Edited by Azizi Powell
This post presents an excerpt from a 2014 thesis by Lamont Loyd-Sims entitled "J-Setting in Public: Black Queer Desires and Worldmaking".
This excerpt provides information about the origin of j-setting in Historical Black Colleges & Universities majorette dance lines with the possible (probable?) influence of a Black gay male choreographer or Black gay male choreographers/dancers. This excerpt also provides information about how Black gay males (particularly Southern Black gay males) have embraced this performance art and have evolved it beyond its beginning forms and venues.
The content of this post is presented for historical and cultural purposes.
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Thanks to Lamont Loyd-Sims for his research and his writing. Thanks also to all those who are referenced or quoted in this excerpt.
EXCERPT FROM "J-SETTING IN PUBLIC: BLACK QUEER DESIRES AND WORLDMAKING"
[by] Lamont Loyd-Sims
A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of
Master of Arts in the College of Arts and Sciences, Georgia State University, 2014
Copyright by Lamont Loyd-Sims
..."In an interview during a j-setting workshop for the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe (PLAFPF), j-setter, Kendrick Robinson states, “j-setting comes from the South...we took it from the dancers and majorettes at Jackson State University and decided to add a twist and make it more technical.”1
This “twist” that Robinson speaks about refers to the ways in which j-setting has transformed into something different than the style of dance commonly associated with majorettes at Jackson State University (“J-setting”, 2011). In an early 2009 issue of VIBE magazine, Terrance Dean contends that the style of j-setting was appropriated in the early 90s by black gay men who attended various HBCUs (Dean, 2009). Since men were typically not allowed to join drill teams or majorette squads, usually comprised of only women, they took the dance-style to Black gay clubs throughout the South...
This examination of j-setting departs from other scholarly research on Black queer performance where “ballroom” culture, voguing, and drag performance dominate such discourse, (Bailey, 2011) often situated in the North East. J-setting is a style of dance performed primarily within black queer communities in the South. Since j-setting occurs mostly in the South, this research (re)situates queer experiences outside of the North East (New York City) and the West Coast (San Francisco; Los Angeles), which are common sites for depicting the realities of queer people. Thinking seriously about j-setting expands the ways in which we understand how Black queer folks utilize performance to construct their everyday lives in the South. Discourse regarding Black queer realities in the South is often limited to HIV/AIDS and homophobia, rejecting ways that we celebrate and honor our experiences as Southern Black queer folks (Johnson, 2008)....
The manifestation of j-setting occurs as Black queer men seek alternative forms of masculinity, embrace a form of dance often relegated to the bodies of Black women, and receive other Southern Black queer men who are called to witness, embrace, and embody j-setting. Jsetting exists as Black queer men reject the dominant idea that the dance-style associated with majorettes exists solely for women. The imagined idea of Black queer men dancing as majorettes brings j-setting to life. This is how j-setting exists as a counterpublic for some Black queer men...
2. WHAT IS J-SETTING?
As far as I know, the origin actually comes from Jackson State University. All of the teams model after dance lines at other HBCUs, but the name, “j-setting”, comes from the Prancing J-settes.
– Tim (aka Sincere) (aka Tammy)
J-setting is a style of dance commonly performed by Black gay men throughout the Southeast. It usually consists of a small group performing as a squad (team) in synchronized, lead and follow routines. While influenced by a number of different styles of dance including jazz and hip-hop, j-setting stems from the majorette style associated with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) (Lee, 2008). Majorette dance-lines exist as one of the spaces for women within band culture, which is very popular on the campuses of HBCUs. I might add that this style of dance is common at historically Black high schools and other colleges with large Black student populations.6
However, in the epigraph, Tim, who j-settes with J-Phi based in Atlanta, speaks about the influence of dance-lines at HBCUs on the dancing styles of various j-setting teams. It also seems clear that the style of j-setting has not stayed within the realm of the majorette dance-lines that consists predominantly of women. According to many of its followers, j-setting exists as a “twist” from the majorette style of dance, a deviation from the traditional dance-line style that is performed along with band music at HBCU football games.
