Close your eyes and picture a ballet. What probably comes to your mind is a troupe of graceful dancers with beautiful bodies gliding across the stage in perfect harmony with each other and the music. Now keep that image, but change one small detail. Now they are not graceful dancers with thin and attractive bodies, but graceful dancers with bodies that are typically regarded obese. Difficult to imagine? Well, not for Juan Miguel Mas, founder and director of Danza Voluminosa, a very unusual Cuban group dedicated to giving obese people the chance to express themselves through dance.
The group has surprisingly originated in a country that has attained fame for not only the versatility and technical skill of its dancers, but also their perfectly sculpted bodies. Breaking national stereotypes of what a dancer’s body should look like, the group, founded in 1996, rapidly became a cultural phenomenon in Cuba. Juan Miguel firmly believes that weight should not be an obstacle to a dancer’s aspirations, and over the years his troupe of seven dancers (six women and one man) have produced three full-length pieces and thirty different short choreographies. There even was a Canadian documentary known as Defying Gravity, made about them in 2004.
Some of the members of this troupe say that they were instantly written off and even laughed at in their society when they shared their aspirations of becoming dancers. However, today they have attained more recognition than a lot of professional groups, and this maverick troupe serves as an inspiration to overweight and obese people all around the world.
Mr. Mas, weighing 300 pounds himself, has developed a unique style and series of moves keeping in mind the physical proportions of his dancers. He has incorporated elements of African, jazz and Caribbean dance in his choreography and presented some moving pieces. In fact, in his own words he is quite an improviser and open to experimenting with different dancing styles.
His group generally begins a performance with some humor, and most of their jokes revolve around their heavy body weight. However, once the audience is pulled in, the performance gradually switches gears to more intense themes, including pieces on the challenges that obese people face in society. By the end of the show there is hardly anyone still dwelling on the funny side of watching a group of obese people dance. And that is this group’s most impressive achievement.
The group has become so popular now that some of their members have quit their day jobs and dance full time; just like the great dancers they grew up idolizing. Talk about fighting against the odds! It certainly is the amazing initiative of Juan Miguel Mas and the determination of his entire team that has brought them this unforgettable win.