06 June 2014

SWAGGA: unassimilated fatness

This post is part of an on-going series about the experience of becoming a dancer who is also fat, old and becoming disabled. Project O is the umbrella organisation, owned by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, who are choreographing and directing us. SWAGGA is the name of the piece we are developing together. Kay Hyatt is my partner and co-dancer.

Last rehearsal, Alex took this picture
We perform tomorrow and every now and again I think of myself as a cartoon with a giant exclamation point in the thought bubble above my head. I am nervous and excited. I can't wait to show what we have to people. I feel really privileged to be opening the show for Benz Punany. To be part of the world of Project O is a dream come true.

On Monday we did a test run in front of three friends and the response was very positive. Alex videoed the session and we watched it yesterday. This is the first time I have seen myself dancing and it is quite hard to articulate what this means to me.

The fact that I can watch myself dancing strikes me as significant; I felt some panic rising, but I was able to talk myself down and I understand my ability to do this this as a product of years of work. Seeing myself was useful in terms of thinking of what I need to do in the piece, where the movement might need to go. Kay and I noticed that the feelings we had whilst dancing and watching were pretty aligned – what we see is how we experience the dance – and this feels encouraging.

A big part of watching was seeing that I am really very fat! There are others who are fatter, but I have plenty of fat of my own. I like how other fat people look and I know that I look like them, but I don't have much of a sense of how I actually look, even though I don't shy away from photos or mirrors. It's bizarre that being really very fat should be a revelation at this stage in my life, but there it is. I think of my fatness in the video and in the dance as unassimilated. The dance is not pretty and my fatness is not contained, respectable, veiled, hinted at, flattered, cordoned off or made nice, it is undeniably there. I'm often plodding, huffing, red-faced, sagging, stiff, awkward. When I look at my fatness I also see class, gender, disability, age, marginalisation. I am presenting my unassimilated fat body for an audience to look at and have whatever response they're going to have and I will probably learn something from this. It's a different kind of selfie.

What is a dancer supposed to be like?
My surprise at my own fatness touches an internalised self-hatred that is very deep, a basic part of my identity as a fat person which threads in and out of my life. It is this: how can anyone bear me? I am under no illusion about the extent to which fat people are profoundly hated in 21st century western cultures. I also know that I am a worthwhile person, a success in some spheres, I know that I am loved. Here I am, monstrously fat. How can anyone even look at me, let alone treat me as human, or as a dancer, as a person who deserves respect? I am forced to deal with a load of fatphobic shit daily, but I'm puzzled about why I don't get more of it.

Perhaps I'm protected in spite of being very fat because of the work that I and many others have done. We have started the difficult task of making a world for ourselves. That people don't run away when they see me could be down to their indifference about fat, maybe it doesn’t really matter, or people can cope with more than I think. My whiteness and education protects me from quite a bit of crap. Perhaps most people keep their fatphobic thoughts to themselves and it's only occasionally that it crosses over into action. Sadly/luckily I'm not a mind reader.

As I watched myself dancing on a screen I wasn't sure what I might do with this 'self-seeing'. We had a break afterwards and Kay and I went to the supermarket to get a snack. I tried to embody that monstrously fat self that I saw onscreen as an experiment in the supermarket, to see what people would do around me, and how I might feel. Nobody screamed or ran, nobody noticed, but inside I felt big, powerful, able to walk without feeling that I should be less of me. It was funny to notice this feeling. I was a monster buying a box of falafel. I thought about all the other monsters in the world, doing their thing.

Rehearsing at Rich Mix
One of the themes that has emerged through SWAGGA is about being appalling. I often appal people because I don't behave in the ways they have circumscribed for me; what they can imagine for me is not expansive. My sense of monstrousness is likely to stir up some of those feelings and responses in people. I feel ambivalent about this, I gotta be me but not everyone can handle that. I love being powerful, it's exciting to play with unassimilated monstrous fatness, and I'm also wondering about how I might use that power as I move through the world.

All this makes me feel even more certain that what we are doing with SWAGGA, and the Project O Goes Large double bill with Benz Punany, is very powerful. It is sophisticated and beautiful, it presents many intersections, multiple layers, with space for lots of different interpretations. The four of us are very daring in working with our differences and we have been so richly rewarded because of these leaps and because we are already strong in who we are. This convinces me even more that mixing things up is the way to go and that, where identity is concerned, I have little desire to pursue cultural work or activism that is rooted in purity, safe space, monoculture or fear.

Fat and dancing and life and everything
SWAGGA has begun
SWAGGA: fat dancing, bodies, watching and shame
SWAGGA opening night happened!

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