The Prancing J-Settes

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‘Thrill of a billion eyes’: The Prancing J-Settes of Jackson State gracefully continue a rich legacy of sisterhood

As the team turns 50, a look at what it means to be a J-Sette in 2021.

 

Kahron Spearman

IRL

Published Dec 31, 2021   Updated Jan 1, 2022, 1:54 pm CST

“The thrill of a thousand eyes,” said Dr. Jimmie James, Jr., the late, great music department chair and professor at Jackson State, about the then-called “Prancing Jaycettes” in 1971. This year the “Prancing J-Settes,” the famous and widely recognized Jackson State University dance line—an auxiliary group of well-noted marching band, “The Sonic Boom of the South”—celebrated their 50th anniversary.

Dr. James’ exhilaration has grown to a “thrill of a billion eyes,” as the majorettes are beacons of Black culture. The J-Settes’ influence extends beyond campus grounds in Jackson, Mississippi, and the HBCU pocket universe into the mainstream through other icons, including Beyoncé. The dancers’ signature, higher-powered “lead-and-follow” formatting is renowned. Remember the music videos for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” or “Diva“? 

“To see it in the mainstream—because we are not used to seeing the Prancing J-Settes and HBCU culture in the mainstream—is important for all of us to see because representation matters,” Chloe Ashley Crowley, the director of the Prancing J-Settes since 2013, told the Daily Dot.

Along with it are the pressures of the public eye, social media, and supposed (and always moving) goalposts of various societal norms for Black people, especially regarding respectability of Black women. Here, we look at what being a J-Sette means in 2021 concerning commitment, cultural importance, and what 50 years of J-Setting have manifested.

Birth of the ‘Thrill’—a brief history

tragedy and sociopolitical strife loomed over the group’s formation: The “Jackson State killings.”

Eleven days after the infamous Kent State shootings, on May 14, 1970, city and state police confronted a group of student anti-war protesters and eventually opened fire. Authorities killed two students—Phillip Lafayette Gibbs, 21, a junior at JSU, and high school senior James Earl Green, 17—while injuring 12 others. No one was ever charged. Various reports stated that the shooters contended a sniper in a JSU dorm, despite investigators finding insufficient evidence of the spurious claim. Today, the massacre is a teaching point of remembrance of significant change. But the period was also a period of cultural transformation for one of the school’s front-facing institutions.

According to Jackson State’s recording of J-Sette history, in 1970, sponsor and trained ballet dancer-turned-director Shirley Middleton and the majorettes met with Dr. John A. Peoples, the institution’s sixth president, requesting to “put down their batons.” Middleton would set the tone for the dance group, tuning its dancing toward the natural groove within early ’70s funk. Of significant influence, Hollis Pippins—a gay former Jackson State student, baton twirler for the marching band and eventual Soul Train Gang dancer/singer—teamed with Middleton on early J-Sette choreography and creative direction. 

Narah Oatis served as director for 21 years, starting in 1975, wherein the J-Settes, along with the increased profile of the Sonic Boom band, flourished. “Salt and Pepper,” “J-Sette Walk,” “Strut,” and the “Tip Toe—all now-legendary marching techniques—arrived during Oatis’ tenure. Following Oatis, sponsor Kathy Pinkston-Worthy, a former J-Settes captain under her predecessor, would add incredibly technical routines. Crowley, a former captain who studied as a J-Sette under Pinkston-Worthy, would follow.

Make no mistake, though: The Prancing J-Settes, in the present day, are serious business as the front-facing ambassadors of Jackson State, along with the “Sonic Boom” band. Inviting the football team also means, contractually, the invitation of the entire marching band. “We don’t have the very best musicians or the most precise drill formations,” O’Neill Sanford, the former director of bands at Jackson State, told Smithsonian Magazine. “But no one else can bring the same energy and showmanship and electrify a crowd of 110,000 people like we can. That’s what everyone wants to see.”

The team arguably symbolizes not only the HBCU standard but represents the vanguard of all of America’s collegiate dance groups—few have rivaled their skill and consistency since their inception. They are the purveyors of a Black physical language of elegance, power, and grace. 

