Big Ballet, Big Me

I’m worried – I’m worried that this post is going to sound too earnest, sound self-pitying, sound self-indulgent.  I’m worried I will reveal too much and put people off in the way that brutal honesty can.  But I have spent the last five days thinking about this, and think I just need to let it out.  It’s about dance and body politics and gender and expectations and stereotypes – all things that I seek to concern myself with – but if you think you may be embarrassed by my brutally honest confessions, perhaps best to stop reading here.

On Thursday evening, Channel Four will broadcast a programme called ‘Big Ballet’.  In it, Wayne Sleep and Monica Loughman will train a troupe of people who have been labelled as ‘too large to dance’ to perform a 30 minute version of Swan Lake.

So far the media coverage and adverts for the programme have filled me with dread, and whilst Sleep and the producers at Channel Four have asserted that their aim is not to ‘fat shame’ or embarrass the participants, Sleep has been on record describing the cast as ‘quite frankly fat’ (thanks, Wayne).  And Derek Deane – who seems intent on continuing to portray himself as the ur-choreographer, a stereotypical version of every baddie, shouting, insulting, peacock-parading ballet master villain who has ever lived – has called the idea of larger dancers in ballet ‘preposterous’.  And yes, whilst I completely agree that the notion of every ballet dancer battling eating disorders is untrue, and that these classically-trained artists are athletes who undergo the highest levels of physical rigor every day, I don’t know whether Channel 4 is so much defying body politics in dance (as they so righteously claim to be doing), but rather perpetuating them for sensationalist ends.

In a world where thin is most definitely in, and the images of women’s bodies with which we are bombarded on a daily basis continue to shrink, how are we helping by saying that ‘fat girls’ can dance (in a once off TV special)? Should we not be having a conversation about why the ideal of the dancing body, particularly in ballet, is the palest white (I’m probably not going to have any time in this post to continue to comment on racism in ballet, but please, let’s bear this in mind), with impossibly long limbs, compact, sinuous body, long neck and small head, in the idealised ballerina figure famously perpetuated by Balanchine at New York City Ballet during the last century?  Should we not be asking why dancers not cut of this mould are still being discouraged and dismissed by schools, choreographers and companies?

Should the homogenised corps of the past not be challenged?  Or should I ask, COULD the homogenised corps of the past ever be challenged?

Not whilst Derek Deane has anything to do with it, I suspect.

And I’m not suggesting that untrained dancers should be able to waltz into a principal role at the Royal Ballet, but maybe as a fraternity, we should be questioning whether the way of the past really is the best way to continue, and whether dancers should be disregarded because they don’t possess the ideal body-type, height or race.  A fight with which I’m sure Wayne Sleep should have a little more sympathy, but perhaps being short isn’t as shockingly dreadful (or self-inflicted, I’m sure all those fearful fat-haters would attest) as being F.A.T.

And why, I’m sure you are wondering, has this light-entertainment show got me in such a froth?

I confess – I’m a fat dancer.  Curvy, chubby, voluptuous, larger, big boned. Call it what you like, in terms of stereotypical dancers, I’m a big fat fatty, and I know it.  Don’t I know it.

How I wish I could be oblivious to my large thighs, sizable arse, ample breasts.  How I wish I could be accepting of this.  How I wish that I didn’t hate and curse and despise this lump of a body that I drag around with me, despite that fact that my rational brain (and my friends and family) tells me that this is just my shape, my size, my naturally configured weight.  I’m bigger.  In the normal world, the real world, I’m bigger than ideal, but not enormous.  In the dance world, I’m a gargantuan, lumbering fatty.

I’ve been larger than I’d like for as long as I can possibly remember.  From being weighed in as a child – memories of getting on a scale in the kitchen and having my weighty progress noted down – to pretty much playing out the entirety of my teens in front of a vast expanse of mirrors, the big girl amongst the dainty dancers, never quite matching up, dreading costume fittings and crying in private because I knew I would never be one of the pretty girls who looked good in hot-pants or lycra outfits with cut-outs.  But also berating myself because I was the only fat girl, and it was all my fault.  No one made me fat.  I just was (am), despite the parade of silly diets and exercise and pills pretending to be a miracle cure.

