Miami City Ballet and What Not to Do

Ragen Chastain 5’4, 284lbs. Photo by Richard Sabel

Fat people who want to engage in movement – whether they want to walk around the block, or run a marathon – face some specific challenges because of the way our society views and treats fat people. Reader Elizabeth let me know that the Miami City Ballet provided us with an example of a lot of those issues when they posted the following picture on their Facebook page with the text “Happy Thanksgiving! Don’t eat too much turkey ;)”

I can’t find an original credit for this picture. If you know of one please let me know.

The obvious problem is that dance is for every body and the Miami City Ballet chose to perpetuate the idea that dancers who don’t look like the people in the Miami City Ballet should be held up for ridicule, as well as doing some quick fat bashing.  But if you look closer I think you’ll see more issues that this brings to light.

For fat athletes, it’s not just fighting stigma, oppression and stereotyping, sometimes it’s almost impossible just to get dressed. The person in the picture is wearing a Mawashi, which is lucky for him because finding actual dance clothes in large sizes is actually often more difficult than finding Bigfoot.

Hell, it’s a massive challenge just to find some decent affordable gym clothes in larger sizes.  If a fat person needs specialized clothes (triathlete, cyclist, dancer etc.) it can be next to impossible, and if we do find them we can often expect to pay WAY more than our straight-sized friends.  So not only do we face shame and stigma because people can’t get over themselves and let go of their narrow idea of what an athlete looks like, we often show up in clothes that don’t offer the performance or professional look of our competitor’s clothes.

Whoever posted this may not have even thought twice about it and that may be, at least partially, attributable to the social construct that says that fat bodies engaged in movement look “wrong” or are somehow funny just by existing. Because we’re often kept from view under the ridiculous guise of “not promoting obesity” people only see athletic thin bodies and so they get the idea that those bodies are “right” and fat bodies doing the same activities are “wrong”.  Once, in a forum that was doing a fat hate day focused on me (seriously, this is how some people spend their time), someone had a picture of my standing heel stretch next to a woman with a traditional ballet body doing a similar move.  They had diagrammed it to point out the differences, foolishly thinking that the additional flesh and fat of my heel stretch makes it “wrong” rather than realizing that the issue is with their narrow view of what a body should look like.

To me one of the saddest problems with what the Miami City Ballet has done here is that they are actively discouraging fat people from dancing by letting us know that, rather than having the respect and support of the dance community, they are more than happy to use us for the cheap, bigoted, laugh. When a little fat girl who wants to dance  seeks out the Miami City Ballet on Facebook they have the opportunity to encourage her to join the dance community or at least to not discourage her. Instead they’ve chosen stereotypes, shaming, and stigma and so maybe that little girl gives up on dance.  I know it happens because I get e-mails from girls who this is happening to and women who experienced it in their youth.

Movement and athleticism aren’t just for thin bodies and nobody who puts themselves out their should be ridiculed as this Miami City Ballet did here.  I hope that they’ll apologize and consider looking actively for ways that they can be inclusive and encouraging of dancers of all sizes and abilities.  I’m not complaining without offering to help – e-mail me:  ragen at danceswithfat dot org. I can help.

If you want to give the Miami City Ballet some feedback you can find them on facebook or you can e-mail the Executive Director at dhagerty@miamicityballet.org

Feel free to check out (and maybe even join) the Fit Fatties Forum – a free forum with over 1,100 athletes of all shapes and sizes talking about fitness from a weight neutral perspective – it also includes a photo and video gallery to help people expand their view of what an athlete looks like.

Like the blog?  Check this stuff out (purchasing these also helps support my activism work, which I really appreciate):

The Book:  Fat:  The Owner’s Manual The E-Book is Name Your Own Price! Click here to order

The Dance Class DVDs:  Fun classes for all levels! Click here for the details

Become a Member and Get Special Deals from Size Positive Businesses

I do size acceptance activism full time.  A lot what I do, like answering over 4,000 e-mails from readers each month, giving talks to groups who can’t afford to pay, and running projects like the Georgia Billboard Campaign etc. is unpaid, so I created a membership program so that people who read the blog and feel they get value out of it and want to  support the work I do can become members for ten bucks a month  To make that even cooler, I’ve now added a component called “DancesWithFat Deals” which are special deals to my members from size positive merchants. Once you are a member I send out an e-mail once a month with the various deals and how to redeem them – your contact info always stays completely private.

Speaking Schedule 2013 – I am now working on my speaking schedule for next year.  If you would like me to give a talk at your university, job/company, or organization just e-mail me at ragen at danceswithfat dot org and we’ll talk about the options to make it work for your situation and budget.

