It doesn't seem fair: Male cheerleaders have been around for decades, yet the gay-male dance team The Prancing Elites, which specializes in a cheerleading-inflected dance called J-Setting, creates controversy doing the same sort of thing in drag, dressed essentially like female cheerleaders. And as we see on the new Oxygen reality show "The Prancing Elites Project," premiering Wednesday night at 10, that's been dragging them down in their native deep South.
"It's pretty much about our attire," says troupe-leader Kentrell Collins, 27, referring to the family-values complaints heaped on the team when they march in parades or, as in the premiere, when police refuse to let them march and they're relegated to the sidewalk behind a parade crowd in Saraland, Alabama. "We feel we shouldn't be closed in to one type of attire," says the U.S. Army veteran, who fueled helicopters and fighter jets overseas. "If expressing ourselves means being in a leotard, who's to say we can't wear that?"
The Prancing Elites specialize in a form of dance popularized in the 1970s by the Prancing J-Settes of the Jackson State University Marching Band, and made mainstream when Beyoncé stepped to it in her video for "Single Ladies." The reality show takes us into the Elites' rehearsals and personal dynamics while also shining a light on the obstacles they face -- most famously when they made national news after a 2013 Christmas parade in Semmes, Alabama, where their white shorts, Santa sweaters and makeup outraged the locals.
"I remember marching and dancing" in that parade, says member Adrian Clemons, 24, who doesn't recall any negative crowd comments since "you get tunnel vision" when concentrating on the dance moves "and you don't see and hear anything but what you're doing. After that we had auditions for a Mardi Gras parade, and immediately two local news stations pull up. We're like, 'What did we do?' I remember a reporter saying, 'There have been a lot of complaints about you marching in this parade.' "
Collins, Clemons and fellow members Kareem Davis, Jerel Maddox and Timothy Smith have also taken some heat from the gay community. Most male J-Setters "just do it at a gay pride function or a nightclub, where it's not mainstream," Collins says, and "look at us as if we're trying to start something" by drawing undue, possibly dangerous attention to such troupes.
"They say we're a bad representation of the LGBT community or of 'the black man,' but we're not representing [those things]," Collins says. "We're representing ourselves and letting people know that it is OK to be who you are."
This might all be easier if The Prancing Elites -- named after their late former captain, Elite Hayward -- weren't based in their native Mobile and Baldwin counties in Alabama. But, "If we feel like we can't fight for acceptance in our own hometowns, how are we going to be accepted elsewhere?" Collins asks. "We love performing at Mardi Gras parades and football games. There's something about the South we just can't get other places."