The acrobatic dance has origins with HBCU marching bands, and now is popular in LGBTQ+ clubs, but these dancers don’t want to be pigeonholed under any label
If there’s one comfort the 11 members of Dance Champz of Atlanta have found during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that they can still dance together. “The pandemic has affected the LGBTQ community and the J-Setting community tremendously because we’re kind of left in limbo,” team founder and captain Leland Thorpe says. “So when COVID came about, we decided we were going to form a quarantine pod.”
“We all love to dance and we all wanted to survive this,” he explains.
This practical adaptation in the midst of a global health crisis is emblematic of the group’s approach to J-Setting. “My team is very hardcore,” Thorpe says. When they compete on the dance floor with their sharp, synchronized movements set to the beats of Baltimore club-style music, the battles are intense.
“We put in a lot of work,” team member Darrius Stephens confirms. The Dance Champz rehearse four days a week, sometimes up to four or five hours a day. When a performance is coming up, Stephens says, “We rehearse almost every day up into that performance.”
Part of their intensity comes from a desire to share their take on J-Setting—one influenced by jazz, modern dance, hip-hop and ballet—with ever-wider audiences. From its very start, J-Setting was a dance born out of resistance to the status quo, and a need for modern flair. Dance Champz are simply carrying that spirit out into the streets of Atlanta.
The story of J-Setting starts on the campus of Jackson State University in 1970. Shirley Middleton, a former majorette with JSU’s marching band (now known as the Sonic Boom of the South) met with the university president and requested the majorettes be permitted to “put down their batons” and start dancing to more contemporary music. (At the time, that meant James Brown’s “Make it Funky” and “Hot Pants.”) Middleton established the Prancing Jaycettes, who later became the Prancing J-Settes, and the danceline thrives to this day, known for their marching steps, explosive moves and tightly executed routines. Their signature style has even entered mainstream choreography, most notably Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” music video.
At the same time it was filling stadiums, J-Setting was going underground. “Wherever there was a marching band,” Thorpe explains, “there were gay men who wanted to do this—not just their moves but their costumes.” J-Setting became a fixture in the LGBTQ+ clubs that surrounded the HBCUs where J-Setting was performed; routines seen at football games would get repeated on the dance floor that same weekend. The “Super Bowl” of the underground J-Setting scene was in competitions at Atlanta’s now-closed Traxx Nightclub, Thorpe remembers.
The dance style requires militaristic precision, but it’s also about joy—about knowing oneself and expressing that self-knowledge through dance. (And shiny, sparkly, modified majorette outfits.) Another freeing element of J-Setting comes from its ability to brush away gender binaries with one buck of the body. “Being able to go in and out of femininity and masculinity” is one of the key elements, Stephens says. And for Stephens personally, the dance allows him to defy outside expectations about what his own body can and can’t do.
J-Setting is still emerging as an art form, and Thorpe wants to push its boundaries to incorporate other dance styles he grew up performing on the sly in Detroit. He’s interested in challenging some of the relatively new conventions of the male J-Setting scene, both in terms of team size and its membership (Dance Champz has two female dancers in its lineup). Beyond the J-Setting community, the team also hopes for wider acceptance of LGBTQ+ people within the Black community. While Dance Champz have participated in recent Black Lives Matter marches and rallies, Thorpe says he still feels the ostracization that characterized the early days of the underground scene. “I’m considered gay before I’m Black,” Thorpe says. “We don’t always feel part of our Black community.”
All their hard work is paying off in terms of local recognition. Dance Champz are the only J-Sette team that performs as part of Atlanta’s Pride celebrations. Maintaining their training regimen during the pandemic, Dance Champz are working towards the day when they can gather once again, to share their skills with both fellow J-Setters and the city of Atlanta. More conservative than many in the name of COVID-19 safety, they’re skipping the club scene for now, forgoing the J-Sette battles at Pride over Labor day weekend, and mainly practicing outdoors.
Members of Dance Champz of Atlanta pose in red customized jerseys that read “Champz Atlanta”. They are wearing fabric masks that cover the lower half of their faces. This photo is taken at sunset in Piedmont Park in Atlanta, GA.
During the pandemic, the members of Dance Champz of Atlanta formed a pod. The members regularly check their temperatures and test for COVID-19. (Photo by Frederick Taylor and Yusef Ferguson)
“We have something to prove,” Thorpe says. “We’re taking advantage of this time to ourselves to get ourselves on the up and up. So when everything opens up, we’re ready to perform. We’re ready to be out there. We’re ready to show our faces.”
— Text by Sarah Hotchkiss
Note: This episode was filmed under strict guidelines due to the coronavirus pandemic. A trained COVID-19 safety specialist was on-set and careful parameters were followed with the dancers, who are in a “quarantine pod” together, practicing recommended guidelines including regular testing, temperature checks, constant communication and group accountability. Atlanta is currently experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases and we hope the community remains safe at home until it’s time to dance together again.
This piece originally appeared on KQED Arts and has been adapted for ALL ARTS.
Top Image: Leland Thorpe in "If Cities Could Dance: Atlanta." Photo: Frederick Taylor/KQED Arts.