Phat Girls Have Big Moves

Jessica Judd's Phat Fly Girls hope to break the stigma against "average"-sized dancers.

A former ballerina who took up lyrical jazz and hip-hop at age 23, Jessica Judd is no stranger to the flesh phobias that pervade contemporary western dance. From the jump, she knew that most companies favor taut-limbed coryphées and fly girls with washboard stomachs over anything that could be considered “average.” But such preferences really came to light ten years ago, when Judd started auditioning for repertory groups. At the time she was a size 14 or 15, which would qualify as “curvy” in real life, but turned out to be a major liability in the rarefied dance world. “They ask your weight on the audition forms,” Judd said. “It was clear I was not going to fit in.” Judd explained that “average” skews pretty small in most dance companies — generally between a size 2 and a size 6, with 8 being a rarely tolerated upper limit. “If you look at So You Think You Can Dance on TV, I know those women are very, very small,” she said. “You don’t realize how small they are until you see them in regular clothes.”

Plus-sized dancers can look just as fly onstage as their zero-fat counterparts, Judd contends, but they have a long history of being maligned by mandatory weight restrictions. By 2000 she had almost given up hope of getting beyond the basic studio recital level. Then Judd’s mother read an article about a Bay Area dance instructor named Marina Wolf Ahmad, whose company Big Moves featured all the size 8 and up women who normally get dissed at casting calls. Judd hooked up with Big Moves and cofounded the Phat Fly Girls dance troupe in 2001. Since then she has performed all over the West Coast. Last year the Phat Fly Girls headlined a CounterPulse show called “All That Flab,” in which they reworked the lyrics of Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse (the man behind Chicago, Cabaret, and All That Jazz) to promote “fat positive” themes. Now the director of Big Moves’ Bay Area chapter, Judd works with guest choreographers to find steps that “look good on large bodies.” She teaches dancers to sashay and pirouette in a way that distributes their weight. The organization’s goal, she said, is to get people of all sizes on stage, which means they occasionally get “averaged-sized” participants. Granted, Judd added, “I guess average-sized is actually plus-sized.”

This Saturday, March 29, Big Moves will hold its annual Taste for Dance fund-raiser at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland (685 14th St.), featuring a big bubbly fountain that drips chocolate, plus a buffet with samplings from local chocolatiers including See’s, Scharffen Berger, and Godiva. Not to mention there’s dance — including performances by Rubenesque Burlesque, the belly dance duo Raks Africa, and, of course, those Phat Fly Girls. 7-9 p.m., $15-$18. BigMoves.org

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