One of the best things about writing my zine, Dancing in the Dark, was interviewing some hella inspiring people. As well as my own personal stories, you can find interviews with Amanda from Irreverent Dance, Jessica and Matilda from Big Moves, and Ragen from More Cabaret.
One of the most inspiring and super powerful interviews that made me want to start my very own fat street dance troupe (seriously, if you're a chubster and you wanna dance in a dance troupe then get the hell in touch with me and lets make this happen, totally not kidding) was this interview with Big Moves which I really wanted to share with you all.
I discovered Big Moves while researching lgbt queer body positive dance organisations for my zine. Hearing about their training, their fat activism, and seeing pictures of their incredible rad fat dancers made me so excited and so damned happy that such a thing existed. They are a body positive, lgbt queer friendly dance organisation for adults. They've put on fat dance shows such as Fatdance: what a feeling, Jazz Hams, and All That Flab.
You can find more interviews and body postive fat dance stories and interviews in my zine, which did I mention is totally out now? You can order it from my zine shop here:
Interview with Big Moves
How did Big Moves company come into being?
The founder of Big Moves, Marina Wolf Ahmad, was taking classes at a junior college and realized that there was a dearth of support for fat dancers, and that fat people were actively discouraged from dancing. She founded Big Moves as a place for fat people to dance....for fat people to train and perform.
From our website: Founded by Marina Wolf Ahmad with a single day-long dance clinic in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2000, Big Moves is the only service organization in the world dedicated to getting people of all sizes into the dance studio and up on stage. For over a dozen years, we have been creating a safer, welcoming, body-positive atmosphere where people of all shapes and sizes can train in dance technique and perform onstage as part of a dance company…and have a whole lot of fun doing it! We are committed to centering fat people within our organization; our programs include training, choreography, and full-length dance productions by and for fat people. Our shows present a vision of a world transformed, where exciting performances can and do come from artists who resist narrow dance-world norms….and narrow dancewear options.
Why do you think people might be put off dance? Can you talk a little bit about the perceived barriers in dance relating to body size, gender, abilities etc
Dance has traditionally been a very fat-phobic and body-negative field. Dancers are told they have to look a certain way or they don't get to dance. Many people who have come through Big Moves' programs tell stories of being taken out of dance/discouraged from dancing at various points in their lives because they lacked the "dancer's body." Many people of all sizes fear stepping into a dance studio because they fear their body size/shape/type being called out for being wrong. Fat people have also been told, as a group, that they are un-athletic and cannot do things that dancers do. This makes it harder for fat people to step into a dance studio and try new things. Dance teachers also are typically unaware of how to adapt exercises, stretches, and movement to accommodate a wide range of body types. Dance is also a very challenging activity and people are often wary of starting something that really does have such a steep learning curve. True beginners are not honored in a lot of classes, especially past a certain age. People with disabilities and injuries are often unlikely to venture into dance classes because of the aforementioned lack of accommodation in a lot of classes. In terms of gender, some styles of dance really reinforce and rely on heteronormative portrayals of male-female pairings/relationships and gender-nonconforming and queer folks may be uncomfortable with the language and assumptions made in such classes.
I think when many people think of what a dancer looks like, a prima ballerina comes to mind. Very few of us match this picture, but all of us can find a way to train in dance and move in our bodies with joy.
Unfortunately, the dance world, at least in the U.S., has some catching up to do in shifting that vision of what a dancer looks like. We've heard countless stories from our dancers about people's shock that you could be several standard deviations away from the above mentioned "ideal", and still be a dancer.
In my own life, I've experienced reactions ranging from patronizing surprise about my dance ability to outright encouragement to not pursue certain forms of dance based on my body size. And I'm on the small end of fat.
In popular media, when people who deviate in any way from dance world norms are shown dancing, they are often framed as a punchline, the butt of a joke, or freakish. The experience of watching So You Think You Can Dance, the most popular televised dance show in the US, is a cringe-inducing horrorfest as racism, sexism, homophobia and fatphobia all seem to inform both the choreography and the judging in very upsetting ways.
All of this discouragement, coupled with who has financial and geographic access to training combines, I think, to continue the status quo in the dance world. I should say that the dance world response to our organization has been largely positive, and we have found many willing teachers who will train without bias. I think it's difficult for fat people, who are told they take up too much space as it is, to want to get onstage to take up more space, and possibly open themselves to ridicule.
