Choreographer Jamal Sims Talks Directorial Debut With Queer Underground Dance Documentary 'When the Beat Drops'

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John Orphan
A scene from When the Beat Drops.

You know what J-setting is. Whether you realize it or not, you do. When Beyoncé leads her backup dancers in the choreography for “Single Ladies,” in a series of big, stylized movements before repeating those movements with them and then showing them another set, that’s J-setting. It’s likely appeared on your social media feeds, a group of sparkling women prancing into the stands before a football game. But now, a new documentary shines a light on a subset of that community: the men who buck.

When the Beat Drops, which debuted this year at the Miami Film Festival to a standing ovation, dives into the Atlanta-based “bucking” scene. Started in the '90s by men mimicking the female dancers in bands at HBCUs, that subculture groups itself into teams (Phi Phi, Sundari, Banji and Mystique are some introduced in the film) who face off against each other in the middle of clubs, in parking lots and in organized competitions like The Big Buck. For four years, director Jamal Sims -- a choreographer whose résumé includes Madonna and Jennifer Lopez and films like Footloose and Step Up -- embedded along with producer Jordan Finnegan to document the community, mostly composed of queer black men.

The result recalls a melange of documentary films, including Paris Is Burning, Kiki and Rize, with a punch of drama that adds a You Got Served flair to the mix. “When I first saw this community, it was in 1995, but I remember saying it would be great to do a story about them,” Sims told Billboard in a phone interview. “The only thing that I had seen that was sort of similar was Paris Is Burning, but I wasn’t really thinking about that with this -- more of Rize, because it was an underground dance culture. That’s what I believed at that point what I was doing: discovering this underground dance culture.”

And the film does that in part. Primarily told through the viewpoint of Atlanta bucking legend Anthony, we trace how J-setting originated in the stylized form it is now, from the Jackson State University Prancing J-Settes in Jackson, Mississippi. As their style, which combined moves from hip-hop, jazz and a little ballet, spread through HBCUs, gay black men took these movements into the gay clubs, mimicking them in appreciative odes. Anthony, a member of a marching band who had always watched these girls, spellbound, stumbled upon this subculture one day and helped to form it into something more than just mimicry.

And though that’s where the film started, just exploring the community and capturing the sometimes bedazzled or fringe decorated looks the teams would wear and spilling out onto the streets when clubs kicked them out for taking up too much space on the dance floors during one of their impromptu battles, it eventually turned into a story of acceptance.

“I discovered that what I thought about who these guys were, which was just these guys who just like to go out and dance at the club as their like primary thing, was wrong,” Sims admitted. “All of them are highly educated. I realized that we were going into deeper territory.”  That territory delved into preconceived notions and acceptance by both society and finding inner-acceptance. In a series of scenes, the men begin to rattle off what people assume when they find you’re in the bucking community: that you’re overtly feminine, that you cause drama, that the gay nightlife scene is the focal point of your life. It presents a challenge, where men who are joining the community to express themselves in a more authentic way find themselves boxed in by even more stereotypes.

A particularly moving scene shows the team captains at a dinner discussing the Prancing Elites, a group of dancers who were a part of the Alabama Christmas Parade and caused quite a bit of controversy. At the dinner, there was a heated discussion about what they all thought of the incident, since it could be a reflection of their community.

“How do we feel as a community about that?” one of the captains asked, bringing up the incident. “[They] are not getting us good publicity, they are talking dog shit about you. They are picking at you.” The discussion was a heated one, with some pushing the idea that there’s a “time and a place” for everything and, as such, the parade was inappropriate for high heels and short shorts. Others stood by the dancers, saying that it was reality and an opportunity for parents to explain to their children what was going on.

“That was a really important scene,” Sims explained. “I’ve seen how much courage they have to do what they do. I thought they were all so proud about what they do, but then I saw in the captains meeting that some of them still feel there’s a time and a place. It really let me know that I was on the right path [with the film]. It really showed that there’s one thing to accept your sexuality, but then when you choose to do a dance style that people may consider feminine, that’s a whole other layer of acceptance.”

The film gets its competitive payoff in the second half. The last section of the World of Wonder production features the first-ever “Big Buck” competition back in 2014. Anthony’s team Phi Phi competes against three of the top teams, mostly from the Southeast, where bucking is the most prevalent. And when the last 32-count of that competition is over, it’s clear from the high-energy performances that in the world of bucking, you leave it all on the floor.

“My dream would be to get some of these guys out to LA,” Sims said. “There’s a couple of them that are interested in choreographing, a couple of them that are interested in dancing. I would love to be a helping hand to make that happen. I’m still in touch with all the guys. They are family to me now.” And even if that doesn’t happen, it’s likely the genre’s influence will be felt on Disney’s upcoming live-action version of Aladdin.

“I’m working on the film right now actually,” Sims explained. “We’re doing this scene with a big band down the street, and I’m definitely using some steps inspired from what I’ve seen. I would see a performance and say, 'Oh, I definitely want to use that, oh a little bit of that too.' So you’ll definitely see it in there.”