I began voguing as a high school student, drawn to the art form because I had so little support and community as a queer person of color in my hometown. Upon graduation I began visiting New York City regularly to practice and participate in the ballroom scene there. It was, significantly, b-boys from the hip hop dance community with which I was involved at that time, that first brought me to the scene, and connected me to the members of the house organization which I ultimately joined. Joining a house and becoming a committed participant of the scene was the first time in my life being a part of a larger network of queer, Brown people of a huge range of class backgrounds, gender and sexual identities. It was my first time working and learning in solidarity with trans folks, sex workers, homeless youth, and a host of other radical identities which call the ballroom scene home. From b-boying to voguing, and from my small town to an urban scene of Brown, queer, and economically oppressed people, my experience with this art form has been one of not merely my own self-empowerment, but of forging connections across multiple oppressed identities through the medium of movement.
As a new member of my house’s chapter here in Chicago, my housemates and I have spent a great deal of time discussing our own relationships to the ballroom scene, and how to best maintain and pass them on to new generations of working, poor, queer and Brown people. It is clear that there are too few spaces for queer people of color to congregate which are not controlled by other communities and organizations which do not represent us. Deep race, class and gender divisions exist within our own communities which also make building a foundation for the passing on of tradition difficult. The commonplace opportunities to teach vogue are often based on making it a commodity to outsiders–teaching it to students, professional dancers or others with the means to commodify it, and not to our own friends, neighbors, and those who share our oppressed identities. We have been struggling as to how to make a commitment to this tradition which means so much to us, which honors the people and communities which invented it, and works to hand it down within those same communities.
In trying to imagine this commitment and its concrete manifestation, the b-boy community of Chicago, much like the one I originally began dancing in, has been a great inspiration. In open gyms and community centers, b-girls and b-boys of multiple generations, styles and backgrounds gather together on a weekly basis to practice, cypher, build routines and share moves, usually without any designated structure or goal outside of upcoming battles and the sharpening of their own craft. A commitment not just to learning the dance moves but entering respectfully into a lineage of previous generations of dancers is an expectation of these spaces. The appreciation and admiration I have for this scene has helped me and other members of my house begin to envision the kind of space we dream for ourselves and new generations of our own dance scene.
In hopes of moving forward and organizing an open practice space for members of the ballroom community in Chicago, these are some of the initial commitments and goals that I and other members of my house have devised for a vogue practice space:
- Autonomous–established for the ballroom community, by members of the ballroom community
- Decentralized leadership–controlled collectively
- Involving members of multiple houses
- Trans welcoming
- Focused on passing on not only dance, but also the radical history of the ballroom scene itself, both past and present, locally and abroad
- Committed to bridging race and class gaps in the ballroom scene and larger queer community
- Source of community organizing/mobilizing
- Providing social space–alternative to the club/bar scene
- Open practice model–non-formalized teaching (learned from Connect Force and the b-boy community of Chicago)
- In collaboration and solidarity with all underground dance communities in Chicago and abroad
This list we hope to add to and edit with other members of the ballroom scene, and with any and all people which seek to share a creative/social space as a means of gathering oppressed communities and keeping alive our radical traditions.
Voguing–which I would argue is the only uniquely queer art form–has been the single most influential element in the formation of my own identity as a queer man of color, and was the medium through which I originally found a queer community in which I felt represented. Nothing has empowered and inspired me on so many levels as my relationship with this dance form and those I have grown to love dancing it with. Recently, I have been thinking a great deal about creating a curriculum through which the dance could be taught, not simply as physical movement, but as a social movement; a radical form born from a complex network of communities, identities and struggles for visibility, acceptance and survival. The idea is one I am still in the process of imagining, but that I hope one day might be a multidisciplinary, collective learning project involving multiple teachers and workshop leaders, taught as a form of queer youth empowerment. Below is included an introduction, a rough outline of the goals of the curriculum, and some potential sources. I would love to know what ideas others have for this potential curriculum, experiences teaching other kinds of multidisciplinary and creative projects, and if folks have any suggestions for possible sources–especially in relation to transgender power, the prison industrial complex, HIV/AIDS and sex positivity:
The term ‘vogue’ refers to a genre of improvised and competitive street dance forms, all of which have evolved over the past four decades within the Black and Latin@ gay, transgender, bisexual and lesbian community of New York City. The primary space within which these forms have been conceived and practiced is the ballroom scene, an underground circuit of drag competitions held between rivaling collectives known as houses. Members of these houses—tantamount to queer surrogate families—compete with one another within ballroom categories for highly coveted titles, many of which are based around the voguing forms. The four primary styles which comprise the genre of vogue are old way (vogue), new way (vogue), vogue femme and vogue dramatics, listed in their chronological order of invention. Though each one of these forms is starkly different from the next, all rely heavily on pronounced angularity in the arms and legs, punctuating twirls and flips of the wrists, and an exaggerated feminine expression that works to fashion an aesthetic of force from elements which are commonly imbued with weakness and disdain.
