they look more open. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I had to go through the fire so that the younger generations of dancers could benefit."
While Young-Byron has evolved into a real-life hero for the many children, teens, and adults she trains, the Supa Black Girl is still processing the depths of her impact. "Sometimes I question why God chose this teaching path for me?" she wrote in a transparent Instagram post in January.
She still has dreams of becoming a concert dancer and would love to choreograph for a major artist one day. "Listen, if Beyoncé calls me, oh Jesus, I don't even know [what I would do]," she laughs.
When responsible for an ever-growing company, however, zooming in on personal goals often feels selfish. "I go through this whole battle of do I think about me or do I think about other people?" she admits. It's hard not to when she pictures what her home city can become. "I understand that Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York are the meccas of dance as far as the United States goes, but I feel like Miami can be that as well," she maintains.
Young-Byron's not sure when that will happen, but she knows it won't if she doesn't continue fortifying her dancers with an impenetrable confidence she ultimately ties to her late mother. "She had a huge sense of faith so a lot of times when I get into a dark space," she says.
"It doesn't take me long to snap out of it because I just remember who's I am and who made me to be who I am."
"I've always been different. I've always been bright and colorful, but now I do it with a purpose," Young-Byron adds as our conversation draws to a close. "I feel like I'm a walking artist who's meant to reach people and brighten their day...I might even inspire you to be bold and outspoken."
Exclusive: Gabrielle Union On Radical Transparency, Being Diagnosed With Perimenopause And Embracing What’s Next
Whenever Gabrielle Union graces the movie screen, she immediately commands attention. From her unforgettable scenes in films like Bring It On and Two Can Play That Game to her most recent film, in which she stars and produces Netflix’s The Perfect Find, there’s no denying that she is that girl.
Off-screen, she uses that power for good by sharing her trials and tribulations with other women in hopes of helping those who may be going through the same things or preventing them from experiencing them altogether. Recently, the Flawless by Gabrielle Union founder partnered with Clearblue to speak at the launch of their Menopause Stage Indicator, where she also shared her experience with being perimenopausal.
In a xoNecoleexclusive, the iconic actress opens up about embracing this season of her life, new projects, and overall being a “bad motherfucker.” Gabrielle reveals that she was 37 years old when she was diagnosed with perimenopause and is still going through it at 51 years old. Mayo Clinic says perimenopause “refers to the time during which your body makes the natural transition to menopause, marking the end of the reproductive years.”
“I haven't crossed over the next phase just yet, but I think part of it is when you hear any form of menopause, you automatically think of your mother or grandmother. It feels like an old-person thing, but for me, I was 37 and like not understanding what that really meant for me. And I don't think we focus so much on the word menopause without understanding that perimenopause is just the time before menopause,” she tells us.
Photo by Brian Thomas
"But you can experience a lot of the same things during that period that people talk about, that they experienced during menopause. So you could get a hot flash, you could get the weight gain, the hair loss, depression, anxiety, like all of it, mental health challenges, all of that can come, you know, at any stage of the menopausal journey and like for me, I've been in perimenopause like 13, 14 years. When you know, most doctors are like, ‘Oh, but it's usually about ten years, and I'm like, ‘Uhh, I’m still going (laughs).’”
Conversations about perimenopause, fibroids, and all the things that are associated with women’s bodies have often been considered taboo and thus not discussed publicly. However, times are changing, and thanks to the Gabrielle’s and the Tia Mowry’s, more women are having an authentic discourse about women’s health. These open discussions lead to the creation of more safe spaces and support for one another.
“I want to be in community with folks. I don't ever want to feel like I'm on an island about anything. So, if I can help create community where we are lacking, I want to be a part of that,” she says. “So, it's like there's no harm in talking about it. You know what I mean? Like, I was a bad motherfucker before perimenopause. I’m a bad motherfucker now, and I'll be a bad motherfucker after menopause. Know what I’m saying? None of that has to change. How I’m a bad motherfucker, I welcome that part of the change. I'm just getting better and stronger and more intelligent, more wise, more patient, more compassionate, more empathetic. All of that is very, very welcomed, and none of it should be scary.”
