In clubs, banquet halls and ballrooms around the world, the music throbs and the dancers freeze with every beat, striking poses that are alluring, defiant or coquettish. Some wear outlandish, elaborate costumes, while others strive for “realness,” the illusion that they are the gender their outfit and demeanour seem to indicate. These people are voguing, and while the dance craze’s heyday was more than 20 years ago, the number of newcomers drawn to this long-standing queer tradition is growing.
Take just these few examples: The soundtrack at celebrated designer Rick Owens’s recent Paris Fashion Week show was from New York electronic artist Zebra Katz’s and vocalist Njena Reddd Foxxx’s spare, aggressive Ima Read (referencing reading, a form of specialized insult that began in the early days of the “ballroom community,” as participants refer to the network of promoters, MCs and dancers who were/are involved in putting on drag voguing balls). Ballroom DJs like MikeQ, Vijuan Allure and others are using music-streaming outlets such as Soundcloud to make their work accessible. Sites such as balldvd.com and ballroomthrowbacks.com sell DVDs of recent balls to eager students of the form, while dance labels such as Night Slugs in the U.K., as well as Diplo’s Mad Decent in North America, are commissioning original work from ballroom artists.
And in Canada, last year’s inaugural Spirit of Will Munro award (a $10,000 prize in memory of the late artist) was given to the Toronto Kiki Ballroom Alliance, a fast-growing group of young voguers. TKBA’s Army of Lovers voguing ball took place last month as part of a program hosted by the Art Gallery of York University.
When a subculture pops its head above the mainstream parapet, it rarely works out well. Until recently, voguing could have been added to the list of underground movements turned into fleeting pop-culture fads, a footnote to the Madonna song. But more than 20 years after a cultural triple-whammy – Paris Is Burning, the award-winning documentary about the scene, the Material Girl’s chart-topping anthem Vogue, and her tour documentary Madonna: Truth Or Dare – all released in the space of 18 months between 1990 and 1991 – voguing is once again expanding beyond the borders of queer culture.
Drag balls originated well before the early 1990s. They date back to Harlem in the 1930s, where men and women in elaborate costumes, transgendered people and other members of the LGBT community, most of them black, strutted their stuff (or “walk”) in an intensely competitive yet hugely supportive environment. Voguing evolved later; it’s a physically demanding, angular dance that draws equally on the poses by models in fashion magazines and as influences as disparate as Egyptian hieroglyphs and kung-fu movies.
In the 1990s, voguing’s popularity largely failed to benefit the pioneers. “The people in the Madonna film didn’t go on to have significant careers,” explains Tim Lawrence, a lecturer at East London University and scholar of dance-music history who wrote the introduction to Voguing: Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989-1992, a book of photographs from the era by Chantal Regnault, and the liner notes for a new box set of ballroom anthems, both recently released by London record company Soul Jazz. Lawrence saw trailblazing voguer Willi Ninja a couple of times at Sound Factory, a vogue-friendly club in New York. “He was able to give [dance]classes and had some reasonably successful singles within the New York dance-club world,” Lawrence says. “But most of the participants didn’t go on to have the kind of fame they imagined.”
Zebra Katz has never walked in a ball, though he has attended them. “People have reached out to me in the ball community; they are extending a hand, and I’m definitely going to accept it,” he explains. But although Katz appreciates the impact of Ima Read on both on the ballroom scene and his musical career, he says, “I’m not really that deep in it.”
DJ MikeQ, on the other hand, is deeply embedded in the ballroom community, and as such has benefited from (and helped drive) the scene’s increasing prominence. The New Jersey native employs the stuttering, heavily edited style that digital technology has made available to many popular DJs today. His source material, however, is heavy on ballroom anthems such as Armand Van Helden’s Witch Doctor and Masters At Work’s The Ha Dance, a house-music song whose elements have become as defining to ballroom house as the gunshot sound is to hip-hop.
MikeQ says that, although house music DJs like himself are gaining significant exposure beyond the ballroom world (he estimates his gigs are about half ballroom, half outside), he hasn’t observed vogue dancing itself spreading beyond the ballroom community. “Only the people that know about the ballroom scene are doing it,” he says. “[At]the newer parties that I’m starting to do, not many people vogue. Everybody’s just dancing to [ballroom]like it’s regular music to them.”
Even if voguers wanted to stop elements of the culture from entering the mainstream – for fear of being chewed up and spat out much as the stars of Paris Is Burning were after Madonna and others lost interest – with so much of ballroom culture readily accessible on the Internet, it’s hard to imagine how they could.
“Before, we would just remix the beats and play them at ballroom events and burn them on CDs and sell them to ballroom people,” MikeQ says. “That was as far as it went at the time. But now, putting it online, it’s all starting to get out there and get real popular.”