How Dance Taught Me to Love My Body

Gianluca Russo (via Instagram)

Yes, I am a dancer, and yes, I am fat.

There's nothing quite as soul-crushing as the reactions I've received when I've told people I dance. They can range from disbelief to confusion to shock. To many people, it's somehow incomprehensible that a plus-size person like myself could grace a stage. While the body-positive movement has been trucking along at full force over the past few years, it hasn't made much progress in the dance community yet. In fact, the words "body positivity" and "dance" are almost never used together in the same sentence.

Despite that fact, dance is what helped me learn to love my larger frame. In honor of National Body Confidence Day, I wanted to talk about my first time in a studio, and about the tremendous progress I've made since.

A dancer isn't made by a number on a scale. A dancer is formed by passion: passion so deep, so strong, and so powerful that it has the ability to do almost anything. When that passion is cultivated through years of training, a dancer is born—whether he or she is fat or skinny, tall or short, able to tilt or not.

My first dance class was terrifying. I was petrified that I would be judged by my size and not my skill. The unfortunate truth is that I most likely was, since many people don't know how not to judge a book by its cover.

While no one made any direct remarks during the class, I saw the looks. I saw the judging. I saw the disapproval. Unfortunately, that day marked my last public dance class for over a year. My mind told me I wasn't ready to share my passion with others because of my size.

For two years, I spent each week in my best friend's basement, which had been turned into a small dance studio. My friend, Mackenna Dombroski, is a professional dancer, and she trained me in the craft and pushed me harder than I'd ever been pushed before.

Gianluca (left) with Mackenna Dombroski (photo by Lisa Dombroski)

At times, it felt useless. If I didn't change my size, how could I ever be a dancer? How could I ever be accepted by the community I so desperately wanted to be a part of? But Mackenna never gave up. She taught me everything, from ballet to jazz, from the simplest movements to the most complex. She saw the passion inside me, and knew it shouldn't be wasted.

I saw myself improving. In the hazy dance room mirror, I began to see myself not as "that fat kid," but as a dancer. After two years, I was ready.

Leaping back into dance class was scary at first. But this time, I wasn't giving up. At the end of class, I felt vindicated. Hearing positive words from the teacher and students reassured me that my weight wasn't my identifying factor. Instead—finally—my talent was.

Soon, people in my local dance and theater community began to see me as a dancer. I was asked to join productions and given dance-heavy roles. I was a part of the dance world. And I was becoming the dancer I'd always dreamed I would be.

Am I the best dancer in the world? Of course not. Am I a great dancer who just happens to be plus-size? Absolutely. While I still have a long way to go, I know now that my weight will never keep me from doing what I love. I'm sure I'll have to deal with more prejudice along with the way; I'll have to keep fighting misconceptions about what a dancer should look like. But I'm ready for that. I'm ready to show that no matter your size, you, too, can be a dancer. Dance has shown me who I am, who I want to be, and how to love everything about myself, from pas de bourrée to grand jeté.

Gianluca (right) with Mackenna Dombroski (photo by Lisa Dombroski)

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