“No healthy food! No greens! No salad.”
There’s a fabulous cacophony erupting at a burger bar in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.
Five gregarious black men from Mobile, Alabama, have just settled into their seats and are barking at each other in their Southern-fried accents, debating the merits of ordering a fried pickles appetizer in addition to the two helpings of boneless wings that are also on their way. They are weary, having just spent three hours with a makeup artist to put on the false eyelashes and bold, jewel-toned eye shadow that is one part of their signature look. (The other part, the bedazzled leotard and thigh-high boots, will come later.)
The Prancing Elites, it should go without saying, are a spectacle to behold, and even more to be with.
Wrangling the energies and attention of the burgeoning TV stars is a fool’s errand, and one you’re better off for not attempting.
It’s the uninhibited, joyful chaos of this quintet that makes them an attention-grabbing spectacle in the first place—some of the attention asked for, some attained by their mere existence. And it’s in letting that chaos run fiercely amok (22 minutes later, we’re still debating that appetizer order) that the Prancing Elites show why they’re capturing the hearts of America in the first place. Well, at least most of it.
Kentrell Collins (27), Adrian Clemons (24), Kareem Davis (24), Tim Smith (23), and Jerel Maddox (24) are the Prancing Elites, a group of gay male dancers who are the subject of the Oxygen docuseries The Prancing Elites Project, which became the network’s highest-rated premiere since its rebrand in 2014.
They’re a dance team that performs a type of choreography called J-Sette—a mix of majorette and hip-hop moves popularized by Beyoncé in the “Single Ladies” video. They gained national attention when Shaquille O’Neal, of all people, tweeted out a video of them performing.
The group was carted all over the country to perform at events and on TV shows. To wit, following our dinner, they appeared as bartenders on Andy Cohen’s Bravo talk show Watch What Happens Live, where they would gift a very giddy Cohen with his own special Prancing Elite leotard. (He put it on right away.)
The Prancing Elites Project, however, follows their struggle to be accepted in a considerably less hospitable environment than Bravo or the Meatpacking District: their own home.
As famous as the Shaq-endorsed clip of their dance is the news segment on their being banned from a local Mobile Christmas parade, with organizers worried that they were not appropriate for a “family oriented” event. They are heckled when they perform, and worse. In the third episode of The Prancing Elites Project, it will be revealed that Jerel’s house was set on fire—an incident still under investigation.
“It’s our home,” Adrian says when I ask why, if this is what they’re facing in Mobile, they don’t move somewhere more welcoming. Plus, says Kentrell, “It means more to make it where no one thinks you will. Nothing worth getting shouldn’t be hard.”
It’s becoming clear why these men are being called inspirations.
But not everything is a maxim worthy of being stitched on a throw pillow. One intense conversation about coming out is interrupted by a chorus of guffaws at a grandma trying to blow out birthday candles with a hair dryer in an America’s Funniest Videos clip playing on a TV in the corner of the restaurant. The Elites are unintentionally hilarious in the way they simultaneously engage deeply in and are oblivious to their surroundings.
Seated round-table style in the middle of the restaurant, it’s hard not to notice poorly disguised side-eyes poking up from behind menus, wondering what the story is behind these five men in makeup who have exploded into this restaurant with a tornado of infectious energy.
A nervous man comes up to the table and begins a mile-a-minute speech about how he knows who the Elites are and he thinks they’re so inspirational. The boys politely coo their thank yous and revert back to their din of conversation almost immediately after he leaves—until they notice in the corner that one of the handlers who had been shepherding them across Manhattan is on the verge of weeping.
“I’ve never seen anyone do that before,” she says, wiping her eyes. “That’s so amazing.”
Already viral video stars before The Prancing Elites Project premiered on Oxygen and certainly a conspicuous group, getting recognized by people in public is already old hat for the crew—though the attention has exploded since the series premiered.
“I like it when children come up,” Jerel says. “A lot of people say that we’re affecting the children, that they don’t want their children exposed to what we do. So I like when children come up with their parents and say they like us. We’ve even had boys who weren’t necessarily gay. That’s the best part.”
Indeed, one of the chief reasons critics in Mobile give for being adversarial to the Elites is that they aren’t, apparently, family appropriate. “It’s because we’re gay,” Kentrell helpfully translates.
