Voguing and Ballroom Drag Culture

It’s more than a form of dance. It’s a movement for change , acceptance, and equality.

While going through the current pandemic and the everyday life of quarantining, I ran across a YouTube video of a documentary called “Paris Is Burning” and I thought to myself, “Hmm, seems interesting. Let’s see what this is about.” I was drawn to the vibrant cover of the video. From there on, I would say my life took an unexpected and fun turn after I discovered voguing and the vibrant culture of The House of Ballroom Scene through watching that documentary. Eager to learn more about the origins of voguing, where it started, who started it and more, I began researching more on the topic, almost as if it were calling my name.

Voguing is known as a modern form of dance or an advanced form of dance, when actually the origins of voguing are closer to home here in Uptown Manhattan. Modern Ballroom culture emerged from the 1920’s in different parts of New York City, where mostly white male contestants participated in drag fashion shows. Black queens did participate but due to racism and prejudice, they were not as recognized as their white counterparts. Fed up with the restrictive and racist culture during the 1960’s, Black queens Crystal LaBeija and her friend Lottie began their own drag ball titled ‘House of LaBeija.’ This kickstarted the current ballroom scene in New York. 

Voguing started coming to life in the late 1980’s but it actually first began here in Uptown Manhattan in different established houses in Harlem. Despite being around for so long, voguing went mainstream after Madonna released her song and video “Vogue” in the 1990’s and after being featured in Jennie Livingston’s documentary “Paris Is Burning,” which won the Grand Jury Prize. However, after the release of “Paris is Burning” many members of the ballroom community and even the ones who participated in the production were very displeased with Livingston’s work for portraying their community as something that it wasn’t. Livingston used subtitles such as “Trans prostitutes” and “black thieves” to describe the ballroom community negatively  and for overstepping and taking credit away from a culture she wasn’t even a part of. Despite its amazing cinematography and memorable characters in the film, the film isn’t as linked with ballroom and the ballroom community today. Instead, movies like “How do I look” directed by Wolfgang Bush pay proper respect to the community and the people in the film. It also features Willie Ninja and Octavia St. Laurent, who speaks on their thoughts in “Paris is Burning” and what ballroom means to them. 

What started as a liberal form of expression and space where Black and Latinx LGBTQ members hosted mascarades or “balls” became a symbol of defiance against laws that banned individuals from wearing clothes of the opposite gender. Inclusivity and being a part of a community was a big key to opening the doors for more rights and equality for the LBGTQ community. But not only did voguing itself start from the ballroom culture, so did many fashion trends we see today, inspired by catwalks and different fashion balls as well as slang used today for compliments or conversations like “Purrr, Work! Periodt boo” and more. Knowing such impacts voguing and the ballroom culture have had not only on the LGBTQ community, but also on timely things like fashion trends, dancing, and style and where this all first started is very warming and prideful for many Black and Latino community members living in uptown. Staying and evolving from decade to decade, everything comes in and out of style, but voguing being the root to most pop culture topics will never go out of style. 

Voguing is composed of five main elements: catwalk, duckwalk, hand performance, spins and dips, and floor performance. Every performance should include some or all elements in the performance, but can come in various different styles of voguing. Old style is mainly made up of fashion poses or ” Egyptian-like” poses used to battle rivals. In vogue Femme, which is my personal favorite, you get to be more wild, creative, and feminine using all 5 elements of vogue in the performance. 

In the house of ballroom, there is also this term of “houses,” which serves as a type of surrogate family for its members where the house mother or father are guides to winning a name and prestige in these community balls. Some founding houses created were the House of LaBeija, House of Xtravaganza, House of Ninja , and House of Pendavis. Former American dancer and choreographer Willi Ninja was the house father for the Legendary House of Ninja and one of the most known figures in the ballroom world. He is known as the “godfather of vogue” and became an icon for the community ever since, adding on to the movement of acceptance and equal rights of the LGBTQ community. You may be wondering what the term “legendary” is and it’s a very simple aspect actually. To be “legendary” or have a “legendary house” means that you and your children are top of the shelf, best or one of the best houses in the city, having wide recognition and the name. 

Despite the obstacles of the pandemic and COVID-19, voguing and ballroom culture is still sustaining itself, adapting to the new changes and the new “normal” of today’s world. With shows like Fox’s “Pose,” produced by Ryan Murphy, where we get to see the beginnings of voguing and house of ballroom scenes or “Legendary” where top houses competed against each other through dancing competitions or fashion walking categories, voguing and ballroom culture is still attracting many viewers virtually. You can even book online voguing classes where various different teachers teach small- to medium-sized groups virtually. 

Pixie Bottega, a 19-year-old queer male from Harlem and member of the house of  Bottega, has been going to balls since he was 16 years old. He has been a member of the house since 2019. 

“I was first introduced to ballroom through my friends outside of school who were in dance class and were invited to go see these balls. One day I decided to tag along with them and that was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life so far. The atmosphere, the music, the people, the dance moves, everything was just so…. vibrant, to say the least. As soon as we left, I asked my friends what it took to be on stage and perform and they explained the whole culture to me. After that, I spent several weeks practicing a vogue choreo that would hopefully get the crowd lit enough so any houses can notice me and ask me to join. Of course, it took me more than one ball and different stunts to get the attention of different houses. I really liked the house of Bottega, their house felt similar to my family house and life so I decided to become a Tegga!”

To many young people of color living in different communities and dealing with different obstacles in life, ballroom has served not only as a community, but a unity, a overall family where no matter what house you are part of, who you are, or where you come from, you will be embraced accepted and supported like in any other society. 

“Ballroom has truly changed my life for the better like the majority, if not all of us, here in the ballroom community,” Pixie continued. “Here I have come to understand the person I am and figure out what my purpose in life is. I still go to school and work part-time besides attending to balls and all of that. Without the support of my house family and my real family I don’t think I would be as happy as I am or even where I am today.” 

Whether mentioned or not, most of the fashion and pop culture styles and culture of our generation today and of those before have been derived directly from ballroom. Members of the ballroom community have fought so hard for so long to be seen and to be appreciated in society. We have years of recorded talent, iconic moments, and memorable characters within the scene. Looking back to the pioneers of the community and the roots of where it all started makes it very humbling to be part of the ballroom family.

90s Vogue

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