The power was shut off almost every month, but he'd take out his flashlight and play tag, and so by Tai White's estimation there were much worse things about growing up poor in St. Petersburg. If only his parents had touched more, and his mother hadn't thrown that book, maybe his father wouldn't have left. At 10 years old he was changing his disabled brother's diapers while his mother worked nights. She brought White with her to pay the rent check so the landlord wouldn't get mad they were behind.
When it felt like things were falling apart, White would go into his room, wait for his mother to leave for work, and dance: Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, early TLC. He threw his body around in the dark until three, four in the morning, then went off to school where he didn't fit in and couldn't make the grade.
It would be more than two decades before White, 28, started dancing in front of mirrors — not to see himself, but the little boys and girls dancing behind him. An adjunct teacher at John Hopkins Middle School, White spends his days leading the school's predominantly poor, black children through many of the situations he dealt with alone.
But there are always ghosts that don't go away.
During first period on Friday, while the children were between dance routines, he sat down on the studio floor. He put his back to the mirror and pulled his hood over his head.
• • •
White was a kid when his family moved to St. Petersburg from New York. He lived with his grandparents, parents, and four brothers and sisters, starting at Woodlawn Elementary but moving so many times he lost count.
He didn't talk much to anyone at school, where his grades were usually D's. He had headaches, all the time. Used to caring for his sisters, he made friends with girls when he went to Pinellas Park Middle School. But the boys didn't like that, calling him gay, pointing and laughing. He'd say his stomach hurt and go home sick. Passed out from working all night, his mom wouldn't hear the music.
Sharp elbows, stomped feet, punched fists — the dance was aggressive now, with lyrics you can't print in the newspaper. When he danced he felt numb, and numb was better than bad. For a few minutes, he'd even feel happy.
He says now that, if it weren't for dancing, "I would have killed myself."
At St. Petersburg High School he played baseball, like his dad had told him to do. He quit because his father never came to any games. There wasn't a day he woke up without a headache. Some days White had a fever, and then he started to have dizzy spells. The doctors said he had a weak heart valve. He left school, earning his GED around the same time his class graduated.
He earned $6.45 an hour when he took a job at Walgreens to help support his family. He went to church more frequently. He found God, and when the pastor put his hand on White's chest, White felt something. It stopped hurting when he took deep breaths. The headaches went away.
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When the director of the church's youth dance ministry left, dancing was still something White did alone, in his bedroom, when no one else was watching. But White felt stronger than he ever had and wanted to take it on. After one performance, the pastor gave him the gig.
At 22 or 23 he went to his first dance workshop, or part of one, unable to pay for all three days. That turned into classes at the Academy of Ballet Arts. And through those contacts, White got his job at John Hopkins.
He says he's found his purpose, helping the kids. He puts on Shadows of the Mind to help them make good choices and cope with their situations at home.
"It's like taking a test but knowing the answers," he says, of being back in school as a teacher. "I look at them struggling and doing things, talking and having beefs. This girl doesn't like them, or they're over there crying."
• • •
In class on Friday, his students ask White what's wrong. He pulls his head out from under his hood and smiles. "Oh, I'm just getting comfortable while I wait for you all to stop talking." They laugh and get in position.
Sometimes it gnaws at him, though. Dance had moved inside him before he knew himself. What could he have been, if he hadn't been supporting three generations, caring for his brother, reading by flashlight because the power bill wasn't paid?
"I was supposed to be Michael Jackson. I was supposed to be Chris Brown. I was supposed to be Usher," he says.
It used to upset him a lot. If he had only had a program like John Hopkins' or the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School, or any opportunities at all. "I know I would've been a star …"
But he's coming to terms with it, he says. "I'm coming to understand I have a purpose. I'm still trying to discover it in its entirety. I think a lot of people have to go through the crazy messed-up things, because we can handle it. Even though at the time we don't think we can."
As the children dance, White moves around the room, fixing their form. In the first row he finds Raymond Perry, an 11-year-old in neon green sneakers. He moves Raymond's hands so that they are higher on his hips. He moves his feet so that they're farther apart. And just as he is about to move on, White stops. He puts his hand under the boy's chin and raises his head.
Contact Lisa Gartner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @lisagartner.