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The Power of Dancing Man

June 4th, 2015     by Denise Reich     Comments

Photo courtesy of June and Jerry Caldwell

When I was about 18 years old, an especially petty, vicious friend of my mother’s casually told me that I didn’t have a “dancer’s body.” I wasn’t sure why he felt it was appropriate to comment on my body at all. What did that mean, anyway? It was absurd. I had been dancing since I was 2½ years old. I had a body. My body knew how to dance. No, I didn’t look like a Balanchine ballerina, and I never would, even if I starved myself. I knew that for a fact: I’d been battling anorexia off and on since seventh grade, when puberty had transformed me from the smallest kid in class to someone with curves and a propensity to gain weight. I had breasts, hips and a butt, and they were there for the long haul, regardless if I were fat or thin. It didn’t mean I couldn’t do my double pirouettes as cleanly as the girl next to me.

I recognized that the remark came from a miserable individual who enjoyed bullying others, and I shrugged it off. I’d certainly heard unsolicited comments about other dancers’ physiques before. Dance hadn’t always been such a toxic environment; I’d been fortunate to have unfailingly supportive, kind dance teachers until I was about 11. After I moved and ended up at another studio, that was no longer the case. For instance, there was a girl in one of my ballet classes who was called “Shamu” by another student; the teacher did nothing to stop it. I didn’t have such direct insults leveled at me, but I certainly wasn’t a favorite. That wasn’t always about my dance abilities, and I knew it.

As an adult I’ve found far more acceptance and joy in dance than I did as a teenager – and no, I’m not thin now. I’ve been able to work with some amazing choreographers and professional dancers, do some high-profile events, and enjoy myself immensely. Dance is one of the most liberating things in my life.

My love of dance recently led me to Avalon, a nightclub in Hollywood, and to a party in honor of a man named Sean O’Brien.

Several months ago O’Brien, a heavyset financier from Liverpool, England, was mocked while he was dancing at a club. To add insult to injury, the trolls snapped two photos of him – one where he was dancing, and a second where he was looking dejectedly at the ground after he’d stopped – and posted them online with derogatory commentary.

In everyday circumstances, perhaps that’s where the story would have ended. It certainly wasn’t the first time a large person had been mocked online. Far from it. Many people have absolutely no problem using the word “fat” as a pejorative or denigrating and judging anyone who is heavy, whether it’s blatant or masked in faux concern for their health (which is complete nonsense, because fit and fat people certainly exist and in any case, it’s not a random stranger’s place to judge another person’s real or perceived health). Most of the time society glosses right over that.

Here’s where the story gets interesting: this time, it didn’t fly.

Not only did commenters on the original thread defend O’Brien, but the greater Internet community did, too. Writer Cassandra Fairbanks dubbed him “Dancing Man” and launched a search via Twitter. He was quickly located and was invited to a dance party in Los Angeles.

Here’s where it gets even more interesting: in addition to Fairbanks and friends, a number of celebrities, including Moby and Pharrell Williams, backed O’Brien’s right to dance. A GoFundMe account raised five figures to bring O’Brien from England to Los Angeles. The Los Angeles tourist board sponsored his travel and hotel. One of the swankiest nightclubs in Hollywood, Avalon, donated their space…on a Saturday night, to boot. The Dodgers baseball team invited O’Brien to throw out the first pitch at a game and the historic LA Memorial Coliseum welcomed him as a special guest. Dita Von Teese took him out for lunch. He was named the Rockettes’ Dancer of the Week. A non-profit organization, the Dance Free Movement, was founded, and additional funds from the original GoFundMe were donated to various anti-cyberbullying and body acceptance initiatives in the USA and UK, such as Cybersmile. The founders of the new app Gudly donated an additional US $30,000 to the Trevor Project and other organizations.

Photo courtesy of June and Jerry Caldwell

When the O’Brien story first broke, some of us in the dance community talked about it amongst ourselves. Self-acceptance and body positivity have been recurring themes for friends in my circle this year. In early 2015 some of us participated in dance events for Shake It for Self-Acceptance and NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association. Several people wanted to do a flash mob for O’Brien.

That goal came to fruition when Dance Mob Nation, one of the groups with which I dance, was invited to Avalon. We were to perform a dance to Pharrell’s song “Happy”, and the number would be followed by a video message from Pharrell himself. Moby, Tatyana Ali and Andrew WK, among others, were appearing in person. Dancer Whitney Thore, star of the body-positive show My Big Fat Fabulous Life, would also be in attendance.

Photo courtesy of June and Jerry Caldwell

I knew it would be a very long night for me. I’m eight months into a serious and debilitating illness that causes extreme fatigue, to the point where even doing simple errands usually wipes me out for the rest of the day. Illness notwithstanding, I’m committed to exercising six days a week, just as I did before I was sick. I also feel that for my own sanity and self-preservation I need to keep doing at least one thing I love. Thus, I fight tooth and nail to keep dance in my life, as much as I’m able.

I conserved every bit of energy I had for Avalon, and before the doors opened I rested as much as I could. Others drank alcohol; I had water and Gatorade to replenish electrolytes. Between rehearsal and the party itself I only ended up staying for about three hours, and spent much of that time resting. I paid for it, regardless: I was barely conscious and remained in a haze for the next three days. However, it was well worth using four days of spoons to support tolerance and acceptance for all, and to have so much fun.

Here’s the third interesting thing, though: once the party started, adrenaline kept me going for much longer than I’d originally anticipated. For a magic hour, I had energy. Perhaps it was all the love and positive mojo in the room. Perhaps it was the transformative and transcendent power of dance. Or both. The club was filled with folks of all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities and orientations, all of whom felt free to dance without fear of ridicule; all of whom were supporting each other. For a change, everyone was on the right side of the velvet rope. People wore buttons with the slogan “When we all stand together, nobody stands alone.”

The bright spirits at Avalon weren’t just supporting one man’s right to be himself without being bullied, they were advocating that for every single one of us.

Photo courtesy of June and Jerry Caldwell

Confident fat people who are in the public eye are often subjected to loud accusations that their very presence is “promoting obesity” or an “unhealthy lifestyle”. Complete strangers who don’t have a clue about their diet or exercise habits, much less their medical information, make stereotypical, ignorant claims. And, as evidenced by the Dancing Man incident, even those who are not famous are sometimes mocked as they go about their business. Whether they’re shopping, working out, picking up their kids at school or, like Sean O’Brien, dancing, the floor is always wide open for comment. Apparently, there are those who feel that fat people should never leave their homes, participate in the media in any way, or engage in any activities whatsoever. How dare they go out in public where others can see them! And oh noes, they don’t hate themselves! That’s unhealthy!

This is why the rally behind Dancing Man is so significant and encouraging. His supporters are affirming that people of size are entitled to live their lives with dignity and respect, without ridicule, without being constantly challenged about their health and exercise regimens, and without having to justify their presence. O’Brien has just as much of a right to exist, and to dance, as the thin person standing next to him. He’s here. He’s heavy. And…? His life is nobody’s business but his own and he has every right to enjoy it.

This is the first time there has been such a large public outpouring of support for someone who has been fat-shamed. It’s the first time mainstream society has really stood up to affirm that people of all shapes and sizes – and not just the thin ones – have the right to love themselves and feel comfortable in their own skin.

Hopefully, it will not be the last.

Tags: body politics, news flash

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