The Prancing Elites rehearse before a performance at the Saenger Theater in Mobile, AL. The group was recruited to perform at the Nappie Awards, an award show put on annually by Lagniappe, an independent bi-weekly newspaper in Mobile, AL. Since a video of team dancing at an LGBT basketball game went viral after being tweeted by former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal, the team has gained semi-celebrity status around Mobile, has been flown out to Los Angeles to appear on a tv talk show, and is currenly looking to star in a reality show about their lives. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
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The following photographs were taken in Mobile, Ala. in July 2013. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance. The Prancing Elites rehearse before a performance at the Saenger Theater in Mobile, Ala.Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME
The Prancing Elites rehearse before a performance at the Saenger Theater in Mobile, AL. The group was recruited to perform at the Nappie Awards, an award show put on annually by Lagniappe, an independent bi-weekly newspaper in Mobile, AL. Since a video of team dancing at an LGBT basketball game went viral after being tweeted by former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal, the team has gained semi-celebrity status around Mobile, has been flown out to Los Angeles to appear on a tv talk show, and is currenly looking to star in a reality show about their lives. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Jerel mists Adrian with an atomizer before a performance. The team has been asked to perform at the Nappie Awards, an award show put on annually by Lagniappe, an independent bi-weekly newspaper in Mobile, AL. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
The Prancing Elites perform at the Saenger Theater in Mobile, AL. The group was recruited to perform at the Nappie Awards, an award show put on annually by Lagniappe, an independent bi-weekly newspaper in Mobile, AL. Since a video of team dancing at an LGBT basketball game went viral after being tweeted by former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal, the team has gained semi-celebrity status around Mobile, has been flown out to Los Angeles to appear on a tv talk show, and is currenly looking to star in a reality show about their lives. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Adrian applies lip balm before practice. The team has been asked to perform at the Nappie Awards, an award show put on annually by Lagniappe, an independent bi-weekly newspaper in Mobile, AL. Since a video of team dancing at an LGBT basketball game went viral after being tweeted by former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal, the team has gained semi-celebrity status around Mobile, has been flown out to Los Angeles to appear on a tv talk show, and is currenly looking to star in a reality show about their lives. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Members of the Prancing Elites and their friends watch videos of their performace at the Saenger Theater in Mobile, AL. The team is extremely social media savvy, and found a measure of fame when a video of their dancing was tweeted by former NBA player Shaquille O'Neal. All of the members frequently post on facebook, instagram, and youtube, well aware of the power of social media to gain exposure for themselves. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
The Prancing Elites pose for photos for fans a performance at the Saenger Theater in Mobile, AL. The group was recruited to perform at the Nappie Awards, an award show put on annually by Lagniappe, an independent bi-weekly newspaper in Mobile, AL. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
The Prancing Elites indulge in traditional Southern fare like shrimp and grits after a performance at the Saenger Theater in Mobile, AL. The group was recruited to perform at the Nappie Awards, an award show put on annually by Lagniappe, an independent bi-weekly newspaper in Mobile, AL The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Kentrell Collins, Adrian Clemons, KJ Davis, Timothy/Tamara Smith and Jerel Maddox pose with one of Adrian's cousins outside of the Saengar theater in Mobile, AL. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Jerel stands behind the Saenger theater watching as fans of the Prancing Elites take photos with various the line members. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Kentrell and Jerel chat after practice. The group practices several times a week, often late at night to accommadate the members' working schedules. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Tamara, who was born Timothy, is transgender, and has been living with her boyfriend and his sister since being kicked out of her mother's home by her mother's boyfriend. She has no car, which has made it extremely difficult for her to find work, as she is terrified to walk alone in her neighborhood. She is afraid that if she were to be mistaken for a cisgendered woman by men who make passes at her, and subsequently identified as transgendered, that she might be severely beaten or even killed. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Adrian, Kentrell, and Jerel watch a video of the previous evening's performance at the Saenger Theater in Mobile, Alabama with their manager, Suzanne Massingill (far right). The team, all of its members under 27, is extremely savvy about using social media to promote themselves. A YouTube video of the group performing went viral after being tweeted by former NBA player Shaquille O'Neal. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Jerel and Adrian watch a video of the previous evening's performance at the Saenger Theater in Mobile, Alabama. The team, all of its members under 27, is extremely savvy about using social media to promote themselves. A YouTube video of the group performing went viral after being tweeted by former NBA player Shaquille O'Neal.The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Kentrell poses for a photo on a trip to the beach with teammate Jerel. The two have emerged as leaders and role models in the group. Kentrell, as team captain, holds a great deal of authority, but Jerel, who the group also refers to as "the mom," often provides the kind of guidance that can often be identified as parental in nature. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Jerel and Kentrell frolick in the warm waters off the coast of Alabama, in the Gulf of Mexico. The two have emerged as leaders and role models in the group. Kentrell, as team captain, holds a great deal of authority, but Jerel, who the group also refers to as "the mom," often provides the kind of guidance that can often be identified as parental in nature. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Adrian shaves before going out with the team to a gay bar in Pensecola, FL. The group frequents gay clubs in Mobile, and also travels to clubs in Pensecola. They rarely drink alcohol, often dress in matching uniforms, and use nights out at the club to practice their routines. They see clubbing as a means for self-promotion and an opportunity to perform and dance in front of audiences. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
