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Danza Voluminosa, a Cuban ballet troupe, fat dancers win respect
The prima ballerina of the Danza Voluminosa troupe weighs 286 pounds, and as she thumps gracefully across the floor, she gives new meaning to the words stage presence. Her body is a riotous celebration of weight - of ample belly and breasts, of thick legs and arms, of the crushing reality of gravity.

"I always liked to dance," said the dancer, Mailin Daza, who weighs the equivalent of about 130 kilograms. "I wanted to dance in the classical ballet, but my mother told me fat girls could not dance. I always dreamed of being a ballerina. With this group I feel I am a ballerina."

Formed a decade ago by Juan Miguel Mas, this company of obese dancers has become a cultural phenomenon in Cuba, breaking stereotypes here of dance, redefining the aesthetics of beauty and, along the way, raising the self-esteem of heavyset people.

While the troupe is not the first to employ larger dancers, its popularity comes as a surprise in a country known for its muscular, lean dancers in every genre from classical ballet to salsa.

Mas, a choreographer and dancer who moves like a pampered cat and weighs 136 kilograms, acknowledges that he often uses the stereotypical humor of his dancers' proportions to bring in audiences. The troupe is well known for its parody of Swan Lake and it engages in hilarious renditions of the Can-Can.

But Mas and his troupe are serious about dance, and once the laughter dies down, they are capable of performing moving pieces that drill into the universal themes of love, death and erotic longing. The audience forgets the joke and begins to feel the dance, he said.

"We use humor to get the public in," he said. "Then we can hit them with something stronger."

Mas, 42, also choreographs pieces on themes like the tragedy of gluttony, love between obese couples, the prejudice that fat people face and the psychic toll of obesity.

One of the troupe's recent successes is called "Sweet Death" and tells the story of a woman, rejected by her family, who tries to commit suicide by eating huge quantities of candy. The work has surreal elements, the dancers using their bodies to create furniture in the performance. Another piece, "The Macabre Dinner," explores gluttony.

Mas says it would be a mistake to think that his work is intended to glorify or sanctify obesity, or even to deliver a moralistic message that one should not discriminate against the overweight. Rather, he says, the troupe's art tries to face the reality of obesity while giving larger people a chance to express themselves through dance, a chance they are denied from youth in most dance classes. "Although we are obese and dance, we are against obesity," Mas said. "We are always trying to lose weight."

But something strange happens when the troupe takes the stage. Classical and modern dance often give the impression of human beings flying, freed of the earth. The female dancers are like nymphs, the men like Greek statues. They soar, spin, leap and reach for the sky.

Because of the size of the dancers in Mas's troupe, however, the work of Danza Voluminosa conveys something more earthy and human. Fat people move differently, he said, and the choreography must change.

"We are more mountainous," he said with a smile.

The dancers' movements are often slower than those of their slender colleagues. These dancers favor limbs swinging in pendulous arcs and wavelike motions that seem to ripple through their bodies. They seem to grip the floor rather than to abandon it, keeping a low center of gravity, often crouching or dancing while kneeling or lying on the ground.

And when their dance becomes frenetic, the sheer weight of the dancers thudding across the stage conveys an excitement akin to a stampede, something out of control and wild, yet made of human flesh and blood. It can be a riveting sight.

Mas says he has borrowed from the work of Martha Graham and José Limón but also incorporates moves from African dance, jazz dance and the folkloric dance of the Caribbean, often with West African roots. "I use whatever I can," he said.

For the dancers, working with Mas has changed their lives. Several said they suffered from constant embarrassment and guilt over their weight before they began dancing. But dancing has taught them to accept, if not love, their bodies. They also say that after a performance they feel self-esteem that is foreign to most them, having suffered from the gibes of their peers since childhood.

Barbara Paula, 29, weighs about 125 kilograms and has been dancing with the troupe for five years.

She says it still feels strange at times to be on stage, as if she is constantly discovering the potential beauty hidden inside her body, which for years was a source of shame for her.

"It's something new," she said. "I don't have this complex anymore that because we are obese, we cannot dance, we cannot walk in the street."

The reaction of audiences here in Cuba has been immensely positive. The government now lets the troupe practice and perform in the National Theater of Cuba.

Mas now receives a state salary to continue his work. The dancers who have been with the troupe for years say that the when the group started in November 1996, they faced ridicule and laughter. But these days people take them seriously.

"We have always had those who laugh at first, but by the end of the show there is a standing ovation," said Xiomara González, a 43-year-old mother of two who gave up her job to dance and weighs about 80 kilograms. "And this is a beautiful thing, a very beautiful thing."

Source: By James McKinley Jr., International Herald Tribune


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