Prancing Elites spread message of acceptance in Oxygen docu-series

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.
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.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

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 April 22, 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,” says 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 J-Settes” 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 the group’s 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 was 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 can 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 laughed. “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,” says Maddox. “Just be yourself.”


‘The Prancing Elites Project’

Where: Oxygen

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday