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I am a fat dancer, but I am not your inspiration porn

We are challenging to watch, unapologetic, incautious, visceral and about a million miles away from cosy or jolly stereotypes.

SWAGGA, with Charlotte Cooper and Kay Hyatt. Credit: Katarzyna Perlak. SWAGGA, with Charlotte Cooper and Kay Hyatt. Credit: Katarzyna Perlak.

Dancing was not something that anyone did when I was growing up. I was discouraged from it. Instead I was an avid bedroom dancer and, like lots of things in my life at the time, I just kept it a secret.

Fat people are not supposed to be able to dance. The approach of those promoting a global obesity epidemic would suggest that binging away shamefully on a settee until we die prematurely, or are 'rescued' through weight loss, is all we are capable of.

But dance is a transformative medium; it changes the relationship fat people have with our own bodies and each other, and it transforms social ideas about what fat can be or mean. It is exciting to see fat people dancing.

Dancing is a creative way of experiencing your own body. When you dance with or for other people you are inviting them to share this experience, this creativity. Where anti-obesity policy seeks to make fat people not exist, dancing asserts our presence in the world. It shows that we have value.

This is not necessarily about being strong and beautiful (though we are) or just as good as thin people. It's about claiming and inhabiting our own space. 

I first started dancing in public at Harrow Leisure Under 18s, a monthly disco set up for suburban kids in London in the 1980s. It was a popular hangout, everyone went. I didn't have words for it at the time but my group of friends would form a cypher and we would take turns popping and locking to Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa and The Soul Sonic Force and The Jonzun Crew. 

I never stopped dancing at clubs. Venues in London are now being gentrified out of existence and club life is not what it was, but after all the drinking and drugging and cruising and sex has been and gone, dancing together in a sweaty mass of people late at night remains a vital force in my life.

At the same time I've long been interested in border-crossing dance that moves from clubs to the stage. I remember the thrill of seeing avant garde icon Leigh Bowery perform with accomplished dancer-choreographer Michael Clark in the 1980s and early 90s, not least because, like me, Leigh was fat.

I remember thinking: if he could be a dancer on a stage, why not me? Why not others?

Fat activists have been dancing for as long as fat activism has been around, which my extensive research tells me is nearly 50 years. Fat feminist groups like Fat Lip in the US pioneered dance performances in the 1980s, Big Moves helped turn it into a phenomenon by developing classes and performances, and there has always been dancing at fat activist get-togethers and conferences. In the UK, Irreverent Dance is open to fat dancers, as Caroline Walters has written for Transformation.

This is not just something happening in the West, a fat dance troupe called Fat and Cool was active in China in the mid-00s. Burlesque, belly dancing and ballet are particularly popular but there is also a fat tradition in Hip Hop and West African dance. Force Majeure's fat dance show Nothing to Lose has been performed to great acclaim in Australia recently, and rightly so, but the histories and spread of fat dance are absent in the extensive mainstream reporting of this piece. 

It is into this setting that I step, shake and spin as a 46-year-old fat dancer. For the past year I have been involved with developing and performing a duet called SWAGGA, produced by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small of Project O. In 2015 we will be taking up residencies in Cambridge and London. 

SWAGGA is a dance of non-assimilation: an intersectional piece that draws on race and gender. We have worked with gendered black iconographies, including white male rappers. At one memorable rehearsal, we improvised to audio of Audre Lorde reading her 'Uses of the Erotic' essay. We take risks with our bodies, we put ourselves in places where we are not supposed to exist. We are challenging to watch, unapologetic, incautious, visceral and about a million miles away from cosy or jolly stereotypes.

Through dancing we reject the limits that are socially imposed on us as bodies of a particular size, race, gender, class, sexuality, age and disability. We refuse to be positioned as brave, majestic, unexpectedly beautiful, or reduced to what disabled performer and activist Stella Young has called "inspiration porn".

Through SWAGGA, I have learned that I am not about to die. Even though I have decades of experience as a fat activist, fat hatred has made its way into my bones. SWAGGA has been a means of flushing it out, of connecting with my body as a beautiful threat to those who think the world would be better off without fat people.

Although extraordinary athleticism is something that delights me about dance, I have found there are other ways of representing embodiment. Our dance allows us to be puffed-out sometimes, to use our flesh, to embrace gesture, to see what a move looks like when we do it, to take pleasure in the ways that we are not graceful or pretty, as dancers are 'supposed' to be. Hemsley and Johnson-Small are young, thin and trained dancers, and they choreograph through their hard fought-for knowledge, encouraging us to bring our authentic selves to the dance, to trust that our bodies are powerfully expressive as we are. 

Through their feminist stewardship, infused with their experiences as women of colour, we are gradually becoming part of a community of dancers and performers who want to engage with what we bring as fat people.

It is difficult to talk about SWAGGA against a background of media noise about this 'new' thing called fat dance. In order to make my dancing comprehensible to a dominant culture, it feels as though I am being asked to frame what I do as something connected with weight loss or fitness. Sometimes there is a limited engagement with fat activism as something that might enable people to love their body – even though having any kind of body is complicated! 

But this complex work is not a soundbite or a novelty. I reject the rhetoric in which I am supposed to be dancing my way to normality and good citizenship.. 

I want my dancing to start riots and revolutions. I believe this is possible. I want to be part of many overlapping cultures and communities and histories of dancers, fat people and activists of every kind. There are many fat dance stories here, not just one, a culture is growing. With SWAGGA we are making our own scene.

About the author

Dr Charlotte Cooper is a psychotherapist, researcher and cultural worker. Charlotte performs with the art band Homosexual Death Drive and in 2014 she became a dancer with Project O's SWAGGA. Visit charlottecooper.net.


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