“If you ask me to do a hip hop I can get down and dirty: let’s go!”

D’andre Maxwell (26) is struggling his way through bullying and abuse by dancing, breaking all the rules while he’s at it.

Words by Caspar Pisters, photos by Joel Quayson

“There must be more people like me who at a very young age already knew. I loved being around girls, but with boys, my feelings were always much more lovable. I longed for physical connection, touching, hugging. As a kid your intentions are very pure, you just feel what you feel and go for it. I had no concept of what gay was, but it made sense to me that the way my mom and dad were together, two guys could be together as well.

When I entered puberty, judgment kicked in. Society made clear it had a fixed idea of what a man is supposed to be like. I began to correct myself: oh, I cannot be like that.

At that age, I started to really fall in love with dancing. It was my way to distract myself from the world. Being a bigger boy, I dealt with body issues on top of coming to terms with being gay. I found my solitude in dancing and just letting go. It helped me pull through that difficult period and gave me the confidence to be who I wanted to be.

My mom walked in on me making out with a classmate. I’m in shock. She’s in shock. He’s in shock” 

There’s not much happening in terms of arts and culture on the island of Aruba where I was born and raised, but Carnaval is big. I joined the Popcorn Dancers, the most prominent dance group. Everybody knows them, and if you dance with them, everybody knows you’re good. I became a teacher there and started to make a name for myself.

With my friend Christian, I did short choreographed videos. Every Monday we would upload a new one on Instagram, for almost a year. It was my way of expressing myself and putting out something that was different.

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People began to really anticipate our posts. Receiving that kind of excitement and connection pushed me even more. I knew I could dance, but I never expected I would land an audition for the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Amsterdam [acedemy for art, theatre, and dance, CP].

A year later I was living in Amsterdam. It meant leaving home behind, the place where I felt grounded. My relationship with my family, my mom, in particular, is really nice. From a young age on I think they knew I was gay, but whether I was dancing or trying on make-up, they never tried to stop me from being who I wanted to be.

I called myself Biggy. I was not aware how much I had adopted other people’s way of seeing me”

My mom once walked in on me making out with a classmate in my room. We were supposed to be working on a school project together. Everything felt right when no one was looking, but caught in my mom’s eyes I suddenly felt ashamed. ‘What are you guys doing?’ she asked.

I’m in shock. She’s in shock. He’s in shock. Haha, it was a bit of a moment. From then on things were fully clear to mom, but we never spoke about it. She accepted it without having the conversation, and that made it very easy for me to just live. Sometimes not saying anything and just letting a person be who they wanna be is also a good way to let someone know you love them.

With my father – my parents are divorced – I did need to have that talk. It just came up at some point, and it required a bit more explaining. In the end, he said: ‘I know you are like this. I’m a modern guy.’ He surprised me, I never thought he was so open.

Arriving in Amsterdam I had to find a new balance. The new context offered new perspectives on myself.

When I met people, I would automatically introduce myself as ‘Biggy’. They would respond: ‘Really, your name is Biggy?’ Actually, no, my name is not Biggy, it’s D’andre. Biggy was a nickname people had given me to channel their surprise that a big guy could actually dance – and dance well.

Up until then, I had not been consciously aware of the extent to which I had adopted other people’s way of looking at me. I had become skilled at letting them pass a judgment and turn it into a joke. It hurt deep inside, every single time, but I laughed it away because I was keen to be accepted.

I celebrate the dark stuff that happened to me, too. It contributes to what makes me me today”

When that realization clicked, I started to put together all the things that had happened to me in the past. The bullying I had endured for being feminine, gay, big. Dancing had given me confidence, but with the dancing, came the remarks: ‘Oh you must be gay. Oh, but you’re fat.’

A lifetime of taking in people’s comments had messed with my mind, and it was holding me back. I saw myself pull out of opportunities. Because putting myself out there, meant putting myself in situations where inevitably people would bring up my weight. And that would trigger insecurities and negative thoughts in my head about myself.

The past three years, bit by bit, I’ve grown solid into really appreciating myself. I came to the Netherlands all alone and got accepted into a school that has pretty high standards when it comes to dancing, physicality – pushing me to my limits. It made me tap into that one thing I knew was in there: my confidence.

This is me, this is my body, this is what I’ll be working with, and I’ll use it to continue doing what I love so much: dancing. I’m completely comfortable with my body now, I actually love it.

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I’m in my third year of school, but I paused my education for a year. In isolation with corona, I was going a little bit crazy in my head, a bit manic. Why was I feeling like this, why was I crying so much? I realized other issues that I hadn’t properly unpacked required my attention.

As a kid, for a long time, I’ve been through abuse, rape. That was pretty scarring. Also, not having the space to say something about it, damaged a big part of me. I was hiding and masking what was going on.

