On top of the world: Akira Armstrong '05

Akira Armstrong 05 at 2019 MTV VMAs

"The experience prepared for a position of leadership and taught me how to work with different personalities, organize events, choreograph dance routines, be a creative director, and so much more."

It’s been a pretty big year for Akira Armstrong ’05.  

A dancer since childhood, Armstrong made her national debut more than a decade ago in Beyonce’s  2007 “Get Me Bodied” music video. The gig led to more work, but the opportunities for plus-size dancers were limited. Even after years on the scene, she felt she still had to prove to casting agents and choreographers that full-figured women could be dancers—professional dancers—each time she auditioned. 

So she decided to create her own opportunity. In 2008, Armstrong founded Pretty BIG Movement with a small group of fellow professional dancers she’d met around NYC. The group hosted workshops and performed steadily, but they didn’t hit it big until 2015, when Pretty BIG competed on NBC’s America’s Got Talent. Though they didn’t take the title, they advanced to the final rounds, putting Pretty BIG Movement, and full-figured women in general, on a national stage. 

Fast-forward to August 2019, when of-the-moment singer and rapper Lizzo tapped Armstrong to join her onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards. The joyous, powerful performance presented full-figured dancers to 1.93 million viewers nationwide, with the YouTube clip boasting nearly 7 million more views in the months that followed. It was a national coming-out for not just Lizzo, but for Akira Armstrong and the empowering movement she’d created.

But it didn’t end there. Shortly after the MTV performance, Pretty BIG’s social media content drew the attention of Dove. Armstrong’s message of self-love and body positivity fit perfectly in line with Dove’s latest campaign focused on challenging beauty stereotypes. The brand produced a web mini-documentary about Armstrong’s journey to self-acceptance, helping launch Pretty BIG’s message to a new, larger audience, and the response has been profound. In addition to the thousands of likes and shares on the video were heartfelt comments like this one:

“I needed this growing up. I have been plus size all of my life and my passion has always been dance. Unfortunately, I didn’t fit the image of the industry. I experienced much of the rejection [Armstrong has]. I counted myself out, but God didn’t. Today I am CEO of a dance enrichment program. I hope you read this message because you need to know you inspire. Not to mention y’all moves and choreography is fire!” 

And for Armstrong, the movement continues.

How did your experience at UC prepare you for everything you’ve accomplished with Pretty BIG Movement?

My sophomore year I became the president of A.I.M ((Africa In Motion) dance group on campus. The experience prepared for a position of leadership and taught me how to work with different personalities, organize events, choreograph dance routines, be a creative director, and so much more.

What was going through your head on-stage at the VMAs?

I was thinking about every little girl that may feel she can’t be where I’m standing. While attending UC, I always knew my purpose and knew I wanted to continue dance as my career, but never thought I would be on a national level. A long process of love, talent, and dedication was all left on the stage.

We have to ask—what’s Lizzo like in person? 

Lizzo is a cool, vibrant, funny, yet humble, person.

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