Embracing Fat: Technique, Performance and Movement Innovation

By Eric Kupers


I am saddened by the ways that the modern dance world has shunned fat on our bodies. I believe there are direct links between this denial of a very real part of being human, and a diminishing of the pleasure we are capable of experiencing in our dancing. When seeing a fat dancer who we enjoy watching, we are often surprised and many of us will say, “That dancer is able to move well, despite being fat.” I want to suggest another possibility. I enjoy watching fat dancers because of, not in spite of, their fat. In fat lies some of the most glorious aspects of modern dance’s innovations, including authentic use of weight, roundness, sensuality, letting go of control and dynamic visual textures.

I use the word fat very consciously. The fat acceptance movement has for many years been encouraging a reclaiming of the word as a descriptive, rather than derogatory term. Fat describes a tissue on our body, as well as a body type. It doesn’t have to be any more “loaded” than thin, tall, short, young, old, white, black, gay, straight. How did we get to this place where being fat is something to be ashamed of? I remember a turning point for me around this issue. I was living in India and studying Buddhism during my undergraduate education in Comparative Religion. One of my American teachers, a white woman, had been coming to this same village for years. Our Indian cook, a beautiful, fat woman, said to my teacher with a sense of pride, “Oh Tara, you look so good. You’re getting so fat!” To my teacher’s ears, this was devastating, but to our Indian friend, this was the highest compliment. Clearly a fear of fat is not culturally universal.

In my journey as a modern dancer, that started 22 years ago when I began training seriously in the Lewitzky technique, I have struggled incessantly with my fat. I was always “chubby,” and this was a “problem.” I fought against my fat, spurred on by mentors and choreographers with diets, compulsive exercising and an unhappy relationship with food. In 2001, because of asking the dancers in my project to try and accept their bodies as is, I decided I had to walk my talk and interrupt my excessive attempts at body manipulating. I stopped dieting and exercising furiously after every fattening food. I gained weight. And my dancing did change.

There were certain things that I couldn’t do in the way I was used to. My range of movement changed. Yet, I experienced this as an expansion rather than a closing down. I felt, for the first time, at home in my dancing body. I didn’t have to make it any different than it was. This was wonderful psychologically, but it also opened up a whole new world of movement possibilities. I was less concerned with what angles audiences were seeing, and with holding in my belly. My joints freed up, my pelvis released into its natural weight and I discovered a sense of exploratory sensuality. I felt stronger and more confident. I stopped getting injured regularly. I had relaxed into a deeper level of my dancing. It felt good. I had something original to say with my body.

Around this time I reconnected with Della Davidson. I had first danced with her company in 1996, and while I had appreciated her rounder, more sensual dance technique, I hadn’t been ready to let go of my attachment to long, thin lines and angles. Now I dove into her technique with fervor and found an abandoned physicality that allowed for the full colors of my emotional life to emerge. Her embracing of curves, weight and even fat felt intrinsically feminine. Not feminine that was exclusive to women, but feminine in a way I could relate to as a full expression of being a man. It channeled softness, roundness, vulnerability and sexuality into embodied power. All of my experience as a human being was called forth into my dancing. It was a rigorous challenge.

I experiment with ways to share this transformation with my students and dancers in my company. So many people come to my university dance classes to lose weight and “get in shape.” I attempt to honor their wishes and at the same time encourage them to see their bodies through a different lens. One of my favorite vehicles for this is an adaptation of an exercise I learned from Kathleen Hermesdorf’s modern technique class. She would ask students to improvise across the floor initiating all movement from different “systems” in the body. We danced from our bones, muscles, fluids, tendons, nervous system, energy. I added fat to this list.

When I first mention dancing from fat, the mood in the room seizes up. People laugh, shift uncomfortably, look at me with disbelief, look away. Then I demonstrate. I explain that fat is a rich source of movement. I encourage them to work with fat physically (jiggling, shaking, hanging, feeling weight, letting go) and to work with it emotionally (turning attention to the fat places on the body and dancing from the energy that is lodged there.) I am always honored to see the dancing that erupts. Embracing fat is so counter to most people’s training, that when they are pushed to do so, it is like they are discovering the wonder of dance for the first time. They no longer have to hide their fat. And since fat is one of the biggest taboos in the modern dance studio, an embracing of it connotes that they no longer have to hide anything. They dance with their full body. They take risks. They feel their way across the dance floor.

This exercise shows me how often dancers move with a rigidity and posturing that seeks to ward off the parts of our bodies we feel ashamed of. While this aversion includes much more than fat, it seems that fat is dancers’ most commonly perceived enemy. So we end up fighting with our own bodies–with what’s here now, and with what we fear might come if we’re not vigilant. We are left stiff, injury-prone, self-conscious, and much smaller in spirit than we can be.

What emerges in dancing from fat is extremely cathartic. But more importantly, it is innovative movement. It reminds me why I was drawn to this field. Modern dance at its best embraces the full scope of being human: the things we are proud of, the things we want to hide and the complex, multi-layered truths of our experience. Actively including our fat (and then any part of our bodies we’re ashamed of) is a direct link to the pioneering spirits of Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, José Limón, Alvin Ailey and many others, who each stood courageously upon diverse paths of exploration that sought inclusion of our full humanity in dance. It is, I believe, one of the important next steps that modern dance must take. As April Taylor, one of the dancers in my Undressed Project states, “Fat people are one of the few groups that it’s still generally acceptable to hold prejudice against and make fun of in our culture.” As modern dance artists, we can change that, inch by inch, movement by movement. The more we can include our fat, the less we are bracing ourselves against, and the more we can relax into the pleasure of dancing together.

This article appeared in the May 2007 issue of In Dance.

Eric Kupers is the co-director of Dandelion Dancetheater and an Associate Professor of Dance at Cal State University East Bay. He directs and performs with Bandelion and the CSUEB Inclusive Interdisciplinary Ensemble, both of which experiment vigorously year-round with dance, music, theater, spiritual practice, and social activism for people with and without disabilities and of diverse body identities and artistic backgrounds. More info at: dandeliondancetheater.org and csueastbay.edu/class/departments/theatre