‘Fat Bottom’ Dancers Offer Alternative to ‘Sexy’
By Angela Buenrostro
For Reporting Texas
AUSTIN — Nikki McCullough was singing Chicago’s “When You’re Good To Mama” at a 2008 burlesque show during South by Southwest when she suddenly realized her huge stage presence.
“I was the only girl there with a big ol’ butt — like a fat butt,” she remembers telling a friend over drinks after the show. Maybe, her friend suggested, she should start a “fat-butt girl group” where she would fit in. McCullough thought the idea was brilliant. A year later she started Fat Bottom Cabaret, a plus-size dance troupe.
“The point for me doing this was so that I could see women that look like me on stage being sexy, being sensual and giving people an alternative to what’s typically considered sexy,” said McCullough, a 41-year-old state employee.
Fat-shaming and pressure to be thin in American society have led some women to feel uncomfortable in their own skin. But the women of Fat Bottom choose to embrace their bodies as they try to spark a change in the way female bodies are viewed.
Body image has more to do with how people think about their bodies and where those ideas come from, according to Stacy Watkins, an Austin psychotherapist.
“Think of it like a blueprint from early relationships, our childhood, family, culture, religion,” Watkins said. “All of that gives us this foundation, and then what happens when we get older, we take that blueprint everywhere we go.”
Watkins said she believes body image has little to do with the actual body.
“When we make body image about the body, the body becomes this object, and when it’s an object, we can do a lot of stuff to the body,” she said. “We can diet, exercise, surgeries to physically change the body — we do all kinds of stuff to the body, but we never actually address all the feelings.”
Fat Bottom consists of 11 women, ages 22 to 41, who wear dress sizes 12 and up. The women may have curves in common, but their lifestyles and ethnicities make the troupe diverse. The women have a range of day jobs. Each uses a stage name — Lovey Le’More, Blazin Bettie, Vanity D and the like.
“One of the rules we have is that we don’t fat-shame ourselves,” McCullough said. “If we’re going to represent loving your body and loving yourself as you are, then we have to start here, and put that in practice all the time.”
Fat Bottom is a cabaret show, so the performers dance in lingerie, but do not strip. (Burlesque performers typically strip down to pasties and thongs.) The troupe uses a variety of music and dance styles. Fat Bottom’s dance moves contain anything “that forces you to look” at their bodies, McCullough said. The choreography includes quite a bit of “touching and bending,” she said.
McCullough said she’d like to call herself the lead choreographer, but the dances are collaborative. Practicing twice a week allows the women to provide suggestions and make changes along the way. McCullough makes the troupe’s costumes to keep costs low.
The troupe staged 10 shows last year and has performed in such Austin music venues as Emo’s, The Scoot Inn, The Swan Dive and Skinny’s Ballroom.
It wasn’t always easy to book shows. At first, no venues would allow the women to perform, saying they wanted more specifics.
“If someone hasn’t heard of us, I have to really sell us,” McCullough said. “Before people see us, they’re not sure of us. They immediately want to know if we strip.”
Fat Bottom performed for the first time in 2010 at Emo’s. McCullough said it was scary because they didn’t know if the audience would accept them. Despite some dance mistakes, the crowd was receptive.
Beliza Torres Narváez, a doctoral student from the University of Texas at Austin, is conducting research on “fatness” in female performance. Narváez, who mainly focuses on Latina performers, said fat performers often have fewer opportunities to be center stage. So they look to genres like cabaret and burlesque, where all bodies are accepted.
“In order for that space to exist, they have to create it,” Narváez said. “The audience is very loving and supportive. It’s a safe space to take the stage.”
Many dancers in Fat Bottom already had a background in dance, having been cheerleaders or on the drill team in high school. Desiree Bermea, 25, known as Vanity D on the stage, joined Fat Bottom in August.
“Being sexy is so out of my element,” she said, recalling how nervous she felt the first time she danced with the troupe. “I didn’t know what to do, but at the same time, I’ve always danced, always performed.”
Bermea, who has experience in hip-hop dancing and choreographing quinceañeras, said being in Fat Bottom has taken her out of her shell.
“After joining the dance group, I finally found who I was as a person,” Bermea said. “I found the love for dancing again.”
In February, Fat Bottom presented Midnight Menagerie, a variety show, to an audience of 300 at the Stateside Theater in Austin. The troupe’s next performance is May 31 at The North Door.
McCullough said she has some advice for women who don’t feel confident about their bodies.
“Your power has to come from yourself,” McCullough said. “You’re the only you, and that in itself is amazing.”