The petite lady was standing on the sidewalk in front of the theater where I’d just performed, wearing her jacket and holding a drink she almost spilled while agitatedly answering questions for the camera. ’I used to be a dancer’, she said, ‘so I was always fit, and I was proud of my body. I was flexible, I could do the splits, I didn’t even think about it. Then I had kids and no matter what I tried, my body never came back to what it was before.’ She raised her mascara-covered lashes at the camera, and her eyes filled with emotion as she continued her story. ‘When I lost my body, I also stopped dancing. You see, as a professional dancer, everyone around you has the same body type, so I just didn’t think I could dance with a bigger body but I miss it all so much. I used to love dancing!’ She looked down, lost in her thoughts. The interviewer probed her ‘How did it feel for you, seeing Bustie on stage tonight?’ ‘It made me realise that I can dance no matter what my body looks like. It made me sad for all the years I wasted, not dancing because I didn’t have the ‘right’ body for it’ and with these words the tears started pouring out of her and the interviewer stopped recording as they moved to comfort her.
I was sitting on my couch, a documentary team filming my reaction to watching this video, taken after one of my shows in Amsterdam. All I felt was anger.
I had been so proud to present my intimate act about victim blaming. After several intense experiences, I had decided to create an act to channel my feelings. I had spent 2 years working on the concept, the symbolism, the emotions. I’d listened to hundreds of songs before finding Til it happens to you by Lady Gaga. I’d spent months in the dance studio, rehearsing every move so it would be so engrained in my body. I’d taken workshops at the Amsterdam School of Burlesque to get their creative feedback on the act. I’d discussed my makeup with a make-up artist, practiced my hair style, found the perfect neutral nail polish. I’d bought three pairs of nude underwear, three sparkly dresses, two pairs of shoes, some gloves and hair accessories, testing different combination of these pieces until I found the one that allowed me to tell the story best. As I wanted to include veil dancing, I’d practiced with three types of veils, settling for an extra light silk one commissioned especially from California. In ten years of career, I’d never been as proud of a creation. And yet after all this, the only message that this audience member received was - fat people can dance.
So yes, I was angry. ‘Can’t people look beyond body size and see the art that I created?’ I thought. ‘Will the quality or meaning of my art never matter as long as it’s my own plus size body delivering it? Why do I even bother trying to have a message, if the only take out is ‘fat people can dance’?’ I felt defeated, hurt, insulted. A feeling I share many of my stage colleagues with non-conforming bodies recognize, similar to when audience members tell us we are ‘so brave’.
‘So brave’ could be a compliment, until you notice that traditionally pretty performers rarely get this particular compliment. I could duet with a petite, slim, young performer, both of us wearing the same costume and doing the same choreography, and they would be called ‘beautiful’ while I’d get told that I’m ‘brave’. Why the double standard? Well you guessed it, I blame the patriarchy.
We’re so used to seeing one standard of beauty everywhere that our eye easily accepts it, allowing us to look beyond the body of the performer to the message of their act and the work they put in it. When a body of a different size, color or shape appears on stage, our brain seems to short circuit and stay hung up on the fact that someone different is now in the spotlight and we don’t know what to do with this information. That’s similar to why journalists continue to focus on female politician’s outfits instead of their policies. They just don’t know what to do with this different politician body. Short-circuit. It’s infuriating. It’s everywhere. And it’s something we can all work on.
As I was expressing this jumble of thoughts to my interviewers, I realised that taking the stage is one of the ways I contribute to the collective reprogramming of our brains to accept all bodies. I realised that the woman who only saw me as a fat dancer was projecting the years she spent hating her own body, and that thanks to me, she might consider dancing again. I remembered that I also had to learn to love my body despite all the messages telling me to hate it. I understood that, while I can decide what art I put out into the world, everyone will interpret it from their own reality.
I’m lucky to be part of a body-positive community where talent matters more than body shape. I hope one day the rest of society catches up and is no longer surprised to see atypical bodies in the spotlight. Until then, I will continue to showcase that fat people can indeed dance and that the real bravery is getting your mind rid of patriarchal standards of beauty. You can do it too if you try!