I come from a lineage of survivors: African Americans who endured the brutality of slavery, Native Americans who survived forced genocidal migration, and my Jewish grandmother who escaped the Holocaust. My ancestors' enduring spirits live inside of me, giving me an indelible foundation of strength and compassion.
On the bookshelves my mom filled in our one-bedroom apartment in inner-city Washington, DC, sat a book called To Be Young, Gifted and Black, written by Lorraine Hansberry. Those words were aspirational, and empowered me to imagine a place beyond our limited conditions.
Lee Gumbs Photography, Courtesy SILLAR Management
I worked hard in school and excelled in sports and social leadership, but my home life weighed heavily on me. I lived in survivor mode every day, starting my own small businesses and even working at a junkyard to help my family financially. I struggled to find my own voice, until I met my first dance teacher, Ms. Toni Lombre. She believed in me and unlocked my soul, passion and rhythm, with the faith that movement would set this scholarship student free. She knew how much I loved tap dancing but required me to train in other styles too. I had no idea that she was cultivating my future.
Ms. Toni's guidance led me to the greatest mentor I could have ever imagined, Debbie Allen. At 16, I was cast in her play at the Kennedy Center, where I did a tap duet, but also jazz, swing dancing, singing and acting. A living example of an African-American woman from humble beginnings defying the odds to become an icon, she took me under her wing. Debbie mentored me through college at Columbia University, my move to L.A. and living bicoastally. She influenced my imagination and challenged me to trust myself.
In tap dance, a field where men dominate, I was determined to give women a leading voice. That inspired me to found the Syncopated Ladies, an all-female tap company, whose videos now have more than 50 million views online. One of my proudest moments was my recent Emmy nomination for Outstanding Choreography for "The Late Late Show with James Corden," which had never happened for a female tap dancer.
I found freedom through performing and choreographing, so I am committed to paying forward the lessons of my teachers. I encourage young people to dive into their greatest potential as global citizens with infinite possibilities. I believe art saves lives—it saved mine.