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There’s no size that doesn’t fit Big Moves

By Karen White

Leyna McKenney loved to dance, but she quit when the awkward feeling of being the largest, tallest girl in the studio became too much to bear. Ten years later, preparing for an audition, she was shocked to realize that she didn’t even own a pair of dance shoes anymore.

“Once I started moving it was, ‘Hey, I remember this,’ ” McKenney says of her audition with Big Moves, a company that provides performance opportunities for plus-sized dancers. “I woke up the next morning so sore I couldn’t move. I just wanted to do it again.”

Other Big Moves dancers tell a similar tale. Loved to dance, loved to perform, yet in dance class or theater productions their size always seemed to overshadow their enthusiasm. Told they needed to “lose 30 pounds to get better roles” or to “suck in your butt” in ballet class. Cast as the mother or the funny friend—or a man. Ignored. Each had given up dance until Big Moves got them back onstage in a big way.

“This is a great vessel for proving what you can do, and doing what you want to do,” Michelle Keating of Somerville, Massachusetts, says. “It’s not just fat chicks dancing.”

Big Moves is often perceived as a novelty act, but dancers (left to right) Alanna Kelly, Jessica Judd, Matilda St. John, and Cindy Cutts win audiences over by time the curtain falls. (Photo by Luiza Silva)

Big Moves is often perceived as a novelty act, but dancers (left to right) Alanna Kelly, Jessica Judd, Matilda St. John, and Cindy Cutts win audiences over by time the curtain falls. (Photo by Luiza Silva)

Last spring, the 12 members of Big Moves Boston were preparing their spring show for two weekends of performances in Cambridge and one in Philadelphia. A musical theater original created by Big Moves founder Marina Wolf Ahmad, Fat Camp tells of a young camper expecting to attend one of those “lose weight quick” camps, but instead, learns the joys of “loving the skin you’re in.”

The mood was festive during an April dress rehearsal, held in an unglamorous exercise room of an assisted-living center in Jamaica Plain, a suburb of Boston. Troupe members—sizes 6 to 28—passed around Girl Scout cookies and finished up prop pieces while four dancers drilled a hip-hop number to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” The cast then launched into the show, singing and dancing, cracking jokes and “fat” puns, whipping through split-second costume changes, celebrating their size with panache.

“As a dance teacher, I feel strongly about the wonderful powers of dance,” says Ahmad, who started Big Moves in 2000 for plus-size women, then expanded its focus to include dancers of all sizes. “In the dance world, people make projections and assumptions based on size. We want to show through our dancers and our performances what’s possible.”

It was Ahmad’s experience in a junior college dance teacher certificate program that led to Big Moves. At age 28, older and larger than her classmates, Ahmad felt that her teachers neglected to give her feedback or comments that would help her improve her technique. She loved hip-hop, but in class she felt isolated, pushed aside and ignored, by both the teachers and the other students.

Online conversations with other plus-size dance students led her to put together a dance workshop, “A Day of Dance,” at a women’s health club in Redwood City, California. Thirty women studied hip-hop, samba, belly dance, and contact improvisation “in a nonjudgmental environment where they could feel safe,” she says.

During the next decade, Ahmad produced dance concerts, organized more workshops, taught hip-hop, and brought in choreographers to work with her company of large modern-dance and hip-hop–trained dancers. When Ahmad moved to Boston, she left a Big Moves chapter and eight-member company called the Phat Fly Girls running strong in San Francisco.

“Our mission is to make dance for everyone again,” Matilda St. John, a Phat Fly Girl since 2002 and co-director with Jessica Judd, says. “Dance is such a joyful experience. You don’t have to look a certain way to have access to that.”

St. John and Judd have moved the Phat Fly Girls away from hip-hop and into jazz/lyrical/contemporary dance, which they showcase in an annual concert-length show, at fund-raisers and community festivals, and in performance with West Coast bands or other dance groups. Each April brings their annual “Day of Dance,” free and open to the public, which this spring combined classes in ballet, lyrical jazz, and Bollywood with lectures on “how to love the body you have” and Phat Fly Girl demonstrations.

One of those who suffered through a weight-loss camp as a youngster, St. John recalls feeling excluded in dance class, urged to take jazz because “you can’t be serious about ballet with that body.” Big Moves, she says, is changing people’s perspectives of what larger-sized dancers can do.

“The public really hasn’t been given images of athletic fat dancers. In our lyrical pieces, there is always some concern when a fat girl goes to the floor,” she says. “People are surprised that we can do so much more than they thought.”

And it’s not about making the audience “forget” the dancers are large, St. John says, but embracing their size—just as the Phat Fly Girls themselves have done. “One of the biggest things I learned with Big Moves is that I have this body—use it. See my talent; see my size. We want the audience to celebrate how big and fierce we can be.”

In Boston, Big Moves performers include a professional opera singer, two belly dance specialists, dancers with pre-professional training, and musical theater performers, all strutting their stuff in burlesque shows and musical theater, in church halls and bars, on college campuses and at neighborhood festivals.

Sometimes it’s a tough sell. Ahmad knows Big Moves is often perceived as a novelty act. The troupe has to work against misconceptions of what larger dancers can and cannot do, she says, as well as social and traditional pressures that dancers must be a certain size. By the time the curtain falls, though, the audience has been won over.

“We’d like to encourage others to broaden their vision,” Ahmad says. “If you’re only working with thin dancers, it’s like a composer who only writes for the flute. We want access to the full orchestra—or, we say, at least consider it!”

Her dancers agree. McKenney, a resident of Brighton, Massachusetts, has been told “she’s inspiring” or she’s “brave.” She’d rather be told she’s a great dancer. Courtney Stanton of Somerville is waiting for the first review that “does not make some allusions that it’s near miraculous to get someone our size to have good leg extensions.”

“There is such a positive influence here—it’s so good to be around people who embrace everything about you. We bring just what any dancer wants to bring to an audience—grace and excitement and movement and joy.” —Erin Ayers

But on this dress rehearsal day, with a weekend performance in Cambridge on tap, there’s little griping. The performers, who have arrived in a cold, driving rain after a long day as administrative assistants, speech therapists, office workers, law assistants, or music teachers, are thankful for Big Moves and the opportunities it presents.

 “There is such a positive influence here—it’s so good to be around people who embrace everything about you,” says Erin Ayers of Jamaica Plain, who had given up on dance and theater in college after a lifetime of training. “Our audiences are entertained and possibly educated. We bring just what any dancer wants to bring to an audience—grace and excitement and movement and joy.”

Jordan Crouser of Medfield, Massachusetts, Big Moves’ set designer, grew up thin in a plus-size family. After a lifetime of defending his family, he’s letting go of that past with Big Moves’ help. “Here we’re part of a group that’s positive—people reinforce that you look great,” he said. “You realize you have a choice. You don’t have to subscribe to what society says.”

Ahmad sees Big Moves on the brink of breaking out. Three years it performed at the Montreal Fringe Festival, winning the 2007 Spirit of the Fringe Award for its original show Lard (Like “Grease,” but Thicker). It’s a lot of work, admits Ahmad, who writes her shows, creates the choreography, markets and books the group, and even “shamelessly” stands outside other theatrical and dance events to hand out flyers. “There is not a built-in market for size-diverse dance,” she says. She receives encouraging emails from across the country and is looking for someone willing to resurrect Big Moves’ New York chapter, which is in a reorganizing stage.

The social climate is tough, too, Ahmad says, with so much emphasis on losing weight. Schools want to measure students’ body mass index and send reports home to parents. Dancers talk about being bumped from flights because of size, not being able to find clothing that fits, or hearing comments like, “Oh, that must be great exercise,” when they talk about upcoming Big Moves performances.

Big Moves will keep pushing for visibility, Ahmad says, creating opportunities for all dancers and bringing up the issue of size diversity in dance and theater. “It can be infuriating, pushing, pushing to do all this work,” she says. “People say, ‘They do so many shows, they must be a big [organization],’ but we are all volunteers. We get some donations and small grants, plus ticket sales, but mostly it’s just us, fueled by the fires of belief.”

Belief in dance, and belief in themselves. Big Moves has pushed its dancers to step out of their comfort zones, to try a solo, to dance sexy, or just to be onstage doing what they had always loved—and thought they had lost.

“People ask me what I do in my spare time,” McKenney says. “I used to say, ‘I’m in a dance troupe.’ Now I say I’m a dancer.”

For calendar listings, visit www.bigmoves.org.

Blog: bigmovesboston.wordpress.com

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2 Responses to “Performance Plus”

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