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‘Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls’ aims to change the dance world’s emphasis on thin performers

In her new reality TV series, the Grammy winner searches for women to join her backup dancers

The first thing you need to know about Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls is that this is not a typical reality television competition. It’s not a zero-sum game in which only one person emerges triumphant and joins Lizzo’s backup dancers, the Big Grrrls.

Sure, there will be challenges. And yes, there will be eliminations and drama. But the three-time Grammy winner has a deeper motivation for bringing her brand to the small screen: She’s out to crush all the anti-fat and racist judgments about what full-figured Black women can and cannot do.

“We come with the energy, the stamina, the flexibility. Big Grrrls are doing it, honey,” Lizzo says at the start of the first episode, which debuts Friday on Amazon Prime Video.

In a recent South by Southwest (SXSW) keynote address, Lizzo described how finding larger dancers has been a problem for years. The commercial dance industry is dominated by agents and managers who curate which clients to send to casting calls. Like modeling, dance has long been an art form where extreme thinness is the preferred body type. (According to a survey by the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2015-16 the average weight for an American woman over age 20 was 170.5 pounds with a 38.7-inch waist.)

Lizzo’s former choreographer Jemel McWilliams told Dance Magazine about an agency open call they did in Los Angeles in 2019. The “top agencies only had two to four dancers on their rosters that they considered plus-size — meaning smaller than your average-sized American woman.” McWilliams ended up doing another open call through Instagram and booked dancers who had no professional experience for a Coachella performance. Most had never considered that an agency would represent them, and some had been denied such representation.

From left to right: Sydney Bell, Charity Holloway, Arianna Davis, Ashley Williams, Jayla Sullivan, Asia Banks and Kiara Mooring are some of the hopefuls competing to join Lizzo’s Big Grrrls.

James Clark/Amazon Prime Video

Tanisha Scott, who has choreographed videos and world tours for Rihanna and Cardi B and is now Lizzo’s creative director and choreographer, remembers her own plight.

“Being a dark-skinned woman, it wasn’t easy for me to be in an audition and get the job. You have to look a certain part, whatever the creative is, whatever the look. When I was doing a lot of dancing, it wasn’t easy to get clothes if you’re not sample size.”

Scott has gone on to defy this norm, making her a mentor for a series looking to shift the paradigm on body size in dance. Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls shows the value of these women to the world, while proving to the women that there is room for them and their talents. This has the effect of changing the reality show math of who stays and who goes. It upends the usual power dynamics among contestants and flattens the hierarchy between Lizzo and the Big Grrrls hopefuls.

Right away, Lizzo makes it clear that she is open to the possibility of hiring all who are truly ready for the gig. Shot last year, the series dangles as a prize appearance at the 2021 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival (which winds up being canceled because of bad weather and creates a late-game change of plans in the final episode of the show) and a tour to follow. Their shapes and sizes are instantly made both a marketable commodity and a cause for celebration.

“When I initially pitched my creative, I started with, ‘This is gonna be a docuality,’ ” said the series director, Nneka Onuorah. “I went in with a deep intention to bring real emotions to this project, real process and empathy. So I think this is actually not even a reality show at all. It’s a journey telling the stories of these beautiful women and their journeys of self-expression through dance.”

Along the way, original Big Grrrls Chawnta’ Marie Van, Shirlene Quigley and Grace Holden offer advice and push them toward cleaner dance techniques and greater artistic expression. Van’s own path to dancing for Lizzo offers evidence of what it takes to be a Big Grrrl.

Van met McWilliams at an audition for the BET Awards. After the ceremony, he asked Van if she could replace an injured Holden for three weeks of Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You Too tour in 2019. It was a Sunday, and her first show would be that Thursday.

“I was so nervous and there was no spacing rehearsal before I got out onstage,” remembered Van. “The entire time we were onstage, the other dancers were yelling out my formations.”

At one point, Van thought another dancer was shouting at her from across the stage, telling her to “go.” She ended up strutting right onstage even though the direction she was given was a resounding, “No!”

“I looked at Lizzo and she looked back at me like, ‘What’s up?’ Because she was about to sing ‘Jerome,’ which is just the chair and her onstage. I nodded to her like, ‘Go ahead, do your thing,’ and then I walked off. It was so embarrassing at the time — I mean, we still laugh to this day — but that’s how it all started.”

After the three weeks were up and Holden was set to return, Lizzo decided to keep Van on, too.

The Big Grrrls hopefuls perform for Lizzo.

James Clark/Amazon Prime Video

As Van proved, along with precision and stamina, being a Big Grrrl also requires an outsize amount of confidence.

