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.