The phrase “It’s okay to take up space” has been around in the dance space for a while now. It sounds radical and transformative, but it wasn’t until watching Lizzo’s new show that I realized why it felt like such a contradiction. In spite of this mantra being repeated often, most dance spaces don’t reward dancers occupying large bodies, instead ‘taking up space’ has meant dancing confidently and powerfully, or utilizing the entirety of a stage.
I’ve been dancing for 24 years, and I feel comfortable ‘taking up space’ by putting on a confident persona, but I have also felt a lot of pressure to literally take up less space. There isn’t anything inherently toxic about standing in front of a mirror for a few hours working on a dance, but in a studio it’s super easy to fall into the dark mental space of ‘Does this outfit make me look thin? Am I remembering to suck in my stomach? Is my sweat undoing all the work I did to straighten my hair today?’ Lizzo’s Watch Out For the Big Grrrls is eight episodes of women in large bodies taking up space and it was exactly the deprogramming I didn’t know I needed.
Lizzo sets out to find a diverse set of plus-sized women to join her backup dancers, known as the Big Grrrls. This reality show on Prime Video follows the women as they move into a shared house, learn choreography and complete challenges, and eventually learn whether they will get to perform at the festival Lizzo is headlining. I tried to spoil myself early on, thinking I’d just look up the festival to see who performed there. However, it was canceled by a hurricane last year, so I was left in suspense until the last episode to see who would get to perform and how they would handle this setback. I thought this show would be the dance version of America’s Next Top Model, but it turned out to be way more than that.
Lizzo organizes a professional intensive training course for the ten women that involves learning dances, but as she stresses in each episode, her backup dancers do more than execute choreography. Their activities center on sensuality, vulnerability, versatility, and professionalism. They learn about modeling and music videos, and dancing with pyrotechnics and wind machines on a complicated stage. The activities are really cool from a ‘behind the scenes’ perspective, but also because they go beyond showing some dance rehearsals. We see plus-sized women in everything from soft, emotive scenes to glamorous rock-star stages, and it really drives home how wrong it is that the rest of our media is so comparatively homogeneous.
Something that sets this apart from other similar reality shows is that there isn’t a single winner. In the first episode, Lizzo selects ten women to move into the Big Grrrl’s mansion, and from there, they aren’t competing against each other. There isn’t a quota of girls to send home, and eliminations aren’t done every week. Instead, Lizzo has ten spaces available on her stage, and whether or not the girls make it to that stage is determined directly by Lizzo. This format makes the group dynamic supportive, warm, and feminist, but also makes eliminations extremely crushing. In another reality show, you might see an elimination as a bit impersonal, where someone else was better or the competitor had a bad week. However, in this show, Lizzo is incredibly intentional about trying to pull the best out of each dancer, and doesn’t send anyone home over a one time fluke.
The only topic I think this show could have handled better was injuries. We finally get a celebration of all of the ways large bodies can move, but the contestants are still constantly fighting their bodies. They shake off sprains and falls a bit too quickly and are praised for pushing through choreography after dangerous accidents. The handling of this is fairly mixed: they call in medics to address some issues and tell a woman to speak up more after learning only days later that a prop fell on her, but ultimately the sense that this is their only chance pushes a lot of the women to risk causing themselves further harm.
This isn’t specific to the show. When I was a kid I was told by my dance teacher that professionalism is powering through the choreography if you can and getting off stage if you can’t. (Getting off stage if you can after an injury is a good move, because laying where people might not see you and trip over you could cause more problems.) However, we know that adrenaline can cause people to not realize how much they’re hurt and cause themselves further injuries by continuing to use an injured ankle or knee. Not resting after an injury won’t allow for proper healing, and ideally they should build up to doing strenuous activity again.
For a show that does such a good job celebrating these women, they could have done better in providing a safe environment for them to learn to be professional dancers, possibly by giving them more time to acclimate to the intense physical demands that a 90-minute performance requires.
Overall, I don’t think this detracts from the powerful message of the show, just highlights something that still needs to change on a larger scale. Lizzo’s Watch Out For the Big Grrrls is doing important and amazing work and I hope the dance industry makes space for a more diverse group of dancers following this show.