How Dance Taught Me to Hate, Then Love, My Body

Plus size dancer Jessie Diaz reflects on her journey to loving herself—and the feelings of body shame she had to overcome to get there.

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“You dance so well for your size!”

If I had a dollar for every time I heard this comment, I wouldn’t need to work. It has taken everything in me to hold back from crying, yelling, or telling someone off. I used to swallow my anger and believed this statement to be true—I was a good dancer but my size was what was holding me back from being a great dancer. Now, I’ve come to realize that my body being different from most in the world of dance gives me a unique angle to showcase my art. I’m proud to call myself a plus size dancer. But, the road to get to that point was long and bumpy.

plus size dancer jessie diaz as a young girl in ballet

At age six, I became involved in dance—ballet, tap, jazz, you name it. On Saturdays, my sister and I had dance practice from 9am to 12pm. We would then go home to eat and change and get to softball practice where I would spend my afternoon from 2pm-4pm. We were active kids. My life was devoted to dance and being in that studio. But everything changed when my body changed.

After hitting puberty at age twelve, I was advised by the dance school that I attended religiously and adored that in order to advance my ballet skills, I needed to lose weight. For reference, the photo on the left was taken on the day I received this critique. Because I looked up to my instructors so much, I took every bit of advice to heart. Because I didn’t exactly understand what to do in order to change my body, I did what any twelve-year-old would have done to embark on a weight loss journey—I stopped eating. I skipped meals regularly and would lie, complaining about a stomach ache that didn’t exist. I skipped meals so often that one day, I fainted. My mother, worried about my health, finally got me to confess to her what I was doing and what my dance instructors had told me. My mother is a Bronx-bred Nuyorican—no one messes with her, and especially not with her children. She was absolutely furious. She took me straight to the studio, cursed everyone out, and immediately pulled me from the program.

As a young girl, I didn’t understand. I wanted to be in the program so bad. I was embarrassed by the way my mom handled the situation, embarrassed of my body, and extremely upset that I could no longer participate in my favorite activity. Dance was my life, and it felt like my life was over.

I did what any twelve-year-old would have done to embark on a weight loss journey—I stopped eating.
plus size dancer jessie diaz flexes her muscles

Once I entered high school, I stopped dancing completely and substituted dance with sports. I continued playing softball and threw myself into the game, becoming so passionate that I thought I wanted to play in college. Once I got to college, I tried out for the softball team, but my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t feel like the group of girls on the team were the girls I was meant to share my college experience with. The day after tryouts, I saw a flyer for dance team auditions. I tried out the following day and joined the team. College made me fall in love with dance all over again. I was finally able to find my space and felt safe in my hip-hop element.

The bullying didn’t stop, but I learned to work through it. One costume suggestion for my college dance team didn’t come in my size and left me feeling insecure and too embarrassed to bring it to the choreographer’s attention. I decided to buy an alternate costume and altered it to make it look as similar as possible to the others, hoping the choreographer wouldn’t notice. I never voiced my concerns because I wanted to fit in, not stand out. It wasn’t until after college that I learned to truly embrace my body.

plus size dancer jessie diaz in a dress

Knowing what I now know, I am really grateful and happy that my mom stood up for me, especially at a time when I didn’t understand why I was being treated differently. Body positivity is a journey, and it took me a long time to come to terms with my body and to feel comfortable in a dance environment. Only after many classes with the same instructor and dance friends did I feel like I was in a safe space where I fit in with everyone else. I attended dance intensives, started videotaping myself, sharing it, and having conversations with like-minded dancers. I discovered other plus size fitness influencers and dancers online who showed me that there was a supportive community out there for me to join. I learned that my ability to dance is a gift and my body is the vessel. Not many people can say they dance well, and I have to remind myself that I am lucky to share a space with people that call themselves dancers.

The reason that I’ve come back to dance time and time again is that when I dance, an alter ego appears. All of a sudden, any shyness or discomfort with my body disappears. I feel invincible. The activity and community I once felt excluded from, I now am embraced by. Truthfully, the fact that brands like Dia&Co are providing activewear for plus sizes is a game-changer. There is something about rocking a cute pair of leggings and a sports bra with a flannel shirt tied around my waist that makes me feel like the baddest babe in the room. Nothing can bring me down when I’m feeling cute and hitting that choreography!

Hearing people cheer for me on stage or shower me in compliments via social media was never my goal, but it certainly has become the icing on the cake. Being featured in various fitness brands’ campaigns is such an overwhelming and humbling experience. For me to be encouraged to not only showcase my figure but also my passion for dance is so exciting. Now, instead of being shamed for my body shape, I get praised because my body breaks the mold.

I learned that my ability to dance is a gift and my body is the vessel.
plus size dancer jessie diaz gets her groove on

I still have doubters, but I have to remind myself that for every one bully or harsh critic, there are twenty other people cheering me on. The love outweighs the hate, and that’s what continues to drive me. It’s hard to ignore the negativity, and sometimes I want to fight back and let my haters know they’re wrong about me. I realized that I needed to decide what’s more important: to spend my energy arguing with doubters or thanking those that support me. Now, I proudly introduce myself as a plus size dancer. Some people dislike the term because they don’t believe there should be a separate category. Others love that I’m embracing the label. No matter what the reaction, it always seems to spark a worthwhile conversation. I think it’s crucial that we have conversations about larger bodies in art spaces.

Now, I’ve turned my social posts into action and am actively helping people of all sizes learn to love their bodies through my in-person body-positive dance classes. I’ve learned to love my body through dance and now I share my experiences, negative and positive, with others while supplying attendees with the tools for self-love. Yes, it’s a journey, but it’s one that I’m so glad to be on.

 

 

Photographs courtesy of Amanda Saviñón.

headshot of plus size dancer jessie diaz

Jessie Diaz-Herrera

also known as @curveswithmoves.