About a year ago I was introduced to the Prancing Elites for the first time.
Dressed in handmade green and gold leotards, they bounded into a conference room full of journalists with expressions ranging from delight to confusion to horror, as the five queer, gender non-conforming dancers from Mobile, Alabama performed.
The song, fittingly: “Shake It Off.”
“Haters gonna hate, hate, hate” has become a mantra of sorts for the dancers, who, over the past year have scoffed at, risen above and, well, pranced through criticism, raised eyebrows, and countless “you can’ts” thanks to the success of their Oxygen docuseries, The Prancing Elites Project, which began its second season last week.
Kentrell Collins, Adrian Clemons, Kareem Davis, Tim Smith, and Jerel Maddox are the Prancing Elites, a group of queer dancers—Tim identifies as a woman—who perform a type of choreography called J-Sette, a hybrid style of majorette and hip-hop dance moves popularized by Beyoncé in the “Single Ladies” music video.
They landed on the cultural radar after Shaquille O’Neal, of all people, tweeted a video of them performing. The joy radiating from the unusual spectacle, these men doing a style of dance almost exclusively done by women and doing it with their faces painted with fierce makeup, turned them into instant viral stars, eventually landing them the Oxygen show.
The story behind that joy, however, is the inspiration. The real reason to tune in.
As The Prancing Elites Project delicately chronicled in its first season, for every “yaaas!” that’s been cheered at the dancers as they thrust, shimmy, and shake during their infectious performances, there have been countless telling them “no.”
No, you can’t do this style of dance, it’s for women. No, you can’t perform at this parade. No, you can’t be around our children. No, you are not “family appropriate.” No, you can’t look like that, we don’t know what to make of you.
They have been booed. They’ve been called abominations. Parents have shielded their children’s eyes from them and mimed puking when they see them. They’ve been banned from events entirely. Some might say the kind of joy in their performing gives you life. In Season 1, Adrian says, “I just feel like I have this disease no one wants to be around.”
“Shake It Off” isn’t just a song, it’s a mantra, a means of survival for them. It’s why when The Prancing Elites Project debuted last year, The Daily Beast called it TV’s most inspiring new show. For all the reality TV trash that clogs the television garbage chute—but that we, god and Kris Jenner help us, can’t stop watching—it’s a rare pleasure when an offering in the genre comes along that makes you feel good about tuning in.
Audiences agreed, turning it into the highest rated new series on Oxygen last year.
“We don’t even realize how strong and powerful we are until someone says it,” Kentrell tells me. “We’re just being ourselves.”
On the afternoon of Season 2’s premiere, the Elites meet me at a burger joint in Midtown. Fried pickles, buffalo wings, and nachos abound. (“Salad” is a dirty word in this camp.) Jerel and Adrian are working on double amaretto sours. “It’s a celebration!” Adrian laughs.
As they make their way through the restaurant in fabulous furs—it was a freezing New York day—and even more fabulous makeup, they get the usual quizzical stares. A kid at the next table is nudged in the shin by his mother, who wants him to conceal his snickering. Then, in stark contrast, the restaurant’s hostess recognizes the group and asks for a photo.
“There’s a quote this season I love,” Jerel says. “‘If you can make it through hate you can be great.’” It’s a manifestation not just of the reaction to the group in the restaurant, but to their very existence.
“It stuck with me because it’s so true,” Jerel continues. “We can make it through hate and look at us, we’re on the second season.” Proving that the branding of the Elites as “inspirational” is no fluke, he continues his speech.
“No matter what background you come from, no matter what gender or race, you can be great,” he says. “You have to believe in yourselves. By being yourself and not focusing on the negativity that comes with whatever you’re doing differently from the social norms, you can be great. Anybody can be great. You have to believe in yourself.”
Consider our chat a State of the Elites.
We did it once before, the year prior, just after the first episode of The Prancing Elites Project aired. I knew the fabulous cacophony that awaited me, a tornado of beautiful energy that was fruitless to even attempt to wrangle. We’re at the same burger chain—although this time at its uptown location—and gleefully eating the same fried food. Their presence is met with the same mix of confusion and cheerleading from gawking strangers.
The message of everything they say is the same: haters gonna hate, love yourself, stay positive. But something seems different. The Elites are different.
