"You look fine," said 11 dancers under the spotlight.
That seemingly simple statement, delivered at a rehearsal Tuesday at Sage Hill School, contained a powerful acknowledgment of the beauty inherent in every individual.
This idea lies at the core of the "Look at Me" campaign, spearheaded by Jessica Starr, a 30-year-old dancer and choreographer from West Hollywood.
"Divine Direction," a nearly two-hour event, is the latest show for the 6-year-old Muse Dance Company and marks the debut of the campaign. The 24-person dance troupe will take the stage at Newport Coast's Sage Hill School at 3 and 7 p.m. Friday.
"In the dance industry, there's a very stereotypical body — you should be a size 2, maybe 5-foot-6 or 5-foot-7," Starr said. "I've always been more voluptuous than a lot of the dancers, and I've embraced it. I believe in being a strong person no matter what your body type is. I don't think your body is your end-all, be-all. I think what counts is what you do with your body, and the power and the message that you deliver."
Towering at 5-foot-10, Starr, who "with heels is over 6 feet," encountered criticism since she doesn't have the quintessential ballerina's body. In her experience, facing naysayers has served as the best catalyst for improvement.
"I don't take no for an answer," she said. "Often, people told me I couldn't do things, but to me that's the one thing you don't want to say, because then I'm going to go after it that much stronger and be sure to succeed."
Now at the helm of Muse Dance Company, she refuses to turn dancers away based on their frame or appearance. Friday's performance serves as the group's jump-off point as it converts to a nonprofit that will start touring the world to entertain with purpose.
An integral part of the show, "Look at Me" was initially created to help Starr connect with students who were struggling with eating disorders and body-image issues. But the public responded so favorably that the piece was transformed from a solo to a group performance.
"I think more focus needs to be internally on who we are," Starr said. "If people spent less time comparing themselves to others physically and worked on bettering themselves, being more compassionate, sensitive and motivated to contribute to society, our world would be such a different place. But right now, our focus is all wrong."
Twenty-four Muse dancers, from as far as Utah, Ohio, Georgia and even Canada, have ridden Greyhound buses, waited in airports to fly standby, raised funds and worked a litany of jobs to finance their trips to Orange County. They are drawn together by an unflinching shared passion for movement and expression, Starr said.
For Mikayla Marrelli, 17, of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, dancing was the only hobby that stuck despite her being exposed to music, sports and arts as a child.
"Look at Me's" first soloist, who started training under Starr almost five years ago, recalled taking the routine to competitions and bringing the audience to tears.
"We were talking to some families and there were moms coming up to us, crying, and saying, 'I will never tell my daughter that she is fat again,'" she said. "And especially as dancers, a lot of companies want you to look like a twig, but you should feel beautiful the way your body is."
Dakota Adan, 21, of West Hollywood, knows people who not only feel the need to dress up even when going out casually, but also constantly look at their reflections in every available surface. For them, he says, reaffirmation proves helpful.
"In the dance world, everything is so appearance-based and you're competing based on the look that you have," he said. "I have friends, and we'll just be going out for a cup of coffee, and they have to do everything up and they're constantly glancing at themselves in the mirror. Sometimes, I tell them, 'Look at me, be here with me. You're beautiful however you are.'"
Adan is counting down to what he calls an "assault on the senses," comprising musicians, spoken word, multimedia and dance forms ranging from hip-hop to jazz. This fusion of artistic mediums is steeped in meaning and spirit, depicted through body and emotions.
Pasadena-based Azure Antoinette, a commissioned writer, poet and public speaker, collaborated with Starr on "Look at Me," determined to shed light on a healthy humanity.
"People shy away from anything that is hard to talk about or not superficial in nature," said Antoinette, 30. "The subject of eating disorders is emotional. The subject of personal acceptance is something that everyone has dealt with at some point in their own lives."
Her spoken-word routine, which accompanies dancers, contains a segment with a subject who has her fingers in her mouth in place of words.
"I am trying to convey that as we are is sufficient, and there is beauty in everything," she said. "Physical appearance is not all we have. Yes, it is important, but it is not the whole of a person. It is important to look at one another, not to summarily dismiss each other by not truly seeing one another."
If You Go
What: The premiere company show for Muse Dance Company and the debut of the "Look At Me" campaign.
Where: The Black Box Theater at Sage Hill School, 20402 Newport Coast Drive, Newport Coast.
When: 3 and 7 p.m. Friday. Guests are invited to a meet-and-greet with the cast at 5:30 p.m. in the Studio's Le Bon Lobby.
Cost: General admission is $10 and students enter for $5.
Information: Contact Jessica Starr at Jaystarrz@aol.com or call (310) 980-6290.