Published in: on November 25, 2012 at 12:05 pm  Comments (27)  

27 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. When I was five, my mother enrolled me and my older sister in a ballet class. Let me just say that I’ve never been one for dancing, so I wasn’t thrilled to be there anyway, but that first class… THE VERY FIRST CLASS… the instructor told my mother, in front of 5-year-old me and everyone else, that I was too fat and needed to go on a strict diet or I would never be a professional dancer. Nevermind that I didn’t want to be a professional dancer, but this instructor’s immediate dismissal of me because of my body… well, it really steamed my beans, even then, but more so now. If I didn’t already lack enthusiasm for the activity, her attitude put me right off.

    I wish I could say my mother put the instructor in her place and pulled me from class, but alas not. I endured a further five years of weekly shaming before I was able to quit. Strangely enough, I was thrown out of class, not only because I told the instructor (when she asked) that I did NOT want to dance professionally, but because I was also playing tennis and swimming on a team… activities that would allegedly “ruin” my posture. And I was still “too fat.” Go figure.

    • *scratching head* Soooo…you go to a dance class to be physically active and learn to dance…but you’re too fat to dance…you need to lose weight which one typically attempts through diet and exercise…but not in a dance class which would provide exercise…because dancing isn’t exercise??

      Holy cats, my head just exploded.

      I took ballet from the time I was 4 until I was 8, and I was a fat kid. I’m also dead clumsy, but it was ballet/tap/tumbling, and I killed on the tap dancing, clutzy as I was. At no time did my teacher say, She’s too fat to stay in this class…she’ll NEVER make it as a ballerina. WTF kind of message is that giving girls?? That if you’re not going to be the best at something, you shouldn’t even try??

      I call shenanigans *reaching for my pitchfork*.

      • Absolutely, shenanigans! This lady was clearly projecting her own issues and had no business teaching children. I would’ve happily spent those five years dedicating my time to improving my tennis game and swimming times rather than being humiliated in her class.

      • Yeah, I took ballet/tap classes when I was 4-5 years old, and the topic of body size — or even talent, really — never came up. Because, you know, the students in it were 4 and 5 years old.

  2. I couldn’t resist tracking down a sumo wrestler ballerina. It looks like he is from a cigarette ad. I did not expect that! Here’s the whole ad:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/behindthesmoke/6080266063/
    and
    http://www.ebay.com/itm/MERIT-sumo-wrestler-ballerina-ballet-1999-Magazine-Print-Ad-C-/150786560152
    There’s no photographer credit on the ad, but I guess the image copyright is owned by Philip Morris.

    • So, if I smoke these cigarettes, they’ll make me lighter so I can be a ballerina even if I’m fat? Since when does cancer make you more graceful?

  3. I so emailed Miami City Ballet. Ugh.

  4. True story – I work in the theatre (which can be a very fatphobic environment to begin with and I am ALWAYS combating fat talk, even among the technicians) and there is a 23 year old actor interning at our theatre who LOVES to dance but didn’t trust himself because he doesn’t have a typical dancer’s body. We have all encouraged him to pursue it anyway if that is what he loves because there are so many nontraditional options out there and he is too good to just drop it from fear.

    So he has now started teaching some kids dance classes at a local studio and we were all so proud! Until he came in and started telling us all how one 9 year old girl had started to ear a snickers bar before class at the studio and he was so disgusted that she was a bit overweight and still thinking of eating candy that he shamed her in front of the class and told her that someone her size didn’t need to be eating crap like that if she ever wanted to be a dancer. AUGH!!! First of all, this coming from a guy who is easily 50 lbs overweight himself and received nothing but encouragement from us to not let that stop him from his dreams! Second, he still maintains he did nothing wrong and that is just the way dance teachers to talk to their students! He completely brushed off everyone who told him he was completely in the wrong and needed to change his attitude before he does some serious emotional damage to little girls under his tutelage.

    Anyway, I guess I just wanted to share this story because I don’t have a lot of dance experience (beyond a dance teacher in high school telling me I moved really well for a for girl) and I had to share just how screwed up some people in dance are. It hurt my soul hearing him talk about it and remembering some of the harsh words from that point in my childhood that still haunt me and now imagining him doing that to other kids.

  5. Thank you, Ragen, for addressing this SO well. I was very disappointed in that post on Miami City Ballet’s FB page – I attended the very first performance of the troupe and, over the years, have attended a number of performances. I love ballet, I practice ballet, in my home, a few times a week – just not able to bring myself to face a class at my size yet, although I did study years ago. That being said, I keep reading here and one of these days I will do it again.

