The Prancing Elites! To have clicked on them is to love them. Widely celebrated in the usual, culturally viral manner (first as a YouTube and Twitter sensation, then in numerous talk-show appearances, etc.), this dance troupe of five young, gay, super-proud African Americans has found fans everywhere they go — except at home, in and around Mobile, Ala.
In the first episode of their inevitable and sometimes inspiring reality show, “The Prancing Elites Project” (premiering Wednesday on Oxygen), viewers get a pretty good sense of both the joyful exuberance and hurtful backlash that has come to define their lives.
Clad in sparkly leotards and practicing a form of collegiate school-spirit dancing called “J-Setting” (after an all-female troupe at Jackson State University), the Prancing Elites exist on some remaining frontier between “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and your average Beyoncé concert, happily exploring and even upturning notions of both racial and gender stereotypes. They are not so interested in the illusions of drag; their masculinity is as plain as their femininity, which drives the more cretinous of their neighbors to apoplexy: “You ain’t no woman!” shouts a passerby. “Y’all need Jesus,” exhorts another. “Goin’ to hell!” proclaims another. It’s the usual yokel response.
Like nearly all reality shows, “The Prancing Elites Project” isn’t entirely real. It features scenes that seem to play very much according to a producer’s outline and stars five subjects who are all too familiar with what it takes to succeed in the docu-series genre. If nothing else, the show portrays a group of young people consumed by their knack for pressing buttons.
Bossed around by their lead dancer Kentrell Collins, the Elites first gained national attention when they danced (clad in skimpy Santa-style outfits) in a Christmas parade in the Mobile suburb of Semmes, upsetting many attendees and organizers, who said the Elites had scandalously ruined what had always been a “family-friendly” event. Local news reports on the controversy became, of course, a godsend to the Elites, as new supporters from all over the world rushed to their defense online, flew them to Hollywood and awarded them their requisite 15 minutes of fame.
“The Prancing Elites Project” picks up in the 14th minute or so of that fame. What now for Kentrell, Adrian, Tim (“It’s short for Timberly,” she says, the only member who identifies as female), Kareem and Jerel? Although they might find more simpatico audiences outside of Alabama, the members all agree that their real calling is to prance on their home turf, whether people accept them or not. Against the advice of their local talent agent, Suzanne, the Elites turn up at another small-town parade that has already rejected their application.
Closely followed by white police officers and heckled by what appears to be an all-white crowd of onlookers, the Prancing Elites decide to perform their routine alongside the parade route, several feet away. The camera catches (or, in the editing room, seeks out) several examples of rancor directed at the Elites. A viewer quickly recognizes that this struggle is not so different from the civil rights demonstrations that occurred here five decades earlier, and it’s interesting to imagine what Martin Luther King Jr. might have made of all this. (It’s also worth noting that not all the people condemning and disapproving of the Elites are white.)
“They ain’t worth your tears,” says a woman who comes up to the Elites after the parade. “Y’all deserve to be here more than anybody. Y’all keep your hopes up.”
A quick preview of future episodes promises more of the same — the Elites being turned away from public events (“How can we leave the outside?” one of them asks a police officer trying to shoo them off). Ideally, the main point of “The Prancing Elites Project” won’t only focus on the culture wars, but also show viewers the young people behind all this glitter and fun: How do they make money and survive? Who are their families, and do they accept their children and siblings for the prancers they’ve become? And what do the Elites dream for the future, long after the prancing stops?
(30 minutes) premieres Wednesday
at 10 p.m. on Oxygen.