Dance represents many aspects of life and society, and has always been reflective of what is going on in any particular era. Stereotypes in the current era are being smashed at a rapid pace – left, right and centre. At the forefront of this movement, is Delaware USA local Lizzy Howell. Without setting out to do so, in posting a short video of herself in class performing fouettés, Howell began to change the dance world, how dancers are seen, breaking ground for now and the future. Dance Informa got to chat with Howell in a bold, open and moving interview about her life, work and aspirations.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
“I started dancing when I was five-and-a-half years old, shortly after my mom passed away. I started living with my Great Aunt Linda, and she put me in all the activities she could think of. I wanted to be in dance class because everyone else in kindergarten was, and I wanted to be just like them. So, I started training at a ballet studio and quickly realized that dance was my passion. When I was around 10 years old, I started training in all styles. I automatically knew I wasn’t the same size as everyone when I started. When I was 12, I was pulled into the office by my former studio owner, and she told me I needed to lose weight to continue to do ballet. If I didn’t lose weight, she recommended I only do hip hop. I kept doing ballet despite this, and went on to find training environments that accept me as I am. I currently train at Delaware Arts Conservatory and Fierce Dance Academy, both in northern Delaware.”
What do you love the most about dance, and what do you find the most challenging?
“I love that I get to express myself in dance. Dance has always been an emotional outlet for me, and I almost always feel better after taking a class. The hardest part of dance for me is feeling like I fit in. Not only do people judge me because of my size, but I now have a somewhat large following on social media. When I go to dance conventions, I often feel that people are either too scared to talk to me, or they are judging me for my size. I tend to stay to myself when I am at dance events and often put up a front to protect myself from the possibility of being bullied.”
Tell us about some of the opportunities you’ve had in your career so far?
“The biggest job of my career thus far was in May 2019, when I was asked to dance with the French entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. I spent two weeks in Tel Aviv, and got to dance for a crowd of 100,000 people live, with 182 million watchers at home. It was my first real live performance as a back-up dancer. During that performance was when I knew I wanted to do back-up dancing for the rest of my life. I was one of three Americans on that stage, next to Madonna and Quavo.
My first job was for Target in 2016. I spent two weeks in Los Angeles, and it was my first time on the west coast, from which I did print work and an online commercial. It was my first taste of working in the industry. I was only 16 years old, and I was working with 20-year-olds with agents. That trip made me realize that LA is where I want to be.”
Sometimes, it seems that people forget that prior to Balanchine, slim was not the typical body type for a dancer. There is such an absolute joy that comes out of you when you dance, it’s infectious. What would you say to those who believe dance should really only be for those who fit a certain stereotype?
“I have struggled with body image my whole life. As dancers, we spend all of our training looking in the mirror and picking ourselves apart. It comes with the territory. What I have learnt over the past few years is to stand my ground. I know I do not have the typical dancer body, but I have technique. I often doubt myself because of the comments I get on social media. The ‘perfect dancer body’ is a social construct. Any body who dances is a dancer. I get told that no professional company will hire me, I am only hired to check off boxes, and I only get these jobs because of my size. What people fail to realize is that the world is changing. Most commercials you see on TV are very diverse. Companies are hiring different sizes, disabilities and races to be more accepting. Sure, I may be ‘checking off a box’, but I worked as hard if not harder than some people to get where I am today.”
What would you say to dancers who are struggling with feeling like they do not fit into the ‘dance world’?
“The dance world is changing. It may not change for my generation, but I am hopeful that it will be more accepting of the generations that come after me. If you are struggling with feeling like you don’t belong in the dance world, write down why you love dance. Sometimes seeing it written down can help. Keep being you; you can be the change for the next generation.”
Whose choreography inspires you the most, and why?
“The biggest inspirations for me choreography-wise are Will Loftis, Easton Payne, Andrew Winghart and Lauren Slack. They all choreograph to a specific dancer but also are breaking the norms of what ‘contemporary’ should look like.”
Would you like to do choreographic work yourself?
“Yes! I would love to choreograph. Right now, I am doing my own solo, which is more of a contemporary hip hop vibe. I like watching choreography that was done to older songs from when I was younger, and making them look new.”
Tell us about some of your aspirations.
“I would love to move to Los Angeles and continue doing commercial work. One of my biggest dreams is to tour with an artist like Lorde or Billie Eilish. I’d love to dance at an awards show and some more TV commercials.
My life goal is to be a ballet teacher at a dance convention. Most, if not all, dance teachers at conventions have the typical dancer body. I think if dance conventions had teachers with different body types, it can help break the stigma that all dancers must be thin. I always stand in the back at conventions because it is more comfortable for me. I want to teach those kids in the back who don’t necessarily have a lot of confidence.”
What do you hope your legacy will be?
“I hope that I can inspire the younger generation to be proud of who they are, whether they dance or not.”
You can follow Lizzy Howell on Instagram: @lizzy.dances.
By Linda Badger of Dance Informa.