FAT QUEERS FIND SOLACE IN DANCING
In a world where we are all told to hide and lose weight, these black queers chose to hop on stage, into the spotlight and celebrate their fat bodies with no apology.
Words By Dan Hastings
How do they do it? How can they spend hours in a dance studio, looking at their sweaty reflection moving to the music? Could you ever? I could never. Although I have always secretly wanted to attend a dance class, the shame I feel towards my fat, black, feminine body has always stopped me from signing up.
“You’re out of breath after climbing the stairs from the entrance door to your room! Don’t be ridiculous! YOU can’t dance!” protests my inner bully on a daily basis. Turns out this has been wrong all this time. Dancer Dexter Mayfield is the living proof my body, just like his, is capable of much more.
Mayfield, a US-based professional dancer who also happens to be plus-size, black and gay, has been breaking the status-quo in the world of dance and fashion working for J-Lo, Savage x Fenty, Marco Marco and even gracing the cover of Attitude Magazine. But when chatting with him over Zoom, he says even he had apprehensions when attending his first dance class at 22. "The gym, especially back then, was not a welcoming environmen t. So the main reason I got into dance was for fitness, he says. I was at a place in my life where I was not active at all, not in the best headspace and I needed something to get me out of the blue funk."
For Yocaste, a French YouTube vlogger and member of the Hive Dance Crew, attending their first class at 14 was a challenge for two reasons. "I kept telling myself I could not do it. I was so uncomfortable in my own skin watching my body in movement was tough" they say over the phone. Their brother, a straight gender-conforming jock, was also into dance. "I was certain I could never dance as beautifully as my sibling. I've lost so much time comparing myself to him."
Thankfully, both Dexter and Yocaste found affordable dancing classes in their neighbourhood where they felt welcomed and motivated.
"I was the biggest body in the room except for one other gentleman. Everybody else was slimmer. Just that kind of typical dancer physique you would see. Regardless of that, each teacher at every stage was extremely inviting and mindful of where everyone was at. My size did not matter, says Mayfield. It all came down to me showing up to the class with an open mind, great energy and the willingness to learn." For teenager Yocaste, being the only boy and the only fat person in the group were no issues: "The absence of disdain and teasing helped me blossom over the years."
To the extent that they both kept coming back to their dance classes, which quickly became their favourite occupation. "Dancing would make me feel so good! Especially because people would compliment me on my performances, says Yocaste. I enjoyed their validation because I would be conscious of my body." But today, they no longer need anyone's approval. "Over the years, having to dance in public all the time and being judged by an audience taught me how to love my body and myself. I don't need dancing to be OK with the way I look anymore. I keep performing because I like expressing myself."
On top of becoming his full-time career, Dexter Mayfield also kept on dancing as an act of self-care. "Dance is therapy. Anytime I do feel down, if I just get up and start with a 15 seconds Tik Tok, I already feel so much better about my day because I know that I am doing something physical, that feels good, joyful and helpful, he says. The second we start dancing, things change. Energy changes. We get to be ourselves. To do that is such a rewarding feeling that can be life-changing. It has opened up so many doors for me."
The joy of performing is also a homage to the ones who came before us, explains Mayfield. From spiritual choreographies on the motherland to voguing, black and queers have used dancing as an act of joy and rebellion against oppression.
We don't solely dance for ourselves adds Yocaste: "So many people DM me saying 'Watching you dance on Instagram gave me the strength to start on my own.' They all look like me and I have the feeling I'm helping them."
However, because they choose to share their dance routines online as fat black queers, they have to face racism, LGBTQ+-phobia and both the fatphobic algorithms and individuals. When it's not the platform itself that limits content from fat creators because they show too much skin, it's the concerned trolls who think being fat makes you unworthy of any respect. Although they admit being quite lucky in terms of online hate, Yocaste only has one answer to that kind of bigotry: "Let them smell their own farts. I dance six hours per week on top of my full-time job and I'm not gaining or losing any weight at all. Can they do that?"
The real injustice, on the other hand, remains the absence of bigger bodies in swathes of the dancing world. Mayfield admits ballet, contemporary and modern have been getting more and more diverse in terms of race, but we're still craving more plus-size ballerinas like Lizzy Howell.
"Hip-hop is more inviting because it is more about texture, performance, this 'go for it and do you' energy. That's also the nature of the community in hip-hop in general. The main thing that we all can do is to encourage anybody in physically any type of body to take the first step. I think that's what Lizzo is trying to do. She is saying: 'I'm not the only one here to do this, let's start including those people who don't have as much visibility as I have.'" The three-time Grammy award winner has launched a casting of "big talented girls" in March 2021 for an upcoming project with Amazon Prime.
When the camera starts recording, Dexter and Yocaste think about how they shook up the standards of dancing. They move to the beats of their own drummer. "I survived the mockery, the death stares, the insults, yet I'm here. What I say to everyone looking at me is: I'm dancing with attitude, joy and swag, says Yocaste. That's the message my body delivers when it moves in rhythm."
"All I'm saying at the end of the day when I dance is: I have value in this body, I matter in this body, concludes Dexter Mayfield. This bigger body can do more than you think."