All they want to do is dance

The Pranc­ing Elites take the mes­sage that it’s ‘OK to be who you are’ to Oxy­gen.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - trev­ell.an­der­son@la­times.com

The Pranc­ing Elites are un­like most dance teams.

The troupe, from Mo­bile, Ala., con­sists of five black, gay and gen­der-non­con­form­ing dancers who com­pete in a style of dance called J-Set­ting, a lead-and-fol­low form of hip-hop mixed with cheer­leader-like move­ments.

Their sto­ries come to tele­vi­sion, start­ing Wed­nes­day, on Oxy­gen’s 12-episode docu-se­ries “The Pranc­ing Elites Project.” The dancers, all in their 20s, have one mes­sage.

“We want peo­ple to know it’s OK to be who you are,” said team cap­tain Ken­trell Collins, 27. “It’s OK to ex­press your­self how you see

fit, not how the next man sees it.”

The group was formed more than a decade ago when its orig­i­nal mem­bers were in high school. At first, they wanted to be a part of the schools’ all-fe­male dance teams that per­formed on foot­ball fields with march­ing bands. But in­te­grat­ing them into the squads was against school pol­icy, and of­fi­cials even char­ac­ter­ized the idea at the time as “morally wrong,” ac­cord­ing to Collins.

“We all felt like since we were teach­ing the girls, why couldn’t we ac­tu­ally do what they were do­ing?” said Collins, who noted that de­spite be­ing banned from the team, they still helped the dancers per­fect their moves and rou­tines.

The dis­tinc­tive dance style orig­i­nated in the 1970s among all-fe­male dance teams of march­ing bands at his­tor­i­cally black col­leges in the South. One of the first groups was the Pranc­ing JSettes at Jack­son State Uni­ver­sity in Mis­sis­sippi. The fe­male team ex­changed ba­ton rou­tines for chore­og­ra­phy and in­tro­duced popular mu­sic like James Brown’s “Make It Funky” and “Hot Pants.”

As other dance teams fol­lowed, and the J-Settes wel­comed their first male dancer in the late ’90s, a new sub­cul­ture was born that even­tu­ally be­came popular in South­ern black gay clubs and com­mon sights at black gay pride cel­e­bra­tions. Male J-Set­ters dress like the fe­male teams, in­clud­ing out­fits of se­quined one- and two-piece leo­tards and nude stock­ings.

One of the few teams thriv­ing year-round is the Pranc­ing Elites, which Collins has led since 2006, when he re­named the group af­ter its founder, Elite Hay­ward. The cur­rent mem­bers also in­clude Adrian Cle­mons, Ka­reem Davis, Jerel Mad­dox and Ti­mothy Smith, who does not iden­tify as trans­gen­der but uses fem­i­nine pro­nouns.

The teams have run into their fair share of con­tro­versy. Once the Pranc­ing Elites were set to per­form in the an­nual Christ­mas pa­rade in Semmes, a small city near Mo­bile. As a re­sult of com­plaints over the team’s red and white Santa sweaters and snug white shorts, its in­vi­ta­tion to par­tic­i­pate in Mo­bile’s New Year’s Eve pa­rade was with­drawn.

As the new TV se­ries doc­u­ments, peo­ple some­times hurl in­sults at the troupe.

“To hear some­body ran­domly say, ‘You need Je­sus,’ or ‘Get out of here, go home’ or ‘What the hell is wrong with y’all?’ — that hurts when we’re just try­ing to dance and have fun,” said Smith, 23.

Davis, 24, agreed, won­der­ing aloud: “As a hu­man be­ing, how do you ac­tu­ally open your mouth and say cer­tain things?”

But it was a 2013 tweet from for­mer NBA star Shaquille O’Neal that raised their promi­nence.

“Th­ese dudes b jam­min,” O’Neal tweeted af­ter see­ing a YouTube link to the Pranc­ing Elites per­form­ing in the stands at a lo­cal bas­ket­ball game.

At first, Mad­dox thought it was fake. But af­ter see­ing the ver­i­fied blue check on the ac­count, he called Collins, who was mon­i­tor­ing the in­creas­ing YouTube views, and the neg­a­tive com­ments aimed at O’Neal.

“Shaq, you wrong for this,” Collins re­mem­bered read­ing. “Shaq, why you send me to this?”

How­ever, that recog­ni­tion also led to an in­vi­ta­tion from R&B singer Ta­mar Brax­ton and actress Tam­era Mowry-Hous­ley to per­form on their day­time talk show “The Real.” “Real Housewives of At­lanta” per­son­al­ity NeNe Leakes has also spo­ken out on their be­half.

“We come from not hav­ing a lot of sup­port to peo­ple tweet­ing us about how we in­spire them,” said Mad­dox, 24.

“We’re still try­ing to fig­ure out if it’s real. It’s still over­whelm­ing.”

The team hopes to con­tinue spread­ing its mes­sage of au­then­tic­ity and love for dance. Cle­mons’ dream is to col­lab­o­rate with Bey­oncé.

“She’s go­ing to call,” the 24-year-old said, with a laugh. “Her folks are go­ing to get in touch with our folks.”

Un­til then, the mem­bers of the group want to per­form so they can help oth­ers ac­cept them­selves.

“What­ever it is that’s living in­side of you, bring it to life, be­cause you only have one life,” Mad­dox said. “Just be your­self.”

, Bar­bara David­son Los An­ge­les Times By Tre’vell An­der­son

JEREL MAD­DOX, left, Adrian Cle­mons and Ti­mothy Smith are on a team that dances in the J-Set­ting style. Here they tape a “Funny or Die” com­edy seg­ment.

Pho­to­graphs by Bar­bara David­son Los An­ge­les Times

THE ELITES’ Cle­mons, left, Smith, Mad­dox, Ken­trell Collins and Ka­reem Davis make up a group that formed a decade ago. J-Set­ting mixes a form of hip-hop with cheer­leader-like move­ments.

“WE COME from not hav­ing a lot of sup­port to peo­ple tweet­ing us about how we in­spire them,” says an Elites dancer. “We’re still try­ing to fig­ure out if it’s real.”

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