Traci Greene seated, wearing a green dress, and looking fly.
Traci Greene

Debbie Allen

Misty Copeland

Josephine Baker

Alvin Ailey

These names are just a few artists who are cemented in the culture as icons who’ve changed American dance. And while there are many famous Black dancers who have made their mark in the arts, we can’t forget to give flowers to those gems in our communities who may not be icons yet, but who make a difference in our communities daily via the performing arts.

Traci Greene is the creative director and producer of Houston’s Urban Nutcracker and the founder of Culture Arts Initiative, Inc., a non-profit arts organization designed to enrich the lives of young people through performing arts and dance.

She has an extensive resume with over 30 years of experience in dance and performing arts. Her professional credits include being a cast member of the Los Angeles production of “The Chocolate Nutcracker,” dancer of the musical workshop of “The Color Purple on Broadway,” and actor, dancer and female dance captain of the international touring company of “West Side Story.”

Greene worked as a full-time dance teacher in the NYC Public Schools and Houston ISD, and she continues to coach and teach future dancers through her business, Traci Green Dance Consulting.

The Defender spoke with the dance veteran to learn about her journey in dance and her work as a dance educator in Houston.

Defender: When did your passion for dance begin?

Greene: I’m from Chicago. I started training there really young. I believe 6-years-old. It was primarily classical ballet. Then I went to a magnet performing arts school. Michelle Obama graduated from there. The school was strong in academics but had a very good fine arts program. That’s when I branched into different styles. I realized from then on that dancing was my passion. My mom being an educator was like “No, you have to do something more than that. I’m not paying for that.” I did get some dance scholarships. I went to Southern University in Baton Rouge and that was my biggest introduction to the south. I was a captain and choreographer there. I graduated with a speech pathology degree and gave it to my mom and said “I want to go dance.” That’s when my professional career began. I traveled to Los Angeles, joined a company, and it went up from there.

Defender: How was it like being a Black woman in dance during those times?

Greene: It was nothing I really regretted. I would say there were a limited number of roles. You had to work and be twice as good to be a successful Black dancer in the industry. If you were lucky, you’d get a musical theatre show, then you can tour. But then you would go to these auditions and every Black person is talented. The competition was deep. I eventually left Los Angeles for New York and spent eight years there. I trained in the American Musical Dramatic Academy and decided that I wanted to go into musical theatre. I got my first touring gig with West Side Story and it was international, and I did it for three years. That cemented my role as a professional dancer.

Defender: Why is being an educator important to you? What drew you into that role?

Greene: I have no idea. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that every single dance teacher, choreographer, mentor… everyone has always said that I’m a good teacher. It’s so natural to me and I don’t have to work hard at it. I’m observant, very detailed-oriented. I mean, my mom was an educator too. I watched her and how she raised me. Doors opened for me where people would ask me to coach or choreographer routines. So, I decided to walk through the door. I left New York because bottled water was $7, it was snowing in April, and I had enough. I wrote letters to different schools and was amazed to find out Houston had so many magnet performing arts schools here. Eventually, in 2006, the principal at Burrus Elementary wrote me back and wanted me in for an interview. I got the job. After that I taught at Poe Elementary. People would ask me if I owned a dance studio because I was so good with the students. At the time I said no because I was just a dance teacher, but I said “You know what? Let’s give this a shot.” Fast-forward, now I’m here with the Houston Urban Nutcracker.

Defender: What advice would you give young people who are interested in a career in dance?

Greene: Keep going. It’s not going to be easy. You’re not always going to be the best one in the room all the time. Sometimes you will get the job, sometimes you won’t. I thought that I would be like Debbie Allen at some point in my career. God had other plans for me, but that didn’t stop me. What I do now is equally important. I don’t know what the next door of opportunity might be. I would also recommend young people to explore evert single discipline of dance. Don’t put yourself in a box. Keep a close circle of friends and performing arts people in the community who are always thinking of getting better with the craft. Don’t take jobs that make you feel like you are compromising your integrity.

Defender: What are your thoughts of Houston’s dance scene?

Greene: When I got here, my biggest surprise was how talented the dance community is. I think the reason why we don’t have an adult dance community that thrives is probably because Houston is more of a residential place to settle down and have a family. The talent here is so good, but the opportunities are so limited that they leave us to go where they can make money and find opportunities. There were so many professional dancers in New York and Los Angeles that were from Houston. The level of talent and skill is very diverse here. One thing to note is that once you start getting into that 18-and-older age group, there aren’t as many opportunities, especially for Black dancers here. I made the right decision to move down here. I felt like there is a place for me here. I have lived here for 15 years. There is a sense of community even though the city is so huge and spread out. Everyone in the industry here has a common goal, especially when it comes to the younger people.

Defender: What is the most rewarding thing about your work?

Greene: There are so many. But if I were to just limit it to the “Nutcracker” it would be the friendships that I see developing with the young people. I see how they help and empower each other. I see the thrill and the tears after successfully completing the shows. It’s like one big happy family. Honestly, I feel like I’ve done a good thing. To be able to give young people what I wasn’t able to receive. People would tell me how talented I was, but it was one thing to say it and then you see the tuition is $6,000 to attend a summer intensive program while your mom works three jobs. So being able to say that I can help a child fund their dream gives me the most joy. All this couldn’t have been done without my amazing team. My four-woman army. We’re getting things done.

Laura Onyeneho

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...