Alabama State Honey Beez bring positive, plus-size attitude to HBCU dance scene
The infamous dance squad has changed the game by promoting body positivity, confidence and self-love
As a child, Asia Banks was bullied.
Banks has a bubbly personality with a bright smile, kind heart and fun nature. And she was slightly overweight. Born in San Bernardino, California, and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Banks experienced the same looks and snickers in both places. It was because of her weight, she imagined. People weren’t as receptive to the little girl with a larger frame, which was confusing and hurtful. Even in school, her peers were sure to remind her of the extra pounds she carried.
Despite her size, Banks continued to lead as normal a life as she could. She participated in extracurricular activities, with a particular passion for dance at an early age. She joined dance teams in school, which became her safe space. There, Banks was free to let go of her worries and be herself. She sought comfort from a strong group of friends and family, including her mother.
“I had a special group of friends who held me up,” Banks said. “My family was a big support group. My mother is plus-size and I saw how beautiful she is, and that was motivation right there.”
She admired the Alabama State University Honey Beez, a group composed of talented, plus-size student dancers that performed at games and university functions. It was unlike any group Banks had seen before, and if she had the opportunity to attend ASU, she’d aspire to join.
Yet the bullying persisted, spreading from classmates on the schoolyard to strangers on the street. Banks’ confidence wavered.
“When I was a dancer in middle school, we were in the Magic City Classic parade and a dude held a Cheeto in front of my face, mocking me and making fun of my weight,” Banks said. “I was called out of my name. It was nerve-wracking and hurt my feelings.”
At ASU, band director James Oliver has been leading the charge for plus-size appreciation since creating the Honey Beez in 2004, four years after he began his collegiate career with his alma mater.
In all of Oliver’s years of being a high school band director and moving on to ASU, he noticed something was missing. The cheerleaders and drill teams were uniform in their looks. The Stingettes, ASU’s dance team, boasted energetic, petite young women clad in brightly colored two-piece dance suits, leotards and bodysuits that didn’t seem to go beyond a size 6.
“There have been plus-size girls that wanted to try out for the dance line. And of course, when I got here, all we had were the Stingettes,” Oliver said. “You can’t really give them that spot on the Stingette line because the uniform doesn’t fit like it should, so usually the plus-size girls run to the flag team. I decided that this is not fair for these girls. I wanted something different.”
Oliver wasn’t quite sure what he’d do, but he was ready to put a plan into action. First, he’d need volunteers. He looked to his band for help.
“I asked five of my plus-size girls that were in the band,” Oliver said. “I said, ‘I have this idea. Do I have some plus-size girls who know how to dance and want to dance?’ And I had five girls who came out and said they’d try it.”
With his idea beginning to take shape, Oliver’s next step was to see if the young women truly were dancers. With the help of an assistant, the band members-turned-dancers began to audition to test their skills. During the first practice, Oliver turned music on and let the dancers perform freestyle. During the course of their practice, one dancer stepped up. She’d had a secret weapon the team could use: doing a cartwheel and falling into a split.
Oliver was doubtful.
“I said, ‘Oh, no. You can’t do that,’ ” Oliver said.
The dancer was adamant about showcasing her talent, and after a brief back-and-forth, Oliver stood back to give her room and, ultimately, prove him wrong.
“This girl backed up a few steps, ran a little and did a cartwheel into a split!” Oliver exclaimed, still seemingly amused. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. That is in the show, and that will be the last thing we’ll do.’ ”
The next step was to name the group. Oliver wanted to stay close to ASU’s mascot but also give the dancers their own identity. They were sweet and electrifying. After considering a few other options, Oliver settled on Honey Beez.
Their first official performance came a few months after the group was established. Their test run would be a home football game against Southern University in 2004. As their first uniforms, the five dancers wore bodysuits beneath football jerseys. According to Oliver, the response, for the most part, was positive. There were cheers after the performance and congratulatory messages to Oliver and the girls. But after the game, Oliver was confronted by detractors.
“There were people complaining to me and asking me why I was making fun of these girls,” Oliver said.
Oliver was in a tough position. Something that he viewed as a positive and inclusive moment had become tainted. Maybe those with opposing views were right. He didn’t want to put his dancers in a position where they’d be subjected to name-calling and more bullying. Discouraged, Oliver pulled the girls from the next game. He needed time to think.
“Did I want to continue to deal with the negativity? Or did I want to keep this going because the crowd loves it?” Oliver asked himself. “But the girls love it too. I made the decision that I was going to keep going. I didn’t care what anybody said. I thought these girls deserved a platform and I’m going to keep them.”
It was a decision Oliver will never regret. With the help of coordinator Ruth Anna M. Williams, the Honey Beez have a complete look with beautiful uniforms that the dancers can wear with confidence — and fiery, attention-grabbing routines to match.
“Now, let the Honey Beez not show up [at games],” Oliver said. “I think fans would tear up the stadium.”
Today, Banks is happier than ever.
At 19 years old, Banks is a sophomore forensics science major at ASU and living out her dreams as a member of the illustrious Honey Beez squad that began last August. So far, Banks has continued to perfect her craft as a dancer but also build a sisterhood with the other young women who form the team.
“It’s real important for us to have that sisterhood, that bond, simply because we’re away from our homes and we need that extra support,” Banks said. “Where one of us lacks, the other one will pick up. We’re plus-size girls and we still go through bullying in college. But we’re more confident now, so it’s not as bad. But we have a real sisterhood, and this is our home away from home. The Honey Beez took me all the way out of my shell, and I love it.”
Besides their strong presence and confidence while performing, Oliver and the Honey Beez often visit high schools on their off days so the dancers can talk to students about body positivity, confidence and self-love.
According to statistics compiled by Heart of Leadership, 98 percent of girls feel pressure from external sources to look a certain way, and 92 percent of teenage girls would like to change their looks, with body weight being the No. 1 alteration.
“I saw a message in these young ladies,” Oliver said. “Most of them were either bullied or were bullies because people told them they were fat and were never going to be anything. When my assistant and I interview, some of these girls are crying because they’ve been through so much because of their size. But they are so happy to be part of the Honey Beez and to be dancing. They’re doing such a great job. They’re representing the plus-size ladies and they’re representing ladies who want to build their self-esteem.”
The Honey Beez are now becoming a national sensation. The team has already appeared on Steve Harvey’s daytime television show and performed on the popular NBC program America’s Got Talent. Oliver’s ultimate goal for the girls is to get them featured on Black Girls Rock!, an award show created to “celebrate Black women who are trailblazers, change makers or dynamos in their respective fields.”
“With God’s will, their platform is out there now and they will tear the house down every time,” Oliver said.
For Banks, the newfound stardom can sometimes be overwhelming, but fun and exciting.
“You’d never think in a million years that you’ll go from this shy little girl to this famous person, when people are coming up to you wanting to take pictures,” Banks said. “Even my professor asked for my autograph. That’s when it was like, OK, this is real. This is serious.”
While Banks continues to build her confidence and self-esteem through dance, she hopes that everyone will continue on their destined path without personal limitations or letting the opinions of others stop them.
“Don’t let nobody tell you that you can’t do something because you’re plus-size. Any size, really,” Banks said. “You can be male, female, big, small, black, white. It doesn’t matter. You can do whatever you want to do as long as you put your mind to it.”