On a Sunday evening in Yonkers, En Vogue’s “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” blares through the speakers of a dance studio. A group of women donned in black pants and black t-shirts with “Pretty Big Movement” written on the front sway to the rhythm of the song, giving all the feels of sexy.
Pretty Big Movement is an eclectic group of curvy women who defy the stereotypes of thin figured dancers. Between ages 19 and 34, these aren’t your amateur dancers; the company dances hip hop, jazz, ballet, contemporary and African dance.
“I am another person when I dance, I’m not Akira,” says Akira Armstrong, founder of Pretty Big Movement through a gleaming smile. “When I’m performing its like an out of body experience. I don’t think about anything, I just perform, and I enjoy it.”
Akira founded Pretty Girl Movement in 2008- and the company’s dancing skills has gained recognition from Vibe magazine, The Real and Lane Bryant – but the journey to success didn’t happen overnight.
After graduating college, Akira worked in the makeup industry. For four years, by day she worked at MAC cosmetics, and by night she glammed faces in the strip club while building on the idea of Pretty Big Movement. She paid for her trademark, LLC and more for the company with money she made in the strip clubs.
But not long after its launch, Akira put Pretty Big Movement on hiatus to tour with Salt-n-Pepa as their makeup artist. While she enjoyed working on the road with a mega girl group, Akira still knew dance was her calling.
Shortly after the tour Akira started teaching at Alvin Ailey as a dance counselor for a children’s camp, and later as a dance instructor.
She took dancing to new heights and even flew to California to dance in Beyonce’s “Green Light” video. On her idle time in sunshine city, she decided to look for dance agencies to represent her, but she didn’t get the feedback she’d hoped for. “The one thing I didn’t do was give eye contact, and that’s one thing I learned. But aside from that it was like oh she’s really good, but what do we do with her?”
She quickly learned that she was also categorized as “unmarketable” due to her size.
“I’m just like…well I just did two videos with Beyoncé, and she’s hot right now. Yes I’m different with aesthetics but if you see that I can dance, why cant you represent.”
The criticism motivated her to take Pretty Big Movement to the next level. She returned to New York and finalized her brand colors and logo, and held auditions to build her team of dancers.
“I made the decision that I want to be my own boss. I want to wake up when I want to, I want to create my own hours and move how I want to move,” said Armstrong.
Akira was sure to form a dance team with women who were team players, open to constructive criticism, good with time management and overall able to gel with the group, and she found that.
“We’re a sisterhood,” she says. “We don’t argue, we may agree to disagree but its genuine love, we’re very transparent with each other.”
The group even competed in America’s Got Talent, but off the stage Akira faced her own set of struggles.
In 2014 her mother suffered from an aneurism, and was induced and sedated for 2 ½ months. “My mom was home but I had to have someone watch her while I go,” she said.
“So you see me smiling on that stage but have no idea what’s going on personally in my life. You have to show up because people are expecting you to show up and are depending on you, but at the same time I’m dealing with all these other things personally.”
She managed her mother’s finances and care-taking, yet she never gave up on Pretty Big Movement.
“I made a promise to the girls that were with me that I wouldn’t shut this down because I knew how much they were with me and how much they wanted this.”
While many people have applauded Pretty Girl Movement on and off the stage, disapproval still lingered behind. Loni Love, a fellow plus size woman and cohost of The Real talk show, criticized the group on the show for promoting sexy dancing among big women. Yet the naysayers don’t bother Akira.
“Even though I am a plus size girl, I know people are going to judge, (but) people are going to judge if I’m a small girl with this movement,” she says. “It just so happens that I’m a girl from the Bronx who happens to be plus size who has a story, who had a dream and dreamt it and now its coming to fruition.”
And the dream lives in all of PBM. All the girls have stage name, and before each performance, one of the girls leads prayer. “That’s really important to me to have god and faith and prayer, because without him this would not be going on.”
PBM is also working to get into Broadway acting. One of their future events is “Pretty Big Monologues,” where the dancers share monologues on issues they’ve experienced like suicide, verbal and sexual abuse, dealing with relationships and insecurities as a plus size woman.
“It’s beyond dance, this is ministry. I have women in here who don’t think they’re beautiful. There’s work that needs to be done.”