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Rotund Dancers Find the Artist Within

Associated Press Writer

Ballet dancers in white glide across the floor, executing an airy blend of pirouettes and back stretches. Within seconds, spectators are captivated, quickly forgetting what at first they couldn’t overlook -- most of the dancers weigh more than 200 pounds each.

Six dancers between the ages of 23 and 41 make up Cuba’s Voluminous Dance group, which has presented about 20 works and is preparing its current show, “Una Muerte Dulce,” or “A Sweet Death,” for the spring.

“It’s incredible how they utilize their roundness,” Mirta Castro, a tourist from Costa Rica, said as she watched the dancers rehearsing in Havana. “It breaks free of the belief that dance is only for slender people.”

That is exactly the taboo that Juan Miguel Mas, the group’s director, wanted to shatter when he created Voluminous Dance in 1996.

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He called together dozens of overweight people in Havana to a formal dance audition where he looked for inner spark, eagerness and motivation.

“We obese people also need to express ourselves with our bodies,” said Mas, who is also a dancer in the group. “We feel [our bodies], we command them and we enjoy them just like any other human being.”

Although obesity is not a major problem in Cuba, where fast-food restaurants are almost nonexistent, the country is beginning to face some of the same health challenges confronting most of the world.

In the late 1990s, the government began urging Cubans to get more exercise and eat more fruits and vegetables in addition to their typical diet of rice, beans and meat. Last year, the island’s sports institute, which manages Cuba’s elite athletes, began encouraging exercise and sports among the general population.

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Mas, who weighs more than 300 pounds, first appeared on stage with Cuba’s Contemporary Dance troupe as a giant baby in the lead role of a 1989 production called “Absurdo,” or “Absurd.” He is the only member of Voluminous Dance, or Danza Voluminosa, who danced professionally before the group’s creation.

Dancers in the group have come and gone over the years, Mas said. Money is scarce and, as an independent project, the group often scrambles to find rehearsal space and generate interest in their performances.

The group is not officially recognized by Cuba’s cultural ministry, so none of the dancers receive full salaries from the socialist state; instead, they earn some money for each contract. Mas said he thought that the reason there had been no formal endorsement was that most of the dancers had not received dance training from the state.

“We desperately need support,” Mas said. The group is the only one of its kind in Cuba and, he believes, in the region. “Ours is a project that could reach thousands of people all over the country.”

In a studio in Havana’s Teatro Nacional, the dancers move with grace and sensitivity, surprising onlookers with their elasticity. Their leaps are limited, but arm motions are expansive and elegant. The room becomes electric when the dancers suddenly drop to the floor and begin to roll over each other, as if part of a wave. The task appears effortless despite intense, passion-filled expressions on their faces.

“Our work is not just art, it also has a social aspect,” Mas said. “We approach obese people to help them find a physical and emotional equilibrium and rescue their self-esteem.”

Barbara Paula Valdes, 27, said she felt transformed after two years with Voluminous Dance.

“I changed how I walk, how I talk, the way I relate to people,” said Valdes, who weighs 275 pounds. “I had an artist hidden inside me and didn’t realize it.”

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