By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
"It was just, 'Oh my God, that's awesome!'" Steve recalls. "It was almost like there was a light from Heaven shining down on my computer."
On a Sunday afternoon in February 2008, Steve joined 14 giddy plus-size hopefuls packed into a studio at the stadium. Filmed by news crews sensing the easiest three-minute segments of their careers, sumo-wrestler bodies heaved to the sound of T-Pain's Auto-Tuned voice.
Nobody lumbered away disappointed. At the end of the audition, a dance coach announced that everyone who had shown up made the team. Turns out the Manatees are a testament to self-selection. "It takes a unique individual to want to do this," Flynn says. "There are basically three types of guys it might appeal to: the Marlins nut; the guy who is an exhibitionist, an attention-monger; and a trained dancer who has no outlet to perform because he's a little oversized."
A few of the men at the tryout apparently thought better of the idea and quit the team before it began. Others succumbed to injuries as the season wore on: knee problems, bad backs, hamstring issues, and the dreaded fatigue. The next season, another tryout further winnowed the group. The men who have been lured to the Manatees form a collection of South Florida's more intriguing oddballs. They come from every walk of life, with no bond besides large waistbands and a strange urge to gyrate in garish costumes for little money.
The oldest Manatee was 62-year-old Abraham J. Thomas, a 311-pound Miami Gardens preacher who danced last season as Big Rev. He wore tails and a top hat, the outfit of an old-time pulpiteer. He has published several books: a rumination on Miami-Dade County, a children's novel, and Murderer, a 167-page account based on a dream he had in which he killed somebody. Abraham never quite jibed with the Manatees' prevailing levity. At one point, in a questionnaire for the Marlins' official website, he was asked for his ideal last meal — a prompt for a simple fat-guy-and-food joke. But Abraham snapped, "I'll leave those questions for those who are on death row. However, I do know that I'm going to die, and perhaps sooner than later." The preacher has had trouble with his back, and before this season, his doctor forbade him from dancing.
Then there's the 360-pound Incredible Bulk, who wears green body paint and massive Hulk gloves when he dances. He's French-Canadian IT guy Jean-Pierre Comeau by day. He speaks of his "fattitude adjustment" — when he decided, last year, to stop being ashamed of his girth — as though it were his very own Malcolm X-picking-up-a-Koran-in-prison moment. "I realized that I'm a healthy, big, fat guy," he explains. "I am not saying I celebrate being fat, but I feel happy and content the way I am."
And the troupe has provided a precious opportunity for performers who possess talent and training but would never fit into a pair of tights. Wesley "Mac" Boozer — the Scottish Manatee — is a former off-Broadway actor who couldn't get roles. Liberty City-born Mark "Chocolate Thunder" Robinson is a 275-pound ballet and modern jazz instructor who can do a split without wincing.
Mostly, though, the men who have joined the Manatees are the embarrassing-uncle-at-the-wedding-reception dancers. They are the shameless goofballs who might break into the worm on the kitchen floor if somebody plays Lil Wayne at a party. "Professionally, I don't think he's a good dancer," says Gabriela, the wife of 48-year-old Timothy "Flash" Koteff, who got his sardonic nickname as a schoolkid after gasping through a 12-minute mile. "But people would always gather around him when he was dancing. He likes to be the center of the show."
As soon as the Manatees concept was announced, the predictable politically correct backlash began. One blogger called it a "glorification of obesity." Another, at Big Fat Deal, a plus-size activism site, labeled the Manatees a "fatty minstrel show." That condemnation is difficult to dispute when Mr. Mantastic opens his shirt to expose his painted beer gut as Weird Al Yankovic's "I'm Fat" blasts in the stadium.
But the team takes pride in its routines, according to the Bruce Wayne behind Mr. Mantastic. "It would be different if we were just bumping bellies or something," Steve says. "I mean, I do paint my gut, but I also work hard to master my moves."
In a Cooper City dance studio, Tiny, wearing a dingy Marlins T-shirt and billowing maroon sweatpants, studies himself in the mirrored wall as he struts backward on the wood floor. A leggy woman hangs on to each of his arms, and they yank possessively. He sways like a tubby temptress on Geisha-size feet, a blubbery grin on his face. His gigantic colleagues, all dressed in workout clothes, circle the love tug-of-war with expressions of mock jealousy as Lenny Kravitz blares from a boombox. Gina Francis, the Manatees' dance coach — possessing a diminutive frame but a drill sergeant's voice — barks a critique, and they do the sequence again.
"He's the prototype," says Funk Master, the self-described "ghetto Manatee" in baggy shorts and sunglasses, as he admiringly watches Tiny. "He's who the Marlins were looking for with this thing."