Graduate student and photographer Sara Naomi Lewkowicz learned about the Prancing Elites the same way most people did: through a video of the dance group’s performance at a basketball game, which became an Internet hit after Shaquille O’Neal tweeted its praises.
“I see lots of things online that are funny or unusual, but then it’s usually out of sight, out of mind,” Lewkowicz says. “But I knew there were so many layers to their story that couldn’t be explored by just watching a viral video.”
In July 2013, Lewkowicz traveled from Ohio University, where she’s studying, to Mobile, Ala. to meet the Prancing Elites. Founded in 2004, the Elites perform a variation of J-Sette, a dance style long-associated with Southern, all-female drill teams and defined by sharp movements performed within a tightly choreographed routine. All five of its current members are gay, African-American men (one identifies as a transgender woman), and much of the commentary sparked by the viral video noted how unlikely — indeed, incredible — it was that such a group could flourish in, of all places, the Deep South.
For her part, Lewkowicz saw in the Prancing Elites an opportunity to examine the always fraught and deeply fascinating intersection of sexuality and race in American culture.
“This project has potential to take a deeper look at a group of men [who embody] two very ‘othered’ subsets of the American population,” says Lewkowicz. “I’ve seen a great number of stories profiling the LGBTQ communities in places like New York and San Francisco, but it’s also important to try to find the stories of people living in areas of the country that are hostile toward them.”
For a week, Lewkowicz followed the group around as they rehearsed, performed and spent time with family and boyfriends. “I found them to be really charming, fun and super interesting to talk to,” the photographer says. “Hearing their stories was harrowing at times—they’ve all had some level of hardship growing up or being accepted—but I was also surprised at the level of acceptance they did receive in Mobile. They’d get sideways glances from time to time, but a lot of people were really friendly and supportive. They’re kind of celebrities there.”
But celebrity status was never what the Prancing Elites dancers were striving for, and the recent wave of attention—including an offer to be part of a reality TV show—has been both eye-opening and, at times, disheartening. “It’s weird that it took a basketball giant to get people in our hometown to recognize what we’re doing,” says Kentrell Collins, team captain. “But it’s been great because now people can’t deny our talent.”
Another benefit of the attention, says Collins, has been the chance to connect with others around the country who also feel marginalized.
“Our mission has always been to be who we are, embrace what we do and not worry about what the next man wants us to do,” Collins says. “We didn’t realize until after we blew up that just by dancing and doing what we love, we were inspiring others to live their lives without worrying about judgment. That response has been amazing.”
Sara Naomi Lewkowicz is a photographer and first year graduate student at Ohio University in Athens. Her essay, “Photographer as Witness: A Portrait of Domestic Violence,” was published by TIME in February 2013.
Feifei Sun is an Atlanta-based writer.