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How Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Rena Butler Uses Dance to Define Herself & Inspire Others

Butler is also a choreographic fellow at Hubbard Street this season. Photo by Lindsay Linton, courtesy of Butler.

When I was just a little peanut, my siblings and I used to find scrap paper and use them as tickets to our makeshift dance performances at family gatherings. They were more like circus shows, really, where my brother was the ringmaster, and my sisters and I were animals; we dove through imaginary flaming hoops and showcased our best tightrope acts with the suspense of plummeting into an endless pit of sorrows. This was my first introduction to the beauty of movement as a way of communicating.

Photo by Lindsay Linton


My parents threw us into an array of activities, from swim team and water polo to basketball and Girl Scouts—anything to keep us on our feet, off the streets and defying the odds of black children growing up in the U.S. Although I had an athletic side, it was very clear that my siblings took more easily to sports than I did.

I found my expression differently: coming home from school after a hard day, blasting Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope album on repeat, and swirling and gyrating along that tightrope with commitment and power.

Photo by Todd Rosenberg

As I grew older, my hardships became more challenging than being picked last for softball in gym class. I felt I had to work twice as hard in my neighborhood because of the color of my skin, and I saw how the world began to shape me. I realized that I could use this medium of dance as a way to define myself and to inspire others. I wanted to share more of what was inside of me that wasn't apparent to the naked eye: the wildness, the heartache, the freedom.

It is very seldom that we have the opportunity to share what's inside the book, and often end up being judged by our covers. When you first see me, you notice that I am a woman, a black woman. But when I start to move, I am much more: I'm vulnerable yet strong, intense, intelligent and intuitive, animalistic, invested and passionate, broken yet bold. I dance so you can see me, and perhaps even see yourself.

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