  6. I just went to the FB page to comment and couldn’t find the picture – have they taken it down?

  7. I just checked the Miami City Ballet FB page, can’t find the photo – looks like it was removed!!!!

  8. Being a dancer myself, a fellow dancer (my new troupe mate actually) she found a WONDERFUL resource for Ballet, Jazz and contemporarory clothes that goes into the XXXLs and it’s REALLY Affordable! It was a wonderful find sine we are doing a dance next month that requires us to wear a gown/dress basically, and to make one would take too much time. We found everything we needed on this site. And the reviews are great. I have bought from dance clothes companies before for my Belly dance stuff and I got an XL top once and well..there was not enough materiel to even PRETEND to cover my top, the thing was $65….I waited YEARS to get it because I LOVED the way it looked, and when I finally got it..wow….
    But I was determined so I wore it anyway, and I still do. It looks lovely when I do some tricks I learned to make things appear a certain way, and I can even tie the ends of the shirt around my waist and it looks lovely. I Have actually stopped wearing the fishnets and the body form meshes when I dance, because I DO have a lovely stomach. There IS definition there even through the fat, and I can see it when I dance. It makes me happy.
    Here is a link to that wonderful site with the lovely dance attire for many different things from performance to practice to what you need to wear underneath.
    http://www.spiritualexpressions.com/Default.aspx

    Also the Miami City Ballet seems to have taken down their horribly offensive picture, so Good to know they can see the light of their own bigotry

  9. Wankers on so many levels.

  10. I’m surprised you didn’t mention that this handsome, strong, graceful, athletic man is also wearing women’s pink ballet slippers…perpetuating the stigma that fat males are perceived to be more effeminate…though also even implying something more along the lines of homophobia. Did anyone else notice that?

    • I wondered about the choice of color — I had a vague impression that the the pointe shoes only came in pink and maybe white. (I don’t watch much ballet, obviously.) According to wikipedia, they are traditionally pink and traditionally worn by women when the illusion of floating is desired; men typically wear them only when playing women’s roles. Still, they’re worn to give the impression of floating, so I’m not convinced anything was meant by the choice.

      Incidentally, the image strikes me overall as positive, if quirky, which makes me unlikely to read anything unpleasant into it. I’m dying to know who the model is — is he actually a sumo wrestler, and if so, does he also do ballet, perhaps as cross-training? Or did he have to learn to manage the pointe shoes for this shot?

  11. I’m so glad they removed that picture. I was one of those kids (well, in my teens, actually) who was shamed out of ballet – me and the only other fat girl in class got ‘demoted’ a grade just as the exam was coming up, then moved down again when the exam for that grade came up…we were given kindly platitudes about ‘we don’t think you’re ready’ (although nobody had said anything critical about either of our dancing up till that point – we were both on pointe work, but had to give it up because the lower grades didn’t do it), but you can guess what the rest of the class assumed. I’d go back to ballet in a heartbeat if I could find a truly body-accepting teacher.

    • Getting of the road from the post, but:

      I want to join in here and say there ARE teachers out there who accept all bodies. Please don’t let that fear discourage you from getting back into ballet as an adult. Ballet’s a lovely way to become more in tune with your body, with movement, with music.

      And while it’s by no means OK for a teacher to shame a student in front of a class (or outside of the classroom!), I do want to stand in defense of teachers that are honest to their advanced students who are thinking about testing the professional world. Because the status of the professional world really makes it so that you can walk into an advanced pointe class and determine who has a chance and who doesn’t at the professional level before warm-up even starts. Over the past century, the line has become more emphasized in popular technique and method, and this ‘line’ demands certain physiological requirements: hyperflexability, insanely high arches, narrow hips, a small or nonexistent bust, long, slender legs and arms. It really all comes down to genetics.

      I’ve seen fat ballet students who are very graceful, who have good balance, good flexibility, but unfortunately, no line. It’s important for a teacher to be supportive of these students, because ballet is for everyone, but at the same time, a teacher should not confuse his/her students by entertaining possibilities that are in fact not possible, because the professional world is not for everyone.

      • Hi Kate,

        While a teacher can be honest about the current professional world, they can’t tell the future. The professional world has changed to this standard and it can change again. I think that it would be great if teachers would be honest about the current situation and encourage dancers of all sizes to challenge that to create a new professional world.

        ~Ragen

  12. The offensive “don’t eat too much turkey” photo appears to have been removed from their website. Just thought you should know.

  13. I love this, thanks again Ragen for all you do. Your work has inspired me to take modern dance classes and to enjoy them as much as I can. Also I show my body appreciation by noticing when it is sore or pushing too hard. Instead of thinking that means I am failing, instead, I show respect to my body by easing up a little bit, or taking a pause for a few moments. I love your work because you empower people to take care of our bodies and make our own decisions as opposed to seeking approval from others. thanks

  14. I think it’s great that they removed the photo; they obviously did so out of embarrassment. Activism works, even when it’s just a little at a time. If we keep objecting to fat shaming, it may eventually go by the wayside.

