Big Moves Dance Company: Beyond Body Positive Towards Fat Liberation

By Aries Jordan

A group of seven women on stage cross stepping with wavy arms.

In recent years the body positive movement has gone mainstream. From television to huge billboards you can find more representation of diverse bodies and the term “body positivity.” Companies like Dove and JCPenny have launched major beauty campaigns like Real Beauty and Here I am that celebrate plus size bodies. Even Sports Illustrated and Cosmopolitan magazine featured Plus-size model Ashley Graham on the cover, signifying a shift in traditional Western beauty standards. Despite major gains in the body positive movement the dance world “still has a long way to go” says Co-artistic directors of Big Moves Dance Company Matilda St. John and Jessica Judd in a candid interview.


Embracing Fat
The dance world is historically known for its harsh norms of body shaming and rigid standards for “acceptable dancing bodies.” In the dance industry, size 6 and up can be considered fat depending on which dance studio you go to. Dancers with larger bodies especially, size 14 and up are not afforded the same opportunities to train in studios, residences that are weight neutral, or take class without someone criticizing their body. Jessica and Matilda shared similar stories of the moment where they realized dance was no longer accessible or a safe space for their body type. Matilda recalls the inability of dance teachers to recognize form and alignment in larger bodies. “My Ballet teacher would actively discourage me by not providing feedback and later suggested to my parents I enroll in Jazz.” On the other hand, Jessica danced throughout her youth and remembers ordering her own costumes when she gained more weight. Either the dance teacher would order too small or not order her size at all. The constant humiliation and body critique force many passionate dancers to leave the studio as a means of self-preservation. It wasn’t until Matilda and Jessica encountered the dancers of Big Moves on stage having fun, in vibrant form-fitting costumes and confidently moving what society viewed as an “unsightly body,” did they find the confidence to return to dance.

In 2000, Big Moves founder Marina Wolf Ahmad set out to disrupt harmful dance culture by embracing the word “fat” and creating a single day-long dance clinic in the San Francisco Bay Area for self-identified fat dancers. The success of the dance clinic lead to Marina forming Big Moves dedicated to creating a safe, warm, body-positive atmosphere where people of all shapes and sizes can train in dance technique and perform onstage as part of a dance company. She later created Jazz-based dance company emFATic DANCE (formerly the Phat Fly Girls). The dance company was successful in breaking barriers and showing that fat dancers could master dance techniques and put on a good show. At one point, emFATic DANCE had branches on the east and west coast. Big Moves hosted classes in everything from burlesque to aerial dancing.  Members were featured in photo essays and major media outlets such as NPR, PBS, and Entertainment Tonight. The success of Big Moves also came with unintended harm to its dancers who were constantly tokenized, asked inappropriate questions about their bodies and condescendingly praised for their “bravery.” This realization led to a major organizational shift, from proving to the dance world fat people can dance to creating relevant art for fat people. Since 2006, Big Moves has focused on training fat dancers at all levels and producing numerous shows featuring multiple plus-sized dance companies, singers and performers.


A group of six women on stage reaching in different directions.
photos by Lisa J. Ellis

On a mission for Fat liberation
Over time, Big Moves has evolved along with traditional beauty standards but has remained committed to the principles of fat liberation. Co-directors praised the body positive movement for “getting more diverse bodies in different places while acknowledging it has failed to embrace the ideas of fat liberation,” says Jessica. The Fat Liberation movement also known as “fat acceptance” and “Fat Pride” was born out of the civil rights and women’s suffrage movement of the ’60s and has led to what we now know as the “Body Positive Movement.” The Fat Liberation movement raised awareness about fat biases and pushed for change in social attitudes around obesity and overweight bodies. The mainstreaming of the Body Positive movement has marginalized many within the Fat Liberation movement by upholding ableism, hailing acceptable fat body shapes, and its lack of intersectionality.


All bodies are acceptable
Moreover, body positivity values individual liberation over collective liberation which has resulted in certain body shapes being praised while other bodies are condemned. “In the body positive movement you don’t see the same enthusiasm for a size 26 and up as you do for a size 14. Larger bodies with hourglass or the pear shapes are viewed as acceptable fat bodies. While disabled bodies, apple and barrel shapes are looked down upon. With Fat Liberation, all bodies are good bodies worthy of celebration!” says Jessica. At a Big Moves performance you are likely to see a cast of size diverse performers. In recent years core members have grappled with clearly defining the criteria of fat and question if they should have a size requirement for membership. After long debates and conversations, the group settled on opening its dance classes and workshops to all body types with the only criteria being comfortable in a group of dancers that self-identify as fat. Even with this openness to all body types, Big Moves has yet to see anyone under a size 12 participate in any of its programming. Revealing there is still a stigma associated with the word fat. Matilda also pointed out the body positive movement has yet to recognize systemic oppression and how racism, sexism and homophobia affects how fat bodies are experienced in the world. Jessica also raised concerns of ableism and healthism within the Body positive movement. Notably, pointing out plus size people are praised “when they display they can do everything that thin bodies can do. Health does not define your humanity. There are fat bodies that won’t be able to dance or walk just as some thin bodies will not be able to.”


Humanizing all bodies through dance
emFATic DANCE performances present a vision of a world transformed, where exciting performances can and do come from artists who resist the narrow dance-world norms. For over a decade Big Moves has produced and co-produced dozens of events and concerts that provide a platform for dancers who have limited opportunities to perform. When the co-directors were asked what they hope audiences will take away from a show? Their answers were simple yet profound; to entertain and humanize all bodies through dance. Matilda hopes audience members will feel “joy and an increased possibility of the human body. To experience their bodies in new ways and their perception of other bodies, soften.” Jessica echoed the sentiment of dignifying all bodies. “I want people in the audience to feel represented; to see themselves, their child, parent or relative on stage. For self-identified fat folks in the audience I not only want them to be inspired to dance but to go on a vacation, wear a swimsuit, go to the public pool or eat alone without the anxiety of how people will react to their fatness.”

Big Moves remains committed to centering marginalized fat bodies in the dance world. It doesn’t matter where someone is starting from, whether with or without prior dance training, they will work with you. Big Moves holds gender inclusive open rehearsals with emFatic DANCE on the first and third Sunday in Berkeley. In open rehearsals there is a strict no-diet-talk policy and never pressures dancers to perform. And there are multiple opportunities to engage with Big Moves and emFATic DANCE coming up this Summer and Fall.

This article appeared in the June 2019 issue of In Dance.

Aries Jordan an educator, writer, and Chief Circle Keeper of the Just Write Experience, dedicated to meeting writers where they are at and providing a supportive space to simply just write. Her writing weaves prose, proverbs, and explores cultural narratives of the African Diaspora to provoke thought and inner reflection.