*original publication Fall 2017*
Pretty Big Movement™
an interview with Akira Armstrong
by BJ Dowlen
The beats were strong and the vibe was electric when we did our #Take2AndRenew live Facebook takeover in January with the dance team Pretty Big Movement in NY City. To date, it is still our most watched event. So, how did the founder, Akira Armstrong from the “Boogie Down Bronx” go from receiving notes on her high school report cards of “Need to lose weight” to viral videos with over 18 million views and Beyonce whispering in her ear “You are simply amazing”?
BJ: I know everyone wants to hear how you got cast in a Beyonce video, but let’s start with some background first. How did you start your dance career?
Akira: I was 8 years old watching an old school music show on TV and saw Patti Labelle, her presence was amazing. I turned to my Mom and said “whatever it is, I want to do it”, not the singing part, but her room-filling presence. I then begged my Mom to take dance class (tap, West African and ballet). The West African dances spoke to my heart and soul, something about the drums and high energy. I KNEW I wanted to be a dancer. I applied to the Performing Arts School, where the audition was all ballet. I was a chubby, short girl and ballet wasn’t my thing; however, it was the requirement to get accepted into the school. The day of the auditions, my Mom waited for me and the ballet assistant for the auditions went to the waiting room and said: “There’s a chubby girl in here, and she is amazing”! My Mom knew he was talking about me.
BJ: That’s wonderful. What was it like once you got “in”?
Akira: It was good and bad. I worked very hard and was put in front of classes to lead, yet, because I was not thin, I was always placed in the back of the room for performances. There was a grading system A,B,C (A=Lower, B=Medium, C=Advanced) and for grades 9th-12th I was given the lower A grade, simply because of my size, it had nothing to do with my talent.
BJ: Knowing you were at the top, yet getting graded low due to superficial standards, how did that impact you?
Akira: It was VERY hard on my self-esteem. It was hard looking at my report cards that said: “Need to lose weight”. It’s hard enough being a teenager, imagine being judged solely on your size? I lashed out by showing a lot of attitude. I would think “Hello, I’m here!!! You see me, but are you here for me”?
BJ: When did things turn around for you with dance?
Akira: After high school, I went away to college in Utica, NY, that’s where I found myself in who I was in dance. I was writing out dance plans and became the President of our dance team from sophomore through senior year. I led the team in head to head competitions where we won first place. From there I started to not care what people had to say about my body.
BJ: Did you start your dance career right out of college?
Akira: No. I had another creative side, which was doing make-up. I had no formal training, yet, on a trip to Sephora, I was offered to work as a make-up artist, where I worked for 2 years, which provided me with a steady paycheck.
BJ: So how did you transition back from make-up artist extraordinaire to dancer extraordinaire?
Akira: A friend of mine reached out and told me there were auditions taking place for a Beyonce video, and I decided to go for it. There were THOUSANDS of dancers there, which they broke down each audition group to 200 dancers. Most people push and shove to try to get to the front, to be seen, even at my 5’ size, I believed I would be noticed in the back if I danced my heart out and showed some attitude. And I did!!! I was called back to the Alvin Alley dance theatre. Beyonce was there to see all 8 of us dance.
BJ: What was that final audition like?
Akira: Exhausting! We danced in 4” heels for 8 hours, by the end, I was sliding against the wall to hold myself up. At the end of the day, Beyonce leaned over to me and whispered: “You are simply amazing”. I got the callback and flew to L.A. the following week to shoot the video. I was her first plus-size dancer in her videos.
BJ: How did that impact your dancing career?
Akira: Even after working with Beyonce, I still wasn’t getting dancing gigs because of my size, so I went back to make-up. I did the make-up for rap duo Salt & Peppa and went on tour with them for 3 years. All along, I continued to dance, but it is hard to audition or even get an agent when you are working a full-time job; however, my makeup skills opened doors for me in the music community. I started thinking I might have to settle and not achieve my dreams of being a professional dancer.
BJ: What changed your mind?
Akira: A good friend of mine sat me down and urged me to “go for it”! Since no one was hiring plus-size dancers, I decided to create my own dance team, which I called “Pretty Big Movement”. And for 5 years straight I did it all, created the company, took care of the business side and pounded the pavement. Every penny went to Pretty Big Movement.
BJ: Was the viral video the turning point for you?
Akira: You would think, but it was our performance at the Ladies of Hip-Hop Festival, where we received a Standing Ovation! From there, we started getting invitations for TV appearances, and our videos went viral.
BJ: After participating in your January workshop, I can say that they are WAY more than a dance experience. It’s a bringing together of people. I was deeply touched at your closing “circle”, where people opened up about personal triumphs and struggles; can you share with our readers? How does it work?
Akira: At the end of each workshop, we gather everyone in a circle, holding hands. We ask them to say “I am Pretty Big and Powerful because…………” and each person has the opportunity to share their own personal experience.
BJ: It was VERY MOVING. People talked about surviving cancer, rape, suicide attempts, bullying, and there was even a girl who lost her Father the day before. It was a Very emotional and empowering circle.
Akira: Yes, it was.
BJ: I see Pretty Big Movement touring all over the country, appearing in Lane Bryant ads and you even have your own billboard now! What is next for Pretty Big Movement?
Akira: I’d like to set up workshops all over the country, and the world, to help others realize that anyone can dance, regardless of your size.
BJ: Wonderful. With your schedule, how do you #Take2AndRenew for yourself?
Akira: With this schedule, I’m a bit overwhelmed and sleep deprived, so I’m working on getting more rest and taking the time to stretch.