4Thirty-Two is removing the provision from 'you dance well -- for a big girl'
In a low-slung brick building in the heart of Charlotte, North Carolina, dancers are about to create a viral video, but they don't know it yet.
They spill into the space that will serve as their stage, a 900-square-foot media workshop flooded with lights, with a white-on-white, seamless curved backdrop in the background.
The making of 4Thirty-Two's first group video is a technicolor fantasy. The dancers are dressed to slay: Lime green, hot coral and neon yellow attire makes numerous appearances. Barbie pink, lavender and turquoise lipstick are mainstays. Chocolate-skinned women walk around in crop tops and bodysuits while others, clad in booty shorts and tank tops, stretch their calves. Rihanna's "Pose" plays in the background.
This isn't your average hip-hop video shoot. The women of 4Thirty-Two dance troupe identify as plus-sized, and many don't fit society's archetype of what a dancer is supposed to look like. But they've come together to make a powerful statement: A person's size doesn't dictate her potential. They want to reshape perceptions of beauty and body image and redefine notions of what bodies like theirs are capable of.
The group, comprised of about 20 women, is the passion project of Charity Holloway, 30, a Charlotte-based marketing professional. She has danced with various groups around the city, but she was often the largest performer. After shows, audience members would often comment on her stage presence and compliment her athleticism, flexibility and execution. But their praise was always conditional.
"'You dance well, for a big girl,'" she says people would tell her. "I know I'm not the only person that hears these types of things."
So she set out to create a space for women like her. Inspiration for the group struck on a Sunday: "My pastor at church preached about sowing seeds and having faith that they will grow and sprout. For some reason, that sermon really inspired me," Holloway says. The pastor's message came from Bible verse Mark 4:32 -- hence the origin of the dance group's name.
In the studio, Serayah's "Look But Don't Touch" comes on. The song, from the television show "Empire," is the group's musical representation of the body confidence they hope to spread. "Look at my body. ... Don't I look sexy?" Serayah sings through the speakers with a syrupy sass.
The dancers jump into action. Afros and twist-outs bounce while the dancers' bodies pop and shimmy. Before the session is over the women will have done the dance more than 10 times, tweaking little things.
"Focus," Holloway says before demonstrating a move again, emphasizing the angle at which she holds her left leg. Her peach-colored bodysuit hugs her curves. The group is doing some last-minute adjustments, breaking down the eight count. Dancers hold their poses while Holloway shows them the right height for their limbs ahead of the turn that will then transition into a body wave. She spends some time cleaning up segments of the choreography, adjusting small movements, making them more accurate and precise.
"Connect with the camera, have a good time," Holloway tells the dancers behind her. They've been practicing for a month, but this is 4Thirty-Two's first undertaking as a group. On the camera's screen it looks like they're having a celebration -- and they are -- but there is effort here. Every time the women perform the song they go full-out, spilling all of their work and energy into the room, smiling as they roll their hips, snake, slide and glide.
Two days after the shoot, Holloway posts video of the group's performance on YouTube. Within a week, it garners more than 1 million views on Facebook.
4Thirty-Two's mission of athleticism at any size is part of a body-positivity movement that's grown in recent years. About 67 percent of women in the U.S. wear a size bigger than 14, and many businesses and groups are now catering to a demographic that was largely ignored. In 2015, Women's Running magazine chose Erica Schenk, a plus-sized runner, as its cover model. That same year, Runner's World profiled Mirna Valerio, a 250-pound ultra runner. In January, Lane Bryant created an athletic extension of its #ThisBody campaign, releasing advertisements featuring the diverse bodies of plus-sized fitness icons such as yoga instructor Jessamyn Stanley and triathlete Krista Henderson.
With the rise of social media, women who felt isolated or excluded based on the way they looked could now connect and create a community. Once Holloway had the idea for the group, she used Facebook to rally dancers who believed in her vision.
'You dance well, for a big girl.'... I know I'm not the only person that hears these types of things.4Thirty-Two founder Charity Holloway
After Beyoncé's single "Formation," the first off her "Lemonade" album, dropped in February 2016, Holloway collaborated with a friend to create a teaser video of her dancing to the song. (Beyoncé has twice included the founder of Pretty Big Movement, a plus-size dance group in New York, in her music videos.) In addition to the video, Holloway created a flyer, urging plus-sized women interested in dance to "get in formation." She uploaded her handiwork to Facebook, and the reaction was overwhelming.
"I was so surprised that it was getting so many likes and hits, and people were in my inbox. I had 50,000 views in a day before Facebook took it down," she remembers. (Facebook deleted the video due to a music copyright infringement issue, Holloway says.) An iteration of the video still lives on Instagram.
