All photos by Jayme Thornton. Wardrobe styling throughout by Chloë Chadá Van for The QUIRK Group.

Lizzo's Leading Ladies: Meet the Big Grrrls

Rising pop superstar Lizzo is changing the game in all kinds of ways. (A singer who also raps and plays the flute? You'd better believe it.) But she's become an especially important leader in the body-positivity revolution. And that emphasis on diversity and self-love extends to her fabulous group of backup dancers, known as The Big Grrrls.

Over the past few years, as Lizzo's star has risen, she and choreographer Jemel McWilliams have pulled together a crew dancers of different races, sizes, and heights, five of whom are featured on our cover: Le'Ana Levi Hill, Grace Holden, Courtney Hollinquest, Shirlene Quigley, and Chawntá Van. (The group also includes Dominique Loude and Allison Buczkowski, who unfortunately couldn't make the photo shoot.) Whether dancing beside Lizzo at the BET Awards or twerking up a storm on tour, these dynamic artists aren't just super-talented. They also represent a vision of the future of the industry, showing the often narrow-minded pop-music world what a backup crew should look like.

"This is the first time I can just enjoy my curves, enjoy being who I am and what I look like," Quigley says. "It's so nice to be around a bunch of girls who are not so about how they look, and more about having a good time and shaking their butts onstage together."

Photo by Jayme Thornton

Curvy Girls in a Thin Dancer's World

While most of The Big Grrrls are still smaller than the average American woman—who, research shows, is a size 16—each one has had to fight outdated beauty ideals in the dance industry. "You're always asked to lose weight and be 'in shape,' " Van says. "I used to tie a sweatshirt around my waist if I wore leggings because I didn't want to bring too much attention to my curves."

During Van's first job out of college, her company director told her that being a great dancer wasn't enough and that she needed to "look the part," too. His comments pushed Van into extreme dieting; for a while, she survived on one Clif bar a day. Quigley had similar experiences—she remembers a prominent choreographer oinking at her before she took the stage for a performance—and also struggled with extreme dieting after years of being told she would never work at her size. When Holden was training in the concert dance world, she wasn't cast in some roles that involved partnering because of her size.

"For so long, the standard was just one thing," Hill says, "so it would just keep dancers like us from showing what we have to offer."

Despite the obstacles, all of these dancers persevered. And now, their dedication to breaking stereotypes is paying off.

Becoming the Big Grrrls

For most of these women, joining Lizzo's team was precisely the boost they needed in order to learn to love and embrace themselves. "It's not just about looking in the mirror and loving what you see," Holden says. "It's about really feeling good and positive about who I am as a person and what I value and what matters to me in life."

Unsurprisingly, the dancers say working with Lizzo involves all kinds of standout moments, from the incredible energy she brings to the stage to her trademark flute twerk. But most of all, Lizzo has shown them the true definition of inclusivity, and why representation is key to the future of dance.

"Inclusivity in dance looks to me like all those who are qualified get the opportunities they deserve," says choreographer McWilliams, who's also worked with Janelle Monae and other inclusive artists. "That's all shapes, all sizes, all colors, all creeds."

Photo by Jayme Thornton

Role Models—And Sisters

Now, the dancers transmit that message of inclusivity to the thousands of audience members who see them at every Lizzo concert. They're inspiring a new generation of dancers, many of them young girls finally seeing the representation they've been looking for. Their group Instagram account is regularly flooded with messages from aspiring artists hoping to follow in the Grrrls' footsteps.

"I'm so honored to be someone that people look up to or people reference as one of the plus-size dancers that has started changing the game," Hollinquest says. "It's incredible to be one of the people changing stereotypes about what it means to be a dancer."

And dancing for Lizzo isn't all work all the time, either. The Big Grrrls are having just as much fun behind the scenes as they do onstage. "With the message that Lizzo is spreading to the world," Loude says, "it wouldn't be right if the girls behind her didn't have that type of love for one another." Their sisterhood has become a powerful support system. "Starting as the underdogs and now being on top together is just the most amazing feeling," Van says. "I know if I ever need anything—anything—whether it's dance-related or not, the other girls will make sure I'm OK.

Get to Know the Grrrls

Photo by Jayme Thornton

Shirlene Quigley

Play one of her Lizzo faves, "Truth Hurts" or "Coconut Oil," and Quigley will be on the dance floor. Born and raised in L.A., one of Quigley's favorite dance memories is her audition for Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love" video, which happened to be her first time dancing in heels. She booked the job—and now she's the Big Grrrls' heels queen.

Photo by Jayme Thornton

Le'Ana Levi Hill

L.A.-native Hill, also know as Lele, is the ultimate turn-up queen. She loves to get the party started by blasting Lizzo's "Soulmate" and is, as she puts it, "pretty great at twerking." She's naturally optimistic—no surprise, since she's a Sagittarius—and her favorite saying is "period pooh!"

Photo by Jayme Thornton

Grace Holden

The Big Grrrls have gifted Holden with two names: "Grace Anne" when she's sweet, and "Grrras" (roll the "r") when she's sassy. She's equally at home twerking it out or slaying a trumpet solo. And she can start a fire in the snow with nothing but a knife and two sticks—a skill she learned growing up in chilly Bemidji, MN.

Photo by Jayme Thornton

Courtney Hollinquest

Originally from San Marino, CA, Hollinquest enjoys scavenging for unique finds in used bookstores when she's not serving moves onstage. The multitalented Hollinquest also works as a DJ, going by the name Cquestt—you might hear her spinning her favorite Lizzo song, "Like A Girl."

Photo by Jayme Thornton

Chawntá Van

Van, who grew up in DC, often goes by her hometown nickname, Tá Tá. She's devoted to Lizzo, of course—her fave Lizzo track is "Lingerie"—but she's also a hardcore Ja Rule fan. She's got a killer memory, and not just for the choreo: Van can quote every line from Sister Act 2.

Dominique Loude

Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Dominique—also known as Nique or Dom—can often be found jamming out to Lizzo's "Scuse Me." And don't be surprised if you hear her flawlessly belting out those tunes: Before she got into dance, singing was Loude's passion.

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For the young child, it was love at first sight.

"I saw a beautiful, black Clara," Ashton says, "and I wanted to be just like her."

Ashton has dedicated 14 years of ballet training in pursuit of that childhood dream. But all the technical prowess in the world can't help Ashton surmount the biggest hurdle—this aspiring dancer was assigned male at birth, and for the vast majority of boys and men, performing in pointe shoes hasn't been a career option. But Ashton Edwards, who uses the pronouns "he" and "they," says it's high time to break down ballet's gender barrier, and their teachers and mentors believe this passionate dancer is just the person to lead the charge.

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Don't worry—you won't have to shoulder the load alone. Dance Spirit spoke with two physical therapists who specialize in working with dancers to find out what dance bag is best.

What should dancers look for in a dance bag?

Dr. Meghan Gearhart, physical therapist and owner of Head2Toe Physical Therapy in Charlotte, NC, recommends dancers opt for a backpack-style dance bag rather than a duffel or cross-body bag.

"A bag that pulls the weight all to one side creates a side bend and rotation in the trunk," Gearhart says. "That is going to lead to muscle imbalances that will affect dancers while they're dancing, as well as just in regular everyday life." Muscle imbalances can mean limited mobility on one side of your body, as the muscles on one side are overly contracted and the other side is overly extended to compensate.

Gearhart suggests dancers pick a backpack made from a lightweight yet durable and breathable material, such as cotton, linen, nylon or polyester. Straps should be wide enough to not dig into your shoulder muscles, so avoid drawstring styles with rope straps. Adjustable and padded straps are best, so you can wear the straps at a length where the bag rests at the middle of your back.

Dr. Bridget Kelly Sinha, physical therapist and founder of Balanced Physical Therapy and Dance Wellness in Matthews, NC, emphasizes the importance of finding an even weight distribution when choosing a dance bag.

"If a dancer has a lot to bring, like when heading to the theater for a full day of rehearsals and performances, then I recommend a rolling suitcase to offset the load," Sinha says.

How should dancers wear their bags?

Even if you've selected the perfect dance bag, it's important to be mindful of how you wear it.

Gearhart advocates wearing both straps when carrying your backpack. She also suggests placing heavier items towards the back of the bag, where they will sit closer to your body. A bag with straps that are too loose (or a bag that is too heavy) can create an increased arch in the lower back or cause a dancer to compensate for the weight by leaning forward. Ideally, Gearhart recommends a dancer's dance bag weighing no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight.

"I usually tell dancers to use their common sense. If you don't have tap today, you don't need to bring the tap shoes," she says. "If your water bottle makes the bag too heavy, just carry it." If your studio offers lockers, take advantage of that storage space to lessen the number of clothes, shoes, and dance accessories that live in your dance bag.

And if you think your bad dance-bag habits have given you alignment issues, seek out a dance physical therapist to prevent further injuries.

"As a dancer, your body is working so hard all day," Sinha says. "It does not need excess strain from your bag."

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