Watch Out for the Big Grrrls

By Melissa Bell

September 27, 2022, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Most of my life I told myself I was too fat to have short hair. It was said matter of factly, without angst or shame, and only ever to myself (I would never admit to such warped anti-feminist thinking out loud). In my delusional thinking the longer hair was somehow balancing out the proportions of my body – drawing the emphasis away from my back rolls and big thighs. I think perhaps I felt it was helping to project some sort of feminine allure that I had absorbed was attractive and advantageous for navigating the world. Having short hair, I must have imagined, would limit my appeal (read, to men), expose all my physical “flaws,” and just be too much for the public to bear. What a load of baloney.

I was (and remain) a white, mid-upper class woman with a supportive community and a ton of privilege. I moved confidently through the world, wasn’t afraid to use my voice, and had a history of often getting what I wanted. So, on some level, I was proud of being big, of taking up space… but only to an extent. The self-confidence that I projected was, in part, a defense mechanism designed to keep folks from even a whiff of the soft vulnerable underbelly of insecurity I had about my size.

Now that I’m squarely in middle age, I am coming to recognize my inner talk about my body meant that I was perpetually limiting myself, particularly when it came to dance.

Growing up my body was bigger than my dancer friends’ bodies. I was bigger, in fact, than just about every dancer I knew or saw perform. It is perhaps not surprising then, that in addition to weaving nonsensical tales about the length of my hair, I concocted an internal narrative wherein my big, round body was the thing that would forever keep me from being cast by the major dance companies I admired (and there is, regrettably, likely some truth to that). So sure was I that my size precluded me from having a shot at the career that I so (secretly) desired, that I never really wholeheartedly pursued life as a dancer.

Of course I can now recognize that the call to diminish myself was coming from inside the proverbial house. My thoughts about my size had been steadily absorbed through exposure to American culture that, in the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 21st century, applauded and exalted small women and jeered and pitied larger ones. The icons I was drawn to as an 80s kid were Mary Lou Retton, Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson – all tiny. In my teenage years and beyond it was women who projected the strength I sought – Serena Williams, Idina Menzel, Kate Winslet (who, you may recall, received intense scrutiny for her body size after the debut of Titanic).

Now, I get that this is not news – women in American society absorb self-loathing like face cream becasue we live under an insidious regime of white supremacist, mysoginistic, patriarchal bullshit. We know this. But, it is because of this that when new idols emerge who have managed to break through the constraints that held me and so many like me back, I think we need to celebrate and acknowledge them.

The icon I never had, but wish I had, is Lizzo. Lizzo’s meteoric rise to fame in the past few years has been a gift to women of all sizes, as Lizzo shouts to the rooftops her pride in being a “big girl,” and uses her fame and influence to lift people up **. Her bold embrace of her curves has grown in tandem with her success, and is a major part of her brand. Her music videos and stage shows highlight the glorious expansiveness of her body as she shakes and shimmies, twerks and grooves her way through her hit songs. And, lucky us, she is not alone up there. She has been steadily recruiting fellow dancers to join her – a crew she affectionately and exuberantly calls her “Big Grrrls,” whose big bodies and bigger talents have now been featured in a stunning array of performances.

According to Lizzo, finding Big Grrrls has been difficult, in no small part because agents who represent commercial dancers historically haven’t taken on big girls as clients. This prompted Lizzo to take to social media and put out a call for self-proclaimed big girl dancers to come and join her. She got results. Thousands of results, in fact. And then, brilliantly, she built a television show called “Watch Out for the Big Grrrls” around thirteen possible candidates.

This show is the medicine I didn’t know I needed.

What a revelation it was to see these full-figured ladies dance together, learn together, and grow into themselves in each and every episode. They are resplendent and fully present. They work hard, sweating it out in challenge after rigorous challenge. As may be expected, they share stories about the hate and abuse they have received as dancers and humans living in big bodies, about their own self-doubts and the ways they have been overlooked. As women of color, they also share stories about colorism, about insecurities over wearing their natural hair, about police violence, and about transphobia, that the public needs to hear. They talk the real shit about living in a world that has historically held women of color down, denigrating their bodies and denying their beauty. But in addition to that – in addition to that – the show showcases them exuding radical joy, reveling in self-discovery, experiencing transformational self-love and benefiting from a growing sisterhood of women who see aspects of themselves in each other. And, Lizzo is right there for all of it.

