#GirlThatsMySong IT GIRL: FAMED PLUS-SIZE DANCER & OWNER OF #PRETTYBIGMOVEMENT, AKIRA ARMSTRONG
Whoever said there’s no room for big girls on the professional dance forefront should keep their opinions to themselves. Where there’s determination, lies possibility, and Akira Armstrong is proof of that adage. After crafting her dance skills for years at esteemed dance institutions, Armstrong worked her way into Beyoncé‘s “Get Me Bodied” and “Green Light” music visuals. But, despite being featured in two music videos for the Grammy-Award winning superstar, Armstrong faced constant rejection from famed dance agencies.
Undeterred, Armstrong came to the realization that there must have been other women out there just like her. She realized there was a void in the industry that needed fulfillment, so she did what any determined professional would do— she took matters into her own hands. In 2008, Armstrong founded the #PrettyBigMovement LLC, a dance agency dedicated to the empowerment of professional plus-sized dancing girls. Since then, the full-figured dance troupe’s innovative performances has been featured on the 2014 Hip Hop Awards paying homage to women in hip-hop culture, NBC’s America’s Got Talent, and News New York 1. And, let’s not forget about that all the way lit “The Scene” video that’s gone viral on social media.
PBM remains in high demand as they continue to defy stereotypes about plus-sized women. The troupe’s innovation has even garnered the attention of plus-sized retail giant, Lane Bryant. Currently, the ladies are a few of the new faces of the popular retailer’s recent campaign: “My ___________ inspired by #ThisBody,” along with Atlantic Records’ powerhouse, Lizzo. Well, we’ve said a mouthful already. Want to know more about this rising mogul, her BPM troupe, and when to catch their forthcoming performance on the Harry Connick Jr. show? Well, we caught up with Ms. Armstrong to find out all of that and more. See the interview below.
GTMS: How have you been?
AA: I’ve been amazing. I’m a little overwhelmed, but I’m good [chuckles].
GTMS: So, what have you been up to?
AA: I’m in rehearsals trying to get this show together. Trying to find costumes. Working on this website and this merchandise. Trying to plan this trip outside of New York to make a workshop and I gotta go to L.A, so it’s been a lot going on.
GTMS: So what are the most important projects you’ve been working on thus far?
AA: We’ve been trying to revamp this website and have the public have accessibility to purchase our Pretty Big Merchandise; which we have been working on for some time now. Merchandise will be T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, key chains, things of that nature. We’re also making an appearance on the Harry Connick Jr. show this Wednesday. We’ll be performing on television, which is great, more exposure. There’s also been some backlash about my movement and what it stands for [laughs]. My name was mentioned on The Real daytime talk show hosts, Lonnie Love and Frenchie Davis made some not-so-nice comments in reference to Pretty Big Movement. So that’s been the talk of the town right now.
I have a lot of supporters and fans who have been clapping back for me, which is amazing. That means I have so much support going in on those two individuals and how they’ve been such negative individuals with all this stuff that’s going on. So this is some of the stuff that’s been going on since the video went viral. We have touched so many lives across the world, and I say that with all honesty. Literally, we’ve touched people’s lives. When we go on Facebook Live, there are people who pop up on our Facebook feed from New Zealand, Austria, Australia, Dubai, Italy, London. Like, we have touched the world. That was my goal in the beginning from the time that I created this nine years ago; 2018 will be ten years. So it’s been a journey.
GTMS: We’ve heard about the shady comments made by Lonnie Love and guest host, Frenchie Davis. How did that make you feel? Did you care at all?
AA: To be honest with you, I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t sad. I was more so disappointed simply because they are black women, and I’m a black woman myself. They are on the heavy side just like me so it was disappointing to hear the negative comments. Even though they are not dancers like me, they’ve been in this industry in the capacity of a comedian or a singer. We all know that being plus sized in this industry is not in favor for so many people. So I thought that they would have celebrated the fact that I was doing something positive and empowering for women and it was unfortunate that they didn’t see the bigger picture. Tamara saw the bigger picture, and Jeannie saw it, who are on the smaller side. but, you know, it’s always us [laughs].
GTMS: For some reason, it’s usually people who are in the same “boat” as you that does most of the finger-pointing. When this first came across my desk I thought ‘wow, this is great,’ and I’m a size eight.
AA: Mm, hmm, yes [laughs]. Thank you [chuckles].
GTMS: Delving more into your background…Where are you originally from, and what inspired you to start dancing?
AA: I was born and raised in the Bronx. I’m a Bronx girl [laughs].
GTMS: Alright, the boogie down Bronx. The birthplace of Hip-Hop.
AA: Yes, the birthplace of Hip-Hop, exactly. I started dancing at the age of eight. What inspired me to dance was one day there was a show on and Patti Labelle was on television. We all know that Patti Labelle was known for her outrageous costumes, makeup, and hair. She wasn’t dancing, but it was her presence and how the audience received everything that she was doing. She was just amazing and I was just taken aback by that. I told my mom, ‘whatever that is, I want to do that. I want to touch people and I want to entertain people,’ and I said that I wanted to dance. My mom put me in dance school here in the Bronx, in the Mind Builders Creative dance center and that was my first introduction to dance. My first genre of dance that my mom put me in was West African, which is my favorite. Then along the way, I got into tap and modern jazz. Hip-Hop came later on when I got into middle school.
