In recent years, a conversation around body positivity and acceptance has emerged within our society, and the dance community is no exception. This discussion is definitely warranted, as we see the rise of pop stars like Lizzo and dance artists like Erik Cavanaugh. These artists are challenging harmful stereotypes of people in bigger bodies and their capabilities to captivate audiences as legitimate artists. Dancers are now deconstructing fatphobia and diet culture, and we are learning how these stereotypes have created spaces that foster exclusion and supremacy culture. While 2020 has inspired more uncomfortable conversations about how to include those on the margins, the dance community still has a long way to go when it comes to cultivating spaces where people of all sizes and shapes can truly thrive.
I have always told my students and colleagues that their talent can get them through the door, but that who they are can determine if they get to stay in the room. I have recently begun to question if this statement is completely accurate or fair, as it seems to erase my experience as a fat dancer, as well as those of others whose bodies do not fit what we have been conditioned to believe is the ideal “dancer body.” Many of us have not been given the opportunity to get through the door, let alone the chance to stay in the room.
One of the first times I realized that my body would be a barrier in forging a path as a performer was after watching Megan Carter’s audition on season 7 of So You Think You Can Dance. After a stunning performance, the judges explained to her that while they were impressed with her skill and passion, she would not be given a ticket to the next round. It is important to note that in the same breath, one of the judges tells Megan that her dancing “schooled” him and challenged the stereotypes he holds for dancers in bigger bodies. Mia Michaels herself had a moment of solidarity with Megan, telling her that she understood her struggle. Michaels revealed that, as a fellow “woman of size,” she could not get jobs as a dancer and was forced to become the choreographer and teacher she is today. She continued with a sense of encouragement, telling Megan that she looks at the heart of the dancer and that talent and the validity of an artist should not be judged based on size or shape. It baffled me that after this conversation, Megan was immediately sent to the choreography round, presumably to prove that while she is a great dancer, she may not be right for the show due to the aesthetic they were looking for, particularly with partnering.
Photo by Pete Guither
Watching this moment as a young, aspiring dance artist planted a seed that perhaps I must accept what is given to me as long as I remain in this body. Megan was certainly passed off as if she should just be grateful that she was able to share her gift on television and in a room with professionals who had power to direct her to more opportunities. In that moment, I was grateful just to see a dancer who looked like me, and who had clearly spent so many waking moments fiercely training and honing her craft, only to be denied access to the room she deserved. It set the tone for my approach to my dance career, accepting whatever I could get without making too much noise and yearning for something better.
Throughout my time as a student and as I entered the field as a professional, I navigated the insecurities I developed from the messages that society sent me: my body is something to be ashamed of, I must endure additional labor to accommodate the lack of effort from dance spaces to be more inclusive to body diversity, and I must expend tons of energy trying to prove wrong the stereotypes about what I can bring to the room or the job. I can recall many times feeling great anxiety in classes and auditions, hoping that the teacher or choreographer would look beyond my appearance and truly see the evidence of my talent, training, and vigorous devotion to this field. I would often hear my peers’ expressions of fatphobic commentary and self-hatred disguised as a need to be in good health. Unfortunately, I found that the standards were not equal. If my thin colleagues enjoyed a pizza or burger, it was seen as a reward for their hard work. If I ate the same thing, it was a constant battle of trying to rationalize why I, too, “deserved” this meal, because my size was seen as a threat to the stereotype of a “correct” body type. I often heard comments like “you’re really good for a big girl,” and I often had to coddle people’s astonishment when they discovered the eclectic nature of my training and my ability to be versatile and adapt on and off the stage.
I was often punished for my size through costuming. I can recall frequently being asked to cover certain body parts and confronting assumptions that I would want to be covered. I often had to struggle in costume fittings, as choreographers “forgot” that they needed to find clothes to fit me. Many times, while my colleagues would be given costume pieces that fit the choreographer’s vision of the piece, I would have to take extra time to find something similar without being reimbursed or paid for my time. One time, I had to sew beads and other embellishments onto a plain dress I found at a discount store, while my colleagues were given beautiful dresses that fit with ease.
