facebook twitter youtube tumblr share this

Fat Girls (Don’t) Dance by Sharleen Jonasson

It’s a Saturday night in Victoria, B.C., Canada, home base of the Big Dance dance troupe, “where the large body is inspiration and vessel to the art of dance,” and I’m sitting on a hard chair waiting for their performance to begin.

In an audience of over 100, predominantly female, I count six bodies that are what Big Dance people might call “super-size” and only a handful mildly to moderately obese. I wonder why my fellow audience members are here. Support for the cause? Curiosity about what obese bodies can do to music? Just an interest in modern dance? Maybe a combination of all the above, the same reasons I bought a ticket. A young woman passes around a sheet of paper with the program. “It’s a test,” she jokes. But as far as I’m concerned, it is: will I respond the way I know I should? I am, after all, the author of a novel that takes a scalpel (with hopefully some humor) to the arbitrariness and tyranny of the beauty industry. I have a reputation to uphold, if only in my own mind.

I’m already on their side, even before I’ve seen them, but that doesn’t mean I know what to expect. I’m thinking of the ballerina dolls I had as a kid, Barbies with fewer curves, and I know what I’m going to see is going to be way off this stereotype. We may have magazines and fashionable shops for large-size women now, but we simply don’t see the obese female body celebrated in dance, an art form in which women are if anything even thinner than the average model. What I’m really wondering is, will I soon be saying to myself, Oh, how beautiful these bodies can be in their abundance! Because in a fair, far gentler world, that’d be the case.

Somebody’s turned out the lights.

A muted blue spotlight shines onto the center of the floor and, to hauntingly beautiful music, into this circle of light come The Four Graces — four women who arrange themselves in a group pose that looks like a Renaissance sculpture.

They’re wearing only skin-colored tights. Recently in San Francisco, they performed this number naked. (Yes, naked; I asked.) And these women are not merely Rubensesque. One — not even the biggest — will joke during the evening that she resented being referred to recently as weighing 300 pounds: “I’m not an ounce over 299!”

The light goes off. The light goes on: the mass of abundant flesh has rearranged itself into another form, some arms and legs outstretched, others wrapped round other limbs, one spine curled forward into a fetal position. Each pose is a harmony of bodies pulling, pushing, straight, bent, open, closed.

Now as I watch this I am 10 pounds heavier than I really want to be (in case you were wondering — bet you were) which is to say, probably average for a 40-something North American woman, but I’ve weighed more, and I know that to be inside a large female body is to try to make yourself smaller, to take up as little space as you can. Arms in, legs together, head down. So my overwhelming reaction to this series of poses is wonder, admiration — not so much for the dance, or even for what the bodies do as part of it, but simply because they’re here, they move, they stretch, they reach. And they’re doing it under a spotlight.

The next piece is a solo of a woman battling a chair, and is both funny and poignant. Other pieces are jauntier (brocade vests and fedoras to the music of Duke Ellington), or make a more overt statement about fat and attractiveness with the use of props such as popular women’s magazines, a bathroom scale, and red high heels.

But what rouses the crowd most is the Broccoli Bride. With a white half-slip over her head like a bridal veil and an apron-like garment simulating a dress, the dancer holds a bunch of broccoli like a bouquet, gazes at it, then tosses it. No, not tosses it: hurls it across the room. Then she produces, from the pocket of her “wedding dress”, a chocolate bar she eats with exaggerated lust. She closes her eyes, she swoons, she smears melting chocolate over her cheeks. It’s defiant, it’s over-the-top funny…but there’s a part of me that finds the idea of rubbing chocolate over your body to the sounds of Gershwin on a Saturday night just a bit sad. I know I’m not supposed to be thinking this; everyone else is cheering.

There’s a final number in which all four dancers, with pink tutus over black tights, perform a comic send-up of the hippo dance in Fantasia. I’m laughing with the best of them, now.

The struggle for acceptance of the female body in all its forms won’t be won by one evening’s dance or one dance troupe. I think it happens gradually, with our exposure to different body types shown in different ways changing our attitudes in tiny increments. But tonight, I think everyone in this audience has moved a big dancing leap forward.

As the dancers turn and take a bow — you cannot see a row of fat, black, bent-over bums rimmed with pink tutus and not laugh — I’m thinking the point isn’t whether or not fat women can be beautiful. The point tonight is simply whether fat women can make physical poetry with their bodies.

These women can.

This city I live in has an annoying habit of giving a standing ovation to everything (these people would rise for the winning cabbage at a fall fair) and except for performances that really move me, I make it a point to remain stubbornly in my seat. But as this performance ends and everyone stands, I’m up there with them, hollering and clapping. Because one thing I truly admire is people who take great personal risks for the sake of their art — and these women have taken a huge risk (no pun intended) and turned it into entertainment that’s thought-provoking, humorous and touching. What courage. Beautiful.

Sharleen Jonasson 2002

Sharleen Jonasson is the author of It’s My Body and I’ll Cry If I Want To, “a smart novel that could change the way you look in a mirror.”