Is this really ballet? I asked myself after watching video clips of the Cuban dance company Danza Voluminosa (Voluminous Dance) most of whose dancers range in age from 23 to 41and all of them weigh more than 200 pounds. This group was formed in 1996 by Juan Miguel Mas, now its' director and choreographer. He says he is redefining the aesthetics of beauty and raising the awareness of heavy set people. "Although we are obese and dance, we are against obesity. We are always trying to lose weight" said Mr Ma who himself weighs 300 pounds. This statement has caused outrage in certain obese quarters who claim that the statement is self deprecating. To me that is not the case. Surely it's possible to be self-confident and enjoy the beauty of ones very large body while still realizing that healthwise it might be better to lose weight.
What I am about to write is not a criticism of Danza Voluminose or any other company with greatly overweight dancers.The number of such groups is growing.
Another dance troupe Big Dance was founded in 1993 in Victoria, BC, Canada with 10 large dancers and the choreographer Lynda Raino.They were well received by audiences but now the number of dancers is declining. Raino has spotted many large women in her area but few in their 20's and 30's who are willing to dance. She says "That's a shame because young women will have decades to enjoy the art form. By about age 50 women are more comfortable in their bodies, and would more readily come out to a class, but they are starting to stiffen up. Knees start to go, as do backs and hips. People should start young, especially if they want to perform."
Helen Rezanowich is program assistant in women's studies at the Univeristy of Victoria. "I tried going to a big dance class but it was all too much in my face. I was not ready to look at it, at that point. Even watching teeny tiny women leaving the class before mine was hard. And the dance room is lined with mirrors. I didn't want to admit I was that big. Now I'm 51 and much more comfortable with my body size."
The Big Ballet was founded in 1994 by the choreographer Evgeny Panfilov. The company's aim is to change the conception of large dancers grace and agility. He also wanted to prove that untrained beginners could reach professional standards.
The lower weight threshold has been raised to over 238 pounds. Any dancer falling below this weight is offered the opportunity to regain the extra pounds with the advice of a nutritionist. If they do not want to do this they must give up their place to another larger dancer."They must be eating and eating and eating " said Natalia Liensky the companies director.The troupe consists of sixteen large women aged between 19 and 28 who have not undergone professional dance training and six regular-sized male dancers. They all have day jobs and include doctors, nurses and engineers.The dancers perform in tutus and on point and do pirouttes and plies. The dancers can even manage to do the splits. In some performances female dancers are lifted by male dancers - although it takes four men to get one woman into the air.
In an unusual move the Russian government of Vladamir Putin demanded that the Bolshoi Ballet re-instate a dancer dismissed for allegedly being too heavy and hard for a partner to lift
Marina Wolf Ahmad is the director and founder of Big Moves one of the few organisations in the world dedicated to getting all body types into dance classes and onto the stage. Marina states "There's a need to offer healing, supportive space for these women to get back into dance, and there's a need to start working toward supportive youth programs that train the dance teachers to be accepting of all sizes that come through their classes - right now, dance is not psychologically accessible to most people. Big Moves will take all shapes, all sizes as long as you come to rehearsals, get better and are really dedicated to dancing. Not just fat people - all sizes". Big Move companies have been set up in many parts of the US.
I truly believe that everyone should dance but I do have a problem with obese dancers performing classical ballet. This is a form of dance where it is well near impossible for a woman who takes up this dance form in adulthood to excel. They are unlikely to be able to manage the challenges of technique. While both dancers and audience may enjoy humorous interpretations of classical ballets this is not enough. They need to have the same level of technique as any other performer. In addition ballet as a style is about defying gravity with lightness and ease.
All dance looks best when the choreography, music, the costuming and most importantly the dancers physique complement each other. Obese women look especially beautiful when performing dances such as those from the Middle East and some forms of African dance for example. In these styles extra large hips and breasts emphasize the earth connection of the dance and its feel for fertility and life as a whole. A skinny woman doing "belly dancing" does not show the dance off to its' best advantage. I well remember a Middle Eastern dance workshop attended by one obese young woman. She moved with a grace and expressiveness which was accentuated by her ample curves. She outshone us all.
An ever larger proportion of the population is aware of the health hazards of obesity which is rapidly increasing in many parts of the world. Obesity is defined as being 20% or more of your ideal weight.Childhood obesity is a major cause of abnormal growth acceleration. Girls who are obese often start menstruating early and go through the menopause early. This problem in boys can lead to both early and delayed puberty. Gynecomastia (excessive development of the male breasts) is another common problem.
In adulthood obesity is a root cause of a number of forms of ill health such as heart disease, stoke, diabetes mellitus, gallbladder disease, high blood pressure and cancer. Gout and in women reproductive abnormalities are common, as is osteoarthritis of the knees and spine in both sexes. Every extra pound which a person gains puts four times the stress on their knees.
What is quite clear is that most of these groups of extremely overweight dancers practise discrimination. A dancer looses weight and he or she is out of the troupe in the same way as in some companies a dancer who is putting on weight is asked to leave - both represent extreme views.
It clearly is not helping dancers healthwise to encourage them to put on weight again after they have lost weight through experiencing the health giving effects of dance.The human body clearly was not designed to carry large amounts of excess weight for a lifetime and remain healthy.
Just as the anorexic image is an unhealthy one leading to physical and psychological problems so is that of massively overweight dancers. There needs to be a happy medium. I am utterly delighted that overweight dancers are proving that they can be agile, graceful, sensitive and aesthetically pleasing performers who give their audiences great pleasure.In many cases dance has brought feelings of self-worth and confidence to those who formerly lacked these qualities.
I am in total agreement with Marina Wolf Ahmad whose aim is to make dance all inclusive and everyone dances together.I have not had the pleasure of seeing any of the aforementioned groups perform live. For this reason it would be wrong for me to make any comments regarding the repertoire ot technique of any of the companies. All my remarks have been of a general nature and not specifically aimed at any company in particular. Let us always allow dance to help us to transform peoples' attitudes and beliefs!
I implore obese dancers who are losing weight to forego dancing with the company, but to continue dancing classes and losing weight. This is the path to long term health and fitness. Does anyone know of obese people who have reached a Ripe Old Age?
Dzagbe Cudjoe is a Dance Movement Therapist and ethnologist with wide experience of Dance in Africa and Europe. As an ethnologist her main field of research was into West African traditional religion. As a Dance Movement Therapist her area of specialization is working with children who have challenging behaviour or severe physical and intellectual Special Needs. Dzagbe is now working on helping the parents of such children to appreciate the healing effects of dance. She is the author of the e-manual "Dance to Health - Help Your Special Needs Child Through Inspirational Dance."available at For more Information visit Dance to Health