These experiences were very isolating, but I felt that it was worth it at the time, because I felt grateful that I had been granted the opportunity to dance and be seen on stage. I thought this burden was necessary if it meant I could be a beacon of hope for other dancers in bigger bodies, that they too could have a respected place in this profession. I know now that the struggle to find clothes that fit, along with other experiences as I was allowed to take up space, was a form of tokenism. I deserve better.
Now, more than ever, I reflect on my conversations with people who stopped dancing at an early age or who never even entertained the thought that they could pursue the various paths that dance has to offer, because they were told or believed their size would be a hindrance. I also think about my fellow dancers who are in larger bodies, identify as fat and/or plus size, and who are overlooked or have settled for the path that Mia Michaels mentioned during Megan Carter’s audition. Let’s face it, we can’t all be Mia Michaels, and the reality is that most of us will succumb to only taking up space our hometown dance studios. How many people have we potentially missed because we are so consumed with an arbitrary normalcy that is serving no one? How many people are not expanding the potential scope of their artistry and profession because they have been overlooked or underrepresented? They deserve better, too.
Photo by Emily Schumacher
The dance community is beginning to recognize that fatphobia and diet culture is harming dancers of all sizes. These are often the forces behind eating disorders and self-esteem issues. However, the focus is still on the thin dancer. Fat dancers are being left out of the conversation and we are not being considered in discussions about how harmful these thoughts are to our bodies, minds, and livelihood. It is no longer acceptable to allow thin privilege to rule the narrative on body positivity and acceptance in our field. We do not have to accept simply peeking through the doors of what might lie ahead for us as dance artists. We deserve to take up space in the room, showing up as our authentic selves, and our bodies being celebrated just as they are.
How can dance spaces cultivate the rooms we deserve with regard to body diversity? There are various ways to enact these necessary changes and considerations, and I acknowledge that the implementations will depend on context. Here are a few general things that I believe we can all start with and apply as we see fit:
Center fat/plus-size dancers in bigger bodies’ voices. Listen to our experiences and implement changes and accommodations to meet our needs.
Hire more dancers of all body types, not as a form of virtue signaling or meeting a diversity quota. Acknowledge that dancers of all body types exist--even if they make you uncomfortable or challenge your assumption of what a dancer should look like--and that they are capable of many things. Acknowledge that dancers of all body types’ (including fat bodies) have extensive training and education, and pay them for their time and labor---especially if you are asking them for more of it to accommodate your lack of preparation for what they need to thrive in your setting. Don’t assume the capabilities of people’s bodies only on the basis of size or shape. Let the dancer tell or show you what their skills are and go from there.
Imagine and re-imagine aesthetics by dismantling sameness in performance and class and by challenging the idea that only certain bodies or ways of moving are worth being seen or should be considered “professional” work. Begin to embrace the idea that perhaps larger bodies can bring some things to the table that thin bodies cannot, and accept it as beautiful and worthy of taking up space. We can certainly do this by featuring more fat dancers in our works.
Hire more teachers of all body types, in order to cultivate more representation in dance education settings. Young, aspiring dancers need to see the beauty of difference in our field. They need to see that they have options.
Educate yourself on fatphobia and diet culture and understand how these biases harm everyone in the dance community and in society at large. Acknowledge the connection to other forms of supremacy culture and how certain dance styles and genres have a history of perpetuating some of it.
Follow, elevate, and celebrate more dancers in bigger bodies!
It is my hope that, along with my fellow fat/plus-size dancers, I can embrace a new confidence to demand the rooms we deserve. If others cannot afford that room to us, may we find our way of creating the rooms we deserve by simply existing in our bodies, creating in our bodies, and moving in our bodies without apology. Sometimes this action may mean speaking up for what we need instead of just accepting what others claim we should be “grateful for.” Other times, it may look like leaving certain rooms all together. It may include our burning down certain systems and aesthetics that no longer serve us and forging something new that is more creative, inclusive, sustainable, and fulfilling.
Photo by DeAndre Johnson