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Broadening the Stage

Connecting with dance audiences through body diversity, representation and inclusivity By Cristina Matteis
  • Belle Jumelles / Photo by Ruth Gillson Photography
  • Neely Carbone, Susan Ritchings, Trudy Norman and Terryl Atkins of Big Dances in The Four Graces (2004) by Denise Lieutaghi / Photo by Lynda Raino
  • Andrea Downie with her students

“Representation matters,” says Jill Andrew, body image activist and founder of Body Confidence Canada, an organization that advocates for greater body diversity in media and public policies.

“It matters who we see,” says Andrew. “And when we see diverse bodies, when we see big girls dancing or fat girls doing ballet, when we see people who are in wheelchairs doing interpretive dance, this says to us, this says to that person at home, ‘Oh, maybe I can do this too.’ And the moment you’re able to connect with someone through an image, the moment you’re able to connect with someone who’s doing something you may want for yourself, it becomes that much more possible.”

Yet, pervasive conceptions about which bodies are considered beautiful, professionally acceptable, healthy or athletic continue to restrict how individuals seek self-expression through the art of dance. By limiting the inclusion of diverse bodies on the stage, we threaten our ability to connect with and inspire an audience that is composed of unique individuals with a multiplicity of lived experiences.

Last fall, Andrew and Body Confidence Canada publicly addressed their concerns over the images projected in a joint promotional campaign between the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and the National Ballet of Canada (NBoC). The campaign, entitled “We Move You,” featured videos and promotional images of NBoC dancers posing and dancing in subway stations, on streetcars and in buses.

Andrew commented that the TTC, as a publicly funded institution, could have used “We Move You” as an opportunity to create a more inclusive campaign that, first, offered a less singular understanding of “enhanced beauty and art,” as stated in the campaign’s press release, and, second, better portrayed the individuals who use the TTC’s services on a daily basis. To this end, Andrew suggested a more community-based approach, which might, for example, present both National Ballet dancers and other TTC users moving and dancing – a better representation of Toronto’s diversity.

While Andrew’s critique was not an attack on the dancers themselves but on the aesthetic, cultural, racial and ableist hierarchies upheld by the campaign, her public statements regarding the campaign received numerous negative responses.

“Because of our critique, we got a lot of racist, sexist and fat-phobic insults, including messages encouraging me to die. I was called fat and even received death threats. I was called all kinds of words that, ironically, proved why body diversity and discrimination based on size and physical appearance is so important to talk about. The fact that some people weren’t paying attention to what our actual critique said, but instead immediately jumping to defend the institution of ballet, demonstrates to me how insignificant, sadly, body diversity and representation politics are to some people,” Andrew concludes.

As a society, we tend to regard thin and flexible or lean and muscular bodies as standard images of health and athleticism. The concepts of fat and fit are often considered mutually exclusive.

This limited perception of health and fitness is deeply ingrained in our social fabric. Research by fat studies scholar and historian Jenny Ellison reveals that fat activism in Canada has a long and diverse history, suggesting that fat shaming has been a part of our social history longer than we might think. While fat bodies have long been degraded and “othered,” the reasons why people have justified this marginalization of larger bodies has changed over time.

According to Ellison, “Fat is a moving target: it’s something people don’t like, but the reasons why they don’t like it changes over time. Right now, people say they don’t like fat bodies because they don’t think they are healthy.”

 

Body size is an inaccurate representation of overall health, which is complex and unique for each individual. For this reason, many body size activists point to the model of health at every size as a more effective perspective on the complicated relationship between health and body size.

Keeping dancers safe and healthy is the primary objective of Healthy Dancer Canada, a member organization composed of dancers, dance educators, health professionals and researchers dedicated to understanding dancer health and wellness in Canada. At this time, Healthy Dancer Canada does not offer any specific resources or research reviews that would suggest a dancer of a certain weight or BMI is at a greater risk of injury. Instead Healthy Dancer Canada encourages each dancer’s safety to be addressed on an individual basis.

