Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Lizzo, Jemel McWilliams, And The Myth Of The Dancer’s Body

Recently Jemel McWilliams, who is Lizzo’s choreographer and live-show artistic director gave a fabulous interview to Dance Magazine that they titled “Lizzo’s Choreographer on Why Plus-Size Dancers Shouldn’t Be a “Specialty” Act

First of all, just the fact that this article, with the accompanying pictures of fat, Black bodies, appeared in Dance Magazine is a big deal. To say that fat people don’t often see ourselves represented in its pages would be an understatement. To say that fat, Black, dancers don’t often see themselves represented, even more so.

Her performances, including her recent performance at the Grammy’s feature dancers who don’t often find themselves on those kinds of stages, which is a huge deal. Representation matters and Lizzo and her team are creating a world of greater representation.

It turns out I know someone who auditioned during the open call the Mr. McWilliams discusses in his interview.  Dellany Peace, is a plus-size dancer-actress, producer-creator, and fat activist who attended an open call audition and shared her experience in a Facebook post. She told me that “Lizzo allowed a safe space where we could really be ourselves and feel seen. She let us dance one at a time for as long as we wanted free-style in a half circle. We didn’t feel rushed or that we were just a number in a line. One woman wanted to share with Lizzo how her life has changed for the better since Lizzo has come up in the scene and then this started a free verbal flow where more women shared their stories. There were tears, laughter, singing and never once did any of us feel as if we didn’t belong or weren’t good enough.”

Lack of inclusivity and diversity are a plague on the dance world. And they are often justified by the myth of the “dancer’s body.” which is an idea that is firmly rooted in, and held in place by, racism, sizeism, ageism, ableism, and other marginalizations.

It’s total bullshit, not just in the sense that if you want to dance then you have a dancer’s body (although that’s true) but in all the ways that people use this myth to perpetuate racism, sizeism, ageism, and ableism at every level of the dance world.

When it comes to sizeism, there are specific cases that can be made for dancers needing to be less heavy (in the case of dances with many lifts for example) but there are plenty of dancers who don’t get lifted and plenty of strong people who can lift. There are actually very few cases where thinness is actually necessary.

As we see more amazing fat dancers, as well as dancers of color, disabled dancers, and other dancers from marginalized communities, on YouTube, Instagram, and in performances like Lizzo’s, it’s important to understand that, typically, a lifetime of exclusion, marginalization, and oppression had to be overcome in order for that dancer to get to where they are, because the myth of the “dancer’s body” is self-perpetuating.

Clothing isn’t made for larger dancers, sometimes even at the youngest ages. Often clothing isn’t made, or can be difficult to find, for darker skin tones. Young children who aren’t thin are encouraged to either do dangerous things to be thin, or quit dance altogether, young Black children, and other children of color are often told that it’s not worth training them since they won’t grow up to have a “dancer’s body.” Studios routinely discriminate against dancers who aren’t the stereotypical “dancer’s body” when it comes to selecting performance teams, soloists etc.

The “dancer’s body” myth allows these people to continue to exclude, oppress, and marginalize with impunity. We are missing out on so much amazing talent because the dance world is keeping it from us in order to perpetuate a stereotype rooted in fatphobia, racism, ableism, ageism and more. It has to stop, Lizzo and Jemel McWilliams are working to end it, and as a fat dancer (who still definitely benefits from lots of privilege including white privilege) I truly appreciate it.

I found this old video of me competing West Coast Swing and Two Step so I thought I’d include it as one example of what a dancer’s body can be. If you have a video of you killing it on the dance floor, please leave it in the comments!

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