“Dance has always been my thing,” said Akira Armstrong. Although dance has definitely always been her thing, the road to her success was paved with a lot of hustle.
Armstrong is the CEO and founder of Pretty Big Movement, a dance company featuring full-figured dancers that specializes in various dance styles, such as hip-hop and jazz. The dance troupe has performed all over, from NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” to Lane Bryant ad spots to New York Fashion Week. Armstrong’s company profile has risen exponentially in the past several years, but the road to recognition was paved with hard work behind the scenes.
“I just always maintained focus,” said Armstrong, a Bronx native who still calls the borough home. “My dad was a correctional officer and I lost him at the age of 13. It put me in a certain headspace. I didn’t understand at that age why God had to take my dad.”
While Armstrong dealt with living in a single-parent home, she continued to make dance her passion. She stayed in dance classes because she wasn’t the type to hang out around the block and chill. “I was one of those that come and go and come and go,” she said. From the time she was 8 years old training in intensive dance, vocal training and drama at the Mind Builders Creative Arts Center in the Bronx, to getting her bachelor’s in public relations and education at Syracuse University, she kept dance in the front of her mind while picking up other skills along the way.
But once she went the professional route, Armstrong had to deal with people pointing to her size as a reason for not giving her gigs.
“The challenges I was facing was the body shaming and the negative comments I was getting from agencies 10 years ago,” Armstrong said. “Now, plus size is everywhere. I was teaching artists through Alvin Ailey, keeping dance within my reach, and I got the call. It came on a Friday night when I was doing artist development for someone and I had to go.”
“The call” Armstrong spoke of was regarding a gig dancing for Beyoncé in the music videos for “Get Me Bodied” and “Green Light.” The Queen Bey herself told Armstrong that she was “amazing” and wanted to fly her out to L.A.
But although Armstrong made contacts and had a good time on that assignment, she didn’t get many calls after the Beyoncé gig. So Armstrong transitioned into makeup and working at Sephora, but a friend came through once again. Someone she met on the set of the Beyoncé gig was now dancing backup for Salt-N-Pepa and heard they were looking for a makeup artist. Armstrong got the gig.
“For three years, I traveled with Salt-N-Pepa as their makeup artist,” said Armstrong. “But this wasn’t about the dollar. It was about getting my feet wet and getting a glimpse into what being in the industry entails. Being the water girl. Being the towel girl. Being stage set up. Doing my ground work.”
But dance was still in her blood. Dance was still the dream. That’s when Armstrong ran into a mentor who asked about her “big girl movement” and decided to break down the game for her.
“She sat me down and mapped out all these steps I needed to take to be a business woman first,” said Armstrong. “I trademarked and LLC’d Pretty Big Movement and I was able to pay for those things by working at a strip club doing makeup. I was making money off the books and that’s how I was able to get the necessary materials for my company.”
But even when she first established Pretty Big Movement, she had trouble finding dancers. It was during a time before the term “plus size” came into vogue and the movement to appreciate your body as is made its way to the mainstream. “The first audition at the Harlem School of the Arts about four or five girls showed up,” she said. “I put it on hiatus. There’s not girls that can move like me or better?” But all that changed during Full-Figured Fashion Week in 2012. She met other dancers and built relationships, all leading to the company she has today. She re-started everything and now, Pretty Big is…pretty big.
Armstrong related, “Last weekend, I literally just had an audition and women from all over, like Philly, Louisiana and Atlanta, who come to audition. The brand is expanding and more people are coming out of their shells. Pretty Big has been so impactful.”
Armstrong, just another girl from the Bronx, made an impact nationally and still remains grounded, in part because of her personality and in part because she’s been taking care of her mother, who has suffered from the after effects of a stroke, a brain aneurysm and a brain tumor.
“I’ve remained in the same building since I was 4 years old,” Armstrong said. “I just try to make sure I give her as much time as I can. Right now, I’m going out to South Korea to perform out there. I’m working on adding two companies under the Pretty Big umbrella. I’m trying to build chapters in different cities—expand my brand to apparel.”
Armstrong also shopped around a docuseries about Pretty Big Movement to several networks who passed, so, like most things in her life, she’s going to do it herself.
“This is the work of God,” Armstrong concluded.