Shantrail White leads a group of girls dressed in black down Commerce Street in downtown Dallas.
They pass boarded-up restaurants and stores spray-painted with phrases like “Black lives matter,” “No justice, no peace,” and “Now u see us.” Occasionally, they stop in front of one of these spots and raise their fists.
It’s June 5, the eighth day of protests in this city.
But this group isn’t participating in those efforts. They’re filming a video in response to police brutality.
Except for White, they’re all under the age of 14.
White stops the girls on Elm Street near the giant eyeball sculpture and gathers them for a photo. Her shirt says, “I am a Black coach to Black kids on purpose.”
White is the director of Elev8ed Elites Dance and Cheer Company, a team that normally practices in a studio at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Colonial Avenue in South Dallas. Since March, when the coronavirus pandemic began spreading in this country, they’ve rehearsed via Zoom to practice social distancing.
But after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he died last month, the team wanted to make a statement.
When White met virtually with the girls to see how they were doing, they said Floyd could have been their dad, uncle or another family member.
That’s when the idea for a video came up.
“One of the dancers said that she wished we had competition so we could perform our ‘Gun Control’ piece,” White said.
Earlier this year, Elev8ed Elites choreographed a dance called “Gun Control” in response to school shootings. The team pulled inspiration from that routine to create a dance for their police brutality video.
Jordan Willis, 10, called the filming a day of remembrance for people who were shot by the police.
Her mother, Crystal Willis, said that talking to Jordan about heavy topics has gotten easier. Last year, their conversations weren’t as smooth.
“She would cry,” Willis said. “She didn’t want to go to so many places because of [mass shootings]. Now she’s more aware.
“She’s still young, so sometimes she doesn’t understand, but my job as a parent is to help her understand. … That regardless of what we’re going through, we should love and treat everybody equally.”
Other parents didn’t expect to expose their daughters to these issues so early. But in the wake of deaths like that of Atatiana Jefferson, who was killed last October by a Fort Worth police officer, and Botham Jean, who was fatally shot in 2018 by a Dallas police officer, parents of color are discussing race relations with their children at young ages.
Janyiah Cooks, 12, has been dancing with Elev8ed Elites for a year. Her mother, Marshie Walker, said that having the talk with her so early was an “eye opener” for both of them.
“I explained to her that not everyone is racist,” Walker said. “There are still good people, but you have to be careful as far as how you approach things and how you react because you don’t know what’s on somebody else’s mind.”
Fifty-eight girls dance on the Elev8ed Elites team, but they met downtown in groups of about 10 to practice social distancing while filming the video about police brutality. The team members wore masks, not only to prevent the spread of germs, but also to honor Black Americans who died at the hands of law enforcement.
Tamia Franklin, 12, said she was dancing to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
“[Police] need to stop killing us,” said Tamia, whose mask featured the name of Eric Garner. In 2014, a New York officer held Garner in a chokehold until he died after police suspected he was selling untaxed cigarettes.
Marquita Anderson, Tamia’s mother, told her that before Floyd died on May 25 after repeating that he couldn’t breathe, Garner had previously said, “I can’t breathe.” That has become a prominent phrase in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Before they filmed the video, which is now on the team’s YouTube and social media platforms, White made sure all the girls felt included.
“We had a conversation to let them know, no matter what’s going on, we’re all dancers,” White said. “Everybody on the team is not Black, and I didn’t want anyone on the team to feel out of place or intimidated.”
Some of the dancers have felt like outliers before. When Elev8ed Elites started three years ago, they performed at majorette-style competitions. White wanted the girls to experience competing in environments similar to those of historically Black colleges and universities. After the team traveled to New York in 2018 to tour the Juilliard School and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, they started focusing on ballet, jazz and modern dance.
At modern competitions, Elev8ed Elites tends to be the only majority Black team. White said at their first event the girls instantly felt intimidated.
“[I told them] we’re equal, no matter what,” White said. “We’ll get a fair chance, no matter what.”
Zaria Fisher, 10, has been dancing with the team for two years. When they filmed the video, her mask featured the name of Breonna Taylor, who was shot by a Louisville Metro police officer in March.
Zaria is the youngest of four siblings, so her mother, Tori Sears, is no stranger to the talk.
“I always tell them, ‘We’re Black,‘” said Sears, whose eldest son is 18. “We don’t have the same privileges as others.”
After filming on Commerce Street, the girls walked in pairs to get shots in front of Renaissance Tower and on the red line DART train. White set the video to “Unholy War” by Jacob Banks. She chose the song because Banks’ music addresses societal issues. Just four days earlier, White had brought some of the dancers to the same spot on Commerce Street to see the aftermath of the protests.
Co-captain Reign Villegas, 13, was disturbed after Floyd’s death.
“She understands what happened. What she doesn’t understand is why it happened,” said Tracey Villegas, Reign’s mother. “For a long time [she] didn’t like her kinky, curly hair. … For her to embrace who she is now and then see something like that — it hurt her.”
Villegas, who identifies as Black and Hispanic, said that since Reign joined the team, her confidence has increased significantly. She attributes a lot of that change to White’s guidance.
“She’s not just a dance coach, she’s a mentor for the team,” said Anderson, who pulled Tamia from another team to join Elev8ed Elites. “She has them learning about colleges; she’s promoting self-esteem. She’s about developing the total dancer.”
Before auditions, White gives the girls a pep talk to remind them about who they are.
“I just try to prepare them,” she said. “Hold your ground, keep the same attitude. Your mindset is already elevated.
“Don’t let anything change the way you feel about yourself and the values you have.”