It’s bad bitch o’clock, yeah it’s thick thirty.

I’ve been through a lot, but I’m still flirty.

Is everybody back up in the buildin’?

It’s been a minute, tell me how you’re healin’

Cause I’m about to get into my feelings.

How you feelin’? How you feel right now?

– Lizzo, “About Damn Time”

From the start it is apparent that Lizzo and director Nneka Onuorah were not interested in following the typical reality show formula that pits contestants against one another as they scramble to emerge as a single victorious “best” or “favorite” dancer a la So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Best Dance Crew, Dancing with the Stars, etc. Instead, everyone who proves themselves to be ready for the challenge of being catapulted into a career as a professional dancer is welcome to come along for the ride.

The girls dance. A lot. They live in a mansion with a pool and a gym and a rehearsal studio. The camera follows them through their daily routine, where they work on weekly dance challenges. They have dance battles, make their own music videos, develop a stage persona and learn existing choreography from Lizzo’s stage shows, generally while donning a stunning array of bright-colored, form-fitting outfits. But, the challenges don’t stop there. They are offered sensual movement class to get in touch with their sexiness, a healing workshop to help them break through their own mental barriers, and a solo nude photo shoot to help them learn to love and appreciate their bodies. Over and over again, emphasis is put on cultivating the emotional prowess that makes a dancer great. Their bigness is celebrated but not spectacularized. Their hardships are explored but not sensationalized. Witnessing their personal transformations as they step more boldly into their light as performers is a real gift.

And the show’s gifts don’t stop at the level of personal transformation (whether in the viewer or the contestant). Lizzo brings forth her entire empire of entertainment industry professionals to come and work with the girls. This is key—and it is a thing of radical beauty. She shows us what’s possible for the industry if there were massively less fatphobia and racism. The show recognizes that it takes a village to build a superstar, and Lizzo’s crew is a team of powerful women of color (with one or two white girl exceptions) who are at the top of their game and are reveling in these girls’ shine. There are OG Big Grrls like Shirlene Quigley who has been dancing with Lizzo for years, and Chawntá Marie Van (who despite being a relatively recent addition to the Big Grrrls is given an opportunity to choreograph a piece for the show). The contestants work closely with Tanisha Scott, Lizzo’s acclaimed creative director, and choreographer Charm LaDonna. Director Nneka Onuorah makes on-camera appearances as a mentor when the girls create music videos. The sensual workshop leader Rashida Khanbey Miller and the healing and self-love workshop DejaJoelle are both Black female entrepreneurs. SZA shows up to give feedback and affirmations, as does Missy Elliot, via video. Each of these individuals emphasizes that what makes a dancer great is not just how well she delivers on dance steps or stage direction, but also how she feels about herself while doing it. And then, because of how the show is structured to help the girls flourish instead of flounder, we as viewers get to watch them embody these realizations in their dance—and it is wonderful. Their movement gets richer, freer, more grounded and bold. They bloom. And, in turn, we, as viewers maybe get to bloom a little too.

In my research for this piece I took a deep dive into all things Lizzo. I found a video from a 2019 stage show in Glasgow. In it, Lizzo states the following wisdom, which I will leave you with here:

“Your transgressions can become your greatest blessings, bitch… I want you to know that if you can love me, you can love your goddamn self. And if you don’t mind, I want to do a little mantra with you. I want you to go home tonight and look in the mirror and say, ‘I love you, you are beautiful and you can do anything.’ I really want you to say that because I believe we can save the world if we can save ourselves first. It starts with you. I’m one bitch. But you all are thousands and thousands of bitches. And you all can change the world…”

Thanks, Lizzo. I’m working on it.

**I use the phrase ‘big girl’ throughout this piece because it’s the phrase Lizzo uses to describe her dancers, not because I think ‘fat’ is a bad word. Fat is, as Aubrey Gordon writes, ‘a neutral descriptor that can hold different kinds of power for different people.'”

This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of In Dance.

Melissa Hudson Bell (she/her) is a founder of Who Knows Best Productions, based in Oakland, CA, and the Executive Vice President of WKB Industries. She is a choreographer, teacher, performer and scholar. Hudson Bell earned her MFA in Experimental Choreography and her PhD in Critical Dance Studies from UC Riverside. She has taught at UC Berkeley, University of San Francisco and Santa Clara University, where she was an artist-in-residence. She has written for various publications including the San Francisco Chronicle and In Dance.