When I Was 12 My Ballet Teacher Told Me to Lose Weight—Now I Teach Body-Positive Dance Classes

This story is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.

Jessie Diaz has always loved dancing. But she never knew how much she would love inspiring other women to dance until she founded her Curves with Moves dance company. Diaz’s goal for every class she teaches: to get women to see the power in dance and their own bodies through affirmations and good, old-fashioned endorphins. Here, she opens up about her journey to self-acceptance.

How did your dance career start?

I’ve always been a dancer, but when I was 12, I learned that I didn’t have the typical dancer’s body type. I was auditioning for the next level in my ballet academy, and I got accepted. I was so happy, but my head dance teacher advised me to lose weight.

How did you react to that?

At the time, I wasn’t even a big girl. I was just going through puberty, growing things like boobs and a butt. But I thought if my teacher was suggesting it, she must have my best interests at heart. I started skipping meals, and one day I fainted. When I told my mom what was going on, she was so pissed she drove me to the studio and cursed everyone out, yelling, “Nobody tells my daughter to lose weight! My daughter is beautiful!” She pulled me out of dance—I thought she was ruining my life.

Did you give up dancing completely?

Until college, yes. It sort of had a stigma attached to it after that for me. Then during freshman week of college, I was at a party where the dance crew was performing. I was dancing around, and they asked me to join the crew.

RELATED: People Are Shocked I’m a Dancer Because I Was Born Missing This Body Part

Did it feel different that time around?

College is really where I re-found my love of dance in a completely different light. It wasn’t about what your body looked like, it was about what it could do. But I didn’t embrace being a plus-size dancer. I actually hid from it. Even though I was loving dance, I wasn’t 100% comfortable in my body.

When did that change?

Body positivity is a journey. It isn’t something where any negativity just ends, and suddenly you feel completely confident. But when I was pregnant, I had a really great pregnancy, I really didn’t gain a lot of weight, and my doctor was super proud of me. But my delivery was so painful and so complicated that I spent a week in the hospital after with my child. And the next month was super hard on my body and I just felt really defeated. I was just really hating my body. I felt like it quit on me.

How did you work through that?

I had blogged a bit after college, all focused on fashion, dance, and a little bit about being plus size. My husband encouraged me to go back to blogging again while I had some time in my maternity leave. So I started posting old dance pictures and videos of me, and got feedback from people being like “It’s so great to see a plus-size dancer, you’re rocking it.”

RELATED: Ballerina Ingrid Silva on Unraveling Stereotypes: ‘I Can Still Look Classical and Elegant With My Natural Hair’ 

Did that change the way you felt about yourself?

At first, I felt defensive, like people thought I couldn’t do that stuff because of my size. And then I started to see the reactions of people saying “I wish I could dance like you!” From straight-size women as well as plus-size women. I realized my body is letting me dance in a way that feels great, so I should thank my body for allowing me to have rhythm and for allowing me to move the way I do.

You’ve grown a large Instagram following since then. Was that a conscious priority?

There was a point where I decided to get back into dancing. My body felt a little bit better and I thought I could physically handle it, so I just started posting and the more I was being involved in the community on Instagram, the more I became confident. So I just started becoming an advocate and I found that there weren’t a lot of women and men who were dancing in the plus-size community.

Where has that lead you now?

I’ve always been teaching dance classes, but I never labeled my classes as plus-size or as body-positive until last year when I felt like there was a need for it. I realized there were a lot of people who wanted to dance but were scared of being the plus-size girl in the room. So I created a safe space where women can dance and not feel judged. It turned into such a phenomenon and I have such loyal, loyal class members that come to every class and bring friends. My classes are one-third body-positive expression, and two-thirds dance. We start with conversation and a little exercise, and then we dance it out, and then we end staring at ourselves in the mirror and saying affirmations and things that make us feel really great. And someone ends up tearing up at the end….sometimes me.

RELATED: Why This Ballerina With Panic Disorder and Depression Refuses to Apologize for Her Mental Illness

Where does your strength come from?

I was always a mature kid. I had to grow up a little faster than normal kids. My mom basically almost committed suicide, so I had to learn to take care of my mom and my little sister when I was 13. It taught me a sense of responsibility. But having that kind of experience allowed me to hone in on my emotions and learn to be strong for my mom and strong for my sister. But I also come from a line of strong women on my mom’s side and my dad’s side. My dad has always told me that I could be whatever I wanted and never to stop dreaming.

How do you hone that strength now?

Affirmations are a big thing for me. I write them on my mirror. I just turned 31 last week, so my quote was like “31 is going to be your year!” You know, instead of thinking, like “Oh my God, I’m getting older.” I’d rather think “This is going to be an amazing, phenomenal year for you.” Turning around some of those things that we put in a negative light, and using it as a turning point for positivity.

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