The video was on the internet long enough to catch the attention of Ife Presswood, a 22-year-old fashion entrepreneur. One night at the end of May, she saw the post and its accompanying advertisement. She saw Holloway decked out in short shorts, combat boots and a T-shirt that said "Brains. Beauty. Booty." The founder's photo oozed confidence. Presswood, who minored in dance at Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville, North Carolina, thought to herself: What did she have to lose?
"It's the best thing I could've done off of a whim," Presswood says, "The caliber of what she's doing -- and I've lived [in Charlotte] most of my life -- has never happened here before."
While a number of women in the group have taken dance classes or previously performed as part of a group, another member, Pamela Washington, had no formal training. But she had the personality and stage presence that Holloway was looking for in her dancers.
At rehearsals, you can usually spot Washington, the director of operations for a small non-profit, wearing bedazzled outfits emblazoned with her nickname, "Big Stuff," a moniker given to her by her high school boyfriend, embracing the name that was meant to belittle her.
At 45, she's the oldest member of the group, but in rehearsals she can bop and twerk with the best of them. She dances with 4Thirty-Two for her parents and grandparents -- her father, who was a local contest-winning dancer in his younger years, was a double amputee. Her mother is also an amputee, as was her grandfather.
Washington wanted to dance her way through age 44. Her sister had a heart attack at 44, and her mother had her first major stroke at that same age. Washington credits dance with improving her mental health and sense of well-being, and with helping her avoid some of those health issues. For her, dancing is a release. It allows her to feel empowered and express herself as she sees fit. And she knows what can happen if she sits on the couch for too long.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health cites African-American women as having the highest rate of obesity out of any demographic, with four out of five being designated as overweight or obese. With that comes obesity-related illness, such as hypertension, arthritis, heart disease and diabetes.
Holloway knows that those figures tell only part of the story, and she believes that weight isn't the sole determinant of health.
For 4Thirty-Two's dancers, it's a matter of changing the perception of those who see only statistics. The group works to erase the misconception that weight or body size is an accurate indicator of health, or that people of a certain size are undisciplined and unmotivated. They know that black women do indeed work out, because they do.
The low-impact aerobic activity of dancing has a number of benefits. Every practice improves the body's flexibility and strength. Through repeated exercise, the women of 4Thirty-Two enhance their core conditioning and agility. In addition to improving cholesterol levels and lowering blood pressure, dancing has also been linked to better spatial awareness, coordination and increased cognitive capacity in the memory and problem-solving areas of the brain.
While working on their physical fitness, the dancers are reducing their risk of osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease while enhancing their creativity, concentration and relieving stress. Many in the group are caretakers and mothers, and dance practice gives them a chance to socialize and time to concentrate on improving/expressing themselves.
"This is very therapeutic for me," Washington says, "I have to think in practice, but I don't have to think about the worldly-world things in practice. I just have to make sure my feet go right and I'm on the beat."
Two weeks after their "Look But Don't Touch" video shoot, the group meets for rehearsal in a picnic shelter at Nevin Community Park, north of downtown Charlotte. As a new ensemble, money is always a concern and the group can't always find or afford a practice space.
Holloway carts in her sound system, and the women arrange their things on a table and get to work. They have limited daylight. The group has just two days until their first live performance at a plus-sized runway show on the other side of town. They're not rehearsing for a video -- there will be no editing. They have one chance to show the audience who they are. Everyone must be flawless.
Holloway presses play on her sound system, and Big Freedia's voice leaps into the picnic shelter: "I did not come to play with you hoes. I came to slay, bitch."
All of the dancers know what that means, and Holloway's emphatic, bubbly nature falls away. The perfectionist, the measured tactical dancer whose technique and attitude got the Internet's attention, has taken her place.
The dancers make their way through their set, sweat dripping down their faces. Transitions must be crisp, leg extensions must be uniform, and isolations -- which involve moving certain body parts independently of others -- must be purposeful.
Several little girls, no older than 7, have left the playground and parked themselves on a picnic bench to watch the women and observe their movements. Eventually they get the confidence to fumble with their own eight-counts. Before practice is over, the three little girls are standing in the meadow, working on their own dance moves.
The dancers practice in the park as long as they can, until the streetlights come on, light bulbs buzzing in their sockets. Time is running out. Even after practice is dismissed and darkness envelops the park, Presswood and another dancer stand under the umbrella of light, finessing the partnered combinations they struggled with in practice.
This endeavor, bringing self-love to an artistic medium often devoid of it, is bigger than 4Thirty-Two, but every member is excited about what the future holds for the dance troupe. There will be more performances and workshops. The group is currently choreographing their next video -- something smart and original that furthers the idea that dancers of size can be sexy, athletic and powerful.
"Every time someone sees us, I want it to be a positive reaction," Holloway says, "like, 'Wow, look at what these big girls are doing -- they're changing the game.'"