The genre has experienced fleeting mainstream attention at various moments. Remnants of old way were featured in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 independent documentary film Paris Is Burning, which brought ballroom culture to an international audience for the first time. That same year, new way received some notoriety when it inspired pop star Madonna’s hit single “Vogue.” In the ensuing music video and “Blonde Ambition” tour, several legendary voguers were showcased. Vogue femme and vogue dramatics, the most recent developments in the genre’s lineage, made their most notable commercial debut on MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew” in 2009, where a team of legendary voguers directly from the scene competed as a battling crew. Each of these instances was celebrated by the mainstream as an important moment of queer visibility (though a key question is when “visibility” comes at the cost of the form’s being stripped of its social and political history, one must ask if such visibility was ever, in fact, the goal of our movement).
Due to its complex relationship with the dominant culture, the community from which it originally sprang, and the host of socio-historical phenomena which contest the bodies of those who traditionally dance it, vogue has often been examined both within and outside academic circles as a cultural form whose implications for inquiry lend themselves primarily to identity politics. Anthropologists, academics, and theorists alike have often approached the form as a case-study in the intersections of race, class, sexual and gender identities, scrutinizing its aesthetic as a means of better comprehending those junctions. The ways in which these areas of identity inform and impact one another are undeniable aspects of the dance form’s conception, inextricably bound up in its practice and performance, and can certainly be read in multiple ways from the movements of the forms themselves. Such an interrogation of the genre, however, is not what this particular learning project is concerned with.
The goal of this curriculum is to connect vogue not only to the individual identities of its dancers, but to the larger communities which have created, nurtured and shaped the genre over the last forty years. By carefully examining not just the physical vocabulary of the forms, but the history of the genre–the social, political and economic conditions which impacted its formation–we can gain a collective view of vogue which is complex, and pushes us beyond simple identity politics. Through a multidisciplinary approach to vogue which makes use of artistic, academic, social justice, and political organizing lenses, we can understand the genre not simply as a form of physical movement, but as an actual social movement, one which has the power to inform and teach us about our own. By taking on the responsibility of locating ourselves in its radical lineage, we can come to identify ourselves, our communities and our movements in whole new ways, and practice aligning our struggles with those of countless other oppressed people, working towards a creative, celebratory, inclusive and committed vision of justice.
- Femme Power
- Brown Feminism
- Sex Positivity
- Sex Worker Rights
- Intersecting Identities
- The Prison Industrial Complex
- Queer Justice
- Transgender Power
- Sexism and Homophobia in Oppressed Communities
- Racism and Classism in Queer Communities
- The Commercialization of Radical Movements
- Creativity, the Arts, and Struggles for Justice
- Inclusive Movement Building
- Empowered Youth Voices
- Creative Projects
- Community-Based Political Action
- Democratically-Determined Curriculum
- Commitment to the Ballroom Scene
- Defining Our Own History
- Learning for Empowerment
- Aligning of Learning Community with All Oppressed Communities
Potential Texts and Sources:
Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader
Cynthia Jean Cohen Bull
The Slap of Love
How Do I Look: From Fantasy to Reality
Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies
Improvisation in African-American Vernacular Dancing
Jonathan David Jackson
Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality
Carole S. Vance
My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home
Paris Is Burning
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color
Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa
Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora
Martin F. Manalansan
Fierce Pleasures: Art, History and Culture in New York City Drag Balls
Tongues Untied: Black Men Loving Black Men
Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls and Hip Hop Culture in New York
Joseph G. Schloss
Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex
Eric A. Stanely
Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York, 1989-92