In fact, that’s the crux and the appeal of Season 2 of the series. Come for the same inspiration. Stay to find out how it’s affecting this team’s own identities. While Season 1, in a way, was about us—whether we were able to accept and embrace a team of queer, gender non-conforming dancers—Season 2 is about them. Luckily, they are fascinating.
There’s Tim, who last year had trouble articulating how she identified herself and hated the word “trans.” Now? “I’m a woman,” she says. “A lady. I identify as a woman and see no different.” And for what it’s worth: “I always feel beautiful!”
Kareem publicly announced that he was diagnosed with HIV. How he and his boyfriend, Deshaun, deal with it is a major part of Season 2—as is his side stint choreographing for Deshaun’s dance team, a betrayal likened to “sleeping with the enemy” by Kentrell.
Adrian is coaching a team of young girl dancers, Jerel is fielding opportunities outside of the Elites, and Kentrell is trying to keep the team focused amidst all these side distractions.
“We’re five different people with different personalities,” Jerel says. “Everyone watching can relate to one of us.”
Like the Spice Girls, I suggest.
“We’re the Golden Girls,” Adrian corrects me. “I call us the Fab Five!” says Tim. “We’re the Kardashians,” Kareem chimes in. Then Jerel, with his new hairstyle making the comparison uncanny: “I’m the mama. Kristopher Jenner.”
The table explodes with laughter.
I ask them how this year feels different from when we were having, for all intents and purposes, the same meal the year before.
“I just think it’s a more humbling experience now than it was then,” Kentrell says. “Now we have to realize we’re really all that we have.”
“I’m much stronger than I was last year,” Tim says, a far cry from the person I met in Season 1 who could barely speak when asked a question. “I’m still soft spoken, but I’ve grown into a whole new person. They taught me not let people walk over me.”
That confidence, sure, has to do with a greater sense of self. She finally has the courage to correct people when they call her “he.” She doesn’t care that you might find it strange that she’s keeping her name, Tim, even though she identifies as a woman. It’s what she wants.
“People expect me to do what is expected of every transgender person,” she says. “I have to be that voice to tell them that I’m my own transgender. I’m not what people say I have to be. Or what transgenders do or how they live their lives. I live my life.”
Kareem is settling into the attention he got for publicly announcing his HIV diagnosis. “Usually I’m so private,” he says. “I don’t talk about what I don’t want to talk about and I don’t show what I don’t want to show. So being open and raw was different, but it was an area of opportunity. It was therapeutic in a way.”
He understands the attention—it’s rare for a public person to come forward with their diagnosis—but he has a hard time wrapping his head around the constant interest in discussing it. “I just live my life the way I was living it,” he says. “It’s a part of my life, but it’s not my life.”
They’re all coming to terms with the “inspirational” label that’s bandied around. Adrian gets teary-eyed remembering a boy who sent him a message saying that the Elites inspired him to come out to his mother. Jerel has a story about a married women in her forties who said watching the show gave her the courage to come out as gay to her husband and stop hiding her true self.
“Our show is deeper than just dancing,” he says. He marvels that, for all the parents who tell them their image is not appropriate for children, it’s children who respond the most to their show.
“It makes us work harder,” he says. “We used to respond back to negativity. I know I used to. I changed a lot. I would want to defend my team so much, but now I know that the world defends us. For every 15 negative comments, we have 15,000 positive thoughts. Now I realize I don’t have to defend my team the way that I used to. The world is doing it for me in a positive way.”
A rise in fame and visibility means a bigger target is on their backs. “You save a little area in your mind for all the negativity and throw it away, but the rest of it is reserved for the positive,” Kareem says. “We don’t put much energy in that.”
There’s a scene from the first episode of Season 1 that still sticks with Adrian, even though he lived it. He’s coaching his troop of young girls and one of the dancers, Amber, tells him she was told she couldn’t be a dancer because she’s a heavier person. Adrian can barely speak when she tells him this, remembering all the times he and the Elites were told they couldn’t do what they wanted because of their gender or the way they dressed.
“She’s one of my best dancers,” he says. “I told her people tried to limit our success because of our gender, just like they try to limit her success because of her weight. I feel like there’s no limit to success. Not weight, color, size. No matter what you are you should never let anyone tell you that.”
Shake it off.