Building Fat Community Through Dance

An Interview with Jessica Judd and Matilda St. John, co-directors of Big Moves and emFATic DANCE

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT

Jessica Judd and Matilda St. John co-direct Big Moves, a dance service organization in the Bay Area committed to getting people of all sizes into the dance studio and up onstage. They are also the co-artistic directors of emFATic DANCE, Big Moves’ resident performance company. Here they discuss how Big Moves has supported and reflected the Bay Area fat community for more than 20 years, some of the ways fat people are marginalized in mainstream dance spaces, and how studios and other institutions can make their settings more fat positive.

Seven dancers in a clump onstage making various shapes

Photo by Lisa J. Ellis

~~

Can you first tell me a little about yourselves and what shaped you as dance artists?

Matilda: I danced as a child in my local dance studio where I did ballet. My parents were informed at a certain point that there was not going to be a future for me there because of the shape my body was taking as puberty set in. It was suggested I try other forms of dance, and I did move to jazz and children’s musical theater for a while, but still definitely got the message that dance was for thin people. I stayed away for many years and came back to dance in college a little bit, but I always loved dancing and watching dance. And then I found Big Moves post grad school in my late 20s through the first Big Moves performance of Bodies in Motion in 2001.

Jessica: As a little kid I was a gymnast and swimmer, and I started dancing at age five with tap and ballet and later jazz. I dropped out at age 11 and switched to competitive athletics. My sister, who is four years younger than me, continued to dance, and I always loved the shows, but I couldn’t fathom wearing a costume with people staring at my body. I was a much smaller person at the time, but it felt prohibitive and I was already struggling with disordered eating.

I had a bad shoulder injury my senior year of high school that abruptly ended my swimming career. In college, I did some dance in the form of aerobics and cardio funk classes. In graduate school, I took a jazz dance class because I needed a couple units. I loved it but it was a huge challenge because even at 23 I was older than everyone in the room and the biggest person. Having been out of dance at that point for 12 or 13 years was hard. The teacher was very encouraging, and I started taking classes from her and others at a studio in San Jose, and I stayed there for a number of years. I was always the biggest dancer.

I found out about Big Moves around the same time as Matilda for the first Bodies in Motion production in 2001.

How did Big Moves get started, and what were each of your entry points to Big Moves?

Jessica: The origin story of Big Moves is that in 2000, the founder Marina Wolf Ahmad was taking dance classes at Santa Rosa Junior College and was really frustrated with being the only fat person in the room and with the attitudes around fatness in dance. She wanted to do something about this and wanted to see fat people onstage. She founded Big Moves in November 2000 with a day-long fat positive dance clinic called Day of Dance, which we’ve continued every year.

In 2001, Marina commissioned a fat modern dance group in Canada called Big Dance to perform along with Fat Chance Belly Dance and Kendra Kimbrough Dance Ensemble. The show was called Bodies in Motion. That was my entry point.

My grandmother saw a preview article about it in the Oakland Tribune, told my mom about it because she knew my struggle being a fatter dancer, and then my mom called the number to buy tickets. That number went directly to Marina. My mom told her about me, and she wanted to meet me. At the show, Marina introduced herself and asked for my information. Several months later in the fall of 2001, I was contacted by her because she was forming a Big Moves advisory board and asked me to be on it. She was also teaching hip-hop for fat people at Dance Mission. That was October 2001. I showed up and never left.

Matilda: My entry point was also the Bodies in Motion concert. I’m a therapist in Oakland, and my business partner Beth Bernstein and I had done some writing together for Bitch Magazine and Bust Magazine about fatness in pop culture. She had a radio show at the UC Berkeley radio station called Body Talk and it was a fat positive show about how people relate to their bodies. Marina called her and asked if she’d like tickets to Bodies in Motion. I was Beth’s plus one. Until that point, my fat activism had been based in my head. When I saw fat bodies onstage, it was such a big deal for me. In 2002, I came to Marina’s hip-hop class and never left. That was right before the second Bodies in Motion.

How is Big Moves organized today?

Matilda: Big Moves is fiscally sponsored by Intersection for the Arts, a 501(c)3, and we’re a production and service organization. emFATic DANCE is the performance company. When we’re not in COVID, Big Moves produces four events a year. We present a day-long dance clinic called Day of Dance during National Dance Week each spring which consists of free workshops for the community. emFATic DANCE does a big show usually at Laney College in the summer with a lot of other fat performers. We partner with another fat organization, the FatFriendlyFunders, to produce a clothing and bake sale in late summer called Cupcakes and Muffintops. That’s been our big fundraiser and it’s a great entry point for people who might not have been in fat spaces before and who may or may not be interested in dance. And the last event of the year has been A Taste for Dance, which is a chocolate fundraiser and casual show around Halloween.

