Ballet without the body fascism

My head echoed with internalised voices: “But you’re just a fat elephant. You couldn’t possibly do ballet.” This body positive dance school is opening up ballet to all genders, shapes and sexualities. Part of Transformation's liberation series.

Caroline Walters
21 May 2014
Irreverent Dance showcase 2013

Irreverent Dance 2013 showcase. Credit: Facebook/Irreverent Dance Community.

At a young age I knew that I didn’t conform to girly, conventional femininity. I was too fat, too loud and too awkward. Lacking grace and elegance, I rejected my desire to be feminine and embraced being ‘one of the boys’. That way, I knew I could have fun.

Even so, I would secretly prance around my bedroom imagining myself as a swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. I never went to ballet classes or told my family I wanted to try. Gymnastics classes had been too humiliating. I knew deep down that a small, pudgy child like me wouldn’t be a ballerina, but I could dream. It was a secret dream.

In school plays I was cast as men. At first this was through choice, as I wanted a better role. But by my early teens I wanted to play a female role. Yet I knew I’d never be a leading lady. I felt my body, with its fatness and hairiness, had betrayed me. 

I also knew that dance was a space that policed bodies. I felt safer with words, reading and studying; there my body didn’t matter. I pretended that I didn’t care about the comments: “Too fat to be your friend”, “Mrs Blobby”, “a hippo”.

These insults stayed with me and made the idea of exercise or being on show terrifying. I never thought I would try dancing.

Yet I was curious when I saw an ad for a UK-based, adult beginner’s ballet class named ‘Irreverent Dance’, with a body positive agenda, non-exclusively targeted to the LGBTQ community. At first it seemed like a small thing, an exclusive group. I didn’t think I would be welcome.

My head echoed with internalised voices: “But you’re just a fat elephant. You’re a heffalump. You have the grace of a group of dancing hippos in Fantasia. You couldn’t possibly do ballet.”

Even sending a message to find out if I could watch the class seemed too much, but I managed it. Hours passed with nerves filling my stomach, wondering what the reply would be. 

I was persuaded to go, but to dance, not just to watch. Walking to my first class at a proper dance studio in London's Old Street was terrifying, but by the end of that first class I had found something I could do with my body.

To my surprise, I stuck at it. 

It was ballet without the body fascism and adherence to the gender binary. Instead, this dance class enabled social transformation by expanding the range of who could do ballet and have fun dancing: all genders, shapes and sexualities.

To me, Irreverent Dance embodies the attitude that sharing skills within your community is a radical act. It demonstrates that people need support and kindness to learn to believe in themselves. It shows that in a safer space that removes many of the barriers that prevent participation (like fatphobia, transphobia, and binary gender roles), each person can dance.

The classes enable people to be embodied and to try, even when that can be the most frightening thing. They encourage people to think about social and political justice, developing a desire to fight against injustices. 

Two months later I passed my grade one ballet, and nearly two years on I’m beginning pointe work. My posture has improved. My walking has altered. I found my academic work benefitted from time spent not being in my head, as I could switch off.

Now, age 29, I can finally, proudly say I am a dancer.

When I began dancing, I was in a transitional point in my life. I had just received my PhD and needed to figure out what would be the next project in my life. I felt lost. I wanted something new that would reconnect my academic mind with my body. The isolation involved in a PhD can test even those with the most robust mental health.

Dancing and finding community outside of my work has meant I now feel more at peace in my skin. 

Irreverant Dance founder Amanda Leon-Joyce says:

“Whether we like it or not, we walk through life in bodies that are scrutinized and politicised for any number of qualities, be it perceived gender, size, skin colour, dis/ability etc. This scrutiny is based upon inherited rules, rules we never signed up to but are tacitly expected to follow. Nowhere are these rules more prevalent than in spaces where we use and enjoy our bodies. Spaces like a dance studio. To create a space that intentionally ignores those rules should not be radical, but it is. Irreverent Dance is a space where we try to escape both the rules, and the politicisation of our breaking of them.”

These aims have enabled people to participate who thought they could not dance, had the ‘wrong’ body, or wanted to explore dance in a space that was gender-neutral, body-positive and friendly. What began as a single ballet class in a basement room in June 2012 is now an organisation with many dance styles, teachers and budding dancers.

In 2013, we danced our way along London’s LGBT Pride march with a simple choreographed routine, demonstrating that LGBTQ dance classes exist and showing the diversity of our communities. 

The final week of every Irreverent Dance course is an open class. This takes the form of a regular lesson but with friends, partners and loved ones there watching — reminiscent of proud parents watching their children.

There is the expectation that we won’t be perfect, that we will make mistakes. The claps, applause and whoops are for everyone who participates regardless of their dancing skill.

It is scary and hard to show yourself not doing something at your best, but having a space that is designed to be supportive helps to give people increased confidence that it might just work - if they try.

For me, dancing has become its own form of activism both in terms of fat and my complex relationship with femininity. It has given me confidence, a new group of friends and a space to be involved in community politics and activism that makes real change.

It has transformed me by encouraging me to have a go, and to work with my fears rather than hiding from them. 

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