12 June 2014

SWAGGA: opening night

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 gave a public performance of this piece at Rich Mix on 7 June in London, together with a piece by Alex and Jamila called Benz Punany. Kay Hyatt is my partner and co-dancer.

Two dancers, after.
The silly season has started, not that it ever goes away where fat is concerned. There are many things I could say about whether or not I think fat is a disability, today's subject for fatphobic hand-wringing, but I'll save that for another time. You could read my book (Fat and Proud: The Politics of Size, which goes into it somewhat), or this ancient article too, I still agree with a lot of what I wrote and thought 17 years ago.

What I really want to write about today is SWAGGA. We had our debut and I am still cruising on a high from that. It's a while since I've felt this sustained from doing something. Nearly a week has passed and the messages of congratulations are still coming in. Today DIVA magazine published this excellent review by Charlotte Richardson Andrews: Project O Goes Large: SWAGGA and Benz Punany. What I'm noticing is a sense of unreality when I remember the night, so maybe it would be fruitful to focus on the facts.

The performance sold out. This is unusual for a show with no marketing behind it, just word of mouth, my blogging and a bit of social networking. It wasn't just our friends in the audience either, people we didn't know came. This makes me suspect that audiences are hungry for work like SWAGGA and Benz Punany and will show up for it. The audience was diverse, there were lots of people there who don't usually go to see dance. Arts organisations, take notice of this and commission us for more!

When I think of the dancing I remember a busy day of practising, doing the tech rehearsal, waiting. We had a company warm up, which was really interesting. This was the first time in the whole process that Alex, Jamila, Kay and I had been on a stage together as fellow dancers. I generally feel warm in my body and ready to dance after jigging around and stretching a bit for a couple of songs. This is what I did. Jamila and Alex have much more experience with warming up for a performance and they are experts of the body, their bodies in particular. They went through a range of movements that took some time, it looked meticulous to me and so impressive, yet probably very workaday to them. I find it hard to imagine attending to my body with such focus in a way that isn't bound up with fatphobia, but I would like to be able to inhabit my body with a similar level of directness and concentration, at least from time to time.

The performance itself was a great experience. I loved waiting backstage for the lights to go down, our cue for taking our places on the stage. Even though I was nervous I knew that I was ready for what lay ahead. We did as well as we could, it wasn't a perfect run, it never is, but it was more than good enough. Sometimes people check out when they are performing but I was present on this occasion. There was a lot of applause, we took it shyly.

People were engaged. Afterwards I had conversations about identity politics; how brave I was (I'm not sure how I feel about that, I am brave, but maybe not in the way this person meant); how moved people were, people who cried; people thinking for the first time that dancing is something they might want to do too; how both pieces gave people ways of saying things, permission to say things, that had previously been too difficult to talk about. I saw a lot of delighted faces, there was a great feeling of excitement afterwards, people I don't know very well were hugging and kissing me! My friends brought me flowers. It was an incredible privilege to be a conduit for all of this stuff.

One of the overarching themes of these conversations was something like: "How can you even be there on stage, doing that?" people wanted to know our process, and also how we came to be on the stage, participating in a project like this. What I got from this was a feeling that dance is not for the likes of us, but disbelief that we had somehow managed to squeeze in. I don't think this was a malicious sentiment at all, though maybe it would be with other audiences. I think it is a product of how fat hatred (and racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, all of which are also part of SWAGGA and Benz Punany) makes people's lives small and diminishes prospects and possibilities for people. It is electrifying when people refuse that impoverished social positioning, it's as though it wakes others up from a trance. Of course we belonged there on that stage! Why wouldn't we?!

Another thing that people said to me was: "I bet you're really fit now." This ties in to the relationship between dance and weight loss culture. Fat people dance to lose weight, dance is sometimes framed as a means through which unruly bodies become 'disciplined.' I have no idea if I am fitter as a result of dancing. I feel exactly the same, ache and sweat the same, feel as asthmatic as I ever do. My clothes fit the same. The main difference that I have noticed is that I feel less fearful of my body and its ability to move than I did at the beginning.

There will be more SWAGGA but I can't say where or when just yet. We are just beginning. I am also beginning as a dancer. I need to find my people and the places where I can be. I looked at some dance classes this week and so many stipulate that "a reasonable level of fitness is required" without explaining what that means. I imagine it doesn't mean people like me. Their loss.


Anonymous said...

This is awesome! Have you heard of Irreverent dance? They do classes near Old Street, might be what you're looking for.

amy cormier flowers said...

This sounds like a very interesting and moving project. I am working on a capstone project on obesity and art and would very much LOVE to see your work! It is very difficult to put yourself out there, it creates a certain vulnerability as an artist, so I commend you on that! I look forward to seeing more of your work! Thank you!