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How a young woman from Elk Grove found her way to the stage with Beyoncé

The Sacramento Bee — Chris Macias The Sacramento Bee

April 21--As the lights went down on Marlins Park in Miami, and more than 38,000 people erupted into cheers, Kendra Bracy gave herself a final pep talk. The moment was the culmination of years of dedicated practice, countless hours in dance studios around the Sacramento area -- and it all came down to this instant. She turned inward, reminding herself that she deserved to be there, that she was good enough to dance with the best.

One of her greatest dreams had come true on that night of April 27, 2016. Bracy, who performs under the name Kendra Jae, was about to debut as a dancer on Beyonce's "Formation" tour, sometimes shadowing "Queen Bey" herself as the pop icon sang her biggest hits at stadiums around the world.

For the 2012 graduate of Cosumnes Oaks High School in Elk Grove, that opening night marked a heady new chapter in Bracy's career. Her journey hadn't been an easy one since she moved to Southern California from Elk Grove to chase her goals in the cutthroat entertainment industry. But there she was, a bona fide member of Beyonce's dance crew and ready to dance harder than she'd ever done before.

"Being on stage with Beyonce, it's almost unreal," said Bracy, during a recent visit to Elk Grove. "Some days I find myself riding in the car listening to her, and I'm like, 'Wow, I was next to this woman onstage in London and all these places I'd never been (before).' "

But in some ways, it's not surprising that Bracy, 23, found her way to some of the concert circuit's biggest stages. Her father, Kevin Bracy, is a prominent motivational speaker and familiar presence at Sacramento area schools with his R.E.A.C.H. One Alliance. The organization partners with schools around the Sacramento area and beyond that encourage kids to find their greatness and the best version of themselves.

The two Bracys will join forces on Saturday at San Juan High School to further spread positivity. R.E.A.C.H. For Greatness will include both of the Bracys sharing their own testimonies and messages of motivation along with local speakers and performers. Les Brown, one of the leading figures in the motivational speaking circuit, will also make an appearance.

"When you set your mind on something, you don't let 'no' define you as an individual," Kendra Bracy said about her overall message to young people. "You keep going and going, and that 'yes' will come."

Her first step

The journey to the "Formation" tour began when Kendra Bracy enrolled in a dance class at a local gym when she was 5 years old. Bracy later learned the fundamentals of ballet, hip-hop and other contemporary styles at midtown's Step 1 Dance and Fitness.

By the time she was a student at Cosumnes Oaks High School, Bracy made it clear that she was moving to Los Angeles after graduation to pursue a dance career. Her parents supported the decision even though it came at a difficult family time. Bracy's younger brother, Kobe, is afflicted with a chronic autoimmune illness and other health challenges that require constant care. (Saturday's show benefits It Takes Guts, an organization that supports families dealing with pediatric chronic illness.)

Kendra Bracy had the blessing of her parents and a place to live in North Hollywood, but her career seemed to stall. She worked as a restaurant server and taught dance lessons to make ends meet.

"It was rough, to say the least," she said. "I'd go to all these auditions, and I'd get 'no.' To have everything go the opposite of what I'd envisioned was devastating."

She had plenty of moral support back home through her mom, Stephany Kuennen, and stepmom, Jessica Bracy. She also credits her stepdad, Matt Kuennen, along with younger siblings -- Ella, Devin and Mason Kuennen -- for their endless encouragement.

But during some of those down times she'd call her father for a much-needed pep talk. He inspired her to keep pushing, that her own passion and talent for dance was stronger than the word "no."

"I just wanted her to know there were no limits," said Kevin Bracy. "I always taught her when your mind goes negative, your mouth has go to go positive. Do not give mental recognition to the possibility of failure, doubt or defeat. She fought the battle long enough to get the victory. She won."

Kendra Bracy's breakthrough arrived in 2015 once she was accepted into a six-month program at Hollywood's Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio. Bracy didn't have an agent, but she was getting better connected to the entertainment industry and learned about dance auditions for Beyonce's "Formation" tour.

Related stories from The Sacramento Bee

Beyonce's backup dancer tells her story

She attended an open call where prospective dancers were first required to learn choreography from Beyonce's "Crazy in Love." Bracy made the first cut, and each successive round grew increasingly intense, requiring dancers to learn even more dance routines on the fly. The final round was whittled down to just 30 dancers. Beyonce herself would help determine the final picks.

The choreographers said early on they were looking for stars, not just dancers that would just blend in. Bracy tapped into her inner Beyonce and embraced the moment like this wasn't just an audition but her destiny.

