Nearly four years in nearly four minutes: fat, queer, dance and time

Charlotte Cooper

I love to dance, have been dancing all my life but it has been only in my late forties that I have had opportunities to invest in this activity, largely because of dance world exclusionary gate-keeping. This can happen through, for example, inaccessible venues or training institution recruitment criteria for students. From 2014-2016 Kay Hyatt and I had the great fortune to work with Project O (Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small) on a performance called SWAGGA (2014-). These younger but more experienced practitioners gave us an education in contemporary dance method and culture (which I wrote about in my blog). Around the same time Hamish MacPherson introduced us to dance as research during workshops at Roehampton University. 

Towards the end of SWAGGA Kay and I experienced a great desire for studio time for ourselves. We wanted to use what we had learned to work together in an embodied way. We wanted to understand how we dance and move as fat people, and explore what that means. So from 2015 to the present we have been hiring the small studio at Chisenhale Dance, not far from where we live. The space is cheap and private though not accessible, and this is a big problem. We go there monthly, more or less, and spend three hours moving, experimenting and talking. Sometimes we use the space to prepare for a performance but these sessions are always just us.

Our studio work is influenced by my practice as a psychotherapist, there are echoes of body psychotherapy in it but it is somewhat different to Dance Movement Psychotherapy. It is also informed by fat activism, a very broad endeavour as I argue in my book Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement (2016). I see my own fat activism as an attack on medicalised power in line with the social model of disability and which I do through building culture that explores queer feminist fat sensibility, experience and possibility. In these clips (below) Kay and I are part of a lineage of fat activists who use dance to centre fat bodies. But we are unique in our open and experimental nature, our ambivalence about performance, and our general oddness.

When we ask ourselves what happens when we put our queer/old/fat selves at the heart of the movement, we find critiques of ‘good’ dance and ‘good’ bodies. But when we go to the studio to move and work we also find ourselves, we blow our own minds, we expand our understanding of who we are and what we do until good and bad are no longer relevant. We have a really clear and friendly close look at our bodies, we have a great time, a right laugh, we share powerful and subversive thoughts. We leave the space each time with a renewed sense of hope and possibility. This is what embodied liberation means to me.

This short film consists of digital time-lapse clips from six sessions in the dance studio interspersed with five holidays. The dance clips were made between December 2015 and June 2016, the holidays took place between June 2016 and 2019. It is silent. I am one of the dancers and the other is Kay. I included mistakes when I made the film.

Nearly four years in nearly four minutes from Charlotte Cooper on Vimeo. Charlotte Cooper, charlottecooper.net

I really like using time lapse in the studio. I have a sense of myself as plodding, slow, like an elephant. I am a dynamic and active person but my self-image has been hijacked by fatphobia, causing me to see myself as passive, sedentary and blob-like. The time lapse setting on my phone shows that even when I think I am slow and therefore worthless in the neoliberal capitalist economy, there is a lot of movement. This is not enough to transform me into an obedient and productive citizen, but it might infer some other way of being. I like how you can see us, but the detail of what we are doing remains quite private. I feel less sure of how funny this makes us look, I like to be amusing but fat people are always being laughed at, this is a way of demeaning us, and the figure of the deluded fat dancer is a stale comic staple.

I used the holiday clips for no other reason than that they were the same format as the studio footage. I’m curious about what can happen in randomness. I like the juxtaposition. There is a different sense of time when you’re on holiday, it stretches and shrinks, you’re literally in a different space. In these clips I am constituted beyond the usual ways in which fat women are positioned. I’m a tourist, a gardener, someone who likes landscapes, animals, skies and water, someone who rents a car sometimes, someone who thinks about temporality, a passenger with a phone in her hand. I am fully human, which goes to show how dehumanised I am when I am thought of simply as fat or, more usually, one of ‘The Obese.’

We are all in time, it is unavoidable. Being in it can make it hard to feel time passing. But time lapse shows the signifiers of time: movement of the sun and light or contrails appearing and fading. The ‘inside’ of the studio can seem like a separate world while the ‘outside’ world continues. If you’re already moving, through a car’s windscreen for example, then you enter a kind of hyper-speed with time lapse. We’re in our very own Koyaanisqatsi, sausages zipping through the machine of life, working harder and faster and more efficiently every day. It’s dizzying.

Charlotte Cooper is a psychotherapist with her own practice in East London. She is also a cultural worker influenced by DIY ethics and aesthetics and performs as Homosexual Death Drive. Her latest book is Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement and you can find out more at charlottecooper.net

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