According to Healthy Dancer Canada (HDC) President Andrea Downie, dance medicine and science is still relatively young and remains a great deal behind the sport sciences. To assist in ensuring the health and well-being of all dancers, regardless of body size and shape, HDC offers the Pre-Professional Dance Screening, a confidential questionnaire that dance teachers may provide to their students. According to Downie, the Pre-Professional Dance Screening is designed to flag health issues before they become serious problems.

As a dance educator, choreographer and kinesiology instructor herself, Downie makes a point of looking at how each student and performer is feeling on a personalized basis.

“If anyone is having trouble getting up or down off the floor because their knees hurt, then we need to accommodate that. But it’s not a body size thing; it’s more about recognizing if someone is experiencing pain. We accommodate the dancer as an individual.”

Downie also recognizes the importance of body diversity in our ability to authentically connect with our audience. “The more diversity we have in terms of artists, the more people feel that their stories are reflected back to them,” she says. “I think that’s one of the roles of the art, to turn a mirror back on the world and ask us to consider ourselves. In order to do that well, it suggests that we need an equal diversity on the stage that there would be in the audience.”

Victoria-based dance artist Lynda Raino is invested in creating teaching spaces and performance opportunities that have meaning for diverse audiences and participants. Founder of Lynda Raino Dance (now Raino Dance), an esteemed performer, choreographer and recipient of both the Women of Distinction Award for Arts & Culture (1997) and the Dance Victoria Lifetime Achievement Award (2010), Raino was never one to follow the traditional rules of dance. Though she only began dancing at the age of eighteen, she landed her first professional role within six months of committing to intensive dance training.

At 5’4”, with what she describes as wide hips, flat feet and bowed legs, Raino’s body was often put under scrutiny by teachers, choreographers and producers who told her that she didn’t fit the desired look.

“It became clear to me that I needed to become a soloist if I was going to be able to express myself in dance without the dance world’s critique of the perfect body,” she says.

As a soloist, Raino’s work told the story of the human condition. “I’ve always told literal stories in dance,” she says, “and more of those stories have been about the conditions of women as mothers, the folly of parenthood, of love lost, of grief, of women’s lives. Audiences found my work really accessible. They could relate to the subject matter and then, when they wanted to dance, they wanted to dance in that way, with things that made sense and that they had witnessed in their own lives, rather than the abstractness of a dance form that wasn’t accessible.”

Raino’s performance style attracted adults who wanted to learn to express themselves through dance, but who felt that there wasn’t a space for them to do so comfortably. This interest, coupled with her natural ability to effectively teach beginners, led to the success of her school. “It is a very serious centre for studying dance,” says Raino, “but with the caveat that the students are not trying to become professionals. Therefore, it accommodates every adult body, injury, limitation and schedule. And I think that’s the uniqueness of the studio.”

In 1993, Lynda Raino Dance became home to Big Dance – a groundbreaking dance class, later turned performance group, first developed by Raino as a safe and comfortable space exclusively for larger women.

When the first group of Big Dance students performed in the studio’s student concert, the audience reception was overwhelming. “It surprised even me,” Raino recalls. “Audience members told us that watching a fat person dance was so liberating. It made anyone who was marginalized anywhere in their lives, or anyone that had whatever demons that were holding them back, it made them look at that and say, ‘If these women can get onstage with their big fat bodies, then what is holding me back in my own life?’ ”

Following the showing, Raino and her Big Dancers made it their mission to perform as much as possible, in order to spread the message of self-acceptance and liberation to eager audiences. Within their first year of performing, the Big Dance troupe performed in the World Dance Alliance summit, held that year in Vancouver. The mainstream media took notice of the group, and by 2001, Big Dance was featured in major news outlets in Canada, including the CBC’s news program The National, and in the United States, Israel and Italy.

Since the early 2000s, burlesque has become another important site for the acceptance of body size diversity. Toronto-based burlesque performer, teacher and producer Belle Jumelles is currently making powerful statements regarding larger bodies and their potential for creating impactful works of art. When Jumelles is onstage performing, her large body acts as a political statement, a visual contrast to the size of bodies usually seen on an artistic stage. According to her, audiences feel empowered by the joy and self-confidence that radiate from her performances.

