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Alexandra Beller Dances

(if the more abstract stuff at the beginning doesn't hold your attention, then start it at 1:45)

I have a story to tell today.

As a preschooler, I had a long playing record with the Nutcracker on one side and Swan Lake on the other. I listened to it, dancing around like a ballerina, until it wore out. But, by the time my parents had decided I was old enough for dance lessons, I said 'no' because I'd already been bullied about my size and I was afraid that people would laugh at me if I wore a leotard.

So, I still liked to dance. I danced at school dances. I went out to clubs once in a while when I was older. I enjoyed dance exercise classes. But, I never took a "real" dance class until 1994, when I was 24. By that time, I'd discovered fat acceptance, recognized how sad it was that I'd refused dance lessons as a little kid out of self consciousness, and decided that I was damn well going to take a real dance class.

I took a class called "Modern Dance for Non-Dance Majors" at the University of Michigan School of Dance. It was a great class. There was a live pianist who provided the music, and it was taught by a group of dance majors. I was absolutely stunned when I saw that one of them was around my size. I'd expected to be the largest person in the class (I was), and I had never dreamed that a woman my size could be a dance major. I imagined what she must have gone through to get to that point, as someone who had obviously taken dance lessons all along but had probably not had the "right" body type, ever. Just like I hadn't. I never talked to her about the issue, but I had a lot of respect and admiration for her.

Her name was Alexandra Beller.

Over the years, I've occasionally Googled her, wondering how her career was progressing. She moved to New York and joined the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. In the year 2000, she was interviewed by Radiance Magazine. It's an excellent interview, and in it, Alexandra reveals her ambivalence about her size and about how it has affected her career as a dancer.

Of course there was discrimination:

at age thirteen, she auditioned for and was accepted into advanced classes at an eminent New York ballet school, where traditional balletic standards pervaded and prevailed all the way up to the front office. Alexandra recalls her first day. “I walked into the office, and the administrator said, ‘You’re not supposed to be here, this is not the right place for you.’ And I said, ‘But I auditioned and I got into this class.’ ‘Well, we’ll fix it, there’s obviously been some mistake, you’re not supposed to be here.’ And that was my introduction to the school.” Alexandra laughs ruefully. “I ended up with a teacher who was a little bit more ambivalent about the ‘rules,’ and so she wasn’t mean to me. But other teachers in the school were pretty cruel.”

Reviewers tend to fixate on her size:

Alexandra’s silence after she recites this review speaks volumes. On the one hand, this is one of her best reviews. On the other, the review reads deep meaning into Alexandra’s figure. Alexandra’s work has been written up by major dance magazines here and abroad, but the coverage almost invariably focuses on her weight, not her dance. “A part of me knows that it’s still a big deal. Because I’m the first woman of an . . .” here she pauses, searching for a discreet word, “atypical body type in a major modern dance company in this country. Of course I’m breaking down barriers, and I’m doing it with my own body. But sometimes it just kills me that these reviews have to talk about it. They always say something positive about my dancing, and they usually frame however they’re talking about my body in a generous light, too, but sometimes I just feel like, Can you just talk about my dancing? That’s really what I’m here for. I realize that I’ve taken on this other role because I have to, because it comes with the package. But I didn’t really sign up to be the poster girl.”

She's spent some time feeling disconnected from her body:

However strongly Alexandra may feel about her body, at least she’s in it, which is a significant shift from how she used to feel. “I tried for a very long time to separate my body from how I danced, and to say that I would dance how I danced no matter what my body looked like,” says Alexandra. “But it’s really ridiculous to say that. Nobody can say that. You dance how you dance because you’re in your body...

And, although she has worked steadily, she's been typecast:

Alexandra also finds shape a defining feature in Jones’s choreography. “He does see me in a certain way. I think he sees each of us in a certain way, to be fair,” says Alexandra. “He typecasts us, in terms of movement and in terms of characters. He’s sort of cast me as the femme fatale. He tends to think, Oh, that sexy music is coming on, let’s give that to Alex.

Alexandra accepts the casting, and considers the diverse look and feel of the ten dancers to be a strength of the company. But she admits to wanting more for herself. “I also would like to get the more athletic parts.”

And post-2000? She's now started her own company, Alexandra Beller Dances, and is both a dancer and choreographer. She also teaches modern dance. She's got some videos of her company's repertoire on her dance company's webpage and on YouTube.

She has an intermediate/advanced modern technique class starting tomorrow, April 16th 2011, at 1:00pm at Dance New Amsterdam, 280 Broadway New York, NY.

For performances, look for the calendar items in brown on the company's website.

I'm still a huge admirer of Alexandra: her focus and determination, her talent, and her intelligence. I hope that she influences the next generation of dancers and choreographers and helps to open up the dance world to people with diverse body types. But most of all, I love to watch her dance: graceful, expressive, agile, and full of energy and joy.

Ancel Keys Starvation Study Discussed in Psychology Today | To the Smaller Fats

wriggle99 April 15th, 2011 | Link | [Even gravity itself seems

[Even gravity itself seems to get a bad rap as dance instructors across the land exhort their pupils to suck in their stomachs and step lightly across the floor. But]

Alexandra is finding that weight can actually be a plus in the mechanics of dance, at least as far as they are observed in Jones’s company. “Bill talks all the time about weight as a physical sensation. ‘Feel the weight in this arm and then send the weight here, or feel your weight drop here,’ he says. I would say that weight is the single most important element that he plays with as a choreographer.”

Thank you for this, I really enjoyed watching her in ways I don't tend to find with a lot of modern dance. Although she probably wouldn't like me saying this, she has done things with her ability that she wouldn't have if she was the typical size. And the dynamics of that are interesting, she also has a certain kind of charm not associated with this discipline.

Comments are drawn to all this and express a sense of ennui revealled by her presence.

Such is the nature of status, it bores us whilst its currency retains value.

The idea contained in the quote is really intriguing 'feel your weight and send it'.

DeeLeigh's picture
April 16th, 2011 | Link | Although she probably

Although she probably wouldn't like me saying this, she has done things with her ability that she wouldn't have if she was the typical size.

I think so too, and I have to admit that when I first read that interview back in 2000, I was a little disappointed that she felt that way, you know, the "didn't sign up to be a poster child" thing.

"Surely she must realize that the bias against people with her body type in dance is so strong that almost every talented dancer that looks like her either self-eliminates at an early stage of training or gives up after being discouraged by teachers," I thought. "She's got to know that the fact she's succeeded in dance with her body type means that she's got to be an exceptional dancer and an exceptional human being." and "It's hard to believe that she's surprised people are focusing on the issue."

But, I can see now that thinking of herself that way might have made it impossible for her to accomplish what she has. She did come across as very insightful in the interview, and I don't know how she feels about the issue now, 11 years later. I sent her an e-mail to let her know about this post. Maybe she'll chime in.

blissing's picture
April 16th, 2011 | Link | I love modern dance. I saw

I love modern dance. I saw Alexandra Beller in the late '90s and was transfixed at seeing a non-thin body moving. If I ever visit NYC, I will take one of her classes.

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