Jessica: A Taste for Dance was my first project for Big Moves. In San Jose, I was part of the South Bay Bisexual Organizers and Activists, and we had a chocolate tasting fundraiser that was successful. I brought the idea to Big Moves and we started A Taste for Dance in 2002 as a Valentine’s-themed event, eventually moving it to around Halloween where it found its sweet spot. It’s a fun themed event around candy and costumes and a lower bar to entry for folks who want to sit at a table with friends and watch performances interspersed with a costume parade, community fashion show, and time to socialize.

Our summer show is our big show. emFATic DANCE usually presents six pieces and we have several guest artists that span multiple dance/performance genres such as belly dance, contemporary, jazz, modern, burlesque, drag, spoken, word and live music. Its format is like a variety show/cabaret. The community events throughout the year are important because they provide more entry points than just having people watch us onstage.

Matilda: Since COVID, we did our Day of Dance last April virtually. I imagine we may do it again virtually or look into incorporating virtual attendance in the future. There’s more accessibility to having more events be virtual. But for now, we’ve just been rehearsing with emFATic on Zoom.

Jessica: Rehearsing on Zoom has been challenging because people are often in small spaces and have their kids and pets at home. We were working on some repertoire that we were able to reteach on Zoom, but I have stepped back from trying to create new choreography virtually and am focusing more on skill building. We are hoping to return to in-person in January or February.

Seven dancers face front onstage and reach to their right side, all wearing black and white dresses

Photo by Lisa J. Ellis

In the meantime, we’ve been focusing on tap dance. In the past, Big Moves has been mostly a jazz, musical theater, and lyrical company. That all takes a lot of space. I’m a tap dancer and another dancer with us is also a tap dancer. We’ve never had an opportunity to teach tap to the other dancers because of Big Moves’ cycle of events every year. So we are now working on learning to tap dance because it’s something we can mostly do in our small spaces. It’s a way to incorporate another style that we can become proficient in and perform.

Is there a specific project or performance that Big Moves produced that you’d like to share more about?

Jessica: Fat Rorschach was a piece we created for our 2014 summer production, and we also brought it to Dance Mission’s choreographer showcase and A Taste for Dance. Big Moves receives a lot of unsolicited feedback, and a lot is problematic. The piece was based on that. During the beginning years of Big Moves, we worked with modern choreographers in San Francisco. Not all their comments were stellar. We’ve also gotten inappropriate feedback in reviews and there are projections from audience members about what they feel and think about fat people. People have said questionable things, offensive things, things that were intended as compliments but were not. With Big Moves, people are not seeing one lone fat dancer among thin dancers, which people seem okay with. We have a lot of fat bodies, and it often causes very strong reactions. There are ways we’re sexualized, assumptions are made about our health, and we’ve gotten weird media requests.

We gathered all of that into a piece. We collected comments we’ve all received plus a professional review that referred to us as the “seven hefty women of Big Moves.” We had our dancers read the comments and the review and recorded them, ending on a positive note with things our audience had said to us that are legitimately good. We mixed sound over it and danced while the recordings played of what people have said. The piece was 14 minutes, and it was the first time we used text in this way. We’ve typically addressed the politics around fatness in our show every year, but this was the first time we really said all these things out loud.

Matilda: The recordings ranged from comments like, “You would dance better if you were thin,” or, “There’s a tiny little dancer trapped inside you,” or, “If you lose 20 pounds, I’ll cast you,” or, “You are so brave.” To some degree, being a fat dancer onstage is inviting the audience to project their feelings about fatness onto you, and there’s a level that we consciously play with that, but sometimes people trap us after a show and work out their feelings one-on-one, like, “I used to be a fat person.” And respectfully, we don’t need to hear people’s diet journeys.

Jessica: After Fat Rorschach, some of our musical theater stuff got more elaborate in terms of scripts and acting. Our musical theater pieces are always rewritten with a fat theme, like Greasier, where there are the “good fats” versus the “bad fats.” Fat Rorschach allowed us to do these longer, more involved pieces.

Matilda: We’ve gotten more nuanced about how we’re talking about fat politics onstage; we’ve tried to create pieces that speak to fat experiences beyond a simple analysis of fatphobia, or the transition from dieting to not dieting. Though we do those too!

Ten dancers face front onstage in various colorful costumes.

Photo by Lisa J. Ellis

You’ve already mentioned several, but what are some ways people talk about fat dancers that carry problematic implications or assumptions?

