"You will never be a dancer with that body" The Erasure of Big Bodies in Hip Hop Dance
Every girl in the Western world who grew up in the 2000s knows that if you were more than a size 8 (UK), people thought you were fat. Yes. Fat. Not a bit overweight or chubby. Just fat. If you wanted to dedicate yourself to professions like modelling or dance, our references were crystalline. Even the Hip-Hop dance movies with Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Briana Evigan and Jessica Alba – they all followed the 90-60-90 pattern.
Women's sexualisation is something that’s been very present in our history, and we’ve come to assimilate it as something normative. Every woman in my life has felt the need to change her body because of societal influences at some point in her life. Despite the prototype of the "girl 10" having changed over the years, most people still defend the flat stomach and the lack of stretch marks.
Yet, it seems that the visibility of our physique has a direct effect on our work - even before we’ve been seen working. This topic has been silenced for a long time, and although the industry is changing little by little, there is still a need to highlight people, give them their flowers and vindicate their talent. To Francesca Miles' question "How do we move our culture forward in a way that levels the playing field, celebrating and welcoming people of all genders?" I would add, and all sizes.
The Influence of the Classical Body
These references and stereotypes come to us from many places, they’re prevalent in dance and stem from ballet. In classical dance, it’s all about women who are slim and not too tall and the ensuing language which often describes them as slender and elevated. Brian Nolan describes it in his article The Ideal Ballet Body for Informa Dance magazine in Australia: "In reality, the ideal physique for a female classical dancer is slim, with a long neck, a short to medium length torso, long legs with complimentary long arms and high insteps." He says that if you do not have this body type, do not give up - just keep trying.
The body stereotyping does not only happen in classical styles, it also happens in Hip-Hop...a style that was born in the street, with people from the streets, and is usually dressed in loose and baggy clothes. It is completely accepted in our collective Hip Hop imagination that dancers must be slim and visibly muscular, so says the creator of Fatgirlsdance - Cathleen Meredith. She created her Hip-Hop dance group in New York for plus-size women because she couldn't find one. In an interview with Stance on Dance, Cathleen tells us how whenever she went to take a class people were surprised, not because she was the best dancer in the class, but because she danced well...even though she was fat. I too have had to listen to similar comments after a performance: "I didn't think you could dance so well with that kind of body." This not only belittles all the training and effort we put in, but it’s a form of humiliation and negative judgement.
The truth is that there are different factors that affect our body shape: genetics, length/width of our bones, diet, hormonal changes, etc. The problem is that instructors, casting agents and the people in power in this industry ask you to lose weight because they think it’s a healthy thing. They encourage you go to physical and psychological extremes because they think it’s healthy, telling you it's better for you. They sell it like - the thinner you are, the healthier you are. Numerous studies have shown that to dance you need to build muscles that can withstand the hours of rehearsal and the numerous performances day after day. Dietitian Rachel Fine, MS, RD, CSSD, says "You need to have the muscular strength to help hold yourself up in the air. A dancer who has less muscle, because they're so focused on maintaining a low body mass, is going to be harder to lift." In her 2010 study, Rachel talks about how dancers with very low body fat are more prone to rapid fatigue. Fatigue, and the resulting loss of coordination and control, left them at a higher risk of injury: "Having a healthier body mass and healthier muscle balance is what's going to decrease the likelihood of getting injured." A 2013 study by the National Centre for Biomechanical Information found that "dancers had a three times higher risk of suffering from eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa and EDNOS.'' The study indicates that particularly in the world of dance women have a higher rate of suffering from these disorders due to the media and social pressure to which they are subjected.
Big Bodies Against The Screen
In "Make Some Noise for the Ladies" Sexism in European Hip-Hop Dance Battles, Francesca Miles talks about how she has felt sexualised at some point in her dance career, which is unfortunately commonplace for us in this industry. She talks about how dancers are introduced as "beautiful b-girls", how femininity is often exalted for no reason and how unnecessarily a dance battle somehow becomes a beauty contest. However, this impediment of beauty in Hip Hop is very present, especially, if you don't meet the indicated standards. Think of any show you've seen with dancers, either on TV, at concerts, MTV music awards, or even in your dance classes. I'm sure the first image that comes to mind is of a bunch of girls with at least their legs uncovered and they’re all of similar proportions. Even on iconic performances like Missy Elliot’s Get Ur Freak On at the MTV VMAs in 2001 this was the case.
Everything is increasingly digitised in our society and, although it may seem unfair, the reality is that your Instagram profile is the first thing many agencies and representatives look at before they see you dance in person. Deanne Kearney points out in her essay Derogatory Dancing: Heteronormative Inscriptions on Female Hip-Hop Dancers in Breaking and Commercial Spheres that several of her friends have landed big contracts with brands like Nike. As a dancer, you should not only have videos of you dancing, but also photos showing off your figure. However, this can impede dancers with non-normative bodies as there is still a lot of fat-phobia on social networks, which results in many people not uploading this content for fear of hate and abuse.
