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Hip-hop dance squad the Phat Fly Girls are one of several East Bay women's groups who refuse to let their bodies stop them from pursuing their passion. On a Saturday afternoon in August, three of the Girls blocked out a routine in a mirror-walled studio in South Berkeley. A familiar tune from the musical Chicago played on the stereo, though the lyrics to this particular rendition of "Cell Block Tango," penned by dancer Marina Wolf Ahmad of the troupe's New York chapter, were a tad different were a tad different from the ones Catherine Zeta-Jones sang in the movie. So, too, is the song's title: "One-Ton Tango."
"It's about getting revenge," director Matilda St. John explained to a reporter as a dancer swept gracefully across the floor while reciting a verse about trying on a dress and then attempting to buy it. St. John, portraying a skinny department-store clerk a role they'll later hire an outside dancer for took one look at the customer and informed her that they didn't carry anything in her size. "That's all right," the dancer harrumphed, chin high, turning to the audience. "As soon as the doctor surgically removes my credit card from her ass, I can wash it off and look somewhere else."
Another dancer described confronting a man at the supermarket who wouldn't stop looking at the groceries in her basket. "He's staring at my pork chops so hard they're practically frying in their plastic wrap," she recalled. Next thing she knew, she'd blacked out and come to with her hands covered in the blood of something or someone. "Cleanup at register five!" a clerk called out over the loudspeaker. The dancers sang and danced in unison: They had it coming ... They had it coming ... They had it coming all along ... I didn't do it ... But if I done it ... How could you tell me that I was wrong?
St. John, a writer and psychotherapist who works from a Health at Every Size approach, founded the Phat Fly Girls five years ago. "I've always loved to dance, but as I got older it became too intimidating to go to a dance studio," she said after the rehearsal. "Teachers would say, 'You've got to lose weight,' and that became more and more uncomfortable."
Today, she fields a regular stream of inquiries from would-be members. One of the biggest challenges facing newcomers is to stop trying to make themselves look smaller. "Larger dancers are so used to dancing in the back and trying to minimize their movements," she said. "We encourage each other to make the most noise, to exaggerate, to jiggle."
While they're serious dancers, the Phat Fly Girls don't take themselves too seriously. Case in point: One of the group's classic numbers is performed to a thumping, infectious tune featuring six oft-repeated words guaranteed to lodge permanently in your brain: Too much booty in your pants! When they performed the sexy, whirlwind routine at Cal State East Bay, the audience was initially hesitant, unsure how to react. "At first, they didn't know if they could laugh," St. John said. "But there is humor in it."
What the group's members don't find funny are some of the media requests they get, such as the national evening news program that wanted to film the group's annual fund-raiser, a chocolate reception held in December. "I invited them to a practice, but they had no interest in watching us dance," St. John said. "What they wanted to do was film a bunch of fat women eating chocolate." The intended topic of the news program? A modern-day exploration of the seven deadly sins. "They wanted us to represent gluttony. They kept asking, and we kept telling them no."
The local athletic posse that has attracted the most national attention and perhaps been the most brazen in their unabashed body love is a synchronized swim team known as the Padded Lilies. The Lilies have been the subject of myriad magazine articles, documentaries, and entertainment news shows. They've even held their own against a snarky Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. "Leno himself was a little bit of an ass," ringleader Shirley Sheffield recalls. "He was trying to be unkind, but we wouldn't let him."
Sheffield conjured up the idea for the group in 1997 during a weekly swim for large women held at the public pool in Albany. "I just happened to notice that women would be bobbing up and down and doing water aerobics, and it kind of looked like synchronized swimming," she said. "It's a kind of funny thing anyway, and it occurred to me that fat women doing it would be really funny." So she signed on an instructor, recruited a dozen women, and started shopping for waterproof fabric.
When they debuted a piece called "Broadway Babes," clad in gold lamé vests and top hats, the crowd at the annual water show went wild. As with the Phat Fly Girls at Cal State, Sheffield said she didn't know how they'd be received, but the Lilies brought the house down. It's a reaction they've gotten ever since. As they strode down the hallway toward the set of The Tonight Show, staffers lined the hallways to applaud them. "I'm not ever sure what nerve it strikes," she said. "I think it's just us getting out there and not being afraid of our bodies."
Their coach moved away in 2004, but the Lilies still perform on occasion. These days, it's primarily when the media comes calling. Sheffield and three others comprise the core group, welcoming anyone who wants to jump in for any period of time. "A lot of women who join us have never worn makeup, have never felt comfortable wearing bathing suits in public," she said. "We tart 'em up with makeup and make 'em wear goofy swim caps. They perform and have a wonderful time, and then they move on. That's all they want."
What Sheffield, who swims three hours a week, wants is for society to understand is that being fat isn't a limitation. In February, Australian filmmaker Kim Farrant spent five days with her for a documentary on people living with what many might take to be bodily liabilities: a dancer without legs, a female-to-male transsexual, a recovering anorexic and bulimic, and a woman who survived breast cancer. And then there's Sheffield. "I'm cast as the fat chick," she said with a laugh. "I told the producer, 'Let's talk about age! Age is my issue right now. I'm always been fat and have no issues with that, but getting older is something else. Ignore the fact that I'm fat and it'll drive the audience crazy. They'll be going But isn't she fat? Why aren't you talking about that?'"
As part of the process, Sheffield was interviewed nude and posed full-frontal for a figure-drawing class at Studio One in North Oakland. The film, Naked on the Inside, is slated to premiere at Sundance in January, with an airing on Showtime to follow. Sheffield said she's received several e-mails from the filmmaker's staff, raving about her segment. One woman wrote that she now wears dresses after not doing so for years: "I watched you and feel like I need to get into my body and celebrate it."
Sheffield said she's been two things for as far back as she can remember: fat, and ornery as hell. She'll never know which came first, but together they've proven a powerful combination. "I feel like, why does somebody get to limit me if I don't feel limited myself? So I always got up into people's faces if they said anything negative to me. I see it as my mission to encourage other women to do that, too."
Large women attempt to fill the plus-size style gap.
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