“I receive a lot of responses from audiences telling me that the acts I do impact them in positive ways,” says Jumelles. “I’ve heard everything from, ‘Seeing you perform makes me want to eat a cheeseburger,’ to ‘That act you just did erased twenty-eight years of body shaming issues for me – you’ve changed my life.’ I think I get these comments because people watch me as a larger girl performing and they see that I am capable of feeling joy. It’s powerful when audience members can connect with who they see on the stage.”

 

By opening dialogue about the boundaries that surround the bodies and identities presented onstage in dance performances, Jumelles encourages audience members to explore the art of burlesque in their own way.

Jumelles has witnessed a growth in the popularity of burlesque in the past two decades and particularly, she says, within the last five years. She believes this interest is related to a growth in both the number of venues that host burlesque performances as well as the greater number of active performers within the burlesque community.

“There’s a lot of burlesque happening,” Jumelles notes. “You can catch a burlesque show in Toronto practically every night of the week, if you know where to look. There are several burlesque performers who are now taking on the role of teacher because of this growth in interest.”

Unlike many Toronto-based burlesque teachers, Jumelles does not have a background in traditional forms of dance, but rather in theatre and the performing arts. As a result, she wanted to create a learning space that was less burdened by the cultural expectations of studio dance classes.

 “I wasn’t seeing a space that would be comfortable for all bodies and all genders,” she says. “I was getting pushed by several people that really wanted to learn burlesque but didn’t feel like the other avenues available were the right way for them to go,” she says.

Jumelles responded by developing her own version of Burlesque 101, a seven-week, two-hour per week class, purposefully inclusive of all shapes, sizes and identities, open to any student with the desire to explore the art.

“I’ve created a space that allows you to be you, in whatever way that looks like,” she explains. “When people say, ‘I really want to take your class but I don’t want to wear heels,’ I tell them, you don’t have to wear heels! All of that stuff that’s been created in some form of elitism that consumerism brings, that is what I’m trying to blow up in people’s brains.”

The success of Jumelles’ Burlesque 101 class spawned a Burlesque 102 class that is more performance focused. To spotlight the success of Belle’s Babes, as she calls them, she produced a showcase that invited thirteen students to perform in front of their first paid audience. The showcase included a wide diversity of performers, with four acts that included artists who were gender nonconforming.

“When the show was over, I was approached by at least five masculine-identified people who wanted to take class with me,” Jumelles recalls. “I’m happy to know that there are people watching and realizing that they are now getting to be represented.”

Jumelles continues to use her position within the burlesque community to create more space for greater diversity.

“These days, when I’m producing, it’s a matter of, ‘Am I representing as many communities as possible and making it relatable to as many people as possible?’ I think it’s fair for people to want to see something that is recognizable to them.”

While classical forms of dance have remained more rigid in their expectations of the dancer’s body, the performance arts and theatre productions can offer more opportunities for diversity on the stage.

Like so many of Belle Jumelles students, as a young adult, Émilie Poirier, an arts administrator with a bachelor’s degree in dance from the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM), felt that most dance programs lacked diversity and inclusivity. Instead, she found more acceptance in the theatre community.

“When you walk on the street, all the people you see are very different, and if you go to the theatre, I feel that this same diversity is reflected,” says Poirier. “But as an audience member watching dance performances, I had the impression that dance was like a machine because all the bodies on the stage were the same. If all you see is a specific body shape onstage dancing, it makes the art form harder to connect with. It makes it harder for the audience to touch the humanity that is trying to be expressed,” she says.

Despite these concerns, Poirier decided to study dance at the university level. While at UQÀM, Poirier felt like an oddity in her larger body. This experience of exclusion based on the size and shape of her body empowered Poirier to artistically explore preconceived notions and widely accepted clichés of dance, such as the idea of the “ballerina.” Poirier partnered with fellow UQÀM student Pascal Desparois in the creation of Les gros, a work that featured Poirier and Desparois’s nonconforming bodies dancing naked, in a small tutus, in order to draw attention to the experiences of large bodied individuals both in dance as well as in the society at large.

“I made that performance” says Poirier, “because as a student, while I did have one teacher who saw me as an opportunity to change the stereotypes about what a dancer should look like, generally, I had the impression that most of my teachers saw me as an alien. I felt this way throughout my university courses and I wanted to explore this experience and what it meant.”

