Dance is a form of expression for Traci Young-Byron. But it also is a form of release.
“It’s my safe haven, a place to unwind. I can put the music on and free myself,” said Young-Byron, the uber popular Miami dance instructor and star of the Lifetime docuseries “Step It Up.” She is as tough and in your face as one of her favorite dancers, Debbie Allen, who starred in the groundbreaking television series, “Fame!”
Young-Byron’s outlet of expression has carried her for much of her 36 years on earth. Now she uses dance to carry her students to other worlds.
The show follows Young-Byron as she instructed her students at her Young Contemporary Dance Theater, the company she founded and serves as chief artistic director. But when the network approached her, she wasn’t sure she wanted to proceed because she was dealing with a personal crisis.
“They contacted me via a conference call. I had mixed emotions because it was three days after my mom passed,” she said. But ever the professional, Young-Byron pushed past her grief and agreed to step it up.
After eight episodes, she said the series is finished. She has no regrets. “I’m glad I did the docuseries because the world had a chance to see raw talent from the inner-city communities in Miami and although my company had a name,” she said, “it opened us up to a much broader audience.”
Her passion is dance, something she has done since her parents enrolled her in lessons at age 3 in the Inner City Children’s Touring Dance Company with Florene Lithcutt Nichols. She later studied with Miami Northwestern High School’s Performing and Visual Arts Center (PAVAC), before going to Florida State University, where she majored in dance.
A year out of FSU, she joined the Miami Heat’s dance team, eventually becoming choreographer and team captain. Young-Byron stayed with that troupe for nine years. But she also found time to perform in concerts, music videos and award shows.
Now Young-Byron teaches dance at PAVAC, as well as YCDT. The experience — and the students — is far different from 20 years ago, she said. “When I was dancing, we were a little more passionate about dance, and we were more supported,” she said. “Now there’s so much with the FCAT. The arts are suffering. I feel I have to struggle and fight to get the school to respect and embrace it.”
Another difference, she said, is social media, which gives today’s students other avenues for learning dance. “They’re more distracted. When I was in school we used what we were taught in class. With YouTube, these kids seek instant gratification,” Young-Byron said. “They’re in a hurry to get to the end results. I want to train them to be artists and not just dancers.”
Though she makes it seem easy, Young-Byron concedes things have not gone as smoothly for a dark brown girl in a field where the decision makers are largely white. At FSU, she was one of 11 Black dance majors in a program of 110. Tryouts could be brutal. “Being a chocolate dancer I had to work. We used to have to line up … I had to work so much harder.”
She’s proud of peers such as Misty Copeland, the Black ballerina and principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater. “I respect her for being African American. It gives my students more hope. She looks like me, sounds like me. That keeps me going.”
Even with triumphs, setbacks and disappointments, Young-Byron will persevere and continue to guide her students. “Today’s generation of dancers, they like to dance, but they like to dance just so they can be the ‘it’ girl, or ‘it’ guy,” she said. “I’m trying to teach them to tap into their passion.”