Recently a friend in the industry was telling me how her trainer had been contacted to do a commercial for a well-known brand of sporting events. This brand gave her one condition: "I don't care how well your dancers dance, I just want them to have a good body and a pretty face so they look good on-screen." So, the hours of training, the choreography, or the quality of movement - none of that mattered. They just needed to look good on screen. That's how dancer Trina Nicole felt, who has danced with Beyonce, Lizzo, and Nao, but not before she went through an identity crisis because of her size. Trina shares in the video series My Body Rules how she felt uncomfortable in the dance studio in her early days, how she hid in the back of the class and didn't want to be seen and covered herself in baggy clothes. That was until she decided to form her own class for women who felt the same way - The Curve Catwalk, the UK's 1st Plus Size Dance Class - a safe space, free from judgement, where dancers can feel like dancers, without the need to label their bodies. Such was its success that Trina became a Nike ambassador appearing on the big screen in Piccadilly Circus, London. She was able to give opportunity and visibility to plus-size dancers, although she’d like that label to disappear one day: “Why can’t I just be seen as a dancer? Why do I have to be a plus-size dancer? That’s already making someone seen as ‘other’”
Lizzo Dancer Runs Dance Classes To Empower Plus Size Women. 2020. Credit Channel 4
Staying Positive In Big Castings
In a workshop at the University of East London, British dancer and choreographer Kymberlee Jay explained how difficult it was for her to break into the Hip-Hop industry in the UK. In addition to the fact that it was a male-dominated industry and she was a woman, there was the fact that she did not have a normative body. Albeit, thanks to previous medical studies, she understood that despite her physiognomy she could be an athletic dancer on the same level as others with a slimmer physiognomy. Although she encountered some early setbacks due to these factors, she found her place in the group Myself UK Dance Company by Kloe Dean - an all-female Hip-Hop collective that promotes the individuality of the female dancer, accepting all body types and empowering them under the motto "I Love Myself." Additionally, they often hold workshops and panel discussions promoting feminism and the acceptance of non-normative bodies in the Hip Hop industry.
We also see this discrimination in West End musicals and theatres with plus-size women playing the outsider or the "special" friend. Yet we never see them in the lead role that a person with a normative body might play. Is this because casting agents don't even think about someone outside that profile? Jennifer Greenwood, vice president of Equity's Women's Committee, told The Stage: "I think casting directors and those in power have a responsibility to take this seriously because our job is to reflect the world as it is to the audience. If we present a world on stage and screen where only thin people are worthy of romance or love, we are fostering feelings of inadequacy in our audience, as well as driving out those plus-size actors."
We need to educate the industry and witness all body types in all actions. We need people to feel reflected in what they see, without the need to create body shaming or trauma.
The Importance of Representation
Parris Goebel was the one who lit the light on my path. On my way to dance training, I’d always heard from dance teachers, audience, and colleagues sentences like: "you need to lose weight" "you can't dance with that body" or "you'd better just be a teacher." Phrases that made me stand in the corner of the class out of embarrassment, phrases that created a frustrated dancer. When I was eight years old I went to ask my dance teacher what I had to do to become a professional dancer, her answer was: "you'll never be able to be a successful dancer with that body."
Hearing these words made me doubt my abilities. Not only that, but I sometimes avoided trying certain tricks like the handstand because I’d been led to believe that I couldn't do it because I was fat. It didn't matter where I tried to look for comfort, the videos I searched on YouTube or the dancers I studied - only impossible bodies appeared for me. No matter how much I slimmed down, my bones width would not be reduced. But Parris changed my perspective.
I remember watching the World Hip Hop Dance Championship in 2015 and seeing Royal Family perform. When I saw that confident woman who grabbed the attention of everyone watching, a world opened up for me. Parris empowers women without being ashamed of who she is and it shows in her choreography and social media. As the choreographer of Rihanna's three Fenty X Beauty shows, she had a solo in the last one where she appeared in a bikini, without make-up and showed herself naturally while dancing. On her Instagram she’s talked about how insecure she felt performing this, how her insecurities made her doubt her abilities even though it was the third time Rihanna had counted on her. 'What was I scared of? We are all made uniquely and perfectly. I share this because so many times we get in the way of ourselves. We build up our own walls and let our insecurities stop us from living to the fullest.'
In her book, Young Queen, Parris talks about how she struggled with her insecurities and the stereotypes that existed in an industry dominated not only by men but where the women were white and thin. But she overcame this and made it possible for a woman from New Zealand with different beauty standards to become a dancer and choreographer respected by everyone in the industry who has now danced with artists from Justin Bieber to Rihanna. “My body became my tongue, and I am no longer speechless.”
My second reference is from the UK - Mira Jebari. Choreographer, dancer and creative director who has worked with artists like Sean Paul and Dua Lipa. Mira has spoken out many times on her social media about how proud she is of her body and invites women in the industry to feel the same way. With the phrase body proud at the top of her Instagram bio, Mira tells in an interview with Amarudon TV what her first X-Factor audition was like. She recounts how “there were over 600 girls in the room and she felt out of place as the biggest girl in the room.” Four years she auditioned to the casting team and she was never chosen. Years later, in 2019, she stepped on stage with Lizzo.
