By Nathalie Bonney @nathaliebonney
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Videographer / director: Adam Gray
Producer: Nathalie Bonney, James Thorne
Editor: Beth Angus
When Akira Armstrong appeared in not one but two Beyonce videos, she thought she had hit the big time. But as a plus-size dancer she struggled to find regular work and, for a few years, even gave up on her dream of becoming a professional dancer.
Determined to succeed – and give other fuller-figured women the opportunity to perform - Akira founded Pretty Big Movement, a plus-size dance group who train in New York City and have performed across the globe.
Pretty Big Movement is made up of eight core dancers who train together at least twice a week.
The troupe also puts on monthly dance workshops in NYC that women of all shapes, sizes and ages can attend – no matter what their dance ability.
Most recently Pretty Big Movement has run an apprenticeship scheme for aspiring professional dancers.
Together they hope to challenge the stereotypes that you can only be a good dancer if you are a size zero.
Akira, who describes Pretty Big Movement as “her baby” founded the group 10 years ago and challenged the assumption that larger-sized women are unable to dance.
She told Barcroft TV: “What I would say to the critics who say that plus-sized women can't do what the smaller women can do, is try coming on this side. Try living in this body and see how you can get it done. Can you do the same thing that we are doing? Do you have the stamina to do it?
“My main premise of doing Pretty Big Movement is that we are not taken as a gimmick because I am a professional dancer with a professional background. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘I want to be a dancer.’
“I have been working as a professional dancer since 2007. My first major gig was with Beyoncé. I did two music videos, which was Get Me Bodied and Green Light. So that was an amazing experience.
“I definitely thought that after I did those two music videos that that will be my ticket to more bigger and better things. But unfortunately that didn’t happen.”
Making her rounds on the audition circuit in LA, Akira was told at various agencies that her size made it difficult for her to be cast – even though she was a good dancer.
“They just said: ‘You know, she is good. But what would we do with her?’ And that kind of, took me back to the little girl and how I felt of not being accepted,” Akira explained.
“I was bullied when it came to the dance world. I wasn’t bullied outside of dance and that was a problem for me because dance was my passion.”
Deciding to take a step back from the industry, Akira retrained as a makeup artist, relocating back to her home city of New York. Alongside her day job, Akira would still go to classes and auditions - and she started to get some call backs, but she was tired of waiting on others. That’s when Akira made the bold decision to launch her own plus-size dance group.
Akira said: “It was still frustrating. I wasn’t getting chosen for representation. So I said: ‘You know what, Akira? I think you need to do your own thing.’ Because by the time I waited for somebody to give me a yes, I will be waiting my entire life.
“Pretty Big Movement is a full-figured, plus-sized professional dance company. It is my baby: I eat sleep and breathe Pretty Big.
“We have not only worked with Lane Bryant [plus size clothing brand] once but we have actually worked with them three times. Our pictures were up in stores and we had a huge billboard in Brooklyn.
“We we did a tour out in Canada, which was amazing. We worked with artists such as Sage the Gemini, Big Freedia, Jazmine Sullivan and Jennifer Hudson.”
Most recently, three of the group’s dancers featured in Janet Jackson’s ‘Made For Now’ video and the group also travelled to South Korea to perform and run dance workshops.
Teece Camacho, the group’s administrator, said: “We are seen as athletes because we are dancers. It’s a physical activity. It’s strenuous. It requires precision, discipline and I think sometimes it’s human nature to judge a book by its cover or to assume a certain aesthetic visually and I think that when you look at us we oppose that."
Pretty Big member Raushaundah Wright added: “It feels good to be able to say that I am a plus-size or full-size professional dancer because this is the first group to do it and it’s really raising awareness across the globe that it doesn’t matter what size you are, as long as you have the talent, you dance from your heart, you dance from your soul.
"That’s what the people see and not the outside.”
For Akira, Pretty Big Movement can only get bigger and better.
She said: “In the next five years we need our own Pretty Big Movement studio. I definitely see chapters in different cities and different countries. Pretty Big Movement LA, Pretty Big Movement Atlanta. I want to build my apprenticeship program - I would love to take that to different cities.
"A tour, definitely. And also Pretty Big Minis.
“We have done amazing things and I just want to get bigger and bigger. That’s why it is called Pretty Big. So always think big, think big in your heart, lead with your heart, lead with love and stay true to yourself.”