The group hasn’t been without some controversy. In both 2015 and 2019, members of the J-Settes were suspended following accusations of hazing. There’s also a unique standard that some would say stretches into internal politics of respectability, even essentially codifying strict behavior requirements. This isn’t to suggest fault or assign negligence in any direction; however, consideration of behavior and presentability is explicit.

What does all this mean for the present day? What does their day entail? How do they manage the day-to-day pressures in the age of social media? We spoke to a few of them to understand the responsibilities of being a Prancing J-Sette.

A day in the life

Current members of the Prancing J-Settes arrived in the group in several ways. Ken’Janae McGowan, a former valedictorian of Provine High School in Jackson, studied ballet and initially focused on her studies. But then she went to a few games and caught the bug. She also had a connection via the Dancing Dolls, a youth dance troupe who had members go on to be J-Settes. “I admired them,” said McGowan, reflecting as a former Doll. “I looked up to them because their dance style was so strategic and unique.”

Alayah Bell, a pre-nursing major, is in her first year as a J-Sette but did not make it her first year on campus. She expressed shock after finding she was one of “only four girls that made it out of like 60,” through what is known as an arduous audition process. The current captain Amber Johnson, a criminal justice major, graduating in 2022, says being a J-Sette has been transformative.

“Before J-Sette, I was very closed off; I didn’t like to talk as much,” she admitted. “I didn’t like to talk in front of people.”

McGowan, like the others, explained that being a J-Sette is all-consuming, not unlike that of other collegiate sports. Activities outside of classes and J-Settes training aren’t feasible. “You kind of you have your mindset on school and dance,” she explained. “You don’t have time for too many other extracurricular activities because J-Settes is your job, other than being a student.”

After classes, practices typically run from 4pm or 5pm to 10 pm, depending on what time the director mandates. All J-Settes are sure to remain well-hydrated because running is part of their intense training.

Each person interviewed is incredibly conscious of their standing within the student body and larger JSU community. Johnson mentions Gibbs-Green Plaza, a location constructed in memory of slain student Philip Gibbs and James Green. While safe from the white gaze, the Plaza is also a place of soft class warfare, investigation, and judgment of everyone who passes.

“You have to stay on your toes, that you’re keeping your school first, being respectful and responsible on and off-campus, on and off the team,” said Johnson. “Whether that’s what you do on the Plaza, walking down the Plaza because people are always looking at us like on social media. I’ve had people come up to me after we got off the bus from a game in Walmart, and they knew who off-campus was crazy, but it’s like, wow, this is real.”

‘Unchanged and yet unchallenged’

Sheila Evers-Blackmon, one of the first members, famously told WJTV News that, on the group’s arrival, “We didn’t know we were groundbreaking.”

The second part of the quote rings equally valid, too: “We were just doing what we loved from someone who directed us.” As over 180 former J-Settes lined back up together from across the country, and across generations, for the 50-year celebration, profound appreciation became the theme.

Despite the glories and challenges, everyone the Daily Dot spoke with expressed gratitude and pride in being part of an illustrious group, especially when considering their place in history and the Prancing J-Settes’ 50th-anniversary celebration at Jackson State homecoming in October. It’s a history of sisterhood, of reaching back to help those who came before. It’s the edification of Black women in a world always ready to take off their crowns.

“It’s felt unreal,” said Johnson. “When the 50th anniversary came, we got to meet the legends—women who were a part of the first line. And to be able to meet them? To hear them give different gems and knowledge to us? It was just amazing.”

Considering her past, Crowley, whose mother is a Jackson State alumnus and former J-Sette, understood the pressures better than most—everything a J-Sette does must be earned. “Even my mom told me then, ‘It’s not just a piece of cake. You’re not just going to advance because I was on this team. You have to dance for yourself because I can’t do the dances for you. I can’t perform for you.'”

But she’s grateful to continue a legacy and tradition. “I know I’m an integral part of it and play a significant role in it, but it was just surreal for me to see it,” she said of the celebration. “See the evolution from when we were founded in the Seventies to now, 2021. I was a fan before, I was a fan after, and I’m still a fan because it still things that my squad does that I’m just in awe of.”

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*First Published: Dec 31, 2021, 9:30 am CST