A Pretty Big Deal In Dance

An Interview with Akira Armstrong of Pretty Big Movement

 

Susannah Emerson

I keep coming up with butterfly metaphors when trying to find a way to talk about Akira. I want to express amazement at the fact that people and the bodies they live in are incredible! Jean Dominique-Bauby was paralyzed, locked inside his body & wrote The Diving Bell and The Butterfly by blinking his left eye. Harriet Tubman escaped slavery herself, led over 300 slaves to freedom and underwent brain surgery without anesthesia. Children raise themselves without parents. Broken bones heal. Heroin addicts get clean. Persecuted people love & forgive anyway. People change. This is not mock wonder; everything I just mentioned is incredible, and Akira, just like all of us, has a story that belongs in this list. 

 

Akira Armstrong is a dancer from the Bronx. In December 2016, her dance company Pretty Big shot into the public imagination ten years after its formation. In uncharacteristic candor, she told me that she thinks she & Pretty Big got famous because of one lucky business deal. She took a chance on a marketing firm that wanted to make a viral video (& one very viral video they did make.)

 

Akira, herself was surprised that the stunt took off, but not because the video wasn’t compelling & certainly not because the dancing was lacking. Her surprise was born out of something like realism. As a high school student, she was accepted into the Professional Performing Arts School in New York, and no doubt, watched some classmates meet wild success & some get stuck searching for a day job. She’d thought she’d “made it” before only to see the momentum stall. In 2015, Pretty Big performed on Season 10 of America’s Got Talent in front of 6 million viewers, and I can find only a few mentions of that appearance in the annals of the internet. Not everyone cares about America’s Got Talent, but most everyone does care about Beyoncé. Even so, Akira danced in two (!) Beyoncé videos (Get Me Bodied  and Greenlight), and still couldn’t find representation through a talent agency.

 

That’s not to say that she doesn’t know that what she’s got going - as a person & a dancer - is extraordinary. She & I both share the opinion that one key factor in the video’s success was its voiceover portion, in which Akira talks about her path as full-figured dancer. She makes herself accessible to us, and knowing her backstory, it’s a pleasure to root her on.

 

Thinking wishfully, I see a lot of overlap between Pretty Big & The Keep Collection, between Akira & me, and between our respective dreams. We both adopt an attitude of: what? Why would I have to compromise? Why I can’t I be my whole self? Who says this body can’t dance hip hop? Who says that consumers don’t like clothes served with a side of stories? Who says that earnestness & art can’t replace advertisements?

 

Pretty Big is composed of 8 semi-professional female dancers. All of these women have day jobs. Some are teachers, some are bartenders; what’s consistent is their dedication to Pretty Big. They meet three times a week, 3 hours a go, no exceptions. It’s run like a company, and as Akira says, it’s “not an afternoon activity.” (Casual dancers don’t end up on Harry Connick Junior’s new daytime talk show.) The other uniting factor is that each dancer in Pretty Big has a body that is “too big” by many dance standards. 

 

Though I’m thrilled that it’s getting attention, some portion of the interest in Pretty Big is due to the pervasive conception that there’s something radical about big women dancing. Most of the headlines about the group mention something about destroying dance stereotypes. It matters that these stereotypes be challenged, especially to big women who want to dance, and it’s crucial that big bodies are normalized in the media. For that to happen, the women of Pretty Big need to keep dancing; I need to write about them, and I need to be clear about why I’m paying attention. This brings me back to my longwinded intro. To me, the “butterfly-factor” is not that big women can dance or have found success in doing so; rather, it’s the dancing itself, and it’s Akira’s fortitude. Not the fact that Akira has shown resilience, but her resilience itself. 

 

In each of these articles promoting a version of body-positivity, there’s a misinformed person (or 10) in the comments section chastising Akira for “promoting obesity” and unhealthy lifestyles. Every single one of these comments shocks me. They’re almost always mean and trollish, but even when they’re not, it still comes as a surprise to me that somebody would assume the dancers in Pretty Big are unhealthy. There is some fundamental misunderstanding of the human body at work. First, dancers are fit! For some reason, the athleticism of dancers is consistently underestimated. And second, health looks different on different people. And then of course there are all the kinds of health (mental health, digestive health, lung capacity, blood pressure, T cell count) that cannot be seen. I want us all to be on the same page, so again: A) dancing is hard and B) health is multivariable & often invisible.

 

I’m most surprised when this criticism comes from other women who presumably have been subjected to related vicious commentary. Akira is also taken aback by the lack of empathy where there seemingly should be some, and in our interview she mentioned one example on her mind. Just before we’d spoken, Loni Love and Frenchie Davis (former American Idol contestant and singer of the Seasons of Love solo in the Broadway production of RENT that I attended on my 13th birthday) expressed frustration with Akira and Pretty Big on the talk show The REAL. When Frenchie was asked on air about her opinions on Pretty Big, she said that she finds the hype “a tinge condescending… big girls can dance; that ain’t nothing new.” Loni then jumped in to agree that “we always make a big deal out of stuff.”

 

Akira told called their comments “disappointing,” and told me that her reaction was more of the “here we go again”-type. What she wasn’t expecting was not to have the support of other big, black women in the entertainment industry. Though she did have the support of Tamera Mowry and Jeannie Mai, two other hosts of the REAL, she’d assumed that the women who looked the most like her would be complimentary. Upon studying the footage, I found myself cringing at how much was lost in translation. The first time I watched the clip, I was shaking my head & repeating, like an idiot: “But it’s both! But it’s both!” Much to my frustration, there’s not quite enough room in the segment for both disappointment over reductive media coverage and appreciation for the abilities and passions of a group of big dancers being recognized. Frenchie was frustrated the press coverage of Pretty Big, and the fact that talented, big dancers should be lauded as a revelation without precedent. I agree, but if I were Akira, I would be frustrated that my dance company - which was founded not as a gimmick, but as a way to inspire & give opportunities to dancers like me (Akira) - and its aims were being used to incite a conversation about the nature of the news cycle and sensationalization. 

 

When I ask about how such comments affects her, Akira calmly & succinctly says, “if i'm not ready to hear the negative, I'm not ready to be in this industry.” This self-assurance is why, to me, Akira is literally awe-inspiring. Akira grew up listening to a chorus of, “Akira needs to slim down.” The family members who showed her love in coming to each dance recital, were the same ones who she heard telling her mother “put her on a diet; she doesn't need to be eating that.” Unsurprisingly, she internalized these messages, & they stirred up a good amount of insecurity.

 

She points to her ex-boyfriend as pushing her to a place of self-acceptance. At 19, Akira was dating a “super fit, workout buff” who used to tell her to fix her stomach and work out more. Once while watching Tyra Banks on an episode of America’s Next Top Model, he told her “you need to look like that.” Akira’s response was, “if you want someone like her, then you need to go get her.” She was fed up, and that was it, both for the boyfriend and for the idea that her body was something that she needed to change. And with that, she made her first steps to founding Pretty Big; developing choreography for bodies that we don’t often get to appreciate in motion; putting shapes to music on stage. As a (fledgling) dancer and very experienced observer of dance videos on YouTube myself, it’s a pure privilege to watch different bodies tell different stories. Again, this is not mock wonder. Creative expression is just so cool, full stop.