It’s dance — but not as you know it. A giddy mass of flying limbs, sashaying hips and pouty faces. Hands now stretched up high and fluttering as in flamenco, now on the ground buttressing cantilevered bodies and holding on to legs that seem to want to escape their owners. ‘I saw things I never saw before,’ David Byrne said after viewing a voguing battle in 1989.
Don’t be fooled by the playfulness of the camp. Voguing is an art, a sport, a way of life — a combative display of agility that grew out of the American drag ball. Its first blaze of mainstream glory was in the 1980s, when the scene hypnotised fashion and pop and catapulted voguing to becoming the flamboyant subcultural export it is today.
The historian Tim Lawrence dates underground drag balls back to 1869, when Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge threw its first queer masquerade ball. ‘A scene whose celestial flavor and cerulean coloring no angelic painter or nectarish poet has ever conceived… lit up like high mass,’ wrote co-novelists Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler in the 1930s. By then an annual convention, each gala featured a ‘parade of the fairies’, a drag procession that would come to inspire the gay pride marches.
To outfox the police, same-sex couples danced in drag. Music was jazzed up, waltzes queered. This overturning of norms laid the foundations for the 1960s Harlem parties and then the 1980s vogue-ball explosion.
The most prized characteristic in a ball performer was ‘realness’, the skill of appearing realistically heterosexual when in drag — the artful masquerade of living in the closet, you could say. A panel of merciless judges and a vocal crowd would award contestants trophies for optimum ‘realness’.
Vogue queens promenaded down a central catwalk dressed in furs, sequins and pearls. Often they would drop into moves whose athleticism mirrored their straight contemporary counterparts in break dancing. The particular way voguers moved (part walk, part dance; bent knees, all hands) was called ‘catwalking’, though it bore little resemblance to the dour business of the fashion runway.
The balls were theatre, with distinct queer characters: the Butch, the Femme, the Queen. Categories proliferated — Dramatics, First Time In Drag, and Executive Realness — and acquired a strict set of gestures, flagrant and fabulous, some highly gymnastic. This was voguing.
Harlem’s ballrooms developed an entire culture for queer people of colour. Competing teams grew into ‘houses’ — named like couture houses — which functioned like camp street gangs, protecting their members from the perils of being gay, black, Latino or Asian, and penniless in a society that prized straightness, whiteness and wealth. They fought like gangs, too — but through dance. House of LaBeija, House of Dupree, House of Xtravaganza, Ninja, Omni and Ebony, and, yes, House of Saint Laurent and Chanel — until they were later sued into amendments.
Each house had a drag-queen mother, and some had a butch queer father too. To become a mother or father you had to be a ball ‘legend’, with a top shelf of trophies and a rich toolbox of tricks. The ‘kids’, often living on the streets, often cast out by their birth parents, found new homes and identities on the dancefloor, and took on their house surnames. Harlem parties were the original safe spaces.
During the 1980s and ’90s, voguing culture spread to Paris, through Europe, eventually hitting London, which now has its own house network. Next month, the Barbican will hold the largest vogue ball yet in the UK. Hosted by Lyall Hakaraia, creative director of the east London club Vogue Fabrics, the night forms part of a programme associated with an exhibition of live performances by the choreographer Trajal Harrell at the Barbican Art Gallery.
Les Child, a former house mother, will be on the judging panel. The Brit became so well known in the 1980s that he took his ‘kids’ all over Europe to perform in fashion shows and on TV. Formerly a dancer with Michael Clark, Child has choreographed for Leigh Bowery and Mick Jagger, and now works with Gucci and Prada teaching body language to fashion models. He says that many young voguers ‘train classically as dancers to develop their vocabulary’, and traces the origins of masquerade balls to the court of Louis XIV.
