Respect, body positivity and self-love – these are bedrock ethics of Courtney Hollinquest‘s being. In her 24 years, she’s been challenged on all fronts: For being black, for her size, and, as a professional dancer, fighting against the tide in a “sea of perfect, tight bodies.” Hollinquest has perpetually held fast – she hardly bats an eye at the casual misogyny she received at a casting today, no thanks to a man who felt it appropriate to question her outfit.
That Hollinquest has found her artistic match is a bonus boost, though. She’s a dancer for Lizzo, the Minneapolis-based singer and rapper whose self-empowered bangers are currently elevating femme morale to the tune of 185K-plus on Instagram. But it’s not just a plus that she and Lizzo linked up – the way Hollinquest tells it, their working together almost seems fated.
Had she not been visiting a friend in North Hollywood, Hollinquest may have missed out on that crucial summertime audition two years ago. She’d stayed over after a party to avoid a late-night drive back to her house in Pasadena. A 10 a.m. DM from a fellow dancer alerted her to the opportunity – happening right then – to audition for an artist specifically “looking for thicker girls.” Then she got a personal invite from Mette Towley, member of Pharrell’s dance squad and star of Lemon. On the call, she said she’d been checking out Hollinquest’s work – could she get to the studio in 15 minutes? “And it so happens that my friend’s house is literally two minutes away from that dance studio, so it was like the universe kind of came together,” Hollinquest recalls. “It was just so crazy because I could have been coming from Pasadena, but it was just down the street. I ran into the studio, dripping sweat, in the outfit I wore from the club the night before. And then I’m just sweating, and she’s teaching me this crazy routine in, like, less than a minute.”
When it came time to repeat the choreography for the recorded audition, Hollinquest forgot everything after the first eight counts – then she free-styled. “I just kind of blacked out,” she says. “When I came out of it, the song was over, and the girls were just looking at me like, wow. I was like, that could either be a good thing or a bad thing. And it ended up being a good thing.”
The gig was solidified when she and Lizzo gelled in a Skype interview a month later. Hollinquest then joined the tight-knit crew, most of whom have been with Lizzo since her start back in 2012, she says. Soon after, she made her debut before a massive Minneapolis festival where Lizzo headlined. Hollinquest thought it was a one-off gig, but Lizzo’s camp kept calling. “When they told me I was going on tour, it really blew my mind, because this is something that people kept telling me I would never do. People kept telling me I would never be onstage, I would never be able to tour because of my size or the way I looked,” she says.
Dancing is now Hollinquest’s full-time job – but it means more to her than that. “I’m not just dancing for some pop artist that I don’t even really know the lyrics to, or I never really liked the song,” she says. “I’m dancing for an artist who is now one of my best friends, and someone who I admire, and I listen to the music and like, feel her.”
She’s also found a best-friend bond in Grace, one of the longtime members of Lizzo’s team. They call themselves the The Big GRRRLS. But before landing in this idyllic career sweet spot, Hollinquest was struggling. Working odd jobs while training, she wondered if she was at a dead end. Her mother was concerned: “She’s like, Courtney, you’re spending all this money on training, and doing these different dance programs, and you have this weird job. You don’t have a car. What’s going on? You need to figure it out.” She considered going back to school.
Hollinquest has danced since childhood, from ballet at three years old to high school cheerleading and dance team, and into a year of college – after which, she tried her hand at making a career out of her passion. Despite earning her place in various dance crews, working at the famed Debbie Reynolds Legacy Studio, and training constantly, the responses she got were often patronizing at best. “They were just like, oh, Courtney loves to dance, she’s so cute and so good at it. Oh, bless her soul – instead of thinking oh, this girl could actually do some work,” she says. “There came a point where I was like f-this, I don’t want to dance anymore. If people really don’t think I can do this, then I just want to finish school. And then literally, I think a day after I said that, I got the audition with Lizzo.”
While that discouragement came close to halting her career, it’s unlikely it could have ended it. A strength of spirit is something instilled in her by her mother, who she calls “the most incredible being ever in life.” Those qualities were especially helpful growing up in San Marino, a small, white town that’s one of the wealthiest in California. “My mom is a single mother, worked two jobs, and went to college at the same time to provide for [my sister and me] to make sure that we were able to get opportunities and do things like cheerleading and debate team. My mom worked her ass off so we could live in this great neighborhood that had great schooling,” she says. “I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now without the opportunities I was given by the sacrifice of my mom.”
Hollinquest’s mettle lifted her out of some truly horrifying situations back then. Her mother taught her right from wrong, she notes, and at 14 years old, when a friend who’d just come out as gay was intensely bullied, Hollinquest intervened. “I’m just like, what the hell is wrong with you guys? Like, leave him alone. And as I was defending him, they started saying they were going to cut my body up and send me back to Africa,” she says.
The only black girl in her grade, Hollinquest dealt with racism countless times, from blatant, disgusting slurs to the casual racism of trying to pair her up with a new student –the only black boy, of course. But Hollinquest kept dancing, despite the hostile environment. “It’s really bad,” she says. “But it made me a strong-ass woman, you know?”
That strength is visible in the video for “Fitness,” Lizzo’s latest and Hollinquest’s first. The Quinn Wilson-directed clip features the entire crew in fierce fetishwear, and near its end, a dancer slowly winding around a pole, several feet above the floor – an incredibly elegant show of strength, delivered with corresponding onscreen text just as Lizzo sings, “I don’t do this for you.”
“That line really resonated with everything,” Hollinquest notes. “I’m sexual – not to be sexualized.” That can be an especially powerful kind of empowerment for many. With Brooke Candy styling Lizzo and the rest of the team as of late, Hollinquest gets to don looks like this on the regular. “No one’s seen big girls in thongs and bondage or performing crazy ass choreography onstage in a while,” she says. “It’s really liberating to go onstage and to have my ass cheeks out in front of all these loving fans, and not feel judged, and feel sexy and comfortable.” She laughs, joking that she’ll get naked anywhere these days. Change in the bathroom at a casting? Nah. Her confidence is on a new level – something that developed during her time with Lizzo, and over the course of many, many outfits.
Beyond dancing, Hollinquest is also a DJ. Inspired by her uncle, a skilled hip-hop selector who she first watched pack a dancefloor when she was only 10 years old, Cquesst debuted at her own birthday bash, surrounded by friends and supporters, playing her favorite throwback jams. She’s begun modeling, too. Of course, dancing with Lizzo and her team is still paramount. “My job now is not for myself, but to represent women of all sizes and colors and races and backgrounds, to show them that you can really do what you want to do. People kept telling me [no] because I wasn’t small enough,” she says. “And now I’m here, dancing in front of these girls who may feel different, but see this woman who’s been marginalized – living her dream.”
All clothing provided by ASOS.