HAVANA - The prima ballerina of the Danza Voluminosa troupe weighs 286 pounds, and as she thumps gracefully across the floor, she gives new meaning to the words stage presence. Her body is a riotous celebration of weight - of ample belly and breasts, of thick legs and arms, of the crushing reality of gravity. "I always liked to dance," the performer, Mailin Daza, said later. "I wanted to dance in the classical ballet, but my mother told me fat girls could not dance. I always dreamed of being a ballerina. With this group, I feel I am a ballerina." Formed more than a decade ago by Juan Miguel Mas, the company of fat dancers has become a cultural phenomenon in Cuba, breaking stereotypes of dance, redefining the aesthetics of beauty and, along the way, raising the self-esteem of obese people. While the troupe is not the first to employ larger dancers, its popularity comes as a surprise in a country known for its lean, muscular dancers in every genre from classical ballet to salsa. After all, food is rationed in Cuba, most people must walk or bike to work, and the streets are filled with hard, lean bodies. Mas, a 300-pound choreographer and dancer who moves like a pampered cat, admits that he often uses the stereotypical humor of his dancers' proportions to bring in audiences. The troupe is well known for its parody of "Swan Lake" and engages in hilarious renditions of dancing cliches like the cancan. But Mas and his troupe are deadly serious about dance, and once the laughter dies down, they are capable of performing moving pieces that drill into the universal themes of love, death and erotic longing. The audience forgets the joke and begins to feel the dance, he said. "We use humor to get the public in," he said. "Then we can hit them with something stronger." Mas, 41, also choreographs pieces on themes like the tragedy of gluttony, love between obese men and women, the prejudice that fat people face and the psychic toll of obesity. One of the troupe's recent successes, "Sweet Death," tells the story of a woman who, after being rejected by her family, tries to commit suicide by eating huge quantities of candy. The work has surreal elements, as the dancers use their bodies to create furniture in the performance. Another piece, "The Macabre Dinner," explores gluttony. Mas said it would be a mistake to think that his work was intended to glorify or sanctify obesity - or even to deliver a moralistic message that one should not discriminate against the overweight. Rather, he said, the troupe tries to face the reality of obesity artistically while giving larger people a chance to express themselves through dance, a chance they are denied from childhood in most dance classes. "Although we are obese and dance, we are against obesity," Mas explained, saying parenthetically that he admires New York City for banning trans fats from restaurant food. "We are always trying to lose weight." But something strange happens when the troupe takes the stage. Classical and modern dance often give the impression of human beings flying, freed from the floor. The slender female dancers are like nymphs and the men like Greek statues. They soar, spin, leap and reach for the sky. Because of the size of Mas' dancers, however, the work of Danza Voluminosa conveys something more earthy and human. Fat people move differently, he said, and the choreography must change. "We are more mountainous," he said. The dancers' movements are often slower than those of slender dancers. Voluminosa dancers favor limbs swinging in pendulous arcs and wavelike motions that seem to ripple through their bodies. They seem to grip the floor rather than abandon it, keeping a low center of gravity, often crouching or dancing while kneeling or lying on the ground. And when their dance becomes frenetic, the sheer weight of the dancers thudding across the stage conveys an excitement akin to a stampede, something out of control and wild, yet made of human flesh and blood. It can be a riveting sight.