"It was so important for me to just show up and show out, and be onstage and put myself where I wanted them to see me," said Bracy. "It was war."

About a week after that final audition round, Bracy got the call she'd dreamed of. She'd been selected as the youngest of 19 dancers for Beyonce's "Formation" world tour -- and to start packing because rehearsals would start in three days.

She cried, thinking of all the hard work leading up to that point and the sacrifices her parents had made, including her dad helping her make the move to Hollywood when her brother was especially ill.

By the time the "Formation" tour wrapped up in October 2016, Bracy had spent the better part of eight months on the road with Beyonce and performed for more than 2.2 million fans across North America and Europe.

Bracy said the tour itself was a whirlwind time of travel and a strictly business approach to her role as a dancer. There wasn't much face time with Beyonce her beyond the stage. Bracy relished in the camaraderie with the other "Formation" tour dancers, who bonded among the high demands of their performances and rehearsals.

On that opening night in Miami, Bracy's dad thanked God while watching her from the stands.

"Now what young woman doesn't have a dream to dance with Beyonce?" said Kendra Bracy. "This past year to year and a half of my life has been everything I dreamed of, and I can only hope to continue stacking my resume and making an impact."

Her dance career continues to thrive. She performed in an opening segment at the 2017 Grammy Awards with James Corden. During the broadcast, Bracy could also be seen in a Target commercial that included Carly Rae Jepsen and Lil Yachty. Most recently, Bracy was filmed in TV pilot for an NBC comedy show starring Paula Abdul.

Bracy ultimately dreams of being an entertainment mogul. She founded the lifestyle and apparel brand Pretty Panache, which emphasizes messages of self-confidence and empowerment for young people. It's a message that she's carried through her own journey to the stage with Beyonce.

"I want to inspire young girls to believe in their 'pretty,' " said Bracy. "I truly feel like that's where my success came from, when I put my foot down and said, 'All these people for years didn't believe in me (during dance auditions), but I believed in me.' "

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias

Kendra Bracy of Los Angeles is a dancer for Beyonce. She is originally from Elk Grove.

Kendra Bracy of Los Angeles is a dancer for Beyonce. She is originally from Elk Grove. Autumn Payne apayne@sacbee.com

Kendra Bracy, right, of Los Angeles is a dancer for Beyonce. Originally from Elk Grove, she teaches some Beyonce choreography to a small group of dancers at Elite Studio of Dance in Elk Grove on Saturday, April 15. Behind her are Teresa Declines, 17, of Elk Grove, left, and Carly Harris, 12, of Elk Grove.

Kendra Bracy, right, of Los Angeles is a dancer for Beyonce. Originally from Elk Grove, she teaches some Beyonce choreography to a small group of dancers at Elite Studio of Dance in Elk Grove on Saturday, April 15. Behind her are Teresa Declines, 17, of Elk Grove, left, and Carly Harris, 12, of Elk Grove. Autumn Payne apayne@sacbee.com

Kendra Bracy of Los Angeles, shown in mirror, is a dancer for Beyonce. Originally from Elk Grove, she teaches some Beyonce choreography to a small group of dancers, from left, Carly Harris, 12, Teresa Declines, 17, Mia Robertson, 16, and Amanda Takemato, 14, all of Elk Grove, at Elite Studio of Dance in Elk Grove on Saturday, April 15.

Kendra Bracy of Los Angeles, shown in mirror, is a dancer for Beyonce. Originally from Elk Grove, she teaches some Beyonce choreography to a small group of dancers, from left, Carly Harris, 12, Teresa Declines, 17, Mia Robertson, 16, and Amanda Takemato, 14, all of Elk Grove, at Elite Studio of Dance in Elk Grove on Saturday, April 15. Autumn Payne apayne@sacbee.com

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Kendra Bracy, backup dancer for Beyonce, demonstrates choreography from Beyonce's "Formation" tour. Full story and video coming Friday, April 21 on sacbee.com. Autumn Payne The Sacramento Bee

Kendra Bracy, a former Elk Grove resident who performs as Kendra Jae, dances directly to the right of Beyonce during the Formation World Tour at Qualcomm Stadium on May 12 in San Diego.

Kendra Bracy, a former Elk Grove resident who performs as Kendra Jae, dances directly to the right of Beyonce during the Formation World Tour at Qualcomm Stadium on May 12 in San Diego. Frank Micelotta Associated Press file

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