19 May 2014

SWAGGA: fat dancing, bodies, watching and shame

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.

Jamila made a trailer full of whip cracks, strange rooms, wigs, deranged delights. I love it!

Project O Goes Large trailer from Project O.

Ha! I can't believe that's us!

It's hard to put this project into words. I suspect it will take me a long time to process what is happening. Mostly it feels pleasurably overwhelming and preoccupying. It's opening channels that I couldn't have imagined before, not in a traumatic way, but by helping to put pieces of the puzzle of body, identity and marginalisation together. Here are some notes from the story so far.


My body has held up, mostly. This was a big concern before we started. I get tired, but it is ok. Sometimes I ache afterwards, but not as much as I thought I might. When I am a physical being, I realise that I have internalised so much rubbish about what a fat person is or can be. This is: a medicalised body in need of immediate, terrible, invasive interventions; someone who could die at any minute from a heart attack or seizure of some kind; a passive blob; a body on the edge; a wrong body; an assemblage of pathologies; a profoundly fragile body. It is about a pernicious fear that has been engendered through fatphobic discourse, which I see in many fat people.

What I'm finding out, at 45 years old, is that I just have a body and that it is good at some things, average at many things and not so good at other things. The reality of my body as I experience it when dancing is that it is unusual in some ways, but also really ordinary. I sweat and I get fatigued. The other thing is how closely it is connected to my ideas, experiences, how subtly it picks up on surroundings, how sensitive and reflective it is, how expressive. This is immensely reassuring and helps me look at and inhabit my body with equanimity and, often, delight. My body is me, I'm not a disembodied floating pair of eyeballs after all.

I am grateful to Alex and Jamila for inviting Kay and I into a space where this stuff can be explored as part of a broader creative process. It feels like an incredibly lucky break but saying that erases who we are and how we found each other. When I think about it, it's more a story of feminism, generosity, anti-racism, openness, hope, reaching-out, trying something new, courage, work, persistence, listening, mutual delight. These qualities have not sprung from nothing, they're a part of us and how we are in the world, they inform the dynamics with which we work.

What are we doing?

At the beginning of this I thought I knew what dancing was but now I'm not so sure. I thought it was about steps, rhythm, virtuosity, craftsmanship(sic), an ideal body of some kind. Last week I went to a symposium for Dad Dancing. This is a piece of work convened by Alex, Rosie Heafford and Helena Webb, a multi-layered project that creates dance works with fathers and their children. To me, it develops exciting ideas around dance and amateurishness, and offers a feminist re-reading of power in the family. Alex said that Dad Dancing came about as a result of conversations between the three of them in breaks whilst they were training, talking about how their Dads related and responded to their work. She said that dance training is all about the body, but there's little space for talking about Dads, which I took to mean the dancer's social context.

This reminds me that Jamila and Alex both reassured us at the very start that they think Kay and I are great. This gave me permission not to worry too much about what I brought. I interpret this now as something like: "our dancing is about bringing your socially embedded self to the floor to show what you have through movement that may or may not relate to music or rhythm or steps. You are compelling to watch as you are, virtuoso or not." Today at practise Jamila said that emotion and intention is also an important motivation for the movement. We are improvising scores, where certain things happen at certain times, but there is a general looseness to the thing. All of this makes me feel very free and in my element, not like I'm having to conform to a weird idea of 'dancer' (in my mind: flexible, doing ballet moves or tap, wearing some kind of floaty thing over a unitard).


We talk about watching. Kay and I are being watched closely much of the time, other times Jamila and Alex are doing other work and we work without their gaze. We are aware that we are making a performance for a public audience. Kay and I have witnessed and heard stories about a racialising that goes on when Alex and Jamila perform, which is in turns frustrating, enraging, silencing. We are aware that people who watch us might not know what to do or say about us, in a related but different way that is to do with fat. I have a body that is both socially visible and invisible and doing a dance performance is, for me, about inviting people to watch my body. Yeah, get an eyeful! This is on my terms, as much as it can ever be. Nevertheless, this is a risky thing to do and we expect to hear a lot of crap amidst the good stuff.

Alex asked us how we thought people would take it and I said: "I think they will be delighted". I said this because I know there is a desperate hunger for something else, especially where fat or otherness is concerned. By something else I mean alternative kinds of representation, other possibilities, dreaming, hope. Obesity discourse feels suffocating and people want to breathe and live. I see SWAGGA as oxygen. This is something that can happen, and if this can exist then something else can happen too.