And yet, through the traumas and tantrums (of which there have been many, some simulataneously) here I am.  Dancing.  Making dance.  Performing.  All despite the irrational fear that creeps over me every time there is an opportunity to be seen moving in the public sphere. The fear that chokes me, and sometimes makes me stop dancing and want the ground to open and swallow me.  The same fear that is caused by the notion that dancing bodies should be small and perfectly formed, that I am somehow an alien other, that I am undesirable, that I am ugly, that I am ridiculous.  The institutionalised idea that is endemic, that spreads further and wider with every comment on airbrushed images, with every throwaway remark by the Deanes and Sleeps of the world (the power players in an industry that refuses to acknowledge difference on a stage, or in real life), with a programme like ‘Big Ballet’; the idea that seeps into small girls dressed in pink tulle and the idea that kills their dreams.

So why do I do it?  Why do I continue to throw myself at this?  Perhaps I possess an extraordinary amount of the masochism usually possessed by dancers (even the thin, athletic, beautiful ones), that drives us in our daily tasks of jumping higher, lifting higher, pushing further, and perfecting the sublime form which we love.  And maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment – much as I am, perhaps, generally a glutton.  Maybe I want to be proof that the perfect dancing body, is not am imagined ideal stipulated by mean men from the past, but rather any body which takes joy in moving, in all sorts of ways.  And each day I try to fight against the voices in my head – and all around me, in the media – shouting that I am not worthy of being looked at, or of displaying myself in such a way.  I whisper that my body may be big, but it is strong, it is vital.  My thunder thighs will never possess the desirable gap that women’s magazines are raving about at the moment, but they carry me through life, they hold me up, they push my arabesques and support my pliés, unfold my développé and drive me across the stage.

Perhaps it’s time that my inward whispers become an outward shout, and that we truly do begin to challenge body stereotypes instead of simply perpetuating them.

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8 thoughts on “Big Ballet, Big Me

  1. I was gearing myself up to write a scathing account of my time in ‘Big Ballet’, but everything I wanted to say you have covered in the first 7 paragraphs. Thank you! I will be sharing your voice….M x

  2. well said! what bothers me is that program seems to be allowing these women to indulge in their size, when in fact all of them are so unhealthy.
    one girl quotes she likes food, and thats stopped her leaving her dream, well it wasnt really a dream then. I love food, well eating sweet and cake etc but i cannot eat as much as i want, not for the bother of my size or weight, but because i need to be fit to live my dream.

    they shouldnt be saying its okay to be overweight, they should be saying every one cn learn to dance and be a performer, irrelevant of size, if they are fit and healthy and take very very good care of their bodies.

    • Hi Georgia! Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment. I think that Channel 4 and the programme have very much sensationalised the idea of ‘overweight dancers’ – and particularly the comment of ‘oh, I like to eat’. However, I do think it is a sweeping generalisation to suggest that all people deemed overweight (particularly in this show) are unhealthy, or that this is the case for every participant in Big Ballet. I totally agree with you that the programme – and the dance community! – should be encouraging the idea that anyone can dance (and anyone can be a dancer), but in order to do this, I think we also need to begin to break down the body fascism which runs so deep in the dance industry, and the stereotypes of what body type makes a good performer.

      • I’m doing a cheer for you in my head, Amy. Thank you for coming to my defence with regard to this comment “all of them are so unhealthy.”

        I’m a bit bloated, heavy and overweight during the early stages of Big Ballet. But this is not because of my ‘unhealthiness’…in fact most of the weight I gained last year can be attributed to my choice to take medication again to try and sort out the ‘healthiness’ of my mind. Bad choice, but then I was in an extreme circumstance and it was the decision I made…and dealing with the effects of that caused my body to get even more out of control. My shape is larger and more muscular than most women in general because of the Martial Arts, fight and strength training I put it through for almost a decade. Again, driven by my need to push my body and my idea of ‘healthy’. I’m certainly not someone who has “indulged in their size”, in fact I’ve been so hateful about my body in the past that I have developed eating disorders and started to self-abuse. I hope, GiGi that in future you will be able to see beyond the surface of what is presented to you and try to practice non-judgement where you can.

        I am utterly disappointed with the way that the programme has been chopped and edited with regard to health and fitness in dance. I tried to maintain a positive and healthy body image during the process of filming, even going so far as to let the cameras in on a conditioning session at the gym where I was quite honest about the weaknesses in my body during that time and the areas that I wanted to address to get it back under control. I’m ashamed at the way that nutrition for dance, conditioning and cross-training for dance have been purposefully kept out of the programme, too. And like you say, Amy, the body fascism in the dance industry runs far deeper than whether or not somebody happens to be ‘fat and it’s these stereotypes that NEED to be broken.

  3. Pingback: Big Ballet, Big Me | Hanna Wroblewski

  4. Pingback: Big Ballet, Big Me | Hanna Wroblewski – Tanzkünstlerin

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