SEMMES, Ala. — Minutes before they made the now-controversial strut down the parade route on Wulff Road on Saturday, the Prancing Elites, an all-male dance team from Mobile, stretched and lined up with the other parading groups before they marched.
As the parade began, Kentrell Collins, the group's leader, recalls an older man who was directing the procession offer what seemed to be last-minute encouragement: " 'If anybody says anything to you, don't stop moving, keep going,' " Collins said, recalling the event afterward.
Dressed in red and white Santa sweaters and snug white shorts, the four young men performed a routine that entailed a combination of sharp thrusts, swaying and elaborate hip movements. Each member also sported pristine make-up.
Within hours, members of the community in Semmes called parade organizers and posted on social media, most of them in shock. At least one woman demanded an apology, saying she had "never been so insulted" in her life. Others wrote that they were disgusted and children should not have been exposed to the dancers.
"It felt like a regular event," said Collins, 26. "We were taking a risk, but we always do."
The group dances in a style called J-Setting, a hip-hop-style dance characterized by cheerleading-style sharp movements that originated at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss. The dance style was historically performed by women since the 1970s, but some men started taking part in the style in the mid-1990s.
The Prancing Elites, who recently danced their way into viral fame, first started in 2004, with Collins filling the role as the group's captain in 2006. They started out as a 10-member ensemble with rigorous practices and performance schedules. Today there are only five members -- Collins, Adrian Clemons, 23, Jerel Maddox, 23, Kareem Davis, 22, and Timothy Smith, 22 -- all from Mobile and Baldwin counties.
Three of them played instruments and one was a drum major in their high school bands. They wanted to join the dance squads, but said they were never allowed.
In July, they appeared on "The Real," a daytime talk show hosted by Tamar Braxton, Loni Love, Adrienne Bailon, Jeannie Mai and Tamera Mowry-Housley. They were also invited to speak on the Tom Joyner Morning Show. And in November they auditioned for America's Got Talent.
All this fame was precipitated by a tweet in June from basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, who saw a video of them dancing on YouTube. The video went viral in two days, garnering about 200,000 views.
The parade route, a 1.7-mile stretch along Wulff and Moffett Roads in west Mobile County, was filled with quiet outrage. Organizers were equally taken aback.
"I had no idea that they would be dressed the way they were and that they would think it's appropriate for a community Christmas parade," said Karen McDuffie, who accepted applications for the event. "Their costumes and the style of dancing were inappropriate."
McDuffie, who is on the board of directors of the Friends of Semmes, the group that created the parade, said the Prancing Elites' moves were "vulgar" and "not appropriate for a children's Christmas parade," before apologizing on behalf of the organization.
She said she received calls from dismayed parents, warning her that they would not attend next year if the group performed again.
Jack Tillman, another board member and organizer, said he noticed the men strip down from their sweatsuits during the parade lineup.
"Once they got in, it would have been a mess trying to get them removed -- so I just let them go," Tillman said. "To tell you the truth, I didn't think much about it. I didn't particularly like it, but there wasn't much I could do."
Collins, the dance group's leader, said the response exposes a double standard.
"We are no different than any team out there dancing. We want people to stop looking at gender and focus on the talent," he said. "It's OK for a woman to put on tights and play football, but when a man wants to put on a leotard and tights, it's a problem."
The group is slated to perform in several upcoming Mardi Gras parades in Mobile, and there is talk of appearing on a reality show in the near future.
Suzanne Massingill, a talent agent in Mobile who advises the Prancing Elites, said the group was excited when parade organizers asked them to be in the parade. "They thought that she knew who they were and had seen them on YouTube," Massingill said, referring to McDuffie of the Friends of Semmes.
Sitting on a bench at the University of South Alabama after the parade, group member Kareem Davis admitted he felt a bit uncomfortable when they first got to Semmes and he noticed people staring. Davis, 23, and his teammates were waiting for dance extras to come audition for Mardi Gras events later Saturday evening.
"I was trying to (have) tunnel vision," Davis said. "It takes a lot to do what we do."