Once on Food Stamps, Now He’s a ‘Genius’

Dancer and MacArthur fellow Kyle Abraham talks to The Root about how his life story informs his work.

Kyle Abraham (courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
Kyle Abraham (courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

(The Root) — The other day during a recent business trip to Los Angeles, Kyle Abraham’s rental car got a flat tire. For most people, this inconvenience would spin their day out of control, but not Abraham.

The dancer-choreographer was still floating on air after being named a MacArthur fellow. The 2013 fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation includes $625,000 that is paid over five years.

He is one of three African Americans to win the so-called genius grant this year. The other two are Tarell Alvin McCraney, a Chicago playwright, and Carrie Mae Weems of Syracuse, N.Y.

“It’s still really sinking in,” Abraham told The Root, after pulling to the side of the road to take the call. “I experienced a wave of emotions when I got the phone call about the award. I just started crying. I cry every time I read a congratulatory Facebook message. It’s just so overwhelming.”

It is overwhelming because his story is simply awe-inspiring. He once scraped by on food stamps and was wondering how to pay off student loans before the call came. Indeed, his fortune was catapulted by a deep dedication to dance and tightly choreographed moves. He is founder and artistic director of Kyle Abraham/Abaham.In.Motion.

“When I first started dancing, I knew I was interested in choreography,” said the 36-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., resident. He grew up on the hardscrabble streets of Pittsburgh, Pa., and hails from a close-knit, working-class family. His father passed away in 2001; he maintains close ties with his mother and sister.

Currently he is preparing for a gala fundraiser Oct. 20 at New York Live Arts and practicing for a performance at TEDx Talk at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art Oct. 19.   

Abraham says that he plans to use the award to develop his company, hire staff and put on productions. One piece he’s working on is When the Wolves Came In, a historical homage to his personal history and that of his company. 

His formative years in Philadelphia informed his award-winning work Pavement, which explores violence through dance. The work, he says, was inspired in part by John Singleton’s film Boyz N the Hood, which was released when Abraham was in the ninth grade at Schenley High School in the historic Hill District of Pittsburgh.