28 November 2016

Report: Fat, Disability, SWAGGA, DaDaFest

Breast wigs, gold mini-mini fingerless gloves,
puce Air Force 1s, the essential parts
of my SWAGGA costume

I'm surfacing from an intense few weeks rehearsing for and being at DaDaFest in Liverpool. For those not in the know, DaDaFest is an organisation that promotes disabled and deaf arts. They host a biannual festival and are involved with lots of other things besides. Their website is a treasure trove. This year's DadaFest (theme: Skin Deep) is still underway, there are still things to see.

I was there for two reasons: 1. To participate in an event around fat activism and disability arts. 2. To perform SWAGGA.

It was really exciting to create public conversations about fat and disability. People who know me will know that I have been interested in this intersection since the early 1990s. I wrote an MA dissertation about it that later spawned a book and a journal article that has also prompted people to write and think about these connections and divergences. Elsewhere people have come to explore the subject independently of my work. It's a thing. But it's hard to create conversations because this is tender stuff and it involves negotiating fatphobia and disablism to varying degrees.

My friend the actor, comedian and activist Liz Carr and I have been talking about fat and crip culture for quite a while and we wanted to have a public conversation about it at DaDaFest. Because the festival is progressive and supportive about fostering conversations that expand ideas around disability, they encouraged us to go for it. Our conversation meandered around our friendship, the things we have in common as fat and disabled people, the things we don't have in common. It was satisfying, full of hope! We have a lot to learn from each other. We were joined during this event by Bethan Evans of the University of Liverpool and Stacy Bias, who have been working on a project about fat people and access.

The talks were set up to be livestreamed and archived online. There were technical hitches that meant we thought this wouldn't happen, but in the end they were recorded, although the image is blurry and the sound very quiet. Have a go at listening with headphones and the sound cranked up. If I ever get some free time I will transcribe it.



Followers of this blog will know that SWAGGA has been a life-changing experience for me. For those not in the know, SWAGGA is a dance project instigated by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small who work together as Project O. They recruited Kay Hyatt and I in 2014 to develop and dance this piece. We have now danced it at a number of venues for many people. We've been working with Trash Kit, who play live on stage with us, and with music composed by Verity Susman. Jo Palmer has designed a beautiful lighting set-up too. There is also a film, check out the trailer.

We swept up this little pile of
dancer's dirt before we could
practise. Dust and long golden
hair. Not ours.

I don't know when we will dance SWAGGA again, or if we will dance it again. Every time I come back to it I feel changed. Dancing at the Unity Theatre in Liverpool, a wonderful venue with a radical history, was probably the best performance of it I've ever given. I had a sense that I'd really cracked it this time, which of course I feel every time! But what was different was that I was able to relax into the performance. We rehearsed quite intensively the previous week, resolved some of the things that I found difficult about it, like the part when I get up off the floor, I was confident and I felt that we belonged at DaDaFest.

Over two years, nearly three, with lots of space inbetween for me to pursue other interests in dance, performing SWAGGA at the Unity felt a bit like a graduation. I've never been to dance school, I doubt that any of them would have me anyway especially at this time in my life, it's unlikely that I would be cast in a dance production other than this, or do well at an audition, or even be invited to audition. For lots of reasons, the dance world excludes fat dancers. My movement and engagement with dance, a lifelong ambition, has been a process of making space in dance for people like me, with the amazing and generous support of radical practitioners. What a trip!

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