Matilda: One thing that Jessica and I have talked about over the years is what it feels like to be a fat dancer in a mainstream class. Teachers may or may not feel like you’re worth training and receiving corrections. There’s this experience of being better than the teacher expected, but you still don’t receive the same corrections as other dancers in the class. The first person who really cared to train me was Jessica.

Jessica: That’s why the studio where I trained in San Jose was atypical because the teachers gave me corrections even though it wasn’t the most fat positive place. What happens a lot is that dance teachers don’t have the same expectations from the fat students. Any mistakes that are made or technique that’s not there is blamed on fatness. Some dance movement looks different on fat bodies, which is hard for mainstream dancers and choreographers to understand. Things may look different, but that’s okay.

Matilda: Your first position might look different if your calves touch, for example. You might need a wider first position. And if you need to roll a part of you out of the way to get a deeper stretch, you just do that. There’s a level of matter-of-factness you need to effectively teach fat bodies, but not all teachers have that comfort. The lack of adaptability is an issue. Fat is so stigmatized, and dance spaces have historically been so hostile to fatter bodies, that a non-fat teacher might be reasonably nervous to suggest a modification based on body size. I think that gets very tricky for a thin teacher, whereas we can comfortably talk about it using our own bodies as examples.

Jessica: Another big issue is a lack of access to training. It is so hard to go into a dance studio and take a class if you are different from the majority of people there. This affects folks of color, queer folks, disabled folks, and fat folks. Choreographers and teachers don’t want to admit they have unconscious bias for thin dancers who look and dance a certain way. There’s the assumption that a thin dancer is trainable, but a fat dancer isn’t. Thinner people can be less skilled because they are perceived as having potential, but fat dancers must show up fully realized at the peak of their training to get cast or even considered.

Matilda: There’s also the idea that if we’re dancing this much, our fatness must be a temporary state. It’s difficult for people to wrap their heads around the idea that people can move a lot and remain fat. There’s an assumption that if people do the same dance, then their bodies will look the same, and that is very inaccurate.

Are attitudes toward fat dancers getting better or worse from your perspective?

Jessica: I think attitudes are getting better but they’re not superb. If you look on Instagram and Facebook, yes, there’s more of an acknowledgement of different bodies. What has not changed is the idea of the exception: A lot of folks still view a specific fat dancer as the exception to the rule. On Instagram, a fat dancer is a singular exception, like they’re an exceptional fat person. Groups of fat people don’t get the same traction.

What terminology are you comfortable with?

Matilda: We have moved away from using “body positivity” because that term is now more about non-fat people feeling good about themselves. We say “fat” and “fatty.” Not everybody is comfortable with that. I’m comfortable with whatever someone self-identifies with, but we tend to default to the word “fat.”

Jessica: emFATic DANCE has “fat” in the name for a reason. We might also use “plus size.” We choose the language based on who we’re talking to. But in general, we talk about fat justice, fat liberation, and fat politics. And we never say “overweight” or “obese.”

What are some steps that professional and educational dance institutions can take to make their spaces more welcoming to fat dancers?

Matilda: We need more examining of unconscious bias as it intersects with racism and disability, and really thinking about the ways fat phobia exists based on who is in the room and who is not. Given how most people who live in a bigger body can remember the first time they saw someone who looks like them running or dancing, representation is a huge thing. Fat teachers are a big part of that.

Jessica: Yes, we need fat teachers who are explicitly fat positive, and we need to make sure thin teachers are also explicitly fat positive. That includes ordering costumes that fit everybody in the room. Especially for children, not fitting in a costume can make them feel so excluded.

There needs to be more fat people in the professional world choreographing, curating, and producing through a fat liberation lens that intersects with disability justice, anti-racism, and queer justice. In disability justice, there’s the tenet “nothing about us without us.” Similarly, I do not want to see thin people addressing fatness or fat politics onstage without fat people directly involved as directors, choreographers, and performers. Unfortunately, that’s something we have seen.

What’s next for Big Moves?

Jessica: Stay tuned! emFATic DANCE is hoping to be back in the studio in 2022. A lot of places have returned to in-person but we’re not comfortable yet, though we will be back. We’re not dead despite our social media being out of date. Our last big show was July 2019, and our last Taste for Dance was October 2019. We were supposed to have our Big Moves’ 20th anniversary show in 2020 but could not, so there will eventually be some sort of celebratory season.

13 dancers onstage gracefully reach upward, all wearing blue leotards and black t-shirts

Photo by Lisa J. Ellis

~~

To learn more, visit www.bigmoves.org.

Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS