I could go on for hours (and probably days) about why High School Musical is an iconic film. The story, the music, the Zac and Vanessa romance — it’s truly perfect. But above all else, one aspect shines brightest, one that my 2006 self still remembers to this day: Martha Cox’s wicked dance moves.

That’s right: Martha “Pop, Lock, Jam, and Break” Cox. In her plus-size glory, Martha broke out of her nerdy shell, defying the status quo and dancing like nobody’s business. As an eight-year-old who had just begun to feel what it’s like to be outcast because of your size, Martha became an inspiration and a symbol of what I could become.

High School Musical was my first exposure to the world of dance and theatre. More importantly, High School Musical was, and remained to be for many years, the only representation of plus-size dancers that I could hold on to. And so a few weeks ago, I took a trip back to 2006 to talk with Martha Cox herself, KayCee Stroh, about her difficult childhood in the dance studio and how High School Musical gave her the platform to inspire and give a voice to plus-size dancers, myself included.

Stroh was practically raised in the dance studio, starting at age two. She quickly fell in love with tap and jazz and spent hours upon hours perfecting her craft as best she could. She figured that, as a plus-size dancer, she had no choice but to be better than everyone else.

“It was a much different time than it is now,” Stroh tells me via phone. “In all honesty, it was pretty brutal. Now we have the positive body movement and so many good examples and, unfortunately for me, I had to kind of be a trailblazer.”

Brutal doesn’t even begin to describe the treatment she often received, particularly at age 12 when she competed in hopes of representing the state of Utah in a national competition.

“I worked on scholarship at the studio to pay for some of my classes and solos, and I did very well at the competition,” she recalls. “I then had the director of the competition come up to me — I believe I was 12 years old and I was maybe a size 10 — and she came up to me and said, ‘You are so great KayCee, and we really want you to represent the state of Utah at nationals, but you just don’t have the ideal dancer body… We already have all the costumes for nationals and you just wouldn’t fit into them.’ At 12 years old, that was so devastating and really crushed me.”

At times, the negativity began to weaken Stroh’s self-esteem. She admits that she even “dabbled” in bulimia. “Thank goodness I had incredible parents who were on it and they started catching the signs,” she says.

Yet, despite the constant obstacles and difficulties that Stroh faced, her immense love for the stage and her art helped her rise above it all and keep on pounding the pavement.

Soon enough, she was cast in what would become an international hit: High School Musical. After being pushed aside because of her size her entire life, everything suddenly clicked for Stroh on set.

“The first thing [director] Kenny Ortega said to me — he came up to me and said ‘I love you. You’re different,’ she says. “Here I had struggled with that my entire life, wondering why I was different and why I didn’t fit the mold, and it was always this negative thing. But in that moment, the switch switched over and it was good to be different, and I was different for this purpose.”

Upon the film’s release, many felt just as I did: empowered and inspired by Stroh and her character, Martha. Soon enough, Stroh began to realize just how big of an impact she was making on children.

“When High School Musical came out and it was so big, I used to receive letters from girls like myself and even boys like myself who never quite felt like they fit the mold but just loved, loved the art of dancing,” she remembers, while fighting back tears (and let it be known that I was also tearing up at this point of the interview). “I was overwhelmed, and clearly I still am. I am so grateful that I could be that light in someone else’s life because there wasn’t much of that for me to look up to.”

Without even realizing it, Stroh had become a model for a generation of young, plus-size dancers to follow. Her character’s confidence and passion show that you and I have every reason to be proud of our skin and what we love to do, whether it be dancing, baking, playing the cello, or being a show-tune-belting basketball player.

To some, it may seem silly to say that Disney Channel’s High School Musical is an iconic movie. But for plus-size dancers like myself, both boys and girls, young and old, and proud and loud, the franchise shows that dance is for everyone, no matter the weight. Because of the movie’s plus-size representation, my life changed completely, a change that I will be forever thankful for. Thank you, KayCee Stroh.

Who inspired you as a kid? Tell us @BritandCo!

(Featured photo via Disney)