Members of the all-black, gay and gender non-conforming dance troupe get ready for their first trip to Toronto Pride
By Renée Sylvestre-Williams
The Prancing Elites have one very important question about Toronto: is the food any good? The dance troupe has a deep appreciation of food, especially soul food, thanks to their Alabama roots. And on their first trip to Toronto for Pride 2016, they’re interested in experiencing and tasting all that Toronto has to offer and giving Toronto the Prancing Elite experience.
“Wherever we go, there’s a party,” says troupe member Jerel Maddox. They’re up here for the final weekend of Pride month—although after a discussion of all the Pride events and the possibility of pool parties, Maddox sighs, “I wish it was for a week!”—and will perform as International Honoured Guests at the festival.
If you haven’t heard of the Prancing Elites, here’s why you should check them out at Pride. Adrian Clemons, Kentrell Collins, Kareem Davis, Jerel Maddox and Tim Smith are five gender non-conforming African-American dancers from Mobile, Alabama. Collins founded the group in 2004 for people who wanted to dance but weren’t allowed to audition for their school’s dance teams. The troupe came together over their love of J-setting, a dance that was introduced in the ’70s at Jackson State University by members of the marching band who eventually became the Jaycettes (currently called the J-Settes).
The distinctive dance style became popular among young, gay, African-American men who took it back to their cities, and the style proliferated through gay clubs. J-setting hit the mainstream with Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video in 2008. “And ‘Diva,’” says Maddox.
The Prancing Elites hit the mainstream when Shaquille O’Neal tweeted a video of them performing in 2013, which led to multiple media appearances as well as their own reality show, The Prancing Elites Project, which is now in its second season on The Oxygen Network. The show chronicles the Prancing Elites as they perform at local events, parades and cruises. It also reveals the obstacles they face, including when Maddox’s house burned down last year.
The negative experiences they’ve faced have not stopped them, and the positive now outweighs the negative for these once-reluctant role models. “We were never meaning to be role models,” says Smith, taking the time to consider her words. “It was more of a thing that comes along with being and doing what we do. I like that people consider us role models because that means we’re helping people.”
“I agree with Tim,” says Maddox. “When all the notoriety started and people were, ‘Oh my god, you’re my role model’ and ‘I look up to you,’ we were looking at each other like, ‘What did we do to become such role models?’ Now we realize we’re making a difference in people’s lives. We’re doing a lot for the LGBT community and we’re giving hope to those who are scared to believe in themselves.”
But dancing remains the Prancing Elites’ focus. They’ve got plans for their Toronto appearance—and while they wouldn’t divulge too much, they promise it’s going to be big and the music will inspire their moves. Before we wrapped up our interview, the conversation turned back to food and the best places to eat in Toronto. Promises were made to send them a list of places to check out during their visit, including the best places for poutine. Now to find them that pool party.
RENÉE SYLVESTRE-WILLIAMS is a Toronto-based journalist. She has been published in Forbes, Canadian Living and The Globe and Mail.