Fat Girls Don’t Dance

‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a dancer…and a singer and an actress…I’m going to be on stage…’

These are the opening lines of my one woman show, Fat Girls Don’t Dance. I have always known I wanted to be a performer. I started ballet and tap classes when I was just three years old, I sang everywhere I went and I used to put on plays for my family using a bench in our back garden as a stage.

I have also always known that my relationship with food is not a straightforward or particularly easy one. I used to hide food and eat in secret, even as a child. I would lie about how much or little I had eaten. I was obsessed with dieting and calories. I can even remember having a conversation with my Year 6 teacher about how I was going to lose weight but do it slowly and sensibly by eating a thousand calories a day, even though I didn’t really know what a calorie was, let alone how many I was consuming.

I was always a ‘chubby’ kid, but a confident and eccentric one. I loved singing and dancing and drama and I was good at it. As I got older I took on more classes. I was training in four types of dancing three days a week. I joined the school choir, the drama club, and attended a performing arts school on weekends.

However, the older I got the more I was aware of my body. I didn’t look like the other girls in my ballet class. They were all much taller and thinner than me. I was the best dancer in the class. I knew that. But they looked like ballerinas and I didn’t, which became painfully more obvious the older I got.

Eventually, this led to me trying to lose weight in very dangerous ways. I became obsessed with dieting and food, and although I lost weight in my late teens I started to binge and comfort eat. I yo-yoed through my early twenties, then steadily got bigger until I was clinically obese and emotionally unstable. It is only in the past few years I have started to accept and understand my relationship with food and made positive changes to make me feel happier and healthier.

Fat Girls Don’t Dance has been a massive part of this. It is an autobiographical account of my relationship with food in parallel with my development as a (pretty sick) dancer. I knew I wanted to write a show about body image after a particularly wine-fuelled Arvon course, but I didn’t know how to approach it. Then one day I was on the phone to my Dad, and out of the blue he asked me if I missed dancing and everything clicked.

Over the next year and a half I wrote down everything I could remember about dance classes and food and diets and losing and gaining weight. The supermarket aisle crises, Christmas binges, drunken dance-offs, nightmare auditions and exercise regimes. I recalled the party where a 14-year-old boy told a 14-year-old me that I didn’t look like a dancer, the casting director that told me I was ‘too fat to play pretty and too pretty to play fat’, and the boyfriend who said I looked like a different person because I’d lost weight.

I wanted the show to be very physical, telling my story not only with my voice but my body. I started dancing again, and choreographing physical work along with the words, including a pretty epic tap dance and what I now believe to be way too many sit ups.

I also wanted to make it funny and, at times at least, enjoyable to watch. I wanted it to be accessible and, although this topic is a very dark and serious one, humour is a great way of breaking down taboos and allowing us to relax and open up to each other.

Whenever I have performed Fat Girls Don’t Dance, whether that be in London or Bristol or the Edinburgh Fringe or in a school or on the glamorous shores of the Isle of Wight (thank you Ventnor) there will always be someone who says,

‘Yes. I get you. I understand. I feel that too.’

Body image is a huge issue that is not talked about openly enough. By performing this show I am sharing my own story in the hope that people will relate to it, or at least get that little bit closer to understanding the importance of positive body image, the struggles that are faced, especially by young girls, in achieving this, the expectations of dancers and performers, and the dangers and realities of eating disorders/disordered eating.

Fat Girls Don’t Dance is like a scrap book of my own experiences and how our perceptions of each other and ourselves can shape who we are and what we achieve.  This little book shows my journey through the bad and the good. A Fat Girl Manifesto, if you will. It explores what I believe are the experiences that have shaped me as a person, be them with friends, family, lovers, haters or strangers. I hope that you like it, reader. I hope it gets you laughing, maybe crying, talking and most importantly, dancing.

Lots of love, 

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Bernard Kops at 90

Born in November 1926, the great post-war writer Bernard Kops will have his 90th Birthday later this year. Áine Ryan from Oberon Books went to meet him, to ask how it feels to reach this milestone.

The playwright, poet and novelist Bernard Kops will turn 90 this year. It’s the sort of milestone age, he jokes, that says ‘hello! I’m going to die soon! I’m still here!’ Going to meet Kops for tea and biscuits at this home near the Finchley Road, I also meet his wife Erica, two of his daughters, a son, a-son-in-law, a grandchild and three great-granddaughters. Sitting out in the communal garden which the area shares, there’s a real community feel, with the children having a water fight and interrupting our chat to get biscuits and kisses from their great-grandfather.

Kops

Bernard Kops

Bernard knows exactly what he wants to chat about. ‘I’ll tell you what’s going on with me.’ He says more than once. ‘I’m feeling a bit bereft because all the writers I came up with, they’ve all died, and I have no-one’. The recent passing of his friend and colleague Arnold Wesker has clearly affected him. But Kops still writes every day, so I ask if the people of London still inspire his characters and stories. ‘No’, he says, ‘it’s much more interior now. Parents, children, dying, living.’

‘I’m very anti-God at the moment’ he warns, before treating me to a reading of some new poems he’s been working on for an upcoming collection. The poem he wants to read is about his mother. A child’s view of a vast, warm, all-engulfing mother who gathers her family in her arms, mixed with images of the stress and worry of raising seven children with little money, and of the wider story of his family – genocide, holocaust, missing mothers, entire generations of missing mothers.

East London, 1950s

We speak a lot about Kops’ childhood and upbringing, and I’m fascinated by stories of London in the 40s and 50s. ‘There’s a place in the East End called Toynbee Hall, and on a sign it said ‘Drama Classes’, so I joined! The first play we did was a Sean O’Casey play, and I loved O’Casey, and he took me to other marvellous writers – Irish mainly – and poets, especially poets! And because I’m Jewish, there’s a kind of thing with the Irish… resonant… very similar.’ At one of these classes, the first play Kops ever wrote was about an IRA gunman hiding out, inspired in part by Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman. ‘Desperation, alienation, surviving against everything, and poverty were all in my head.’ Kops says, again aligning the Jewish experience with the Irish.

Local gardens

The local gardens

‘As a young boy I had no education because we were so poor, and the war bombed us out of our house. And then one day I walked into a library. If you’ve read the poem ‘Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East’ that will tell you the story of my life, really.’ ‘We lived in Shoreditch, and at that time it was stinking, you could push your finger into the walls of the house.’ Having no money to take his wife of 62 years, Erica, on a first date, he took her instead to the Italian Catholic church in Clerkenwell to Christmas Eve mass. The plan backfired when the strong incense which filled the chapel made Erica faint, causing a scene, much to the annoyance of the priest! Bernard still laughs at these stories, and talks about Erica at any opportunity. ‘She is beautiful and wonderful, but still down-to-earth and practical.’ ‘I live in a kind of little paradise’ he summarises. And, sitting in the sunshine discussing Yeats, Frost, and O’Casey with one of the most prolific and talented writers of our time, I have to agree.

Bernard Kops will turn 90 this November, with celebrations and events planned throughout Autumn ’16 at venues such as JW3 and The Jewish Museum.

Bernard and Erica, married 62 years

Bernard and Erica, married 62 years