GTMS: Did you sign up for dance class in middle school?
AA: Yes. From first to sixth grade I was in catholic school and I begged my mom to take me to catholic school [laughs] so I could pursue dance. So in order for me to do, that I had to audition for all the performing arts schools like La Guardia and Talent Unlimited. I didn’t get into those, but I got accepted into Professional Performing Arts. For the audition, we had to ballet and I hated ballet because we had to wear leotards and tights and I just didn’t feel comfortable with that. I was the only big girl in that audition as a seventh grader coming into the school.
So I was a little uncomfortable with that, but they saw something in me and I got accepted. Dance was my major, so I attended Alvin Ailey and that’s where I learned more. I got into modern jazz, hip-hop, Graham; and that was from seventh grade to twelfth grade. Then I went to Utica College and Syracuse University. I joined a dance group by the name of “Africa In Motion,” and I became the president of the dance company for three years.
GTMS: Very nice! So, you’ve been featured in two Beyoncé music videos, “Get Me Bodied,” and “Green Light.” What were the events leading up to that?
AA: I originally auditioned to go on her world tour, not thinking about my size, not thinking about any of that. I was just like, ‘I’m just gonna go, this is my first audition.’ This was at City Center. There were thousands of girls waiting in line to audition for Beyoncé back in 2007, and it went really great for me. Frank Gatson Jr, who was Beyoncé’s artistic director at the time saw something in me and just gravitated towards me.
He gave me the opportunity to do the two music videos, but not to tour. I flew out to L.A that following weekend and everything just kind of took off from there. I went down to L.A and did the video. I did some more auditions for agencies to get representation, that was a flop. I came back to New York and had a moment to sit down with myself to figure out what it is my next step was and God gave me the answer.
I said: ‘you know what, I’mma create my own lane.’ I felt that there was a void in the industry for plus-sized professional dancers. We were being overlooked and I knew there was talent out there. It’s just that the women were kind of hiding in their homes not wanting to come out.
GTMS: We have read that you were often teased by your family members while growing up for being heavy-set. Would you say that over the years you’ve developed “thicker skin” because of that?
AA: Yes, I’ve been hearing stuff my entire life from family members, so-called friends, people in the industry. I’ve heard everything under the sun about my appearance. Either somebody didn’t like how I looked or how I wore my hair. Growing up, I was very colorful. Pink was my favorite color and still is. I’ve always been bright in my fashion, not because I wanted to be seen but my mother was like that growing up. She was very much fashionable and that carried on to me growing up. I’ve always been unique and different. Also, being heavy set, I wasn’t doing it for attention. I just felt like I just needed to be me. I didn’t need to appease others to make them feel comfortable. I am who I am.
GTMS: What’s your ultimate goal in encouraging women as a professional dance mogul?
AA: the ultimate goal for me is not only to instill confidence in women but give them the encouragement to know that they can do anything. It doesn’t have to relate to dance because I get a lot of testimonials from people who reach out to me and say: ‘hey I’m a woman in my 40s and I put on some weight and I’ve been through a divorce ’cause I’ve put on this weight.” You know, if dance is in relation to making women feel beautiful about themselves and that’s a thing that’s empowering for them then I think I am on the right path. I just want people to feel like they can do, regardless of what size they are.
GTMS: The Pretty Big Movement is in theater production focusing on issues of romance, self-esteem, and image. Care to give us more insight on that? And where does the romance part come in?
AA: Just to give a summary about it, it’s about eight women and we find solidarity and confidence as we tell our personal stories and tragedies as a monolog. On my monolog, I talk about being a plus-sized woman and having challenges with men and being in relationships. So that’s my honest true story. The other women are touching on topics such as bulimia, suicide, verbal abuse, not being happy with how they look aesthetically. These are all their true stories and how they feel. These are the emotions that they wear on themselves every day.
GTMS: Why do you think that in an industry where there’s been a lot of successful plus-sized singers/artists from all walks of life plus-sized women are still torn down for being who they are?
AA: I think it has a lot to do with intimidation. Women who are on the heavier side are known to be very boisterous. Sometimes we are looked at as being lazy. A lot of times people prejudge so they rather not put their energy into it. I think in terms of plus size women who sing, or are spoken word artists who are not in relation to dance…when it comes to dancing it’s like: ‘oh really, they dance?.” Because they are not used to seeing that.
We are used to seeing a plus sized woman as a singer in the industry but the majority of the time they come out in the industry plus-sized and about six months to a year later they’re a size five. So to me, it’s like they’re forced to change their identity to be accepted. What I’m trying to preach is you don’t need to change your identity to be accepted.
Stay tuned for Akira Armstrong and the #PrettyBigMovement’s appearance on the Harry Connick Jr. show this Wednesday, February 1st.
Interview By: Olga Barker