The twist that j-setting offers is enticing for Black gay men because it is not tied down by dominant masculinity. It is a force that swerves away from gender norms that limit the possibility of our bodies.
[Note 6] This point often goes unacknowledged with people familiar with j-setting and its connection to HBCUs. There are schools with a predominantly Black student population that are not captured under the title of HBCU, but also have a similarly deep affinity towards band culture.
2.1 J-setting and the Majorette Style
There are several characteristics involved within j-setting that speak to this “twist” or deviation from the majorette style—1) The name “j-setting” exists as an example of the direct departure from claiming the “majorette” name. It stems from the “prancing j-settes,” the majorette group at Jackson State University. The prancing j-settes are known for introducing this particular style of dance that moved their dancers away from depending on baton twirling to a more stylistic dance form, which incorporated thrusts and high kicks (Dean, 2009). 2) The physical spaces utilized for j-setting performances might include night clubs and public parks,
whereas majorettes often showcase their performances on the football field and stadium. Not only does football demand heteronormativity, the space where it is performed (on the field) reaffirms heteronorms with the example of female majorettes performing on the side, within the bleachers of the stadium, as the football players take “center stage” on the field. There is rarely space for women to participate as football players, and few opportunities for majorettes to garner the same amount of attention as male football players.7
There is also no space for (gay) men who prefer to perform as majorettes. Thus, j-setters have taken their performances to other spaces where they are the central focus. 3) Finally, as stated earlier Black (gay) men are the primary producers of j-setting, whereas the majorette style often refers to the dance line formation performed by women. J-setting allows male bodies to move in particular ways often relegated to female bodies. ...
[Note 7] During “half time” performances, majorettes often share the field with band members consisting of women and men.
As most HBCUs are located in the South, it is no surprise that j-setting has particularly developed from Black gay men living in the South, those who also admire the performance of majorettes. The South exists as the regional space that holds many of the traditions associated with HBCU’s, particularly the phenomenon of band culture, and has been the primary space for the development of j-setting. While majorette dance-lines exist as women-only social spaces, aside from the presence of male choreographers, men often showcase their interest in the majorette tradition in spaces where they can be the main focus, particularly Black gay nightclubs throughout the South. The practice of male majorettes performing in night-clubs developed throughout the early 1990s. Male majorettes took their routines across the South to popular Black gay clubs such as Club 708 in Atlanta, Club City Lights in Jackson, and Allusions in Memphis (Dean, 2009). Specifically in Atlanta, where I have conducted my research, we can see j-setting at Club Rush (formerly Club Chaparral), or in Piedmont Park particularly during Atlanta’s Black Gay Pride (Lee, 2008). Such spaces exist as meeting grounds for j-setters to “battle” one another, learn new routines or trends from other squads, engage in communion with dancers and others who support j-setting, all working towards sustaining j-setting as cultural
work. In fact, most of the j-setters whom I have interviewed explain that their first encounter with j-setting occurred in a night-club...
2.2 HBCUs, the South, and the Owners of J-setting
Yes, j-setting is big here because there are only real Black majorettes in the South.
We are into our marching bands down here, especially at HBCUs. It’s a Southern tradition.
...In “The Big Idea: J-setting Beyond Beyoncé,” Terrence Dean reminds us that the j-sette style at Jackson State University came into existence once majorette Shirley Middleton suggested that the dancers retire their batons and adopt dance routines that require line formations while marching to the music of JSU’s marching band, “The Sonic Boom” (Dean, 2009). Instead of choreographing routines that focus on baton-twirling, the Prancing J-settes adopted dance styles that included thrusts and high kicks while wearing pumps. However, Dean does not explore why Shirley Middleton decides to encourage the PJs to forego baton-twirling for new routines, or where she found the inspiration for the different dance style that eventually
inspires the creation of j-setting. Middleton, a trained ballet dancer and former majorette, encouraged the sixth president of JSU, Dr. John A. Peoples, to allow the dancers to abandon their batons and perform to popular music while incorporating more athletic dance routines. Performing to popular music heard on Black radio made their dance-line completely different from others as they were able to better engage their student audience. Middleton also had the help of Hollis Pippins, a former twirler at JSU, who worked with the Prancing J-settes as a choreographer (Jackson, 2013). According to one particular blogger who describes him as a member of “the boys’ club”, it was rumored that Pippins was gay (Dee, 2006). While there is not much written that elaborates on Pippins’ contribution to the early formation of the Prancing J-Settes, his existence and work is a reminder of men’s early influence on the majorette style. Many j-setters often explain that the style of dance began with women, but this bit of information regarding the history of JSU’s majorette style illustrates how gay men have also been creative influences on the style.
Though the Prancing J-settes of JSU are credited as the primary influence for j-setting as we know it today, majorette dance-lines are common at other schools with large Black student populations. More importantly, band culture is huge at HBCUs, and majorette dance-lines are often constructed under band departments; for example, the Prancing J-settes are a supplementary organization within Jackson State University’s marching band, “The Sonic Boom of the South.” In the epigraph above, Kitty, who j-settes with Toxic (based in Atlanta), alludes to the way in which the South represents a regional space and culture that is very familiar with band culture. Here, we can imagine the possibility of the majorette style of dance lines as a largely southern experience—one not entirely owned or solely created by the Prancing J-settes....
While most j-setters whom I have encountered name the Prancing J-settes as the first group to develop this style of dance, I could not help but think about the possibility of this being not completely true, especially with regard to the possible exchanges among Black institutions with regard to cultural work. We do not know what encouraged Middleton to shift the style of dance with the Prancing J-settes. Moreover, we do not know if Middleton and the PJs were influenced by other Black schools, or even dancers from non-Black institutions. One might realize that certainly styles of dance often build from others that already exist; this idea rightly pushes one to question arguments suggesting that the Prancing J-settes are the authentic owners of the majorette style as we know it today. While the name “j-setting” speaks to the influence of
the Prancing J-settes in the creation of the dance style, it necessarily leaves out the wider cultural context from which it emerged. The j-setters that I have interviewed for this research agree that j-setting stems from the PJ tradition, while also discussing how some j-sette squads pull from majorette traditions associated with other HBCU’s, such as Southern University’s “Dancing Dolls,” and Alabama State University’s “Stingettes.”
During the interview, LaKendrick, the captain of Toxic, reminds me that while majorettes and drill teams are popular in the South, they certainly exist in other regions as well. He discusses how he also looks at predominantly white schools that have dance-lines for inspiration for his choreography. The idea that the stylistics involved in j-setting do not solely depend on creative inspiration from the South also speaks to the adaptability of j-setting—it can exist in multiple places outside of the South. LaKendrick mentions a popular j-setting squad from Detroit, known as DDZ, as an example of the style of dance existing outside of the South. He
explains that DDZ is actually a “legendary” squad, meaning that it receives the highest regards within the j-setting community.”...
During my interview with LaKendrick, he suggested that anyone who does not know about Hollis Pippins does not know the history of j-setting or the traditional majorette style. Unfortunately, I neglected to inquire about how he became familiar with Pippins’ work with Jackson State
University’s Prancing J-Settes. Naming Hollis Pippins as a significant figure in producing what we have come to call j-setting also helps to reflect on the existence of Black gay cultural producers in the South. The website for JSU’s band, The Sonic Boom, offers very little commentary about the Prancing J-Settes, let alone its history with Pippins, compared to the attention given to its marching band....
It is also important that we recognize how the established queer formations that are privileged within Western discourse often make it impossible to imagine Black queer folks as cultural workers. The image often produced within such discourse produces a White homonormative temporal narrative for queer experiences and progress (Ferguson, 2007). Thus, it is no surprise that a figure like Pippins, who grew up in Mississippi, attended an HBCU in Mississippi, and helped produce a definitive style of dance is simply not known about, but difficult to even imagine as a possibility. Erasing the possibility of Pippins involvement in the beginnings of the majorette dance-lines happens when j-setters suggests that their way of dance was simply appropriated from the ‘real girls.’...
