Thursday, 29 May 2008

Danza Voluminosa, a Cuban ballet troupe

Plus-size dancers are crowd pleasers
Published Tuesday, May 27, 2008

HAVANA — Barbara Paula looks nothing like a classical ballerina, but when she speaks of dancing on the stage, her face glows with confidence.

"I always wanted to be a dancer, but I was heavy and never had the opportunity," said Paula, 30, who weighs 275 pounds. "Becoming a dancer has changed my life 120 percent. It's given me confidence and helped me emotionally."

Paula is a member of Havana's Danza Voluminosa, a group of plus-sized women who have become a well-established and respected troupe on the Cuban arts circuit. Their performances draw large audiences and favorable reviews, challenging stereotypes about beauty and the arts.

Founder and choreographer Juan Miguel Mas, 42, came up with the idea in 1996, drawing on his own experience as a heavy-set dancer entranced by modern dance.

"The first performance was received with a lot of expectation and reservations," he said. "The house was full and some people laughed, but others applauded. At the end, there was a big debate about whether it was appropriate for the stage and whether it was aesthetic or not. But we have continued, and we are breaking down barriers."

The group has become quite popular in Cuba, its members' girth something of an anomaly in a country where food is expensive, rationed and at times scarce. Members of the six-woman troupe weigh between 200 and 300 pounds. Their art is also experimental, somewhat unusual in a country where many artists hold closer to classical and indigenous forms.

Mas scripts dances that follow classical themes, infusing touches from African, modern, jazz and Caribbean dance. He also creates plots around the challenges and discrimination faced by the overweight, who — as in other countries around the world — often endure exclusion, teasing and insults from a young age.

And sometimes the performances are whimsical, including a parody of the classic Swan Lake.

"The idea is to expand dance and culture, creating respect for diversity," he said.

While most modern professional dance troupes are filled with lithe, muscular bodies swirling and twirling around and above the stage, the movements of the heavy dancers are, by necessity, more earth-bound.

"It's slower," Mas said. "There are gestures from pantomime but also some from ballet, depending on the characteristics of the play. The aim is to always make an intense visual presentation."

Mas says he has heard of other troupes of obese dancers in places as far as Moscow and London, but most seem to have put on a limited number of performances and none has continued for long or reached a professional status akin to what Danza Voluminosa has achieved in Cuba.

The group has official sanction, conducting practices and performances in the National Theater, and Mas receives a government salary for his work with the troupe and other activities.

But the dancers typically work regular jobs, squeezing in rehearsals and performances around the demands of their daily lives.

"We practice twice a week most of the year, but before a performance I lose track of how many hours we rehearse," said Paula, a homemaker. "After we perform, I feel such an excitement and happiness."

Expanding from his work with the overweight dancers, Mas also runs workshops and seminars, sometimes for visiting international groups.

Some of his work combines yoga and dance, and some of his seminars use dance as therapy, helping build self-esteem.

But the Danza Voluminosa troupe remains his main focus, an unexpected success that has been accepted with enthusiasm.

"This January we shared the stage with three thin dancers in a production called Alliances," Mas said. "We looked for alliances between these types of bodies, in the end creating one body with the bodies of six dancers. It was a call for respect of our differences, not just between body types."

With more than 30 dancers trained over the past 11 years, Mas keeps his regular company at six performers and enjoys no shortage of interest from women wanting to join the group. He also has no problems scheduling performances.

"Most of our dancers are afraid to appear in public the first time, but their confidence grows when they see the audience's reactions," he said. "And while that first audience laughed at the idea, now it's different. People come now to the theater with expectations to see a serious work. It's serious and professional."

Source: Palm Beach Post-Cox News Service

Danza Voluminosa, a Cuban ballet troupe, fat dancers win respect
Published: 29 July 2007

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.

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."

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: Cuba News Headlines
(Original Source: By James McKinley Jr., International Herald Tribune)

A montage of clips from Danza Voluminosa's performances

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