They have a complicated relationship with the criticism they face when they’re out in Mobile, and certainly in other parts of the country, too. People boo them, shout that they’re abominations, shield their children’s eyes, mime puking when they see them, and bar them from events altogether. At one point in the premiere episode of The Prancing Elites Project Adrian is on the verge on the tears: “I just feel like I have this disease that no one wants to be around.”
But haters gonna hate. “We’re used to it,” Jerel says matter-of-factly. “Being gay in the South is already hard. So you already know that, doing this, people are going to call you every name in the book. We don’t even feel it.”
They even balk at the idea that doing what they love to do—dancing—would be more fun if they were left in peace, saying it wouldn’t be as meaningful of an experience if there wasn’t a mountain to climb while doing their thing.
“The way my mind is set up, in everything I do I fight,” Kareem says. “People say don’t you wish it was easier? I wish it was harder. Because then I’d have learned something. I would still have fun, but it would be a bit boring.”
Adrian gets fired up. “When you’re a Prancing Elite, you come in fighting. You fight so much you don’t even realize you’re fighting anymore. It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m a hero? I didn’t know.’”
There’s even an annoyance in their voices when you bring up some of the critiques that these “haters” have for them, or suggest that part of what makes them so appealing—the fierce self-confidence it takes to do the kinds of dances they do, in the uniforms they wear—is also something that’s difficult for many people to wrap their heads around.
A vocal contingent of critics wonder why they don’t simply perform a style of dance that isn’t typically female, that wouldn’t create such a fuss in places like Mobile?
“In other words, society is so that men should dance one way? Why should men be limited in the styles they do?” Kentrell says.
Adrian quickly agrees. “We have four limbs just like women. When I was taking dance classes I could wear tights and get an encore on stage. But now I’m wearing tights and getting booed. What’s the difference?” Adding a final word, Kareem says, “That would be typical and not what we do.”
OK, but what about the clothes? If they weren’t wearing leotards and makeup, maybe they wouldn’t draw as much attention.
“There’s no such thing as female clothing,” Kentrell says. “I didn’t know clothing had a gender. So it’s like, why are we talking about this? There’s no way to describe us besides saying we are five hardworking individuals who love what we do.”
Confidence, very clearly, abounds from this group of people.
But even for all of the dismissal of outsiders’ concerns about what they’re doing, they are still self-aware about the weight of it. That they’re not simply dancing, but that their very existence, as they choose to be, is a social and political statement. And that as they become more and more popular, all the growing support they are getting will be equaled by growing opposition—something they must continue to confront and fight against.
That’s a lot of weight to support while twerking in boots.
“It makes me nervous, but it doesn’t scare me to the point of running away from it,” Jerel says. “But it thrills me to be a part of something that has the potential to change society. This style of dancing is about being accepted for who you are.”
Tim, timid and so sweet, speaks up. “I was scared,” Tim says. “I get strength from them though. I didn’t know how people were going to treat us. But these four helped me.”
Kareem also becomes graver. “I’m sometimes afraid for my family,” he says. “They didn’t sign up for this. I did.”
It’s when talking about pressure and danger and fears that the fire comes up.
The Elites were preparing for the Prance to the Beat competition, an event that is the focus of Episode Two and marked the first time they were allowed to dance against all-girl teams in a competition, when Jerel got a call that his house burned down. Because of an ongoing investigation, he wasn’t able to talk about the cause. But he confirms that everything was lost, including the team’s original uniforms.
“I don’t mean to cuss, but there’s a lot of shit that we go through,” Jerel says, pausing to wipe away tears. “If I didn’t have the team, if we didn’t have each other, I don’t know how I’d make it through. I don’t know how we’d make it through.”
Soon enough, it’s time to rush out the door for the Watch What Happens Live taping. On the way into the studio, paparazzi are waiting. It’s the first time they’ve been photographed by one, an occasion they greet with equal parts nerves and excitement.
Kentrell checks Twitter, and sees that the fan who came up to the group at dinner has already tweeted about the run-in. On the WWHL set, Cohen tells the group how proud he is of them. The group soaks it in. But they also take it with a grain of salt.
“I didn’t wake up one day and say I’m going to fight and how I’m going to do it is by being a dancer,” Kareem says. “I’ve been through a lot of things in my life and now I’m going to help somebody else get through a lot of things.” He pauses. “It’s not like we’re going to save the world. But we’re going to change minds.”