He’s terrified. Kareem Davis isn’t hidden by makeup or costumes today. He’s gathered the rest of his five-member dance troupe to finally open up about a personal struggle he’s been keeping secret. Davis isn’t afraid of telling his teammates he has HIV, but of coming out to the world. The cameras are rolling and soon this will air on national TV for all to see.
But in the moments after the performer begins to talk, and tear up, a look of relief washes over his exhausted face. His watery eyes have soon dried and he can finally breathe normally again. His friends and teammates—all of whom have been crying as well—offer shows of support.
And in a snap, Davis lifts his chin to the sky with a new lightness.
“Right now, I need to dance,” he says. And they do.
The Mobile, Alabama native is the youngest member of the Prancing Elites, an all-male, all-black, gender-nonconforming dancing troupe from the Deep South that rocketed into the national spotlight after videos of the team hit the web. It wasn’t long before the Oxygen Channel gave Davis and his fellow teammates—Adrian Clemons, Kentrell Collins, Jerel Maddox, and Timothy Smith—their own TV show, solidifying the group as reality TV stars and LGBT icons.
The first season of The Prancing Elites Project aired nearly a year ago becoming an instant hit that was as inspiring as controversial. The show was also one of the first of its kind to showcase the group’s signature J-setting style of dance, a type of synchronized choreography that originated with Jackson State University’s J-Settes, an all-female dance troupe.
Week after week, TV audiences have been tuning in to see The Prancing Elites as this all-male, gender-nonconforming dance troupe serves up the best of Beyoncé in the middle of the Bible Belt.
Each week the team seems to have some foreboding obstacle and Davis’s poz status and coming out is just one of them. But for him, the silence only increased his anxiety.
Davis was diagnosed with HIV just as filming for the reality show began but no one knew what he was going through.
“I was diagnosed and then I went to my first doctor’s visit right before we started filming,” Davis said. “It was very hard because I was so stressed out at the time. I was going into filming with all of this on my shoulders and on my heart and I really didn’t have time to deal with it.”
At the age of 23, Davis was not only trying to cope with an HIV diagnosis,but also trying to keep it private while TV cameras were documenting his every move. Even though Davis tried to put on a brave face and act as if nothing was wrong, it was becoming more and more evident that he wasn’t okay. His fellow teammates could sense something was amiss and tried to get Davis to open up about what he was going through. In a touching and emotional episode, Davis finally broke down and revealed his status, both to his friends and to TV audiences around the globe.
“I was afraid to say the words,” he recalls. Davis is relaxing at home, a rare break from filming and dancing. “I protect myself very well, not only physically, but emotionally and mentally… So I was a bit embarrassed. I was afraid of what people would think.”
Telling his teammates was one thing. All four members embraced him with love and support immediately after he revealed his status. But when the episode finally aired a few months later, David was nervous about how the show’s audience would react.
“At first I thought I would face more judgment, but I have actually had people show more respect than anything. People are definitely more excited when they see me [because] I’m an individual that shared such a profound story and I am still doing this whole jazz of the Prancing Elites while maintaining my health at the same time… I’m grateful that it went in a positive direction.”
Davis has no interest in looking back on the episode. He never even watched it himself.
“I really didn’t have to watch the episode,” He explains. “Because people were talking about it and asking questions. It was very emotional and I didn’t want to revisit that emotional side of it. It was like being re-diagnosed all over again.”
This year, Davis says, “The sky is the limit. I don’t want to set any boundaries for myself—and for the team. I don’t want there to be a limit to what we can do. I would love to get in the studio with Laurieann Gibson or to have a quick moment with someone like Ciara or Lady Gaga. Someone who is very authentic in the music industry. But my main goal is that we never stop getting better.”
So far the group has performed as the opening act for the legendary Patti LaBelle and hip-hop star Common. They have participated in numerous Pride parades around the country. But Davis is looking to move beyond mere opening acts.
“I have always dreamt of doing productions on stage,” he admits. Sure, the troupe has hosted and performed in competitions and danced on many stages, “but we have never just had it be about us. And I think that will probably be the next major move.”
For Davis and his fellow Prancing Elites, the future is full of possibilities. As the second season of The Prancing Elites Project premieres tonight, Tuesday, January 19 at 8 p.m. on Oxygen, viewers will get to see just how far the team has come since their early days as viral video stars. Check out the sneak peek video below and get an inside look into the drama around their increasing success.
"In season two, you…get everything season one offered times 1,000.” Davis predicts. “The performances are bigger and better. You will definitely see a couple of complications in the team. There are some moments where we kind of falter; we don’t really act like a team. Overall, you will see a lot of lessons being learned and a lot of growth… At the end of it all, we become this huge powerhouse.”
Some fans, of course, want to know most about Davis’s growing relationship with Jaesean, a member of a competing dance team in Mobile. Davis credits Jaesean with being one of his biggest supporters during the past year. Davis is wary of sharing too much about his romantic life, but he says viewers will get to see how his relationship with Jaesean develops in season two.
Even though viewers might expect his relationship with a rival dancer to cause friction within the Elites, Davis insists it hasn’t. But he occasionally helps Jaesean’s team and admits that can make it challenging.
“You will see me lose my mind, well almost lose my mind, dealing with both of [the teams]. You have two competitive teams that mean a lot to me. But I have to make a decision… What’s better for me? What do I want for the Prancing Elites?’”
Davis has also jumped into HIV activism with gusto. After his own coming out episode aired, Davis’s doctor reported seeing a local surge in HIV testing. Other advocates told Davis that they noticed more people seeking HIV treatment as a result of seeing Davis come out about his status.
In the episode that followed him coming out, the Prancing Elites put on an HIV testing and awareness event in Mobile. Davis has already formed relationships with the National AIDS Minority Council and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and he is looking forward to focusing on advocacy even more once the second season has aired.
Davis says that many people have told him he is helping to break down the shame and guilt so often associated with HIV stigma in Alabama.
“It is definitely on my agenda to do outreach programs,” he says. “Not only that, but to hold events. We are definitely working on it.”
Davis hopes to do more, both in Alabama and on a national scale to further eradicate the stigma of living with HIV—and to help get people connected to treatment. It’s ironic how something as simple as treatment can save so many lives once people move past their fear of HIV.
“The stigma is still just so bad. Some people take the stigma of HIV to their grave. And I just think it is no longer that deep.”
You can catch Kareem and the rest of the team on The Prancing Elites Project, Tuesdays on Oxygen.