The person doing this to me was a close friend of the family. I felt I couldn’t say anything, because it would make me responsible for blowing up his family. How could I do that? It felt wrong.

I wanted to tell the whole world what he was doing to me. Physically I couldn’t, the words wouldn’t come out

Knowing that I might be gay, he had managed to manipulate himself into my life, threatening to expose me. At some point, I felt obliged to let him in. What he did, felt completely wrong, but it had been going on for so long, in my head I had to make it okay.

It lasted eight years. Whenever I saw him somewhere, I felt sick, bad, and guilty. In those moments I wanted to tell the whole world what was going on. At the same time, physically I couldn’t. There was a big lump in my throat, I could not word what was happening. I would tell my mom I wanted to leave whenever he was around, it confused her.

The last time he tried, I told him it would never happen again. Suddenly I felt so repulsed, so disgusted. I had come to an age where the realization of what he was doing to me had fully kicked in. He kept pushing but I told him that I would tell my mom. And that was it, it stopped.

It took another eight months before I actually did tell my mom. My dancing had started to take off, I was putting a lot of work into it, I got commercial assignments through my videos. One day I was so overwhelmed and tired, when I arrived home, I broke down. Sobbing, crying, I couldn’t control myself. My mom was home. She just hugged me and I kept crying. She asked me what was wrong and I told her.

No legal action has been taken towards this man. It angers me, a lot. Not only because of what he did to me, also because I’m pretty sure he’s still out there doing this to others.

With my mum, I tried to look for psychological help, somehow it was hard to find the proper care. Aruba is a small community of about a hundred thousand people. Seeing a psychologist is judged on, it’s not the culture to do that and speak about things.

A year later I moved to Amsterdam, where I tried to forget it happened.

I’m happy school allows me time to sort myself out. It feels like a necessary step to arrive at the next level. I need to understand why this happened to me. How it influences decisions I take, how I understand and process things.

I think the scar will forever stay with me. But it’s up to me what I do with it. It’s easy to feel like a victim and be really mad at the world, constantly be mad at people, constantly be triggered. And I can understand why people would be like that, but it’s not what I want for myself. I don’t want hardship to define every part of my life. I celebrate all parts of my life, including the dark ones. All of what happened to me is what makes me me today.

Everything that you expect, I’m not. But I can give you everything that you need”

Not having classes for a year, opens up time to engage in other projects. I’m so grateful for the opportunities that have come my way. I started modeling, choreographing for exiting artists, I worked with singer Merol in her video. Things are taking off, the productions I get to be part of, offer vital insights into the direction I’m headed.

It is my intention to go back to Aruba and set up a pre-school for dance, to prepare students for auditions. I was a kid that needed that kind of guidance. I would have been so much further by now if I had had help from people who know how things work. I’m networking and building connections with dance schools here in the Netherlands. I want to give back to my island and be a forefronter.

There is this stereotypical image of the skinny ballerina, and that’s where I come in and break every freaking rule. Everything that you expect, I’m not. Completely not. But I can give you everything that you need. If you ask me to do a ballet I do a ballet. Ask me for a jazz, I do a jazz, ask me for a salsa, you get a salsa, ask me to do a hiphop and I can get down and dirty: let’s go!

I stand for being body positive, I stand for being sexually fluid, I stand for expressing your gender identity in whichever way you want to. We live in a society that is crazy, and everybody has their quirks. Whether it’s dressing a little more feminine, or more manly, whether you’re transitioning, being gay, being lesbian, being bi or straight – it makes you you and you have that right to express that.

Hardship has pushed me to love myself, and I would be happy to help guide others towards loving themselves.

What I represent may not be what you like, it may be not what represents you. But this is out there, too. Just having that mutual understanding and respect, is enough.

I’m super proud that I managed to break other people’s judgments: ‘You dancing? You should really try something else.’ People underestimate the power of self-expression and self-creation. Take that little leap of faith to try something new. It will give you a new perspective and guide you to a part of yourself that you didn’t know before. Even if it’s something as simple as taking a drawing class or pottery class: with your hands you make your imagination tangible. The power that comes with that is insane.”

Since you’re a D’andre Maxwell fan now, too, you might as well follow his whereabouts.

Some ‘Mad Magician’ might look good on you

About the photos: D’andre is portrayed by talented Joel Quayson. This 24 year old photographer from Rijswijk was last years’ winner of Document Nederland Junior, a prize commissioned by the worldwide renowned Amsterdam Rijksmuseum. The pictures are part of the launch campaign for clothing label Lovaeij: a fashion house where everyone fits anything they want, founded by influencer-if-there-ever-was-one Lotte van Eijk. Actually, that whole crew up there ⤴️ is wearing it.

And a merry Christmas to you all from mini D’andre

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