Photo by Richelle Pederson

Justine Thompson Fisher almost gave up her dream of pursuing a career in dance because of her body shape.

Fisher, now a popular dance instructor at Ryerson’s Athletic Centre (RAC), was a track athlete for 10 years. Her muscles were prominent and she didn’t have the traditional slender body-type that is commonly associated with dancers.

“I was shaped like a female football player. It’s just how I was built,” says Fisher. “In university when I was getting into classes like ballet and modern, people would look at me as if to say, ‘really – you’re coming here?’”

It wasn’t until Fisher moved to Toronto and joined ARMY of SASS in 2012, a high heels-based dance program, that she found a community of dancers who embraced and accepted her.  When a fellow dancer asked her to take over a burlesque class she was teaching at the RAC, Fisher jumped at the opportunity. For the past year, her class has inspired women of all body types to get involved with dance.

What originally started as a burlesque class moved on to become a heels-based course with feminine, hip-hop and modern burlesque combinations. Fisher says she found the word ‘burlesque’ to be too limiting and seen as overtly racy. She says it discouraged girls from taking the class.

“I try to stay away from that kind of risqué stuff,” Fisher says. “I mean, of course it’s still sexy because we’re girls and we’re dancing in heels, and we’re having the time of our life, but it’s still important that everyone feels comfortable,” says Fisher.

When it comes to finding confidence in dance, she says it’s all about the attitude. Fisher says she finds that when girls first come to the class, there’s an initial hesitation. The girls are usually worried about not having the right body and are self-conscious of how they’ll look while dancing.

With Beyoncé blaring on the speakers, the girls strut across the dance floor, moving their bodies in sync to the beat, trying their best to ignore the stares of some bystanders.

It doesn’t help that the open-concept studio at the RAC allows everyone to see what the girls are doing.

“We get a lot of bystanders who look and just watch,” says Richelle Andrea Faith Pederson, a second-year Public Policy student at Ryerson.  “The girls will get uncomfortable and they’ll stop dancing, especially the new girls who are shy and they’re obviously not going to be outspoken about it, so I’ll open the door and ask the guys if they brought their heels.”

On a whim, Pederson started taking the class almost two years ago.  At first, she says she found it difficult to embrace the body-confident attitude that Fisher brought to every class. While she always supported body-positivity in theory, she says it was harder to support it in real life, especially after struggling with an eating disorder.

“I remember in the beginning, she [Fisher] would make us do a certain move and my legs would clap together and make an uncomfortable sound. I’d just go in on myself and get so embarrassed.  Now it happens at least twice a week, and we’ll all just laugh about it and jiggle our thighs together,” says Pederson.

According to Pederson, Fisher helped her combat her initial hesitation by really trying to get to know her better.

“She’s a very no-nonsense type of person in a good way,” says Pederson. She’d catch me trying to slip in the back, and she’d be like, ‘No girl – get back in the front! I know you can do this.’ ”  

For Fisher, she says it has always been really important that the girls learn to dance in a safe environment where they can be protective and supportive of each other. That’s why she started posting dance videos of herself and the girls on Instagram, using the hashtag #RyersonUGirlSquad.

“We really are a squad”, says Selina Testani, a Ryerson alumni who took Fisher’s class in her final semester. “We still have such a connection. I wish I had joined it earlier, it was honestly such a comfortable environment.”

Outside of dance, the girls are enrolled in classes together, follow each other on social media and former #RyersonUGirlSquad participants still show support with comments on the dance videos.

“It’s about embracing all body types. I want these girls to realize their uniqueness is a plus, not a minus,” says Fisher. “It’s that little bit that they think is so ugly that really makes them the best version of themselves. And that’s what this course is about: finding the small things and accenting them to the 10th degree.”

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