Harrell himself isn’t from the drag-ball community. His scene is more MoMA Guggenheim. Before training as a postmodern dancer at Trisha Brown and Martha Graham in New York, and the Centre National de la Danse in Paris, he took his undergraduate degree in American Studies at Yale. His performances probe the historiography of choreography. His best-known series is Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (2009–13), which asks what would have happened if, in the early 1960s, drag queens from Harlem had brought voguing downtown to perform with the Judson Dance Theatre as it forged postmodern dance, which was also exploring the movement of the everyday. His Barbican survey takes its title from his more recent work Hoochie Koochie, which taps the peepshows that his father would leave him waiting outside as a boy.
Harrell insists that what he does isn’t voguing. The spirit and context are worlds apart, and that’s the point. As Child says, ‘Voguing has a feeling and an energy that is hard to replicate if you’re not living it.’ Which today many voguers aren’t, because the need for the support that houses offered has diminished in Europe. ‘In America life is much harder for blacks and Hispanics, especially queers, so they still need the house culture,’ Child explains.
Susanne Bartsch, the nightclub host who held the Love Ball in 1989, the first big Aids fundraiser, had been attending voguing balls since the early 1980s because she ‘loved how they created something out of nothing’. They were ‘entertaining, creative, celebratory and incredibly fun’. Her Love Ball was voguing’s breakthrough. Bartsch encouraged fashion brands to act as houses and pay to compete against each other. Iman and Naomi Campbell walked the runway. Madonna and Keith Haring came to watch. The judging panel included Debbie Harry, Malcolm McLaren and André Leon Talley.
Voguers had also begun to compete at downtown clubs. In 1990 Madonna visited one to research the scene. She would sit in the DJ booth of Tracks and watch. This is where the biggest-selling pop hit of 1990 took shape, with the singer holding auditions for the dancers that she’d ultimately take on her Blond Ambition tour, documented in In Bed With Madonna.
The following year, Jennie Livingston released her documentary film Paris is Burning. After winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, it grossed $4 million at the box office. It was also decried by some, not only on the grounds that Livingston was white and middle class (at least she was a lesbian!), but also because she made money from the film without giving much to its stars.
Voguing’s influence on contemporary pop culture has snowballed. RuPaul’s Drag Race, which draws heavily on the ball form, brought things into the mainstream. Meanwhile, colloquialisms like ‘yaaas’, ‘shade’, and ‘werq’ have become part of online speak. Now FKA Twigs has House of Milan mother Benjamin Milan doing her choreography.
According to Child and Hakaraia, what matters to the voguing community today is that their art, its practitioners and their roots are acknowledged when their dance is appropriated. They might be happy with Nike’s new Pride-themed campaign #BeTrue, which recognises voguing as the accomplished athletic skill it is. The ad stars House of Amazon mother Leiomy Maldonado, who choreographed Willow Smith’s pop single ‘Whip My Hair’. Said whip is Maldonado’s signature move, dubbed the Leiomy Lolly, employed ad infinitum by Beyoncé and co.
Today trans models star in ad campaigns by Givenchy and Chanel, living vogue realness in a way that would have been a death sentence for 1980s kids dreaming of a similar life. In Paris is Burning, a skinny young transitioning femme, Venus Xtravaganza, shares her fantasy of becoming known as a supermodel and living as a ‘rich white girl’ in the suburbs. Shortly afterwards, she is murdered. Today, while brands highlight the odd transgender star to boost their street cred, increasing visibility remains a vulnerable journey for the voguing community. Last year was the deadliest on record for transgender people in the US and 14 have been shot so far there this year. The victims were all trans women of colour. Two of these murders happened in New York.
While voguing balls become ever more international (big in New Zealand, taken up by Maori dancers), the American subculture that invented them still has a caretaking role to ensure the sanity and survival of queer people of colour both at home and overseas. As kids from voguing houses get flown to Moscow by dance schools eager to teach Russian children the death drop (the pièce de résistance of vogue moves; if you YouTube one thing from this article…), gay men continue to be routinely arrested, tortured and killed by the Russian authorities. Such heavy cultural ironies are nothing new for the voguing scene. Voguing’s resurgent internationalism may be its calling for the 21st century, as a new generation of house mothers take the message to queer populations in countries like Russia and teach them how to survive.