09/10/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
At Lynda Raino's studio in Victoria, B.C., three barefoot dancers turn, stretch and glide across the wooden floor to blues music. Their moves are by the book, but their figures, in the dance world, are anything but: Each member of the Big Dance troupe weighs between 220 and 300 lbs. "Artistry does not belong just to thin bodies," says Raino, 53, a choreographer and performer who put the group together in 1993. "If you want to dance, you find a way."
Big Dance's members—Ph.D. student Terryl Atkins, 46, salesclerk Neely Carbone, 27, and social worker Trudy Norman, 47—found their way as students at the 90-minute, twice-weekly modern dance classes Raino started in 1992, when she realized plus-size women were too embarrassed to join her regular classes. "I had always wanted to dance, but not with a bunch of skinny young people," says writer Bev Cooke, 46, one of the first students to enroll.
Indeed, not being surrounded by thinner bodies gives the Big Dancers the confidence to follow the demanding Raino, herself a pear-shaped 5'3". "It is so hard to find peace and solace in who you are," says Carbone. "But now I have a safe place."
When the troupe performs—it first appeared in Canada in 1993 and earned a standing ovation at its U.S. debut in Oakland last May—audiences get to see the women in a new light too. "These dancers have a gracefulness that may surprise" folks who assume large people are ungainly, says Deirdre Kelly, arts reviewer for Canada's Globe and Mail, "and many in our society do."
Raino has tried shattering stereotypes before. Growing up in Vancouver with four siblings, the five-sport athlete always wanted to be a ballerina. But her parents—musician Dominic, who died in 1965, and part-time nurse Elizabeth, who died in 1995—couldn't afford lessons, so she didn't set foot in a dance studio until she was able to pay her own way at age 18. Though she soared in modern dance, she fell to earth after receiving a scholarship to study classical ballet with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in 1970. Her untraditional physique just didn't fit in with the swanlike ballerinas around her. "I felt like a hippo," she says. She returned to modern dance and toured abroad as a soloist from 1983 to 1993.
Her success in modern dance, which embraces a wider range of body types, restored her confidence—something she strives to instill in her pupils. "They come here oppressed and ashamed," says Raino, who is single and lives with her cat Lala in a two-bedroom bungalow in Victoria. (She has two sons, student Paolo Raino-Tsui, 26, and stockbroker Sorell Raino-Tsui, 22, from a five-year relationship that ended in 1979.) "But gradually," she adds, "they allow themselves to move and take up space in a grand way."
Julie K.L. Dam
Vivian Smith in Victoria