Before engaging with the notion of j-setting occurring in different spaces aside from football stadiums, along with other technicalities that differentiate it from its predecessor, I will continue with the style of j-setting and its relation to majorette dance-lines of HBCUs. According to Kitty, dancers may wear leotards and perform specific routines that are familiar due to their similarity to well-known women’s majorette squads such as those mentioned earlier. While baton twirling was abandoned by some majorette squads, it still shows up sometimes as part of routines within j-setting. It has been my experience that j-setting competitions may pay homage to its history which includes baton-twirling, and other “traditional” styles that consist of performing to band music, as opposed to solely hip-hop or house music, which are common genres for j-sette routines. At some formal competitions, there are specific categories that exist for a “field show” routine, consisting of music that utilizes band instruments. We might also see squads marching into the dance space, harkening back to the “real girls.” For example, during my interview with Dennis, he reminds me how marching in to the performance space exists as a ritual that his particular squad adopted from the Prancing J-settes. He explains that this
particular marching technique is known as “salt & pepper,” where the dancers perform the following—
1. March with knees at a 90 degree angle.
2. The left leg goes out in front, along with the right arm (and vice versa); this happens simultaneously as if you are using salt and pepper shakers.
3. Keep switching as you continue marching to your destination.
While the Prancing J-settes utilize the marching technique known as “salt and pepper,” Dennis also states that marching in to the performance space is a tradition among most majorette dance lines. However, he could not elaborate on other squads’ marching traditions, which speaks to the dominance of the Prancing J-settes. Considering the ways in which j-setters pull from the Prancing J-settes dance style, they continue to be innovative with their own sense of j-setting.
In my conversation with LaKendrick he mentioned that most j-setting squads attribute many of their techniques to well-known majorette dance lines. Those familiar with the majorette style performed at HBCUs know that it consists of pelvic thrusts and hip movements and routines that may seem similar to rhythmic gymnastics and modern dance, especially when performed in a large space such as a football field...
In the same interview footage for the PLAFPF, Kendrick explains that “we took it from the dancers and majorettes at Jackson State University and decided to add a twist and make it more technical.” While the added “twist” that differentiates j-setting from the traditional majorette style may refer to Black gay men experimenting with femininity, it may also refer to new routines and extended dance counts. These changes may have been difficult to imagine before the naming of j-setting itself...
While the use of femininity continues as a tradition from majorette dance-lines, j-setting also incorporates masculinity that does not entirely depend on normative standards of masculinity (remember that it is impossible for j-setting to be seen as masculine, even when dressed as such). Tim offers the example of the squad, Memphis Elite as one of the first squads to incorporate a “masculine” stylistic within their j-sette counts. This is the shift within j-setting
where it is not solely focused on mimicking the “real girls.” He explains that the inclusion of hip-hop music, as oppose to the more typical house music and traditional band music, led to a more masculine aesthetic within j-setting. Here, hip-hop, as a style of dance and music is understood as masculine territory which helps differentiate j-setting from the majorette style.
Kitty also suggests that some of the routines that male j-setters perform are more difficult than those common within the majorette style. He suggests that j-setters perform routines that go beyond the traditional 8 counts, while often dancing 16 counts and upwards of 32 counts. The 8 counts (or beats) refer to the number of movements that go along with the music’s beat or tempo. Kitty also discusses the male body as physically powerful, in comparison to women, allowing them to explore more “complicated” routines...
We already know that j-setting occurs mostly in the South, pulling from the majorette traditions that are often supported by HBCUs. But in this moment, I am thinking about the physical spaces where j-setting occurs. The spaces where j-setting exists do not typically include stadiums and football fields where majorettes typically perform. While Black gay men have been known to j-sette since the early 1990s, there is also knowledge of Black men performing dance routines commonly associated with the majorette style before the common usage of the term, “j-setting.” During our interview in June 2013, LaKendrick explains that while men were prohibited from performing with the all-female majorettes, it was common knowledge that male majorettes existed. Men performing in the majorette style are sometimes allowed to give solo performances, says Kendrick. However, it is not standard for the inclusion of male majorette performances. During an interview discussing men’s involvement with such dance-lines, Kitty explains that it was common knowledge that such spaces were limited to women. While male majorettes have been known to give solo performances, Kitty further states that it often consists of “baton-twirling” as opposed to the exact participation in the majorette dance-line. He states, “I wanted to be just like the majorettes, but could not because of the gender thing.” Here, while the traditional space held for majorettes is inaccessible to men, we witness how j-setting exists as a space that challenges the gendered discursive space of dance-lines as a possibility reserved only for women.
Since male majorettes are withheld from performing “on the field,” and largely invisible within the context of band culture, Black gay clubs became a space to showcase their desire to
The “field” is largely held for the labor of football players, and occasionally for the band, majorettes, and others who perform during “half time.” J-setting as its own cultural formation legitimizes and gives gay men a reason to dance in ways that are relegated to the bodies of women within the context of dominant culture. In reference to Black gay clubs, Kitty explains that they often exist in the place of “the field,” where they often put j-setting on display. Other jsetters testify to the way in which j-setting often shows up in a few of Atlanta’s well-known Black gay clubs...
[note 9] Some people emphasize the idea that “j-setter” is a name specifically reserved for members of the Prancing JSettes, and others who perform in a similar style (or “buck”) should be referred to as “buckers”.
2.4 Setting the Stage for Understanding J-setting as a Counterpublic
...In 2008, r&b pop-singer, Beyoncé released her music video titled, “single ladies,” and I along with many others watched intently to see how well she performed the dance choreography. Certainly there are plenty of music videos that consist of dancing, but has been rumored that Beyoncé was to be dancing in a style that many of my people consider sacred. Though j-setting is a style of dance commonly performed by Black gay men in the South, as I have discussed, Beyoncé’s performance was to elide this fact. Through the public display of “single ladies,” the mainstream public does not come to know this style of dance as “j-setting”--- it is evacuated of its history and context, and transformed into a style of dance that originates with (and appropriated by) Beyoncé. The single ladies video becomes a new pop sensation as YouTube floods with parodies and “copy-cat” examples of the supposed original made famous by the popstar...
When I see this major public debut of “j-setting” through Beyoncé, I witness the erasure of its roots. I write here about Beyoncé because j-setting receives its greatest public attention in its history through the pop star. The implications of Beyoncé as “creator” erases the ways in which j-setting represents a world framed through the performance of Black queer men...
The example involving Beyoncé’s “single ladies” is one way that we can recognize a shift in spaces that typically hold jsetting. Not only are the bodies involved in the video of women of color (not Black gay men), “single ladies” is also displayed on television screens within mainstream media, a particular space that is usually inaccessible to j-setting. J-setting as a stylistic art/dance form, with its explosive moves in confined spaces, is also circulated through YouTube—including Beyoncé’s performance and replications of the choreography by amateurs...
This circulation is significant as “single ladies” consists of Beyoncé (and back-up dancers) performing a mating dance to attract potential husbands. In this sense, Beyoncé’s “single ladies” uses j-sette choreography with an articulation of hetero-monogamous desires where women of color demand a commitment to marriage vis-à-vis, “if you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it.” This is a major shift if we understand j-setting as an alternative to normative scripts for gender performance.
...the visibility of marginalized culture may signal its vulnerability through cultural appropriation. While the use of j-setting in Public may represent an example of a liberatory pursuit for Black gay men, its vulnerability may also be signaled. J-setting is still radically unstable in that it has not been completely institutionalized. J-setting as a Black queer formation is still largely unfamiliar to the Public. The significance of Black queerness within j-setting is erased once it is made Public."...
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