10 November 2014

SWAGGA: dancing at SPILL

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. We debuted a version of this piece in June 2014. Kay Hyatt is my partner and co-dancer.

Photo by Katarzyna Perlak

We did SWAGGA again. We were selected to perform at SPILL, which is a festival of performance that takes place in Ipswich, a large town in the East of the UK. We spent a four week period preparing for two performances. This entailed meeting to dance, working out practical details, with lots of talking and wondering on top of that. We met at Dance Research Studio in North London, a beautiful space run by Jacky Lansley. Here are some reflections on what that process entailed.

It feels remarkable that we were able to make that space our own during this time. It's a dance studio, with wooden floors, white walls, with evidence of dance culture: a piano, musculoskeletal posters, objects on which you can bash out a rhythm. There is nowhere really to sit, it's a space in which movement takes place. In our breaks we perched on a futon, on a stair, on the piano stool. It's not a weight loss clinic waiting room or a fat activist workshop space, there are no concessions though perhaps there are assumptions. We have worked with getting up and down on the floor and I am somewhat preoccupied with it. Ultimately I do it and am able enough. I see this as part of the work we have been doing, noticing movement, having a go at things, working through trepidation. Together we have made a space where awkward physicality is welcome.

When I think about how Alex and Jamila work with us I can't believe how lucky I am. They are firm and confident as creative workers, they treat us with a lot of respect, they guide and mentor us carefully, they bring their politics and hearts to the work, they are patient and loving. The relationship sometimes feels quite holy and parental, even though I'm twenty years older than them and at least twice their size. I feel as though I am really thriving in their care. It's great when they're full of joy and gleeful, I just want to make them happy if I can.

In one session we watched a video recording of our performance in June. I had been apprehensive about watching it because I knew that I would feel overwhelmed at seeing myself dance and maybe overly critical. Alex and Jamila were gentle and supportive. There was a dissonance in what I saw and how I remembered it feeling. I thought I moved more quickly and with more dynamism. Perhaps this is a feature of being a fat dancer, you feel the interior of your skeleton and muscles moving in a particular way, and your flesh sort of catches up. I don't know, I'm almost loathed to say that because it feels uncomfortably close to an idea of a thin person within, an idea that I reject in favour of a more holistic fat embodiment. Perhaps there are other theories.

Watching myself dance set off a series of reflections about what it is to dance. I realised that I'd assumed that dance is a finite number of movements, that a body with a head, two arms and two legs, hands and feet, can move a lot, but that its actions are ultimately limited and that these limits have been mapped by dancers and choreographers who have come before us. This isn't true. In thinking of dance in this way I'd internalised a load of rubbish about good dance being a knowledge and mastery of those movements. Maybe some of it is, but not the kind I'm doing. When I thought of dance in this way I often felt as though I was not and could never be good enough. I'd continually construct the dancer as someone else, not me. Someone else is younger, thin, fitter, uninjured, flexible, fast, mobile, agile. The Perfect One who shames me. Jamila said that accepting your body and its movements is the work of dancing and I've found this very helpful in allowing my body to move in its own way, and in developing that movement, really inhabiting my own body. Sometimes it can be very hard and frustrating work, other times not so much. The work brings many rewards in the form of self-knowledge, self-compassion, confidence and delight in my own body. I listened to and felt, with pleasure, my internal organs sloshing around and rearranging themselves as I stood up from lying on the floor, for example. I felt like a miracle. I may move in ways that are recognisable to and replicable by others, but what I have is my own.

I was nervous before each practise, but this diminished as time went on and disappeared completely before the performances; I was really ready when the time came. Kay and I talked about how dance has been a consistent encounter with shame. Shame is what we work through in order to dance, and shame is how we experience oppression as fat people, as dykes, as working class women, and so on. Shame is the unsurprising response to a decade-plus of obesity epidemic rhetoric. We understand that our bodies are not suppose to be autonomous, creative, expressive, organisms that contribute positively to the world. Yet here we are. When we dance we are aware of this, we feel it and we do what we can to refuse the idea that dance is not for the likes of us and our allegedly worthless bodies and lives. We are finding out what happens on the other side, the side without shame. It feels pretty amazing to experience shamelessness is all I can say at the moment.

The piece that we performed in June looked sort of similar to the SPILL version, but the feeling behind some of the movement changed, and that gave it a different flavour. People still ask me what it's about and I still struggle to say. It's dance, it's about whatever you want it to be about. It's a performance that invites feeling, it's a spectacle, I have particular feelings when I perform in it too. For example, we've been working with a sensibility of 'motherfuckerliness,' for want of a better term, a swagger. I feel brawny, giant and powerful when I connect physically to this quality. I got big bruises on my arm where I accidentally whipped myself. It feels a long way away from fat representation that is about beauty or being 'just as good as thin people'. I don't want a place at the table, fuck the table. Gender was a lot more relevant to me this time, women are really not supposed to present like this. On the night before the performance Kay and I went out to eat and sat next to a table where three normatively-sized women in their early 30s, one of whom was pregnant, body-policed themselves, each other and pretty much everyone they talked about. It was dreadful, their struggle for normativity so painful to witness. I imagined that we were pitiable objects to these women, I wondered what they would have seen had they come to the performance. I felt that what we are doing with SWAGGA is vital and life-affirming in the face of all this.

It turns out that this is true. Mathilda Gregory was also performing at SPILL She wrote a blog post, The Elephant in the Room, about that and about what it meant to her to see SWAGGA. I remembered shaking my tits at her aggressively during the show, and her excellent response. I found Mathilda's writing hard to read because I was so touched by it. She is right, we are good to look at! Fancy that! It is fucking fabulous to perform, especially to other fat women because we need each other so badly. This is absolutely where I want to be.

SWAGGA continues to be developed. We are looking at a residency in the spring, some public events, and then performances in London over summer 2015. There may be more, we don't know yet, but I will keep writing and reflecting about it here.

No comments: