Picture a cheerleader. If your imagination is anything like Google image search, she’s likely sporting pom-poms, tousled curls or a perky ponytail, and very little else. She is also (let’s be honest) likely blond and blue-eyed. Most importantly, perhaps, she is a she.
By almost any measure, then, the “Prancing Elites” don’t quite fit the stereotype. The squad, which hails from Mobile, Ala., is entirely African American and, more unusually still, entirely male.
Male cheerleaders are, of course, nothing new. In fact, the sport was originally conceived of as exclusively for men — not surprising, perhaps, given that at the time of its inception (the mid 1800s), women were still wearing corsets. It wasn’t until the mass deployment of World War I that women entered the field at all, but since then, male cheerleaders have become more or less an afterthought relegated to supporting (literally) roles.
What’s more, high-school-age boys who participate in cheerleading—though in increasingly high demand — often do so at the expense of their reputations. As Lisa Wade notes, the advent of female cheerleading led to a rebranding of the sport’s image, transforming what was once an acceptably masculine activity into something “cute.” Though exceptionally physically demanding, cheerleading has become a “girly” and, all too often, explicitly sexualized activity. Male cheerleaders are thus routinely labeled as “gay” and taunted for it.
But even against this thorny historical backdrop, the Prancing Elites are something altogether new. Far from feeling the need to nervously defend their sexuality, the Elites embrace the so-called “femininity” of cheerleading, dressing in orange hot pants and busting moves reminiscent of Beyoncé.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, then, is how much “mainstream” attention the team is receiving, particularly following Shaquille O’Neal’s Twitter nod. As this article notes, other all-male dance teams tend to rely on the audience’s tolerance of intentional campiness, but the Prancing Elites take what they do seriously; as they say on Facebook, “We work very hard to get to where we are … we have a passion for the art of DANCE.”
That kind of commitment is all the more important given that not all of the recognition the team has garnered has been positive; scroll to the comments section of virtually any article on the Elites and you’ll quickly get a sense of just how much vitriol and disgust the team is subjected to for “acting like girls.”
Perhaps, then, we should take the Prancing Elite’s sudden rise to fame as an opportunity to ask ourselves some hard questions about the way we view gender and sexuality. Why is this kind of overtly sexual dancing, willingly — even joyfully — practiced by men seen at best as “flamboyant” and at worst as “disgusting,” while the sexualization of girls and women is routine and, indeed, expected regardless of whether the women themselves like it or not? And why, in both cases, is there so little recognition of the sheer athleticism that cheerleading and dance demand?
I would hazard a guess that the answer to these questions has a good deal to do with the fact that behavior that is coded as feminine is valued primarily as spectacle; while any sport is to some extent a form of entertainment, most athletes are not valued first and foremost for their appearance and expected to exploit that appearance as cheerleaders are. And when the sexuality on display ceases to be one that interests straight males, it becomes something many regard as excessive and unnatural.
Still, the Prancing Elites seem unlikely to take such criticism to heart, so perhaps it is only fitting to conclude this article with the words of team captain Kentrell Collins: “God would have not blessed me with such talent if he didn't like it. You may not understand it, but we love it.”