Knights of Vogue
The boy in the red leather jacket and the black cap with “VOGUE” stitched in white on the front crouched down on his heels, and began to kick his legs out from under him in a move resembling a cossack dance, except set to a deep house beat. His arms bent rapidly at 90-degree angles around his head, framing the way he turned his neck at every fourth count of the beat, seemingly independent of his legs kicking out from under him in perfect rhythm.
Suddenly, he jumped up briefly and threw himself on the floor with a vicious energy, his legs gracefully angled underneath him and his arms stretching out, as if the impact hadn’t mattered at all, because he barely felt it, because all he felt at that moment was the rush, the dance, the beauty of his movements, and the humiliation of his opponent.
The girl in the black leggings and the white patterned t-shirt angled her hips to square with the stage where the judges sat, throwing back her long, straight black hair and thrusting her arms up in the air, but it was clear who had won.
“Hold the pose for me!” Dashaun Wesley, who was MC-ing the evening, yelled into the mic. The beat cut out and the dancers froze. The boy, still lying prostrate on the floor, knew he had won, because he didn’t even look at the judges, he just looked at the girl and the look said it all, it said “sorry bitch, I won this round, better luck next time.” The six judges sitting on the stage silently pointed at their preferred victor, and the boy, amidst applause, seamlessly sprung up from the floor and embraced the girl. She hugged him back, a smile on her face. It had been a good fight.
It is 2 a.m. on a Monday night in Hell’s Kitchen, which means it’s the weekly Vogue Knight event, usually held at Escuelita Dance Club but, due to renovations, temporarily relocated to XL Club on 42nd street. The categories include “Beginner’s Vogue,” “Realness with a Twist” (which plays with gender expectations by having traditionally masculine looking boys and men break into voguing at the end), and “Runway,” with prizes ranging from $50 to $200. The club is about halfway full, and the crowd mostly consists of young black and Latino men in low-slung dark skinny jeans and flat-brimmed caps. As they step up to compete, they kick their legs in the air, spin around, throw back their heads, and wave their arms in perfect tempo, gliding seamlessly across the floor and somehow managing to miraculously avoid knocking into each other while throwing shade (backhanded compliments) with their looks alone.
Luna Luis Ortiz, also known by his ballroom name Luna Khan, of the House of Khan, says he’s been organizing Vogue Knights for the past five years. He often sits on stage as a judge or can be found wandering across the dance floor, drink in hand, chatting with old friends of the ballroom community and encouraging younger dancers to compete. He has sharp angled eyebrows, a broad face with defined cheekbones, and wears a thin moustache. He’s the father of the House of Khan and has been part of the ballroom community since 1988. In addition to his ballroom life, he’s been working at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in NYC, an HIV-awareness advocacy group that’s actively involved in the ballroom community.
Meanwhile, Timothy Tobias, also known as Tim Princess Lanvin, has been sitting just across the street from the club in a van that contains a mobile health unit from HOTT (Health Outreach to Teens, a program at the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center), which offers free and confidential HIV testing and information on PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), a drug available to HIV-negative people to reduce their risk of infection. He’ll be sitting in the van from 11 p.m. to about 1 a.m., hoping club-goers will stop by. A sign by the club offers free admission to anyone who visits the health unit first. Increasingly, the voguing and ballroom community in New York City is embracing collaborations with advocacy and health groups, marking one of the trends that is shaping the modern face of vogue as it has burst from the underground into the mainstream.
From Old-School to New-Style
Vogue refers to a style of dance that incorporates elements of house dance (dance set to house music), acrobatic ability, and highly stylized movements that emphasise shapes and angles. The dance and its associated social scene traces its roots back to the NYC Harlem Ballroom scene of the 1980s, in which different “Houses” competed in balls that featured categories ranging from “Butch Queen Vogue Fem” and “Runway” to “Schoolboy Realness.” The dance and its associated subculture began receiving more mainstream attention with the release of Jennie Livingston’s now seminal documentary “Paris is Burning,” from 1991. Livingston spent six years documenting the Harlem ballroom scene, and introduced prominent personalities such as Pepper LaBeija and Willi Ninja, as well as the basic ballroom terminology, to a broader audience.
James Goode, more commonly known by his ballroom name Junior LaBeija, is somewhat of a legend among New York City’s ballroom scene. Fans of Livingston’s documentary will recognize him as the witty MC of the great balls held during the scene’s 1980s heydays who threw around phrases like “shake the dice and steal the rice,” commenting wryly on participants’ outfits and moves. The 58-year-old said that voguing arose from the desire to create a forum for minority LGBTQ individuals to explore their individualities, which often meant playing with fashion and current trends in which the mainstream failed to represent them.
