From Doin’ Da Butt to the Bankhead Bounce, everyone loves to be up on the latest dance style. And usually, once the mainstream catches on, the true originators of the style
are on to the next thing. But some dances are more than just slick moves, they’re the expression of a culture.
In 1990, Madonna introduced vogueing to the masses, bringing a phenomenon that had been popular in gay clubs since the 1970s to national attention. Now, nearly 20 years later, J-Setting, a popular dance in Southern black gay clubs, has made its way into the mainstream—largely, thanks to superstar Beyoncé Knowles, who’s been a gay icon pretty much since she sang “snap for the kids” in 2006’s “Get Me Bodied.”
“It’s kind of a risk when you’re introducing something underground,” says JaQuel Knight, 19, the co-choreographer, with Frank Gatson, of Beyoncé’s sensational, sensual videos “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” and the follow-up “Diva”—which brought J-Sette culture from local dancefloors and into the international limelight. “There’s the fear that people will get upset if it’s not done right.”
J-Setting is a lead-and-follow style of dancing that requires the body to move to an eight-beat count: One, two— high knee kicks defy gravity. Three, four—hips gyrate from left to right. Five, six—arms and hands slice the air. Seven, eight—heads jerk up and down to the bassline.
According to JaQuel, it was Frank Gatson who introduced the J-Sette technique to Beyoncé. “Frank didn’t know the name of it, but I did,” says JaQuel, who grew up in Georgia and taught himself to dance by imitating routines from television. He started putting together choreography for local acts, eventually working his way up to dancing with Diddy, Janet Jackson, and Soulja Boy. After catching the eye of legendary choreographer Fatima, he graduated high school and moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dreams full time. “Beyoncé wanted to do something really different,” says JaQuel, “because she had done everything.” He and Frank sat Beyoncé in front of the computer and showed her YouTube clips of people J-Setting. “We were like, ‘Are you sure?’ and she was like, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The J-Sette Dance Style originated at Mississippi’s Jackson State University. The Prancing Jaycettes were the female dance line of the infamous JSU marching band, “The Sonic Boom of the South.” In 1970, Shirley Middleton, a former majorette, initiated the idea that the Jaycettes (later called the J-Settes) abandon their batons and begin dancing in formation. But their signature moves— thrusts, pumps, and high kicks—were still reserved for ladies only.
In 1997, a young man from Tunica, Miss., DeMorris Adams, broke the gender barrier.
Adams joined the JSU band as a baton twirler. “One day at practice, our sponsor Ms. Otis asked me to fill in because they were a girl short.” When it was time for a performance,
he was ready. Dressed in the male uniform of tuxedo pants, military boots with spats, and a shirt with sequined trim, Adams joined the line. “The crowd went crazy,” he says, beaming. “I was not effeminate. I was very masculine, so that is what made it so crazy.”
He was not alone in his adoration of the Prancing J-Settes. “The young men would be on the sideline during practice watching and learning,” recalls Anthony Hardaway, a gay activist and historian from Memphis who was a student at JSU from 1990 to ’94. “My friends would be on the side doing the dance alongside the girls.” However, their imi-tation was not seen by all as flattery. “Teachers and coaches would run the gay boys away,” Hardaway says with a laugh, “because when it was time for the games, the gay boys would be in the stands doing the routine and outperforming the girls on the field.”
During the early 1990s, some young men who attended black colleges in the South brought the J-Setting craze back to their hometowns. They introduced the intricate dance routines to gay nightclubs like Club City Lights in Jackson, Miss.; Incognito, Allusions, and 901 in Memphis, and Club 708 in Atlanta.
When the “Single Ladies” video debuted last fall, a frenzy ensued on message boards,
blogs, and YouTube as ecstatic fans expressed excitement. Some devotees were disap- pointed to discover that portions of the video emulated Gwen Verdon’s 1960s dance to Pat Williams’ “Mexican Breakfast,” as choreographed by Broadway legend Bob Fosse. But that didn’t stop the ever-evolving Beyoncé’s J-Sette jones. “This is all Beyoncé wants to do,” says JaQuel enthusiastically. “She said it has to be hot, something with fire. I said, ‘Okay, I can make that happen.’”
J-setting is a culture in every sense of the word: not only a dance but also a style
of dress. Built like Alvin Ailey dancers, young men with muscular athletic frames stuff themselves into sequined one- and two-piece leotards, with long flowing capes kissing their backs and sheer stockings with white marching boots.
“It’s the next wave,” says Hardaway. “These boys march and parade, and there will be 20 of them. They are on point with capes, boots, and hair. They come into the club and there is nothing you can do but gasp.”
At gay cultural events, squads of J-Setters in full regalia compete against one another for bragging rights. Some of the most popular teams include Memphis Elite, Atlanta’s
J-Five, Dallas Diamonds, Nashville’s Music City All-Starz, and Grambling, La.’s X-Men. “It reminds me of the movie, Breakin’, when hip hop came onto the scene,” says
Anaré Holmes, 34, board director of Atlanta Black Pride. The J-Setters have the same enthusiasm and unique style.”
In Atlanta, a city many feel is the new black gay mecca, J-Setting has reached straight clubs as well.“The dance and movement is not known to the average person,” says Hardaway. “He sees the movement and just imitates it, not knowing he is doing an eight count.”
During his November 15 appearance on Saturday Night Live (NBC), Justin Timberlake donned a black leotard and pumps to do some shaking and thrusting. He might have thought he was spoofing Beyoncé’s video, but insiders knew he was J-Setting. And the movement marches on, in patent-leather boots, right through mainstream America.
“They have to be ready for J-Setting,” JaQuel says, laughing, “because Beyoncé is.”