It's Saturday night in Roseville and a Mary J. Blige track is rattling the windows of the Georgian Inn. "Get your ass on the dance floor," Blige commands. Indeed, there's plenty of ass on the dance floor in fact, there's plenty of everything.
This is Club Abundance, a Michigan-based social club for plus-sized women and their admirers. Meeting twice a month for dance parties, the club transforms the normally tranquil hotel ballroom into a celebration of flesh and freedom. The bounty of body parts moving to the beat creates a veritable sea of super-sized sensuality.
"We're not afraid of the word 'fat,'" says Club Abundance ringleader Jane Gheldof. "Call it what it is." Gheldof, 42, started Club Abundance in 2002 as an online chat group geared toward creating "a place for people of size to feel comfortable in their own skin." The group has grown to 2,700 members, including folks from other parts of the United States and Canada.
The women outnumber the men by about 10 to 1 at this particular dance, a disparity nobody seems to mind. The women dance together, smiling and laughing; the men (most of them of average height and weight) tend to stick to the sidelines, occasionally venturing forth to engage the ladies, dance and chat. Though society has invented a number of unfortunate handles to describe men who are attracted to big women "chubby chasers," etc. here they are referred to as "admirers" and are a welcome addition.
Windsor resident Vince Beato, 37, has been a big hit on the dance floor tonight.
"I've always liked bigger women," he says, "I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because they seem more approachable. It's not all about looks, it's more about personality." Beato, who once weighed 300 pounds himself, has slimmed down to a trim 170. But his own weight loss hasn't changed his feelings about BBWs (Big Beautiful Women). "They seem to have more fun and they're easier to talk to. I lost the weight because I didn't feel good about myself, but women were more interested in me when I was big. Bigger women seem to like bigger guys."
While dating is definitely an element here, the primary focus is freedom from social stereotypes, judgment and body negativity.
Cathy Lloyd, 47, of South Lyon and her friend Dayna Kennelly, 41, of Redford have been coming to Club Abundance dances since they started in 2003. "We have a great time," Lloyd says. "It's the one place where you can come and forget about your weight." Kennelly agrees. "I can dress how I want and dance how I want," she says. "And I've met a lot of great friends here."
The attire ranges from casual to glitzy, with the majority of the mostly fortysomething female attendees opting for colorful, comfortable "mingle-wear." The racial spectrum is well-balanced with raw and bumpin' popular dance tracks (Eminem, Sean Paul) dominating the turntables.
Deborah Teasley has just come off the dance floor, her caramel-colored skin aglow after throwing down to a Ludacris track. The 50-year-old confesses some club members call her "the Tease" for her provocative dance moves.
"The club makes you feel free to express yourself," she says, adding that weight discrimination isn't the only stereotype she avoids at Club Abundance. "I like to dance. In the black culture it's not acceptable to dance by yourself or to dance with another woman. Nobody cares here. You do what you want to do and it feels good."
Teasley says there was a time when thin women weren't necessarily welcome at the dances. "It used to be that, if a small person came here, people would say, 'What is she doing here?' But I think the club outgrew that."
"Most of the men who come here like big women," she adds with a laugh, "That's why they're here."
"Fat fetish" produces more than 9 million matches on Google clearly, people "of size" aren't hurting for fans. But Gheldof believes that simply reducing people who are attracted to big women as "fetishists" is a backward notion. "It's like someone who prefers blondes," she says. "It's their preference. They shouldn't have to have an explanation for it. There are a lot of closet admirers out there who may be worried about what people think. If that stereotype were abolished, everybody would be a lot happier."
But an unavoidable truth about obesity is that it poses very real health risks. Hypertension, diabetes and heart disease are just a few of the ills that plague the more than 60 million Americans that, according to the FDA's standards, qualify as "obese."
Gheldof believes the objective of Club Abundance is not to dwell in fear or obsession, but to get out and live.
"We're real people and we're here to live life today, not when we lose 50 pounds," she says. "We've had quite a few members who have had bariatric surgery for health reasons, but they come back because of the bonds that they've forged here. It's about living now, and not being afraid to go out and have a good time."
Clinical psychologist Dr. Suzanne Bates of Ann Arbor says that although the health issues and psychological challenges manifested by obesity are cause for concern, a positive outlook can often lead to positive and lasting change.
"One of the biggest barriers to maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a sense of failure," she says.
Bates adds that while obesity often brings on "a sense of lower self-worth, social anxiety, depression and retreating," the positive attitude exemplified by Gheldof's vision is a healthy way of addressing size issues.
"Moving toward success, even with small steps, leads to more sustainable changes," she says.
Club member Susan Dmytrusz, 37, of Grayling, is among those who went under the knife for health reasons. The perky blonde weighed 240 pounds before having gastric bypass surgery earlier this year. Now too thin at 107 pounds, she recently had a reversal surgery to gain weight back. Dmytrusz says that the surgery was "medically necessary," and the experience has given her a unique perspective on both worlds.
"I like being healthier, but there are pros and cons," says Dmytrsz, who is here to dance and date but the latter is a little more challenging with her new body. But she says that what initially drew her to Club Abundance is what keeps her coming back: "It's all about who you are on the inside," she says.
Self-described Club Abundance fixture Henry "Hank" Reed, is the club's unofficial good humor man, buzzing around like a big, black, flirty bee. When not sandwiched between two bountiful babes on the dance floor, tickling the ticket girl or chatting up the wallflowers, the generously proportioned Reed, 39, can be found singing the praises of BBWs everywhere.
"Everything about them is beautiful," he beams as he leans up against the bar during a break from the dance floor. "I love women who have curves and show them off." Friend Laura Watch, 34, saunters by en route to her table, tossing him a flirty "Hank! You're hot!" as she passes. Reed takes in Watch's ample form as she recedes into the crowd. "That's what I'm talkin' about," he grins. "Just like her name, she's a finely crafted instrument."
Club Abundance will host its 3rd Annual "Splash Bash" at the Ramada Inn in Taylor, June 29-July 2 a weekend-long pool party with a dance, lingerie fashion show and karaoke. Visit bbwmichigan.com for more info.Wendy Case is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]