A Chance To Dance -- Group Provides Bigger Folks A Place To Feel At Home With Each Other - And Themselves

It was almost like a high school prom - there was a deejay, top 40 pop songs and a spinning glitter ball that shot fragments of light on the walls and ceiling.

The motif was black and white. Black and white streamers were artfully twisted and draped along the walls; a black and white balloon adorned each table; and the women, for the most part, were dressed elegantly in the same colors.

It was the prom that many of the participants never had, the party they were never invited to as adolescents.

The dance, held at Blackburn Hall in North Seattle, was a mixer sponsored by the local chapter of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, or NAAFA.

"I think this is an excellent idea," said Susie Gillis, as she surveyed the dance floor. "It really provides a safe social situation where fat people can be comfortable."

Gillis, who is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 375 pounds, said NAAFA is one of her main social outlets.

"At clubs, men who like large women don't come because large women don't go out," Gillis said. "The women don't go out because they aren't asked to dance or are convinced that the men who do are are just making fun of them."

The risk of ridicule and rejection has often left many fat people socially isolated and lonely, said Doug Zimmer, the co-chairman of the Washington chapter of NAAFA. The organization, through its outings, provides members respite from the prejudice they encounter in their daily lives.

"Our social events provide a haven," Zimmer said. They offer "protection from the flak that hits you out there; from the notion that you have to be thin to be acceptable and lovable."

This is actually the second local incarnation of the group, which was founded in 1969. Another Washington NAAFA chapter existed in the early 1980s but later disbanded because of internal squabbles. Zimmer and his wife, Dianne, restarted the group in 1989, and it now has 60 members.

Zimmer, who at 5 feet 10 inches and 200 pounds is an advocate or "fat admirer," was involved in the earlier group. Among fat people, there have been some advances over the years, and this group is already twice as large as its predecessor.

"The times have changed," Zimmer said. "It used to be that people were rather defensive about the organization. People felt that if you joined NAAFA, it meant that you had given up. Now there's more of a feeling that it's OK to be fat. People are now willing to join the organization and take a stand for themselves."

NAAFA has given fat people the platform that they have been looking for, said diana Mackin, a Ballard sculptor. (Mackin spells her first name with a lower-cased first letter.)

But acceptance among the general population has been slower in coming.

"We have some very seriously damaged and oppressed people," said Mackin, who is 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighs 235 pounds. "Yet it's still OK to pick on fat people, OK to tell fat jokes and say `Just kidding' afterwards, even though you've cut to their heart."

Alicia Sandhei said NAAFA gave her the support she was looking for. Sandhei, a 32-year-old Maple Valley resident who said she weighs nearly 300 pounds, said she has finally stopped the dieting see-saw she has been on for much of her life.

"The support I get from NAAFA is just unbelievably helpful," said Sandhei, a receptionist.

In addition to dances, the group also offers regular meetings and other group outings.

But it is the dances - there are usually two each year - that really give the group a a focus.

The dances, which draw about 125 to 150 people, have been especially successful in attracting FAs, or fat admirers. In the two dances held last year, so many men showed up that they outnumbered the women, who make up two-thirds of the local chapter's membership.

The dances are advertised in weekly papers and community publications and in fliers. This party, the first held this year, was dominated by women, but there were men, many of whom were non-members and average-sized.

Rob Acheson, a 33-year-old air traffic controller, said he drove down from Vancouver to attend the dance.

"I prefer larger women," said Acheson, who came to the dance with his girlfriend, whom he met at one of NAAFA's dances last year. "I think that in some cases they develop nicer personalities because they've had to work at it and not rely on their looks."

Bob Kuro, 32, said he read about the dance in a weekly publication and decided to attend to meet other fat people.

"I do feel self-conscious about my weight," said Kuro, who is 6 feet tall and weighs 255 pounds. "But here nobody is ashamed about it and you can be comfortable. You know no one is talking about you. In other places everyone looks at you funny. I'm really having a good time."

On that recent Saturday night, he wasn't the only one.

Although the dance floor was empty at the start of the party, it didn't stay that way for very long. When someone finally dimmed the lights, and turned on the glitter ball, the number of couples on the floor grew, and by the time Bob Seger was wailing "Old Time Rock & Roll," the floor had come to life. ----------------------------------------------------------- GETTING IN THE GROUP

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance activities this weekend include a party Saturday in Auburn and a group swim Sunday at 6 p.m. at the Queen Anne pool.

The next meeting will be held July 21 at the Kirkland Library at 3 p.m. For more information, contact Doug Zimmer at 483-0651. There are admission fees to some of the events.