How does one go from being a quiet young boy with an unstable home to being a successful Reiki master-teacher and MFA in dance? This isn't a rags-to-riches story, energy healers and dancers being on the lower rungs of the economic hierarchy in this country. But Aaron-Raheim Whitea dancer with Chicago dance-theater company Lucky Plushhas a story steeped in self-discovery, proclamation and authenticity.
White was born to a teenage mother in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. His early years were spent between apartments, shelters, great aunts' and grandmothers' houses. As a kid, he kept quiet and stayed under the radar amidst an extended family of cousins. By the time he was in the second grade, school was the main source of consistency in his life and he developed a deep appreciation and attachment for his teachers. This was especially true when he started taking dance classes from Deirdre Dawsona former dancer with Chicago's renowned Joseph Holmes Dance Theaterat age 14.
"She gave me this gift that I am forever grateful for," White recalled. "I had no idea that I knew how to dance or that I would like it. It was so specific and required focus to attain mastery. I liked that. I was constantly being challenged and held accountable. I was a great kid, I kept good grades and did all the things, but I didn't feel like people were holding me accountable or really showing up for me, not like Ms. Dawson was. She was always there and she kept me on track. When I slacked, she brought me back. Everybody else just assumed that I was fine because I was one of the good ones. So I kinda got overlooked because I was the good one."
Coincidentally, or not, this was right around the time that White came out as gay. Proving a strength of character well beyond his years, White declared his sexuality in an environment that was far from accepting. He explained, "Growing up, watching TV, I saw gay people but they were always white. And whenever they came out it was always 'We love you, we accept you, it will be fine, la la la.' I knew that being Black and gay was absolutely unheard of. And most of my family was drug dealers and gang-bangers so the idea of there being a gay person in the family was just unheard of. So there was never space for me in that way."
"When I accepted my gayness," White continued, "it was the first thing I knew for sure. Once I knew, I couldn't un-know. So when I came out, I came out with such a force that I kind of kicked the closet open," he said laughing. "I refused to be silenced because most of my life I had been silent. I knew what my voice was."
Fast-forward some tough and terrific years, to a scholarship to the dance program at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign ( UIUC ) followed by a master of fine arts degree from the prestigious New York University Tisch School of the Arts. White remained in New York City dancing, touring, teaching and studying to become a Reiki master-teacher. The energy work may sound like it comes out of left field but, for White, there is a strong connection between prayerwhich he learned to rely on as a child in his grandmother's homemeditation, magic and healing.
"Prayer has been something that has kept me going. Whenever things got to be too much I always knew that I could talk to Spirit, I could talk to Goddess, I could talk to God and just release anything that I had on me so that I could lighten up…
I know that magic exists; it just ain't woo-woo like we think it is. Magic got me into healing. Reiki is magic to me because it's a wrinkle in time and space of a person's body. You are changing the energy and the way that it functions in order to allow for healing, wholeness, groundedness and fluidity."
With these foundations in place, White eventually realized he was ready to leave New York. He didn't necessarily intend to return to Chicago but a chance encounter with Lucky Plush company members while teaching a master class back at UIUC led to drinks and karaoke, which led to a company class, followed by an invitation to rehearsal, followed by an offer to hire. That last development happened two years ago.
"What I really enjoy about working with Lucky Plush is how it commands and demands so much of me artistically. Meaning, how much I am required to be able to think quickly, to respond authentically and to live in the present moment," White said. Arguably, Julia Rhodesfounder and artistic director of Lucky Plushrequires that presence from her audience as well, as she delivers highly charged cultural messages disguised with a bit of quick wit. Her work is never punishingly political but it certainly does touch on the relevant social issues of our time.
White is clear about the significance of his representation on stage. "[Performing] is an opportunity for people to see a Black, queer, masc-presenting-femme on stage living as a person. Just my presence alone helps to dismantle some of their misconstrued ideas about what it means to be me, in my body, and how I exist in the world. Even if the choreography or piece doesn't address that directly, my presence addresses that thing. And I absolutely love shaking people up."
Lucky Plush presents "Tab Show" Thursday-Friday, April 26-27, 7:30 p.m. at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St. Purchase tickets at HarrisTheaterChicago.org or 312-334-7777.