Big Girls Can't Dance? Oh Yes We Can

As a kid I loved to dance. I started putting on shows in my living room when I was a toddler. I did it so much that my Uncle Jack called me "Little Miss Hollywood". I remember my first dance recital. I was so excited! The instructors in our troupe picked these dazzling, fringy outfits for our performance, and while I wasn't fat at that time, I was bigger in a lot of ways than the other girls. (I was a full C cup by 6th grade)

Unfortunately they didn't make that costume in my measurements so we had to choose an alternate. The instructors called me out publicly about it causing the girls in the troupe to make fun of me. Hell, even the other moms made fun of me. Everyone was pissed at me for having to pick different costumes.

That was the first time I was publicly shamed for my body and it was devastating. I was just a little girl who wanted to dance. The experience crushed me and I never publicly danced again and it set into motion a lifetime worth of body dysmorphia.

Fast-forward about 40 years. I decided to face my fear of dancing and signed up with a burlesque finishing school here in Nashville called Delinquent Debutantes run by Freya West and Shan De Leers. The class I chose took place over several weeks and in it you would learn a fully choreographed routine and at the end of the session you perform it in a publicly attended recital.

(Shan De Leers & Freya West: Photo Credit Stacie Huckeba)

My first instructor was Freya, a big bootied, buxom babe who blew my mind the first time I saw her. At the beginning of our first class she went over the agenda of moves we were going to learn over the next few weeks. When she was done, I did what I always do when I'm nervous about my body. I made a joke about how I was not going to participate in the bra reveal because my saggy boobs would fall on the floor and trip everybody in the class. Everyone laughed.

Freya did not laugh. Instead, she looked me square in the eyes and said, "Oh no you don't. Not in here. You can go home and hate your body all you want, but in here you are going to love it. You don't like your tits? Then we will start with boob shimmy's because you will look at yourself in that mirror before this class is over and like the way your tits look."

And guess what? She was right. I did like the way my tits looked. Not just in that class, but every day. Who would have thought that stripping to Elvis's "Blue Christmas" would be more powerful than all my therapy sessions and Xanax prescriptions combined? Not me, but it happened.

It's not magic. The sexy dancing is super fun, but that's not the thing. Perception is and will always be the key to how the world sees you. And that lies squarely on the perception you have of yourself. People will perceive you as you perceive yourself. Period.

You can't jiggle and shake and grind and peel off your clothes to a choreographed number in a full sized mirror covered in glitter, satin and sequins and not catch at least a glimpse of yourself looking sexy somewhere in that routine. I don't care what size you are or what you don't like about yourself. And that's all you need; just a glimpse. One little reminder in a world filled with images of perfection that you are beautiful and sexy exactly as you are.

Last week here in Nashville, the head of a dance troupe, "Nashville Burlesque", Shannon Million started a big rhinestoned uproar in the burlesque community when she billed her troupe as "The only all live-music, upscale, classic burlesque show in town... featuring live vocal performances from jazz, soul, swing & rockabilly songstresses, accompanied by fit and traditionally beautiful classic-burlesque dancers."

The controversy was born out of the many people who felt like what she was really saying was, "no fat chicks & no ugly chicks". And in the burlesque community, that is a big, fat no-no!

The recent resurgence of burlesque is due in part specifically to the diversity of the women who perform it. All shapes, sizes, styles, tastes, lifestyles and music are represented. Part of the fun of a good burlesque show is the diversity of all of the girls and their acts.

What I wondered was "Fit and traditionally beautiful" by whose standards? Every woman I know has something about her that defines her and makes her beautiful. I often wonder how my entire life might have played out differently had my dance instructors focused on the fact that I have ridiculously long legs (which are perfect for dancing) instead of the fact that my boobs were too big for that fringy costume.

I called Shannon Million to ask her about it. I wanted to know what she meant or to give her a chance to explain it. She didn't respond to me but Freya and Shan did and this is what they had to say.

Shan De Leers:
"For me, Bawdy Confidence, our particular brand of confidence at Delinquent Debutantes, can best be summed up in a quote by the always beautiful and fiery Sophia Loren, "Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than the belief that she is beautiful."

I stand every week with that knowledge, at the front of the classroom, yelling counts and enthusiastically throwing out praise to amazing and powerful women, of all different ages, backgrounds, and sizes, I slowly watch them realize they are all fighting the same battle. I watch as they find even just a glimmer of themselves to smile at. We are all beautiful, we just have to believe it.

Freya West:
Every time you say or think that you hate a part of yourself, you reinforce that idea. Stop limiting your self-acceptance by saying things like, "I'll like my thighs when I lose 10 pounds." The ugly and beautiful truth is that you won't. You'll like your thighs better when you decide you like your thighs.

The hurt caused by a few words this last week just proves how important our words are. It was a catalyst that blew open conversations about appearance. A chorus of voices rose up to say, "this is where I come from, this is my story of my body." Heartbreaking stories of eating disorders, domestic violence, self-harm and self-loathing from every body type. And the overwhelming response echoed back, "I thought it was just me."

It sounds so easy doesn't it? We all know it's not. It's a continual process of unlearning a lifetime of sales pitches all based on "fixing" things about you that didn't need fixing in the first place. Maybe today you can't love all of yourself, but maybe you can say to your stomach or your arms or "that" part, "I wish you good health." Because we all want that. And maybe tomorrow, you'll get a little bit braver, and spend more time loving, creating, and living in your body than picking it apart."

(Shan De Leers & Freya West: Photo Credit Stacie Huckeba)

All I know is that this is the same conversation that made me afraid to ever dance in public again. For as many Delinquent Debutante classes as I've taken, I always drop out at the end so that I can skip the recital. I'm all grown up now but when I think of doing that dance in public, I'm the same scared, hurt little girl I have always been and it terrifies me.

Which means one thing. I have to do it. I have to sign back up and do the whole damn thing and this time see it through. Lord have mercy on my soul, I'm going to wear feathers and sequins and strip in front of an audience to some catchy tune and everyone is invited. Tits and all. Stay tuned...