“BRING ON THE ATTITUDE! Bring your own fierceness! Look… there’s paparazzi everywhere! Now work it.” Jocquese Whitfield shouts to a classroom full of people during his Tuesday night class at Dance Mission. A diverse crowd has gathered to shake their stuff and refine their Vogue dance vocabulary. Sng Yun Fei and I were two of his students, getting fabulous while investigating the underground world of Voguing.
Up until a few months ago, I thought that Vogue had come and gone with the Madonna song. I had the cassette tape of her I’m Breathless album in 1990, did you? I knew that Vogue Balls existed long before Madonna chose to sing about them, but I thought that her song depicted Voguing at the height of its fame. I had no idea that the form was still popular and thriving.
The more I learn about Vogue dance and Ball culture, I realize (sorry to say) that Madonna was wrong! She says, “Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it,” when, actually, there’s a lot to it. Technique. Style. Attitude. History. Etiquette. Language. Community. If you win a significant number of competitions you become legendary in this aesthetic circle, and so much more.
Although the roots can be traced back to the masquerade balls of the Harlem Renaissance, it was in the mid-1960s when gay men of color were performing drag in Harlem ballrooms, that a fresh movement style evolved, combining poses and gestures from magazine covers, such as Vogue, with the walks of Vegas showgirls and the glamorous attire of Hollywood stars.
Given the social climate of the time, it was incredibly difficult for teenagers who were both black and gay to live without suppressing their own identity. As a result, the underground Ball culture developed to allow queer youth of color a venue for expression and gender fluidity.
In the ’70s, Vogue distinguished itself as a dance form and cultural entity, distinct from drag performance, becoming less about clothing and more about individual performance style.
The movement vocabulary evolved and divided. Unlike drag shows with elaborate costumes, the competition shifted focus to emphasize Realness. It became important that the portrayal of the character be as convincing as possible—whether she walked as a schoolboy, a fashion model, a thug or military personnel—the outfit, attitude and physicality needed to be believable. Some walked as rich white people, proving that drag could be as much about race and class as it was about gender.
Aside from Realness, categories now include: Old Way, New Way, Vogue Femme, Dramatics and Butch Queen. Many of these styles emphasize angular movements, grace, fluidity, precision and control. The Old Way has some duck walking. The New Way has contortions and tutting. Dramatics is the most athletic style, featuring b-boy-like jumps, dips, flips and falls.
“Houses” developed as communities and cliques of voguers, where groups of queer and questioning youth gathered under a central leader. Houses have been described as families or sororities, even as “gay street gangs.” They provide an important community for youth who often have severed relations with their biological parents. The house mother and father provide wisdom, care and guidance, educating their children on everything from makeup and fashion to HIV and AIDS.
Looking at houses as gay street gangs, there are a number of rituals, rivalries, territories and rites of passage. But instead of fighting in the streets, houses compete at Balls. Vogue dancers “throw shade” at their competitors, delivering insult by way of pantomime movements, fighting with elaborate gestures and over-the-top attitude.
Some of the most famous houses are the House of LaBeija, House of Xtravaganza, House of Mizrahi and House of Ninja. The house mother of the latter is Willi Ninja, who was particularly interested in bringing Vogue out of the underground and into mainstream consciousness.
Ninja was a dancer first and foremost, appearing in music videos and on the concert stage, performing his own choreography and later dancing with Karole Armitage. He also worked on the runway and as a coach, teaching models and socialites how to strut.
Thanks in part to Ninja, the late ’80s and early ’90s saw an explosion of Vogue in pop culture. Through Madonna and other high-profile aficionados, fashion started to look back at the form it had inspired.
In 1990, Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning took audiences behind the scenes and onto the runway. Aside from being wildly entertaining, the film allows you to get up close and personal with legendary masters who have long since passed.
By the mid-’90s, however, Vogue had faded back into its roots. Until recently, Vogue was limited to underground events and closed-circuit communities.
The past few years have seen some sort of Vogue revival—not necessarily a revival of Ball culture in its entirety, but the influence of Vogue dance in popular culture is apparent. Beyonce and Britney Spears have integrated Vogue movement vocabulary into their videos and performances. In 2006, Wolfgang Busch released the documentary How Do I Look, which chronicles the progression of the Harlem Ball scene since Paris is Burning.
Last year, a dance crew from New York City named Vogue Evolution was featured on MTV’s contest America’s Best Dance Crew. They were the first openly gay crew and the first transgendered woman to appear on the show. Plus, they rocked. Each moment of screen time was groundbreaking.
In California, Vogue Balls are happening regularly in Los Angeles and Oakland. In San Francisco, there have been attempts to unite the thriving drag community with the Vogue ballroom scene.
In 2009, as part of Mama Calizo’s residency at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Peter Griggs and the House of Glitter organized five Friday night competitions, featuring over 100 performance artists, culminating in the SF Grand Vogue Ball.
“It was exciting to try and marry the drag houses with the vogue houses,” says Peter. “They were really sweet to each other. And the performances were amazing.”
By the end of the competition, dancers were jumping off of the judges’ table to dip, which is a signature Vogue move where dancers fall, fabulously, straight onto their backs. Crowds were enthusiastic, shouting cheers for their houses like, “Go on Revlon!”
Peter also notes the strength and importance of the houses today. Even in San Francisco, queer and questioning youth continue to face a lack of mentorship. “Some of these children have nothing,” he says, “and here they can find a community.”
Some houses have become 501(c) 3 charitable organizations, with scholarship programs and HIV education. The dancing is still important, but the culture is so much more. The houses are picking up where individual families and communities have left off. There is friendship, mentorship, education, support, freedom of expression, opportunity, and room for growth.
Jocquese Whitfield, whose 6-week series at Dance Mission was recently extended to become an ongoing class, is a San Francisco native who went to his first Ball in Oakland at 16 years old. “I was in awe,” he says, “the energy was amazing.” He left knowing that he had to learn to Vogue.
Coming from freestyle hip hop made a lot of sense for Jocquese, who appreciates that Vogue dancers can find their own niche. “I love how you can incorporate any genre, infuse it with hip-hop dancing and classical training.”
However, Jocquese criticizes the local scene for a lack of organization. The concept of a peaceful battle is also struggling, he says, as some recent Balls in Oakland have erupted into violence.
“It’s sad that some of these kids have left drama at home only to find drama in the community,” says Jocquese, who sees this trend as a departure from the values that ballroom was originally formed around. “I want to remind people that it’s about positivity, it’s all about love!”
Jocquese makes everyone in his class feel like a runway star. His positivity is contagious, and the class is a high-energy workout. The movements are athletic, graceful, and most of all fierce. I found that I could not help but bring the attitude, making model faces and getting into the groove. This was the first dance class I had ever taken where my hyper-extended elbows were a plus. They added to the drama of the line, and for once I didn’t have to micro-bend at the elbow to hide the extension. I looked fabulous! Now there’s some realness for you.
We left class feeling strong and fabulous. But as I catwalked down the stairs at Dance Mission, I could not help but think back to how this form came from the underground to the dance studio. I remembered how much history lies behind the movements themselves.
Jocquese encourages his class to embrace themselves through dance, and he hopes that his students take that confidence with them when they walk out onto the street. “Vogue helped me outside of dancing, but also just in life, in society,” says Joquese. “You have to be strong, you have to be fierce, and just go.”