Emmy-winning film about Atlanta dance group plays Out on Film

Frederick Taylor’s documentary short celebrates J-setting troupe Dance Champz.

If you’ve felt your chest swell with pride at the sight of an “Atlanta Influences Everything” T-shirt or defended the city’s relevance to smug Angelenos or New Yorkers, then Atlanta filmmaker Frederick Taylor’s Emmy-winning short documentary will only reaffirm your sense of the city’s cultural importance.

Credit: Julieta Vergini

Credit: Julieta Vergini

Taylor is the director of “Taking J-Setting From Underground Clubs to the Main Stage”, screening as part of local film festival Out on Film’s Local Shorts program. A longtime Atlanta filmmaker and founder of Tomorrow Pictures, Taylor has created a number of documentaries that challenge the rigid divisions of Black and white, gay and straight and male and female that define the status quo. His films have addressed social issues including HIV (“After the Fall: HIV Grows Up”), the civil rights movement (“Counter Histories: Rock Hill”), female boxers in the male-dominated sports world (“Boxing Chicks”) and a transgender teenager (“Transmission.Love”).

His latest film, commissioned by PBS/KQED-San Francisco for their “If Cities Could Dance” series, charts a dance phenomenon that blends masculine and feminine moves and celebrates the ferocity and expressive joy of dance. J-setting originated in the ‘70s at historically Black colleges and universities with the dancers who accompanied marching bands at halftime shows and parades. The Jackson State University Prancing J-Settes, who originated J-setting, created a unique, high-energy dance combining military precision, African dance and the characteristic pelvic thrust that has also given the dance its “bucking” moniker.

The style has since been adopted by performers including Beyonce and has been embraced by gay men who have made the dance their own, creating underground club battles that have established Atlanta as a J-Setting center. The phenomenon is also chronicled in Jamal Sims’ captivating 2018 documentary “When the Beat Drops,” set in the fiercely competitive world of Atlanta J-setting.

Credit: Julieta Vergini

Credit: Julieta Vergini

“Wherever there was a marching band, there were gay men who wanted to do this,” said Leland Thorpe, the charismatic team captain of the 11-member Atlanta dance troupe Dance Champz at the center of Taylor’s documentary. Dance Champz formed a COVID-19 pod so they could continue to practice and dance even at the height of the pandemic. As they perform the signature quick, precise, mesmerizing J-setting moves around Atlanta, Taylor’s kinetic camerawork captures the unbridled energy of the dancers who testify to the double burden of being Black and gay and how J-setting gives them a sense of worth and community.

Taylor’s film uses the city of Atlanta as its muse, with the dancers performing against the familiar backdrops of Piedmont Park’s fluorescent green lawn; Midtown’s rainbow flag crosswalk; Loss Prevention’s John Lewis mural, still decorated with bouquets of flowers after his July 2020 death; the Krog Street Tunnel; and a number of the city’s street art murals by artists including Jarrett Turner, Sam Parker and R. Land. For Taylor, the film celebrates just one component of what makes Atlanta unique and significant, a place that has always had a robust independent film scene and incredible creativity, demonstrated in the J-setting phenomenon.

“Everybody comes here, they shoot all these movies, films, TV shows, whatever, and they never highlight or show Atlanta. And I’m offended. I think Atlanta is an incredibly eclectic, beautiful, diverse, modern, first-tier global city,” Taylor said.

Credit: Julieta Vergini

Credit: Julieta Vergini

The foundation for Taylor’s interest in the underground J-setting scene was set early in life. Taylor had his first taste of the hypnotic power of HBCU marching bands when his father was a band director at Cheyney University outside Philadelphia. “So I was indoctrinated into that world very early,” he said.

“And my favorite uncle of all time was gay and danced on ‘Soul Train.’ So I got it. It made total sense to me. And there was a comfort level there between me, Leland and the rest of the dancers as well.”

“There was always a sensibility and a sensitivity that I had for young black men that were a part of the LGBTQ community as well. So for me, personally, being involved in this project, it was just a lot of pieces to the puzzle coming together.”

Out on Film. Sept. 23-Oct. 3. $40-$150 for multi-film packages. Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema, 931 Monroe Drive NE, Atlanta. Out Front Theatre Company, 999 Brady Ave., Atlanta. 678-944-8158, outonfilm.org

Local Shorts program including “Taking J-Setting from Underground Clubs to the Main Stage.” 6:30 p.m. Sept. 30. $11. Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. Streaming Oct. 1-9. Proof of a COVID-19 vaccination is required to attend in-person screenings.