Can you tell me a little bit about how your training is structured at Big Moves. I’m very interested in Health At Every Size and I’ve been reading a lot about other body positive dance groups that discuss concepts of fat athletes and training as most people think this isn’t possible for larger bodies.
emFATic DANCE, our resident dance company, rehearses once a week for 2.5 hours during most of the year, and then two times a week (for a total of4-5 hours) in the months leading up to our annual big show. We train our dancers in fundamental jazz dance technique and spend a lot of time when not in production teaching and working on turns, leaps, jumps, floor work, and basic flexibility and strengthening. We do a fairly typical jazz/lyrical warm-up which includes center work such as pliés, tendus, développés, etc., standing stretches, strengthening work, and seated stretches. We also work turns, progressions, and leaps across the floor and always work on choreography. We encourage all our dancers to take additional classes outside of rehearsal and many do. When we are in production we are more focused on getting the dances ready for the show and focus a lot more on the choreography. Our dancers learn and perform 6-8 dances per year.
We dance once per week for 2 1/2 hours, and quite a bit more during pre-production times. We're a jazz-based group, so our training focuses on jazz form, flexibility, strength and technique. Jessica is our primary teacher in rehearsal. We encourage dancers to also take outside classes, to get acquainted with a wide variety of styles. People arrive with all levels of experience and endurance, and we think it's incredibly important to work with people where they are, talking about individual next steps for them.
In the past, people have been very eager to hand us the "good, healthy fatty" badge because of our athleticism, but we've come to recognize how damaging the good fatty/bad fatty divisions can be between fat people. Additionally, we obtain the same injuries as other aging athletes, and are often sidelined or adapting movement around that. Part of what's great about the HAES model is that it focuses on health-enhancing behaviors **for your individual, changing body,** so for instance, sitting out jumps might be a health affirming behavior if your back is out.
What steps do you take to ensure that your classes are fully inclusive and accessible?
We have a strict no diet talk/no body disparagement talk policy for all classes/rehearsals/events which we have rarely seen anywhere else. This helps ensure a safer space for participants. We do not pressure people to do more than they can, and we work to make our class work and company choreography accessible to everyone in the room, and are ready to change to should it become inaccessible for anyone now or later. We focus on the positive and also truly believe that all of us can dance with artistic expression and that is not something we see most anywhere else (there are exceptions and there are other size-diverse dance and performance troupes).
We adapt movements to the dancers we have, while also pushing our dancers to go a little further if they can. Jessica is great at accurately predicting our potential on moves we're not yet getting.
When we hold open rehearsals or our annual Day of Dance, a free day of dance workshops for the community (fat and otherwise), we pitch the movement at a level for brand new dancers, and try to create the most accessible environment possible. We also have real-time demonstration of all moves performed seated in a chair. Accessibility is something that's always on our minds, and we're very committed to finding ways to be more accessible.
Do you consider yourselves fat activists and could you possibly talk a little bit about your links to fat activism (if any at all)
Yes. While I was a dancer before I was a fat activist, fat activism led me to become involved with Big Moves (I have been with Big Moves for twelve years). I have participated in fat activism in a number of ways, both through dance/Big Moves and not. I have an essay in the anthology, "Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls and Life, Love, and Fashion" about coming to fat activism through dance and Big Moves.
We absolutely do, though this identity is not a requirement to dance with us. My first exposure to the world of fat politics was a personal reading project when I was 19 and trying to unlearn a lifetime of self-loathing. I tore through Shadow on a Tightrope and all the zines I could get my hands on: Fat!So?, Fat Girl, and I'm So Fucking Beautiful. Shortly thereafter, I participated in a theater production about fat at my college, UC Santa Cruz. Big Moves is currently my primary form of fat activism. In addition to dance, I've co-written a few pieces about fat and popular culture for Bitch Magazine, the Health at Every Size Journal, Newsweek online, and The Fat Studies Reader. When I'm not dancing, I also do psychotherapy from a fat positive/weight neutral approach.
Does body positivity also relate to gender and queer/trans bodies in your ethos?
Yes, absolutely! Big Moves has been explicitly LGBTQ welcoming since the start and has always included, at its core, queer folks. People who are fat and queer and/or fat and trans/gender non-conforming have their bodies policed in so many ways and in so many directions and we are not interested in doing any of that. We want people to come dance with us as they are and to be free of judgement about their bodies.
Absolutely. We're a mixed queer/ally group, and proud of it. Additionally, I feel like the way we think about bodies and performance often comes from a very queer/queering aesthetic. Many of our current dancers are very high femme, and it's more exaggerated onstage; we often intentionally play with overwhelming the audience.
We also try to switch up or mess with gender in dance when we can. When you have fat women lifting other fat women onstage, a lot of what audiences expect to see just explodes.
Can you tell me a little bit about EmFATic DANCE and how that has evolved over the years?
We started in November of 2001 as an advanced-beginner/intermediate hip hop dance troupe. In 2002 Big Moves also formed Mass Movement, a modern dance company. Until 2006, emFATic DANCE (previously known as the Phat Fly Girls), stayed in the hip hop genre and mostly performed at community events, bars/clubs, burlesque shows, etc. From 2002-2006 Mass Movement was performing in large black box theater productions, as well as dance festivals, choreographer showcases, etc.. In late 2006/early 2007 for a number of reasons, we decided to basically put Mass Movement on a permanent hiatus and broaden the scope of emFATic DANCE. We first branched out into musical theater where we re-wrote a number of pieces with fat-positive lyrics. By 2008 we had branched out not only to musical theater/Broadway jazz, but also to lyrical jazz, and at that time we had really become a jazz-based, rather than a hip hop based, company. Starting in 2007 emFATic DANCE has been featured in Big Moves' annual black box theater productions, as well as in our annual chocolate tasting, and we perform a number of other gigs throughout the year which range from choreographer showcases to variety shows to fundraisers. From 2008-2012 we had 6-8 active members, but as of 2013 we had thirteen members and we are holding strong at right around that number. We perform six pieces a year at our big annual show, and may show 1-2 others throughout the year. We currently perform jazz, contemporary, lyrical, and musical theater. Some of us tap too. We are much more polished than we used to be and our consistency and performance quality increases with each passing year. Additionally, our dancers get more and more technically sound all the time and working together as much as we do allows us to perform as a unified body onstage. The more dancers we get the more elaborate and ambitious we are able to get with our formations and narratives in our dances. It is really exciting. Most all of our choreography is created in house, and many of our costumes are also created in house. Every year the costuming and concepts get more ambitious as well. I am very, very excited about where we are currently and am even more excited to see where we will be down the line.
emFATic DANCE started as a hip hop group called the Phat Fly Girls in 2001. Under the umbrella organization of Big Moves, we danced small gigs at various BBW nightclubs, eating disorder prevention events, and in other fat-related shows like The Fat Bottom Revue, usually one number per show. In 2007, we shifted to producing shows showcasing the troupe, and currently produce annual, full-scale theater productions which feature emFATic DANCE (usually in six pieces per show) and other fat performers. Also in 2007, the troupe shifted from hip hop to a more jazz-based aesthetic, incorporating lyrical, contemporary, and musical theater/Broadway styles. In 2012, after becoming more cognizant of issues of cultural appropriation inherent in the name Phat Fly Girls, we changed our name to emFATic DANCE.
We've been as few as three dancers over the years, but we're delighted to report that we're currently at 15+ dancers.
Can you tell me about your performances? How is it powerful having a stage full of fat dancers? What kind of reactions do you get? How do you challenge people’s perceptions of dance and the body?
Our performances are AMAZING!!! To see so many fat people working it and selling it onstage, all fat, all unapologetic, there is no way to hide from that power. And our shows are fun! Also, it is not just us! We have an awesome pool of fat guest artists who also get onstage and do their thing in our shows which is fantastic. People are moved, blown away, amazed, entertained, delighted, and challenged watching us. It is hard not to be challenged by thirteen fatties in leotards and bow ties. Or eight fatties in tutus. Or twelve in super-tight slips. Generally reactions are positive, but I have long been saying that we are a kind of Rorschach test for audience members. Often times feedback in mainstream shows (non-fat community shows/shows where fat performance is a new concept) is more about the person watching us and how they feel about their own body/fat bodies in general than about anything we actually did onstage. Sometimes it is a whole lot of "Whoa!" and some people seem blown away by the fact that fat people can actually dance. Or wear tights. But we also have audience members who have been watching us for years and they are still captivated, entertained, and engaged by what we are doing. We are not just fat, but we are dancers, entertainers, and performers.