Shame has burned me a couple of times, usually when we are copying moves or images by and of people with athletic or 'poetically thin' bodies. I have spent many years struggling to feel good enough and one of my strategies is to reserve judgment when I look at different kinds of bodies, to allow all bodies to inhabit their own space. Copying a dance on video, or a painting that involves 'better' bodies, pushes my buttons! I get panicked, "My body can't do that!" I feel inadequate and I shut down and feel cross with the world.

When this happened, Jamila gently talked about how I might make my own translation of the video or image, whilst trying as hard as I can to replicate it. I couldn't take that in at the time because I was trying to manage my shame, but a shift happened when I saw her and Alex perform Benz Punany a couple of weeks ago. In part of this piece they danced along to pop videos. They struggled too, and they're Proper Professional Dancers with Dancer Bodies and Dance Training. I realised that the struggle is the thing. It is impossible to keep up, but what is captivating is being able to watch the struggle as it collides with the fantasy portrayed in the video.

This experience has made me think a lot about Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue's series of crocheted banners about their relationship to the art world, Can't/Won't. I think of this as: you don't have to grease the cogs of the sausage machine of the art world or, I now understand, the dance world either. You can make your own translation, or at least aim for that. It can have rough edges or incorporate values that are anathema to the machine. This is something that is part of my own background in DIY cultural work too. The slogans tell the story: WE CAN’T COMPETE, WE WON’T COMPETE, WE CAN’T KEEP UP, WE WON’T KEEP DOWN.

More soon...

05 May 2014

SWAGGA has begun

photo by Katarzyna Perlak

SWAGGA is now underway. Alex and Jamila and Kay and I have met and we have danced. It is happening. Katarzyna Perlak has taken some photographs of us. Tickets for our first performance are available on the Rich Mix site, buy some and tell your friends. It is real. (By the way, Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small are talking about their work this week in Benz Punany: A Lecture. Please come along if you are in London, it's free).

This is what happens: we take off our shoes and warm up. Sometimes this is stretching, sometimes arsing around, sometimes shaking, sometimes a mixture. I'm not really sure what being warmed up should feel like, so sometimes I go through the motions, eventually I start to feel warm, maybe that's what it's about! Alex, usually, sets some parameters for movement, for example showing some pictures, picking evocative words, interacting with an object, using certain kinds of movement in particular spaces. We will have a go at this and see what happens, improvising all the time. Some bits will be stronger than others and we pick the best bits and develop them further. We'll do this a few times. Eventually we find ourselves with a sequence of moves that has a beginning, middle and end, and that makes sense to us. Often these include what Alex calls 'the spaces inbetween' where we are real, maybe showing tiredness. Sometimes there's music but not always. That's kind of it.

People have been asking me what SWAGGA is about and I find it hard to say because when I'm dancing I'm in this strange state of high concentration and play that feels quite loopy. I've been joking that dancing is almost psychotic, it has its own reality and logic that exists beyond the normal world. As I'm moving I'm keeping in mind what this enigmatic term SWAGGA means to me, and channelling that as far as I can into my body and out through movements and gestures that are, I guess, dancing. I draw on punk, being female and also somewhat masculine, a feeling of defiance, ersatz street dance, aggression, SM, animal moves, a feeling of wildness, and fat fat fat, always my fat body at the heart of it. Maybe this will change, no doubt the others see and feel different things, but this is sort of what's there for me at the moment.

My transformation from un-dancer to dancer has not been seamless. I still have doubts about my body. Sometimes I ache, sweat, get out of puff, eventually get tired. It appears that I am a human being after all. My arthritis flared up after the first two sessions and I got scared, but I have been pacing myself since then, I'm learning about my limits. I also think that, for me, some pain is acceptable if the payoff is an extraordinary movement or moment. Kay and I get nervous before each session. What our dancing is remains unknown. We are getting to know our choreographers but we are still relatively new to each other. I am taking tentative steps, but I do so trustingly; I have seen them dance and I trust them, I trust their aesthetic, skill and vision.

I feel very powerful after each session. This is to do with spending several hours at a time in an enclosed space with three other powerful people all of whom are encouraging each other to Go There. We Go There each time. You can't predict what the There will be, it emerges as the session goes on, and it is always intensely sublime and all about our bodies. It is amazing to be watched with delight as these moments unfold – a dance of a double chin, a wiggy titty dance, a dance of muscles and fists. We are profoundly un-pretty, we move in ways that were never mandated or imagined for middle-aged fat dykes – I live for this! I can't wait to share it with audiences! I'm so proud of what we are doing!

We rehearse in spaces like these