  15. Hi Ragen – I have this pic framed on my wall – love the sumo ballet dancer too much! I can’t tell you who took it or who the subject is – I clipped it from a magazine. It was an ad for cigarettes (!) and I believe the premise was something about making your own choices, i.e. make the bold individualistic choice to smoke despite popular opinion. Sorry it was used in this manner. I will not let that ruin my enjoyment of this pic.

    • I agree – he looks so confident! The picture needs a caption, like “The hell with what everyone thinks!”

  16. And no one mentioned the man is in toe shoes on point!!!!!
    Some people are real idiots. I agree with you my dear and thank you for keep putting yourself and the “word” out there.

  17. Yes, Virginia, there are kind dance instructors out there. I just found your blog today, after searching for “overweight ballerinas.”

    As a child, I wanted to take ballet. I begged for ballet lessons, but my mother said I was too fat, that they (the teachers) wouldn’t let me in their classes. I don’t know if that was true, or just my mother talking. I was probably only 10 pounds overweight as a child. But I finally got to take ballet in college for one semester. AND I LOVED IT! It was hard work, and sometimes I had to drag myself upstairs to the dorm room after class. But I loved it. I could only take it that one semester. The professor did talk to me – privately – about my weight. She praised my great form and diligence. But she did caution me about jumps, with the extra weight putting so much stress on my joints.

    Here I now am, some 25 years later and 100 pounds heavier. I recently found a teacher in our town who would be willing to work with my 9 yo daughter that has moderate cerebral palsy. The instructor also allowed my typical, but clumsy older daughter to take the class as well. It wound up being a private class with just the two of them, because it’s a homeschool class, and no one else signed up. I asked if I could be in the class, observing and supporting my 9 yo with balance and such. The teacher was very favorable about that. After class I mentioned that I had taken ballet in college and loved it. The instructor then said that from now on, she invited and expected me to do the work alongside the girls. I demurred, because we didn’t have the funds to pay for me to be a student. She said she didn’t care, that she was the owner of the studio, and that she wanted me dancing.

    I look like the dancing hippos from Fantasia, I think. I wince and look away when I look into the mirror. But just for a few minutes each week, when my back is screaming and my legs quivering, I **feel** like a dancer. I feel strong and beautiful and graceful. And I love that feeling. I’m so thankful to my daughter’s instructor for allowing me to do that.

    She’s a wonderful instructor. She was talking to my older daughter today about body image and development. My daughter has gone from a zero to D cup in just over 18 months. She’s miserable and terribly self conscious. The instructor is so tiny. She’s barely bigger than my 9 yo. She said that she struggled with body image for years, being so small and having no figure. She began dancing so that she could have the best body she could – strong, graceful. She finally decided that it wasn’t about size, it was about confidence and taking care of your body, whatever size it was. I’m so grateful for her in our lives!

    • That is a Beautiful and truly inspiring story! Congratulations!
      Being a full figured dancer or heck ANY kind of Dancer is about Passion, and you clearly have it! as does this wonderful Ballet Instructor. And we see the flip side of the coin with the Instructor having to struggle with being too tiny. There is a Belly dancer at the Studio I am part of and she is about 4’11 and it has caused her to lose gigs before. She has been dancing her whole life, but it doesn’t matter. Heck my dance partner was let go because she has red hair and they wanted someone who LOOKED a certain way. But both of them and myself, we keep dancing because we love it. I think it is wonderful you are taking the class with your girls.
      I know what you mean about the Mirror thing, I HATE watching myself in the Mirror when I dance, BUT I have to anyway, especially when I teach to watch the other students and make sure they are true to form and such, and I see myself in the mirror as well. It takes practice, and if in your heart and your mind you are a Dancer or a Ballerina, then you are that in the mirror as well. (also as seen above with the lovely Sumo Ballet Dancer)
      A tip for your budding daughter, I developed early and BIG, I went from like a B to a D overnight. It was REALLY hard on me. More internally then externally. I actually had a reduction when I was 18, but they grew back. Anyway, I think the dance classes and the instructor as well as yourself talking to her about body image and that every body is different is a wonderful thing. I wish I had that when I was younger. My Mom is a Health and Diet nut, and, I am one of the many people that wished I looked as good as I did when I thought I was “fat” then now. I wish my mother would have encouraged me NOT to stop taking Jazz classes when I was younger and didn’t feel comfortable with all my curves showing. I wish she would have helped me feel better about myself instead of assuring me I would lose weight the more I danced. I had to find my OWN good body image by myself, and it was through dance and a dance teacher.
      I give you the highest praise as a Mother, a Full Figured woman, and a Dancer. You Go Girl!


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