Because I am not sure I can say it better, I am going to quote myself from my piece, "Blue Pants" that was published in Virgie Tovar's anthology "Hot&Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion" (Seal Press, 2012): "...I have gained an appreciation for the importance of being a fat dancer and the importance of fat dance troupes. I used to think being the lone fatty onstage was enough. I thought that my presence in a mainstream studio would be enough to bring fatties into the dance world. I was wrong. When we are the token fatty onstage we are easy to dismiss. We are an anomaly, the random fatty who can dance. We are viewed as mostly inoffensive, as just one freak mixed in with a bunch of “real” dancers. We can be tolerated often because we are presumed to be working towards the holy grail of thinness. When emFATic DANCE takes the stage, and there are six, seven, eight or more of us, all unapologetically fat, all dancers, our existence cannot be denied. We are no longer an anomaly. We cannot be explained away as exceptions. We demand to be taken seriously as fat people and fat performers who are not trying to become un-fat. We are fierce.
When I get up on that stage and I work it, and I sell it, and I dance it the best I possibly can and then some, I am living my dream. Creating art and being expressive in an outlaw body, in a body that is not supposed to be creating art of this kind is an act of revolution. It took me a while to fully understand the impact of what I and the other dancers were doing, but I see it know. I dance with emFATic DANCE because I love dancing, I love performing, and I am happiest doing it in a place where my body is truly free. I also do it because it is damned important work. People need to see fat people dancing somewhere other than weight-loss reality TV shows. When we dance, when we lift each other, when we pirouette, leap, and do the splits to the floor we challenge everything our society has been told fat people can and cannot do. I force people to look at me and see me. When I am onstage in a shiny dance dress my fat has nowhere to hide. I don't apologize for it. It is me. My fat body can do some really amazing things. I am not going to hide it, onstage or otherwise." (Jessica Erin Judd, from "Blue Pants", and essay in "Hot&Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion" , ed. Virgie Tovar, Seal Press, 2012)
Where to start?! This is one of the best parts, and one that we think about a lot. A stage full of fat dancers can't be dismissed as an anomaly, the way one fat dancer can be. Especially since we've expanded to over 10 dancers, we're a force.
Over the years, we've gotten reactions from "surprise at the athleticism" (frequent) to mild disgust to empowered to try dance themselves. Fat bodies are very evocative for people, and it's interesting to be onstage and be an object of people's projections that way.
We've also gotten some hilarious pearl-clutching feedback that feels like it's about how hypersexual people perceive fat bodies to be. Feedback like "I didn't realize you were going to bend over!" from a local elected official at a street fair, or "There was a lot of this!" ((Gesturing to chest)). I think a lot of people who see us are just stunned by trying to process all the boob.
One of my favorite moments performing was several years ago at an animal-themed revue organized by a local band. We brought a piece that's a staple of our repertoire: a fat-positive rewrite of Mein Herr from Cabaret, about leaving a lover who's been terrible to you about your weight, sung live to a karaoke track.
We performed dressed as sexed-up versions of the animals hurled at fat girls: cow, hippo, elephant, pig, dog. The audience, who were not an explicitly fat positive crowd, kind of gasped when we came onstage. I don't think they knew how they were supposed to feel: if they should feel badly for us, if we were making a joke of ourselves... But we were clearly not a joke. By the end of the song, which is funny/deadpan in the same way as the original, the audience was totally won over, and the cheers were deafening. All pity was gone, and I think this shows it can be really useful to play with audience discomfort more directly as a setup for radical learning.
Lastly, why do you love dance
I love to move. I love music. I really, really love music. love creating new pieces for emFATic DANCE and finding those places in the music that no one hears until we punctuate them with movement. I see movement when I listen to music. I love to express myself through movement, through dance. I love how dancing feels. I love to leave the ground in a leap and fall to the floor in a roll. I truly enjoy performing and being onstage. I work hard to connect to the audience and I love feeling that connection. Dancing in a group is amazing because that is another kind of connection...a very special one. I also love being in class (with my own teachers) and doing the basic raw, physical and mental work it requires to dance. Slogging through the pain, sweat, and seemingly impossible exercises is actually enjoyable to me overall. So, yeah, basically I just love to dance.
I love dance because it helps me be playful and creative in a body that I've been told is inherently pathological and unworthy. I love our Big Moves family, too- the way we're there for each other and keep each other laughing.
To find out more about Big Moves check out www.bigmoves.org