“You emulated or you assimilated the look [of major fashion houses], because back then there wasn’t many black models,” LaBeija explained, which is why many of the original houses took on names such as House of St. Laurent or the House of Chanel. “The fashion industry was predominantly white. It wasn’t that it was about being discriminatory or segregated, but those were the people with the money. The white people! So it’s only natural that your capitalistic idea would be geared toward them.” As a response, voguing attempted to create a space that was inclusive of everyone, which is why more and more competitive categories were added as the community grew.
While voguing is commonly known to have gained its name from the fashion magazine “Vogue,” which ballroom participants would use as inspiration for poses and outfits, LaBeija had a more detailed story on how the dance was christened. He explained that the famous Paris DuPree, whose renowned balls inspired the name of Livingston’s documentary, was at the center of this iconic moment.
“There was a club in the Village called the Bon Soir. They were having a night of competitive modelling and dancing, and what Paris did, he took with him to this competition the ’Vogue‘ magazine. And he opened the ’Vogue’ magazine, and he threw it on the floor, and whatever model was on that page, he struck that pose. He took his magazine up again, and dropped it, and struck that pose. That’s how the term ’voguing’ came to light.”
Throughout its storied history, voguing has undergone some significant transformations. Ivan Mendoza, also known as Smerk Khan, has been going to balls since 2008. “I always knew I wanted to vogue,” he said, although at first his House would always enter him in the “Schoolboy Realness” category. However, after proving his abilities, Smerk, who is a trained dancer, rapidly began making a name for himself within the community, dominating categories like “Runway” in addition to voguing.
“Everyone loves my catwalk,” he said with a laugh. “If you have a sickening catwalk, that’s all you kind of have to do.”
At 23 years old, the Queens, NY, native with the broad grin, always impeccably dressed, represents a subgroup within the ballroom community known as the Kiki scene. This particular offshoot encompasses voguers between the ages of 13 and 24, and is usually characterized by a “less harsh scoring,” as Tim Princess Lanvin explained it, and understood as being less rigid than the traditional ballroom scene.
Smerk explains that the Kiki scene has been around since about 2005, and that their balls are often treated as scouting opportunities for established houses to discover up-and-coming talent. Furthermore, the Kiki scene is much more involved in outreach and advocacy work.
“It’s a different age group, it’s more safety rules, way more prevention for HIV and STDs, and it’s way more fun,” he said. The Kiki scene often works very closely with advocacy and health organizations in an attempt to introduce prevention strategies to younger members of the LGBTQ community, who are often considered to be at a greater risk for HIV infection, homelessness, and drug abuse, Lanvin added.
The actual techniques of voguing have also changed, Smerk explains. “The old-school vogue was very break-down, take your time, one-two-three-four, command the beat, extension, shapes, and personality, and cut. Nowadays, it’s about how many moves can you do to the beat. And how different are those fast moves, and can you do that move that he just did but better? Before, it was like, oh you can do that, but I have my own sass.”
Bursting into the Mainstream
Nowadays, vogue seems to be everywhere. In early December, NBC’s broadcast of a live-action production of the musical “The Wiz” featured an elaborate voguing scene in Emerald City, with Dashaun Wesley actually among the dancers in the number. “Paris is Burning” screening parties are held in cinemas and event spaces.
Social media, particularly Facebook and YouTube, have also been instrumental in spreading vogue’s popularity. “Before YouTube, there was no real outlet to show unless you had bought the DVDs from the ball. So YouTube was definitely trending,” Smerk said, attributing the accessibility to new artists and moves to the rapid sharing of videos online. For dancers like Wesley, social media and online presence are an important component of furthering their brand and making vogue more accessible. “It’s a good thing that things are being recorded and put up,” the 31-year-old said.
Major dance studios in New York, such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Broadway Dance Center, and the Peridance Capezio Center now all offer vogue dance classes, often with quite famous instructors. JoAnna Fisher, the school coordinator at Peridance, said they offer two vogue classes at their studio, with plans on expanding. She said that the voguing classes, which they began offering three years ago, are usually always fully booked.
“On average, most classes have about 20 to 30 students for voguing,” she said. “Our voguing teachers are definitely one of our more popular groups.”
She added that a large number of students attending voguing classes are from international backgrounds. “We tend to get a lot of students from Japan and Europe who really love voguing. These students tend to take the voguing classes a bit more.” Since many of the more famous voguing teachers often go on tour overseas, as is the case with Peridance’s Archie Burnett and Danielle Polanco, the dance accrues a significant international following.
“People who want to be on the industry side of ballroom and perform at gigs, their goal is to perform overseas,” Smerk said, adding that since “the ballroom scene has become more of an industry than a subculture,” an emphasis on commercialization characterizes more modern reiterations of the ballroom scene.
“There’s a huge focus on making money in ballroom now,” Lanvin, who’s been active in the ballroom community since 1989, said, citing the $30 fee that is sometimes charged to compete in balls.
However, Smerk sees the positive aspects of ballroom commercialization as well. “Now that overseas the ballroom scene is growing, they love having someone from the heart of it coming over and helping in classes and things like that.”
Nonetheless, a vast majority of people not involved in the ballroom community still primarily associate voguing with Madonna’s 1990 hit “Vogue,” which proved to be both a curse and a blessing for the ballroom community.
Miguel Angel de la Torre, a 28-year-old outreach coordinator at the Bridgepoint Health Center in the Bronx, works closely with young voguers as part of his advocacy work with LGBTQ teens, and is closely acquainted with the ballroom community, although he’s not a voguer himself. At a recent panel discussion at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in Hell’s Kitchen, the subject of Madonna came up.
“Madonna misappropriated [voguing]. She never thanked the community for it,” Angel de la Torre said. He went on to add that while increased exposure to voguing is generally a good thing if it incites interest for the history behind the dance, “if people simply misappropriate it because it’s trendy then it becomes muddled.”
Others, such as LaBeija, don’t think it’s such a big deal. His extensive knowledge of dance, and how the different styles have all influenced and played off each other, have given him a more nuanced perspective on issues of appropriation.
“Timing, just like with voguing, is everything for a performance,” he said. “[Madonna] brought an art form to the mainstream just like Jenny Levingston brought the ’Paris is Burning’ ballroom community to the mainstream. They did not start voguing, they did not start balls, they exposed it to a larger audience. And what they did was, which is only fair, they gave their version of how they wanted it to be seen.”
LeBeija also emphasized voguing’s inclusiveness and non-discriminatory nature. “Everybody can vogue,” he said. “If 50 Cent decides to come into the ballroom and pop some moves, you can’t say nothing. That’s his emotional expression.”
Regardless of the differing opinions regarding the value of Madonna’s use of vogueing, the protectiveness and passion many voguers display when talking about their art is always at the center. For the ballroom community, voguing is both an intensely personal experience and a testament to the struggles of the LGBTQ community, particularly for those of color. Tim Princess Lanvin, who has been involved in the ballroom community since 1989, emphasized the personal value voguing held for its participants. “We’re not just jumping around, just dancing all over the place. It’s really important to us,” he said.
Advocacy and Outreach
On a mild early December evening, Nicole Bowles, known as Nicole Alain Mickli, Smerk Khan, Luna Khan, and Tim Princess Lanvin gathered on the seventh floor of the GMHC in order to prepare for a panel discussion on the role of the ballroom community in advocating for PrEP and other methods of HIV prevention.
Alain Mickli, who Smerk calls his “gay mother,” flips her thick box braids over her shoulder as she carefully studies her makeup and adjusts her large hoop earrings in her compact mirror. “What I want to do with my face isn’t over yet,” she remarks to her companion, Precious, who nods in agreement while pulling up clips of music videos on her phone.
The room is adorned with Keith Haring-like pink doodles that run along the upper part of the walls, while big bowls filled with condoms, dental dams, and brochures on HIV/AIDS prevention are lined up against the walls.
Advocacy organizations in New York City, like GMHC or Exponents, which Alain Mickli works for as an LGBTQ Recruitment Specialist, are becoming more and more involved in the ballroom community, with GMHC even hosting its own annual ball, the Latex Ball, as a way to raise the level of access to LGBTQ healthcare services.
Ballroom participants recognize that issues such as homelessness, HIV infection, drug abuse, and STDs are a particular threat to the LGBTQ and ballroom community. Lanvin attributes the greater emphasis on advocacy in the ballroom community to the rise of HIV infections among black and Latino gay men. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV infections among young black gay and bisexual men rose by 20 percent from 2008 to 2010. In the face of these numbers, many ballroom advocates feel that raising awareness and performing outreach services are life-saving endeavors.
“The facts are that PrEP is very much needed in the ballroom community,” Alain Mickli said during GMHC’s panel discussion. “It’s about saving their lives.”