Last week, the Prancing Elites—a small-town queer dance team with a big national following—launched the second season of their binge-worthy Oxygen network reality series, The Prancing Elites Project. In the midst of a whirlwind press tour, the Elites joined me at Oxygen’s New York offices to talk about what’s ahead: how they’re handling their newfound roles as public figures and mentors, what fans can expect this year, and what the world should know about Elite life.
In case you’re late to the game, like I was, Prancing Elites follows a team of five Alabaman dancers—Adrian Clemons, Kareem Davis, Timothy Smith, Jerel Maddox, and Kentrell Collins—as they struggle to find a place for themselves. The Elites should be famous simply for their skills in J-Sette (a hybrid majorette/hip-hop dance style)—but their identities have had a way of upstaging their talents. Black, gay, and gender-nonconforming, the group faces an uphill battle against manifold discrimination. In Season 1, we see them repeatedly rejected from venues with the curt explanation that families and children will be present. They are banned from parades, and in a particularly poignant scene, reduced to walking alongside a route in silent protest. And so we come to know the Elites—both in the show and in the press around it—not so much as individual J-Setters, but as a band of outsiders.
But where Season 1 offers a broad-strokes portrait of the Elites’ struggle with the outside world, Season 2 is poised to give a more in-depth look at the team’s personal experiences—their struggles as artists, their conflicts with family, friends, and one another. “Last season you were only able to get an introduction and a little glimpse of who the Prancing Elites are as a team,” Jerrel Maddox told me. “Now you’ll be able to see who we are as individuals.” This more intimate perspective is made possible in part by the show’s longer run time. Oxygen high-kicked its episode length to a full hour, probably because last season was the network’s highest-rated new series of 2015.
There’s more to the shift than runtime, though. Looking around the Oxygen office conference table last week, I saw five people who have come into their own and want to assert their unique perspectives. In person, the Elites are the same close-knit crew of ebullient characters that we know from the show, a testament to the production team’s faithful representation of their personalities. But each Elite seems to have gained a sense of fierce confidence that goes beyond their team identity, and beyond their stylish new clothes and immaculate, iridescent makeup. Kareem Davis, who kept to the background in Season 1, speaks powerfully about his frustrations with American homophobia and challenges his teammates when they field questions. Timothy Smith has a new regal bearing and declares, almost as a challenge to everyone in the room, “People are going to understand that I’m becoming stronger, more outspoken, sticking up for myself.” Adrian Clemons says that his days of playing “the blonde” are over. “Viewers are going to see a more serious side of me, a more determined side versus my comedian side,” he says, sitting back and folding his arms. “Because when it comes to my dancing, I’m serious about my shit.”
Perhaps this new sense of independence comes from the Elites’ increasingly rich creative lives. Where Kentrell Collins was portrayed as last season’s Type-A personality, other Elites are beginning to assume that role, too. Adrian Clemons is already deeply absorbed in his role as a mentor for other young dancers. “At first being a role model for my students was difficult,” he told me, “But now it’s the other reason why I wake up, and now that I’m speaking, I can’t wait to get back home to them.” And in the Season 2 premiere, we see Kareem Davis take on a mentorship role for his boyfriend’s dance team, even when his gut tells him that the Elites won’t take kindly to the decision. The Elites are looking out for themselves in a new way now, so there’s a sense that Season 2 will witness some scenes of mutiny. And that electricity carries into the Oxygen offices. When Kentrell Collins describes his portrayal this time around, saying, “people are going to think I’m extra mean,” there’s a wave of emphatic nods and a general rolling of eyes from the other Elites. If there was a time last year when the Elites could be described as a group of “gamboling puppies,” that moment is over.
The Elites are going to need every scrap of their new ferocity. Because where Season 1 celebrated them as endearing, Season 2 is putting more emphasis on glitz and success. From glamor shots to extended dance scenes, the first episode eschews its former homespun aesthetic, so that the show is a far cry from the so-called “inspiration porn” that had us choking up in our Snuggies last season. There’s an ominous “everyone is replaceable” soundbite in the season’s teaser, suggesting that the hunger for fame might threaten friendships in the coming months. And, as Lawrence Specker of AL.com observes, the show now gives us a real look at how the Elites move when they perform, even lets us see them falter and fail.
Of course, some critics are wondering if the Elites will hold up as a dance team under the pressures of performance and fame and the production of an increasingly complex television series. And the Elites are feeling the burden. “There were several times where we felt like the dancing was sacrificed for the television show,” Kentrell Collins told me, “We’ve had to be clear that we have to get our practice in, we have to make sure that our performance is right. The production company wants to make sure that the TV show is perfect. But we want to make sure we are perfect.” Kareem takes it further. “People act like we petition and set out to have a TV show, but that was never a thought, it just happened,” he says. “Dance is always first to me. At the end of the day that’s always the most important thing.”
While the Elites work to protect their art from the machinations of fame, I wonder about the show’s message. With a renewed media focus on the Elites as public figures, greeting fans and growing in fame, I’m curious to see if the series’ political power will be weakened. When I asked the Elites about this, there seems to be a genuine hope that people stay focused on the important issues: self-respect, authenticity, and the bravery to fight for a better world. They’re tired of answering questions about makeup and explaining that they can’t help people “get on TV.” Because despite enjoying their new visibility, they are painfully aware that their biggest battles have not yet been won. “Just because we have the show, there are people that are more lenient with us. But there are still even more people that are close-minded,” Adrian Clemons told me, “I want people to know that whenever we walk out the door we’re still getting backlash. And now that we’re on this platform the backlash has grown. We have to watch ourselves not only for being on this platform, but for being gay and black. It’s triple the worry.”