The Being Mary Jane star hasn’t been shy about her stance on therapy. If you don’t know, here’s a hint: she’s all for it, and she encourages others to try it as well. She likens therapy to dating by suggesting that you keep looking for the right therapist to match your needs. Two other essential keys to her growth are radical transparency and radical acceptance (though she admits she is still working on the latter).
"I was a bad motherfucker before perimenopause. I’m a bad motherfucker now, and I'll be a bad motherfucker after menopause. Know what I’m saying? None of that has to change. How I’m a bad motherfucker, I welcome that part of the change."
Gabrielle Union and Kaavia Union-Wade
Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images
“I hope that a.) you recognize that you're not alone. Seek out help and know that it's okay to be honest about what the hell is happening in your life. That's the only way that you know you can get help, and that's also the only other way that people know that you are in need if there's something going on,” she says, “because we have all these big, very wild, high expectations of people, but if they don't know what they're actually dealing with, they're always going to be failing, and you will always be disappointed. So how about just tell the truth, be transparent, and let people know where you are. So they can be of service, they can be compassionate.”
Gabrielle’s transparency is what makes her so relatable, and has so many people root for her. Whether through her TV and film projects, her memoirs, or her social media, the actress has a knack for making you feel like she’s your homegirl. Scrolling through her Instagram, you see the special moments with her family, exciting new business ventures, and jaw-dropping fashion moments. Throughout her life and career, we’ve seen her evolve in a multitude of ways. From producing films to starting a haircare line to marriage and motherhood, her journey is a story of courage and triumph. And right now, in this season, she’s asking, “What’s next?”
“This is a season of discovery and change. In a billion ways,” says the NAACP Image Award winner. “The notion of like, ‘Oh, so and so changed. They got brand new.’ I want you to be brand new. I want me to be brand new. I want us to be always constantly growing, evolving. Having more clarity, moving with different purpose, like, and all of that is for me very, very welcomed."
"I want you to be brand new. I want me to be brand new. I want us to be always constantly growing, evolving. Having more clarity, moving with different purpose, like, and all of that is for me very, very welcomed."
She continues, “So I'm just trying to figure out what's next. You know what I mean? I'm jumping into what's next. I'm excited going into what's next and new. I'm just sort of embracing all of what life has to offer.”
Look out for Gabrielle in the upcoming indie film Riff Raff, which is a crime comedy starring her and Jennifer Coolidge, and she will also produce The Idea of You, which stars Anne Hathaway.
Let’s make things inbox official! Sign up for the xoNecole newsletter for daily love, wellness, career, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Feature image by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images
Victoria Monét has had an incredible year. Thanks to the success of the widely popular “On My Mama” that went viral, the singer/ songwriter’s Jaguar II album debuted in the top 10 of Billboard’s Top R&B Albums chart. She also went on to headline her own sold-out tour. So, when the MTV VMAs happened in September, everyone was surprised to learn that Victoria’s team was told that it was “too early” for the “Smoke” artist to perform at the award show. However, a couple of months later, the mom of one received seven Grammy nominations, including “Best R&B Album” and “Record Of The Year.”
Victoria is currently in London and stopped by The Dotty Show on Apple Music and shared how she feels “validated” after being dismissed by the VMAs.
“It really does feel nice and validating because, in my head, the reason why I wanted to be a performer at the VMAs or award ceremonies like that is because I felt like I am at the place where I should. I would work really hard to put on the best show that I could, and I was excited to do so,” she said.
“And I guess the best way to describe it for me is like when you're like on a sports team, and the coach is like, ‘No, you gotta sit this one out.’ When they finally put you in, and then you score all these points, and it feels like that feeling. You're like, yes, I knew it wasn't tripping, but I knew I worked hard for this, and so it's been super validating to just have these accolades come after a moment like that, and I know the fans feel vindicated for me.
While her fans called the VMAs out on their decision, the “Moment” singer kept it cute and is still open to performing at the iconic award show. “I feel no ill towards them because it's just maybe that's just truly how they felt at the time, but I hope their mind has changed,” she admitted.
Let’s make things inbox official! Sign up for the xoNecole newsletter for daily love, wellness, career, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Feature image by Amy Sussman/WireImage for Parkwood