“Big, Black women aren’t set up by society to know their worth,” Lizzo said at SXSW. “But I’m here to say you are what you say you are.”

The 13 women who meet Lizzo in the first episode represent a diversity of backgrounds. There is a mother, a transgender woman, an influencer, an aspiring K-pop dancer and a former member of Alabama State University’s plus-size dance team, the Honeybeez, among them. While a few have pre-professional dance training or dance team experience, most have not had any formal lessons. And yet, the series does not value one over the other. Scott, who has excelled in the commercial dance industry despite her lack of training, explains how there are benefits to both sides.

“Being trained, you learn how to articulate your body and how to learn choreography. But without formal training, you lead with feeling and your performance tends to be better,” she said. “Because a lot of these women that are in the show don’t have any formal training, I was able to tap into just the raw energy of it all, the storytelling.”

Instead of pitting the dancers against one another, Lizzo and her team find ways to pump them up and bring out the best in them.

“I have always been radical about when we see Black women on television, we need to show multifaceted versions of ourselves,” said Onuorah. “People are so used to when you tell Black stories, what are the stakes. You know, what’s the beef, the drama. And I feel sometimes that’s forced to make people interested. But Black people are powerful — Black women especially — and interesting all on their own. We didn’t need to insert conflict and we didn’t force any narrative onto these girls.”

And yet, the show does not lack in drama. The challenges of each episode are set up to allow the prospective Big Grrrls to be increasingly vulnerable and in touch with their own bodies, to share more of themselves, both as dancers and humans. And to silence both their inner and outer critics.

“It takes a lot of vulnerability to do a show like this, to tell a story like this,” said Onuorah. “The stakes are already high when you have so much criticism online from social media, and then the inner criticism of yourself.”

When 10 women are selected to move on at the end of episode one, their new home is in a mansion.

The cast of Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls during a dance rehearsal.

James Clark/Amazon Prime Video

Lizzo tells them, “I put you all up in here because I want you to feel special. I want you to feel worthy because you deserve it.”

They are also given opportunities for self-care and reflection, including a workshop with a body movement expert, a nude photo shoot and a training session with a fitness expert. They perform “Good As Hell” with the Langston University marching band, make their own music videos with Onuorah to Missy Elliott’s “We Run This,” and get high-gloss makeovers to help them define their stage personas. They even get a first listen of Lizzo’s new single, “Naked.” Lizzo wants them to be comfortable in their own skin and confident enough to step out of their comfort zone. It turns out these are also requirements for sharing the stage with her.

“This should be a norm when we watch narrative films, they should have big-girl leads. It shouldn’t be just the same body type over and over again,” said Onuorah. “I hope the world knows that you can be a big girl and be healthy and physically fit. These girls are so amazing. And I think they’re gonna inspire people to become free within their own bodies.”

Like Lizzo’s lyrics, the language used in the series befits a world where more is more. Multiple times she calls on the women to “Dance your asses on!” They are constantly reminded of their beauty. The setup becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the women begin to own that uplifting sensibility and praise one another.

The show never loses sight of Lizzo’s talent as a musician and culture maker. Even in her most vulnerable moments, she retains the swagger that attracted the world to her in the first place. When she bestows a “100% That B—-” award to a Big Grrrl candidate at the end of every episode, it doesn’t lessen the impact of that title in reference to herself.

Onuorah said she was drawn by this chance to disrupt the status quo of who gets to profit from Black women’s work.

“A lot of people are able to profit off it but then you don’t see any of the results or your name is just used as a diversity stamp,” she said. “I think that we need to change that too. Having my own production company, just like Lizzo has hers … these girls will eventually have theirs as well, too. And their own agencies and their own dance studios.”

It’s probably too much to hope that eight episodes can force change in the commercial dance industry, but there are promising signs. Indeed, after touring with Lizzo, Van did get representation.

“I had an agency reach out to me, wanting to work with me,” Van said. “Now they see they need to have more curvy, plus-size women on their team because this woman has shaken the entire dance world. Now other artists will have all shapes and sizes. …

“I see that more now on casting calls, which is beautiful.”

A couple of weeks ago during iHeartRadio Living Black!, Lizzo debuted the full version of her new single, “If You Love Me.” Draped in yellow tulle, she sang, “If you love me, then you love all of me.” In evening gowns and sashes, select cast members of Watch Out for the Big Grrrls sauntered across the stage, designed as the site of a “Miss Black” pageant. In a fitting epilogue to their reality TV journey, each of them added flowers to her bouquet in a gesture of sisterhood.

Candice Thompson is a writer and dance critic living in Brooklyn.