KJ poses in front of a mirror at a gay club in Mobile, Alabama. The group frequents gay clubs in Mobile, and also travels to clubs in Pensecola. They rarely drink alcohol, often dress in matching uniforms, and use nights out at the club to practice their routines. They see clubbing as a means for self-promotion and an opportunity to perform and dance in front of audiences. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
The group frequents gay clubs in Mobile, and also travels to clubs in Pensecola. They rarely drink alcohol, often dress in matching uniforms, and use nights out at the club to practice their routines. They see clubbing as a means for self-promotion and an opportunity to perform and dance in front of audiences. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Adrian checks his phone going out with the team to a gay bar in Pensecola, FL. The group frequents gay clubs in Mobile, and also travels to clubs in Pensecola. They rarely drink alcohol, often dress in matching uniforms, and use nights out at the club to practice their routines. They see clubbing as a means for self-promotion and an opportunity to perform and dance in front of audiences. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
The group frequents gay clubs in Mobile, and also travels to clubs in Pensecola. They rarely drink alcohol, often dress in matching uniforms, and use nights out at the club to practice their routines. They see clubbing as a means for self-promotion and an opportunity to perform and dance in front of audiences. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
(L-R) KJ, Kentrell, Jerel, Adrian and Tim/Tamara sit in a fast food restaurant to regroup before driving back to Mobile after a night out at a gay club in Pensacola. The group frequents gay clubs in Mobile, and also travels to clubs in Pensecola. They rarely drink alcohol, often dress in matching uniforms, and use nights out at the club to practice their routines. They see clubbing as a means for self-promotion and an opportunity to perform and dance in front of audiences. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Tamara, who was born Timothy, is transgender, and has been living with her boyfriend German and his sister since being kicked out of her mother's home by her mother's boyfriend. Tamara says that German is unlike any other man she has been with. Many of the men she's had relationships with were physically and mentally abusive, but she says German is kind to her and protective of her. Tamara has no car, which has made it extremely difficult for her to find work, as she is terrified to walk alone in her neighborhood. She is afraid that if she were to be mistaken for a cisgendered woman by men who make passes at her, and subsequently identified as transgendered, that she might be severely beaten or even killed. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Tamara, who was born Timothy, is transgender, and has been living with her boyfriend German and his sister since being kicked out of her mother's home by her mother's boyfriend. Tamara says that German is unlike any other man she has been with. Many of the men she's had relationships with were physically and mentally abusive, but she says German is kind to her and protective of her. Tamara has no car, which has made it extremely difficult for her to find work, as she is terrified to walk alone in her neighborhood. She is afraid that if she were to be mistaken for a cisgendered woman by men who make passes at her, and subsequently identified as transgendered, that she might be severely beaten or even killed. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Tamara, who was born Timothy, braids her boyfriend's cousin's hair. Tamara is transgender, and has been living with her boyfriend and his sister since being kicked out of her mother's home by her mother's boyfriend. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Adrian watches a TV commercial in his bedroom in his mother's house. Several of the members of the line live at home with relatives. Among their ranks, a number have faced considerable difficulty when dealing with family members' reactions to their orientation. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Kentrell sits in his mother's dining room creating a new performance outfit with a standard leotard, sequins, a hot glue gun and a pair of scissors. He designs most of the costumes for the Prancing Elites, utilizing basic craft materials and his own creativity. His niece and nephew watch as he works. Kentrell's niece, who is 12, also practices J-Sette dance. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Kentrell's mother holds up a leotard he designed and customized, admiring his craftsmansip. Kentrell designs many of the costumes for the Prancing Elites, often working on a shoestring budget to create eye-catching and exciting matching outfits for performances. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Kentrell served in the US Army for several years after high school. He said he was out to a select few other service members who he knew to be gay as well. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Kentrell and his boyfriend Derreck attend church together regularly at Community Church Ministries in Mobile, sometimes twice a week. Kentrell says that while some members of his church are homophobic, many others are very welcoming, including the pastor and his wife. "They don't judge us, and Pastor always says that we should stop asking God what we can't do, and start asking what we can do." Kentrell says that he doesn't worry about church members who have a problem with his homosexuality, because he has his own relationship with God. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
Kentrell surveys a dried creekbed a few blocks from his mother's home. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Historically Black Colleges that is characterized by sharp, cheerleading-style movements and hip-hop performed to an eight-count beat. Traditionally, men cannot join college dance teams, so young gay black men have been forming their own J-Sette "lines," organizing competitions, and creating their own outlets to practice this type of dance.
The following photographs were taken in Mobile, Ala. in July 2013. The Prancing Elites are a group of young, gay, black men who practice J-Sette, a form of dance birthed at Histori
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Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME
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Diary of a Dance Troupe: A Deep Look at Alabama's Prancing Elites

Jun 04, 2014

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.

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