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Former Bemidji dancer hits the big time with Lizzo

Grace Holden, left, who grew up in Bemidji, is one of the backup dancers for Lizzo. They will appear on Saturday Night Live on Saturday, Dec. 21. Submitted photo. 1 / 2
Former Bemidjian Grace Holden, right, performs with Lizzo at a recent concert. Submitted photo. 2 / 2

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- As a toddler, Grace Holden used to dance around her house in Bemidji. And on Saturday, Dec. 21, she’ll be dancing on “Saturday Night Live.”

Holden, 31, is one of the backup dancers for Lizzo, a rising pop singer who will be SNL’s musical guest. She has been a part of Lizzo’s act for nearly five years, touring the country and making appearances on TV shows like “Ellen” and “The Tonight Show.”

“This year has been the most wild year,” Holden said, “because Lizzo has just had an amazing year. The amount of TV and promotional events are things I wouldn’t have even dreamed of being able to be a part of, like this weekend.”

Eddie Murphy will host this week's “Saturday Night Live,” which airs at 10:30 p.m. on NBC. Lizzo will perform twice during the show, and her dancers, known as "The Big Grrrls,” will join her for one of the numbers.

Among the most interested viewers from Bemidji will be Grace’s parents, Butch and Gigi, along with Cathy Marcotte, owner of First City Dance in Bemidji. That’s where Grace got her start when she was a high school student at TrekNorth junior and senior high school.

“Very early on she had that spark, she had that love for entertaining, and that creativity,” Marcotte said. “It was pretty apparent right away that Grace gravitated toward the art of dance. She actually started teaching for me.”

“From toddlerhood, Grace was very musical,” Butch Holden said of his daughter. “She was always playing her little Casio keyboard and dancing.”

Grace started playing trumpet as an elementary student under the tutelage of music teacher Ron Brown at Schoolcraft Learning Community and Headwaters Music & Arts in Bemidji.

“Ron Brown was really supportive of me doing things the way that I do them,” Grace said. “He never taught me to play like anyone else, just to play like myself, and that has always really stuck with me, in my dancing as well.”

The youngest of four siblings, Grace said her parents encouraged her to pursue dancing beyond high school.

“My mom and dad were always pushing for me to continue studying dance, even though I started a little later,” she said. “They encouraged me to study dance in college. They never told me to go into a more practical field. They always wanted me to go into my art.”

She did so at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. After graduation, Grace found ways to use her musical gifts in the Duluth area. She played trumpet in a band, did choreography with a local dance troupe and danced in burlesque, cabaret and variety shows, “performing any chance I got.”

In March 2015, Grace noticed a social media post from Lizzo seeking dancers to add to her act. The post read, in part: “Looking for girls of all shapes and sizes, curvy girls a plus!"

Grace drove to Minneapolis for the audition and was chosen for one of the spots. Lizzo uses as many as 10 dancers in her act.

“I like (the name Big Grrrls) because they’re not just talking about bigger, full-figured curvy women,” Holden said Thursday on her way to a rehearsal for SNL. “They’re talking about being grown, living our lives and just being independent. We’re all very close. We pretty much live together over a huge chunk of the year.”

She said Lizzo, whose birth name is Melissa Viviane Jefferson, quickly became a friend instead of a diva boss.

“We hug a lot and laugh a lot,” Grace said. “She’s very busy now, so it’s a little different. Earlier on we really got to know each other and that bond is still there.”