Six women are performing pirouettes, pliés, jetés and other classical ballet moves in the Teatro Nacional de Cuba. What makes this scene unusual is that the ballerinas are all wearing size-XXL tutus, and they are dancing in the lobby instead of on the stage. People peer in through the theatre's front windows, evidently perplexed. "We don't have our own place to rehearse, so sometimes we're allowed to come here," says Juan Miguel Mas, choreographer, producer, costume designer and occasional ballerina for Danza Voluminosa. With a nod toward the uninvited onlookers outside, he says, "They think we're an exercise class. They think we're trying to lose weight."
In fact Danza Voluminosa is like any other professional dance troupe, only heavier a lot heavier (Mailín Daza, the company's prima ballerina, weighs in at 130 kilos). Small may be beautiful, but Danza Voluminosa makes a strong argument for the beauty of big. "We provide a context for obese people to develop artistically, to create a language and a structure that makes them able to interact with society," Mas explains. "But it's not limited to fat people. We've worked with dancers who gained weight, retired dancers all kinds of artists said to be `good for nothing'. We've worked with people with AIDS. We like to find a place for these kinds of people in our show."
Mas himself is no lightweight in any sense of the word. He began his dance studies with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, with a grant from the company's legendary founder and director, Alicia Alonzo. Then he went on to study with Danza Contemporanea de Cuba and master choreographer Ramiro Guerra. In 1996 he created Danza Voluminosa. "The idea was born of necessity," he recalls. "I was a dancer in a dance troupe, but they used me only in special cases. I created a character for myself to play, Giant Baby, and that was one of the first and only times I was allowed on stage. I needed more opportunities to perform."
Today Danza Voluminosa consists of seven dancers (six women and one man) and Mas. The troupe has produced three full-length choreographies, 30 shorter works and has been the subject of a Canadian documentary ("Defying Gravity," 2004).
The public reaction hasn't always been positive, especially in the early days. "We've played in places for the first time where people have shouted at us, `look at those fat people!' We still hear giggles sometimes, but when audiences see the sense of purpose, the work that has gone into the show, our concentration well, there's always huge applause at the end."