Mira Jebari: Overcoming Body Image Stereotypes Within The Dance Industry (My Introspection). 2018. Credit Amarudon TV
Mira tells how for years she felt ashamed of her body and how she felt that dancing was not for her. But she didn’t give up, she achieved things and gained confidence in herself and her body. I keep a phrase of Mira's close to me that I think everyone should integrate into their life: "My uniqueness is my power." This reminds me that what makes us stand out from others is not a defect, but a power to be worked on and celebrated.
It is essential to have and see all kinds of bodies on stage and screen in Hip Hop. We saw in the 2022 Super Bowl half time Hip Hop show - one of the most-watched media events of the year - all types of bodies dancing. To be able to see dancers with non-normative bodies in a show of this calibre brings me hope and excitement. This visibility means that new generations will have something to hold on to, because if they see it, they can do it.
Acceptance of Big Bodies Outside Our Culture
Another positive shock I had in this arena was the first time I walked into a gyal style Dancehall class where I found a whole class full of all kinds of empowered bodies proudly showing off who they are through dance.
When a dance battle breaks out in Kingston, Jamaica, no one cares about the size of the dancers, only that they show themselves through their moves. Dancehall steps have components of trance, vibrations and spirituality and are characterised by an earthy connection and curved movements. Many people classify Dancehall gyal style as a sexist dance because of the difference in movement between men and women. Gyal style movement is associated with undulating, sensual pelvic and hip movements and steps that exalt feminine attributes. However, the root of these movements is in feminism and women's empowerment through their own sexuality and body. “The fat black woman’s body has come to play an instrumental role in the creation of spectacle in both the calypso and dancehall arenas.[...] Dancehall has been the venue for the exposure of the fat black female body.” Shaw A. (2005). Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal. “Big Fat Fish”: The Hypersexualization of the Fat Female Body in Calypso and Dancehall.
In Cisfemininities as bodies-without-organs in hip hop, street and urban dance styles, Natalia Koutsougera talks about how dancehall dancer Sara Ganem believes that the introduction of these cultures in Europe subconsciously helped to open the mind and break with Western World values and break with racial boundaries and body shaming. Sara points out that many women are afraid of looking "vulgar or slutty" by showing too much or moving too sensually...which comes from the fear of being judged by Western society. However, Caribbean dances help women of similar proportions in Europe to feel confident and empowered. Like Sara, I believe Dancehall has helped many women with non-normative bodies to find confidence in their movements and dance. As the artist Denise Belfon states: "People are always amazed at how a big woman can move and many women respect that."
Watch Out for the Big Grrrls
If anyone is making an impact with body positivism, it's the singer Lizzo. She recently launched her show on Amazon Prime - Watch Out for the Big Grrrls. A competition show that showcases plus-size dancers and highlights their skills and talent with the ten winners getting to perform at Lizzo's concert at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee.
The singer decided to create this format because of the difficulty her agents had in finding dancers with non-normative bodies for her tours. It’s difficult finding this profile of dancers in agencies because we aren’t represented. Episode one began with a performance from all the competitors which showcased fearless choreography and empowered big girls. This is a TV show where music and dance reign alongside self-love and body positivism. Representation like this of non-normative bodies in television, dance and music is going to change the game.
Lizzo's Watch Out For The Big Grrrls - Official Trailer. 2022. Credit Amazon Prime
Maybe, gradually, some parts of the mainstream entertainment scene is changing with the likes of the Superbowl, Lizzo and her choreographer Tanisha Scott as well as Rihanna with her Savage x Fenty event. They‘re showing that plus-size women can dance and perform with the same professional quality as others in the industry. Hip hop dance should and needs to endorse the inclusion of all body types because size does equal talent. We need to create a community where bodies of all sizes are welcome and will be employed – that’s how we move our culture forward in a way that levels the playing field.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2022
A response to “Make Some Noise for the Ladies…” Sexism in European Hip-Hop Dance Battles by Francesca Miles, Cisfemininities as bodies-without-organs in hip hop, street and urban dance styles by Natalia Koutsougera and Derogatory Dancing: Heteronormative Inscriptions on Female Hip-Hop Dancers in Breaking and Commercial Spheres by Deanne Kearney
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Evelyn Ramírez is a Spanish dance performer, researcher, writer, and choreographer who graduated from the University of East London with a BA (Hons) in Urban Dance Practice in 2020. Throughout her journey at UEL, she was selected to study a semester abroad at Columbia College Chicago in the US and she is currently studying an MBA in Performing Arts Management and Cultural Industries at IESA, Paris.
Evelyn started dancing professionally at the age of 14 competing internationally in Hip Hop and during her time in London and Chicago she immersed herself in the Voguing community and culture, organizing, producing, and participating in balls and events. Her professional career focuses on creating dance pieces as director and producer and the dissemination of the urban dance culture through articles and dance reviews. She seeks to deliver the urban dances with their history and background to all the audience to make them understand the why of each movement and dance.