Poirier and Desparois presented Les gros in the Corps Atypik series, presented by Tangente in Montréal in 2011, a series that explored the diversity of bodies onstage. The image of Poirier and Desparois naked in tutus and the deeper meaning of their work garnered the attention of audiences and the media. Both Poirier and Desparois were featured on a popular French-Canadian talk show, Tout le monde en parle, to discuss their production and their desire to put an end to rigid conceptions of dancers and their bodies.

Poirier’s work with Les gros had lasting impacts on UQÀM’s dance department. Since her graduation from the program in 2012, the university has made permanent changes to program entrance requirements with regards to the size and shape of incoming dance students. As a result, greater diversity and inclusivity is making its way into UQÀM’s dance program, creating the chance for continued debates to traditional conceptions of which bodies are acceptable on the dance stage.

 

In order to combat the stigmas surrounding fat bodies, Ellison suggests that we begin to take responsibility for our role in the perpetuation of fat shaming and diet culture. “One important thing we can do as citizens in our culture is not to tolerate diet talk or negative talk about body size,” she says. “Based on their body size, we don’t know how much someone eats or how much they exercise. We have to stop tolerating that.”

For several of these women, Andrew, Raino and Poirier, their dance practice or their activism garnered significant interest from the popular media. This fascination with large bodies in public could point to several trends, according to Ellison. While visibility has been an important part of fat activism, in which performance artists and activists insist on the right of fat bodies being part of the social and political world, there is a parallel but opposing trend that sees fat bodies as spectacular or carnivalesque, fascinating in their divergence from expectations while establishing them as outside the frame of normal activities. Additionally, says Ellison, the current cultural moment is one that favours body positivity, a narrative that defines individuals who celebrate bodies that culture has denigrated in the past as brave. “The fact that someone can be seen as brave,” says Ellison, “just for existing and putting themselves out there says a lot about attitudes toward bodies in contemporary culture.”

“We need representations that give fat men and women personhood and vulnerability. They don’t just need to be confined to happy or tragic roles; they need to be seen exploring diverse human emotions. This is something that has been absent in our representation of larger bodies, and I think dance is a great vehicle for exploring this,” Ellison suggests.

As Poirier, Jumelles, Raino and the Big Dance troupe illustrate, are large bodies not only more than capable of performing on the dance stage but also of offering the opportunity to connect with different audiences in different ways.

It is our individual responsibility to make space for greater diversity when it comes to our perceptions of body size, shape, age, sexual identity and ethnicity. By closing the gap between dancer and audience member, we invite more people to share their experiences. In doing so, we open a dialogue about beauty and the capabilities of diverse bodies.

 “While watching my performance,” says Jumelles, “if you think to yourself, ‘She looks happy, she looks empowered, she looks confident, she looks comfortable,’ you might start to think, ‘Well, maybe I can do that!’ whether that connection is related to a specific part of your body or to your story. That is the message I hope to send: ‘Yes, you can do that!’ Maybe your ‘do that’ doesn’t look like mine, but at least the more we show people feeling good in their bodies, the more we can empower others to feel good in their bodies too.”

Learn more >> Sign the #SizeismSUCKS! Petition on change.org, sponsored by Jill Andrew and Body Confidence Canada. 

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Les idées reçues sur la beauté, l’apparence professionnelle, la santé et l’athlétisme de certains corps font encore obstacle à l’expression dansée de nombreuses personnes. L’article ci-dessus se penche sur la diversité des corps – son importance et l’expérience de différentes personnes – avec des activistes, des experts et des artistes de danse, y compris la performeuse burlesque Belle Jumelles, l’artiste de danse contemporaine Lynda Raino, et la danseuse et travailleuse culturelle Émilie Poirier. L’auteure explore les gains possibles dans l’éclatement de nos attentes esthétiques ainsi que les tendances culturelles qui étouffent les discussions sur le sujet. Pour les artistes interviewés, voir sur scène des corps et des histoires qui reflètent la réalité suscite des réactions fortes et positives. Une gamme plus large d’expériences et une place pour la diversité physique sur les plateaux peuvent à la fois élargir le public de la danse et approfondir les liens avec les spectateurs.

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