Our JUNTOS Global Community is constantly growing and connecting us to organizations that work to change the world and uplift the lives of the underserved. Through our Community Alliance Spotlight Series, we aim to bring awareness to the important work that these incredible organizations do year round, and, in honour of Black History Month, we are making space to hear the stories of Afro-diasporic community leaders and organizations in order to open the lines of communication regarding the histories, cultures, and importance of identifying the injustices faced by Afro-descendant peoples.
This week we interviewed Antuan Byers (he/him), founder of Black Dance Change Makers. Read on to learn more about his life experiences as a Black man, dance artist, and creative entrepreneur, and his plans for the future of Black Dance Change Makers and himself.
We met with Antuan over Zoom on a sunny February morning. He introduced himself with a bright smile, and from the start it was clear that his ambitions extend past the borders of art and activism. His passion is for life and making a difference for humanity as a whole, and that drive is what makes his work excel as a creative, athlete, and entrepreneur.
Originally from Dallas, Texas, Antuan moved to Lenapehoking Land (Manhattan, New York) to attend The Ailey School’s Ailey/Fordham BFA Program. Since his graduation, Antuan has cultivated artistic partnerships with countless brands and companies, toured internationally as a member of Ailey II, and has since returned to New York as a company member of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. However, his reach is almost more expansive as a creative entrepreneur – aside from his work as CEO of Black Dance Change Makers, he’s the host of The LLAB, a series on the Pod de Deux podcast that brings attention to issues of racial justice in the dance world; a member of the steering committee for the Dance Artists’ National Collective (DANC), a growing group of freelance dance artists working toward safe and equitable working conditions; and he is a founding member of the Black Caucus at the American Guild of Music Artists, where his team represents Black arts workers in all artistic fields.
As important as Black History Month is, it is important to note that a lot of people feel that everyday should be a day where Black History is remembered, commemorated, and celebrated. Others don’t think that it is wise to trust people to keep learning about Black History year round, and that its existence is the only thing ensuring that Black history is seen, shared, and heard. But to Antuan it’s not the month that holds importance but the history itself. He says that “Black history means a lot, because a lot of our history is forgotten.”
When asked about his connection to Black History, Antuan said that he feels that storytelling, regardless of whether it is channeled through spoken word, music, dance, culture, or art, is important because so much of Black History only exists in that sphere. This separation from the expected Western tradition of immortalizing history with ink and paper has led to a major educational disparity between the great depth and complexities of White history and the brief, shallow introductions to the immense struggle for racial equality and freedom that has deeply impacted the Black community for centuries. It is only when we access Black history through storytelling that we will begin to truly peel back the layers and understand the nuances of Black history, from the loss of ancestral connection and knowledge to the reasons why every event, large or small, from the past, present, or future is a continuation of the collective fight for Black freedom.
It was June 2nd, 2020 that Antuan began his work as the founder of Black Dance Change Makers. You may remember it as #BlackoutTuesday, a collective action meant protest racism and police brutality in the light of the horrific murder of George Floyd. For Antuan, the motion felt passive and the silence of it all inspired his need to speak and communicate with his community. So from June until September, he organized weekly meetings for Black peers to share space and ask the difficult questions about what it means to be Black in different professional fields, social situations, and educational systems. Eventually Antuan conceded that these meetings needed to evolve into something more structured and organized, in hopes of spreading access to this space to Black folks outside of his personal bubble.
Thus began a long research period, where he took inspiration from Black sororities and fraternities and social programming like Jack & Jill, as settings where Black people are able to share resources, socialize, and connect in space in which they felt a sense of pride. His focus was never on creating a space for dancing, but on building a community in which more casual, intimate conversations could occur without the usual hierarchical barrier between industry leaders and the laymen.
Since the official launch of Black Dance Change Makers, Antuan and his incredible team of multitalented Black women creatives and dancers, have grown their organization to the point where their hands are full, planning and facilitating 10-15 events per month including the regular meet-ups of their four clubs, a multitude of one-time workshops for members and non-members, community meetings, and an international mentorship program for youth.
Now that they’re seeing such positive reach from the community, the BDCM team is striving to deepen and augment their current offerings by asking what is needed and bringing in those opportunities that encourage internal and external change and growth. Programming ranges far and wide, ensuring that each meeting can offer something accessible and real to the attendees. BDCM clubs offer members a place to discuss the unique challenges of Black hair in the dance world (Curlfriends), explore physical fitness outside of dance (Fit Connection), share and amplify the talent and work of Black musicians while uncovering the misogyny faced by female-identifying Black artists (Vibe Tribe), and dive into the depths of Black literature (Turning Page Book Club). Workshops and share meetings cover everything else, including budget friendly cooking and nutrition, conversations with industry leaders from all fields, productivity and organization, movie watch parties, and financial literacy, using the wealth of knowledge available within the community to enrich the lives of every member of the community.
Beyond work within the Change Makers community, Antuan and his team are committed to making a change to the world. So far they’ve hosted multiple successful drives, collecting food, clothes, and funds that have gone to underserved populations, and there are many more exciting fundraising events planned for the near future.
While he works hard and recognizes how deserving he is of his many personal and professional successes, Antuan emphasizes the importance of understanding the fact that a lot of his achievements have also been about luck. Luck that he was born into a place of privilege, access, and health, all of which have shaped his path to personal and professional achievement. This recognition and self-awareness has fueled his ambition to elevate, center, and advocate for those who have different levels of ability and privilege that hamper their access to space in the art world, especially dance, theatre, and opera, where it is the norm to actively exclude disadvantaged artists or bring them in to work in roles that are patronizing and demeaning to their identities. These injustices have really inspired Antuan and BDCM to search for ways to authentically bring art to the community without shortchanging them by placing them on the fringe of the experience, like only offering nosebleed seats to schools or only sending student teachers from a company on outreach trips. By bringing art to everyone in a heartfelt manner, Antuan believes that the community connection will be strengthened while intensifying the human aspect of our art forms.
Art is supposed to reflect life, and there is a disservice done when it becomes an imitation because it is far removed from the diversity of real life.
We look forward to the future of Black Dance Change Makers as they continue to grow and evolve in pursuit of their incredible mission.