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Traci Young-Byron Is The “Supa Black Girl” The Dance Industry Needs

BOSS UP

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."

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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