This lesson is part of a larger vogue studies curriculum, a unit aimed at teaching ballroom scene history to the ballroom scene, other queer people of color, and our allies. The unit works on both discussing history and teaching vogue dance, combining the two to show a comprehensive history of the scene, and promote voguing as a tool of political action and resistance. In the stage in which it currently exists, the curriculum begins with outlining a basic timeline of ballroom scene history, then breaking down each point on that timeline for deeper inquiry. This lesson comes at the earlier part of the unit, just after the basic outline has been presented, and uses vogue’s initial foundation in Riker’s Island Prison as a starting point to understand and challenge the prison industrial complex:
1. Think Back: At the start of the lesson once participants have gathered, remind the group to think back onto the origins of vogue that they have just begun to learn about: “Where did voguing start? With whom, and how?” Ask participants to write down or share out all the details they can remember from earlier lessons and discussions, and make sure the group is on the same page by listing the details they share in a column to the board.
2. Intro and Explanation: Ask participants if they have ever heard of the term ‘the prison industrial complex’ before, and if possible work together to provide a definition for the group: “The P.I.C. is a term for a group of systems that work together to create violence in our communities, and rely on incarceration as the only answer to that violence. Today we will be talking together about how to better understand the P.I.C., how it relates to our own communities, and how we can challenge it. Ballroom scene history is key in giving us some examples which can help us answer these questions, as we will see soon. Angela Davis, a Black feminist and member of the movement to abolish prisons, has said that examining the experiences of the most marginalized members of the prison system can shed the greatest amount of light on the larger structure. Today we will be using vogue to look at our own experiences as queer people of color to expose the P.I.C. and think about how the creativity of our communities can be used to resist it.”
3. Visual Organizer: Pass out copies of the graphic organizer Transgender Youth and the Prison Industrial Complex–shown in the image to the right of the first paragraph (provided by the Prison Moratorium Project and FIERCE NYC.) Ask participants to take a view minutes to read the organizer to themselves, taking note of what they see, observations they can make, and any questions they have. When folks have had sufficient time, ask them to share out their observations, comments and questions, and add these to a new column on the board.
4. Making Connections: Briefly go over the entire organizer piece by piece, incorporating new observations and attempting to answer questions as a group. (Keep in mind at this stage in particular that sex work, homelessness and other points that appear on the organizer may be sensitive or controversial subjects, and that some present members are likely to have been or be navigating many of them. Approach their discussion honestly, attempting to make them visible and empowering, but also without forcing participants to talk about uncomfortable subjects or share beyond what they are willing to.) Once solid sense of the organizer has been made, ask participants: “How do the points on this organizer relate to our own community? How do they relate to the ballroom scene as we know it?” Give ample discussion time to this as a group, and make as many connections as possible from the ballroom scene to the points on the graphic organizer. Add these to the board, and ask participants to add them to their own organizers.
5. Transition: ” Discussing these connections is important because it shows us that even if the term P.I.C. is a new one for us, it is something that we and our communities have been struggling with and fighting against for a long time. As we move to the dancing portion of our workshop, we will leave the notes from our discussion up on the board. Keep them in mind, and as we are moving, think about how some of these themes show up in vogue movement, where you notice them and can find them, and how vogue works to challenge some of the problems we talked about today.” From here, transition into the movement activities planned for the day. Participants in the workshop will be learning the basics of the vogue styles of new way and vogue femme, so will most likely be practicing specific moves or working on improvisation. As participants are working together or receiving individual attention, try to work in discussion of the day’s themes as they relate to specific moves, styles, and ways of dancing. Try and keep the connection from the earlier discussions in the back of folks’ minds as they are dancing.
6. Closing: “Did folks think of any connections between the movement we worked on today and the discussions we began the workshop with?” Let folks share out any reflections or ideas that are on their minds. “Let’s return to the graphic organizers we were working with at the beginning of the day. Take a look back at them. The subtitle says, ‘disrupt the flow.’ How does voguing and the ballroom scene as a whole break up the flow between the pieces of this complex? How can we as a community use voguing in the future to keep challenging and disrupting this system?” As participants make suggestions, add them to a final column of concrete strategies for challenging the P.I.C. These could include anything from ‘sharing our knowledge’ and ‘teaching this history to our friends,’ to ‘using dance at a demonstration or protest’ and ‘supporting sex workers’ rights.’ While this is a challenging closing activity, push participants to come up with as many concrete strategies for resisting the P.I.C. as possible, and have a few examples ready in case the group gets stuck. Wrap up the workshop from there, and if you can, allow folks extra time to talk and practice further in the space if they need to stay longer.
Generation L will be hosting the first in a series of Voguing Workshops this coming month on Friday, May 17th at Batey Urbano. This movement event will focus on not only the foundations of the dance style of new way vogue, but will also examine some key points in the history of the ballroom scene. We will be using vogue dance as a means of better understanding our own history as Black and Brown queer people, poor and working folks, homeless people, sex workers, and trans people. This dance/history series will continue every third Friday of the month for the summer. These workshops are free, so please mark this first one on your calendar, stop by, and keep an ear out for future events!
Vogue Workshop Series: Black and Brown Queer History
Friday, May 17th
6pm to 8pm
2620 W. Division
This Event is Free
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.
For those who will be in Western Mass this coming week:
Phoenix Dance Academy, in collaboration with the Holyoke Equal Rights Association, will be hosting a voguing workshop called Vogue Foundations: Our Culture, Our History on Thursday the 26th of July from 5:00pm to 6:30pm at their studio at 323 Main Street in Holyoke, MA. The introductory workshop will focus both on outlining the cultural and political history of the vogue genre, as well as teaching some of the foundations of the movements, looking specifically at the styles of New Way and Vogue Femme. To help support the studio and the amazing community work being done there, there is a suggested donation of $5 at the door. If you are anyone you know would be interested, definitely come through!
Vogue Foundations: Our Culture, Our History
July 26, 2012
5:00pm to 6:30pm
Phoenix Dance Academy
323 Main Street
$5 suggested donation
One of my best friends lives in a small, post industrial mill town in Western Massachusetts. The city is mostly Black and Latin@, with high unemployment and one of the fastest growing HIV rates in the country. My friend owns a large apartment where he shares a room with his boyfriend, and rents out the others primarily to queer men–many of whom are not welcome in their own homes. In the past, when roommates were unable to find work to pay rent, my friend worked up to three different jobs to make ends meet, and keep everyone in the house. He still throws huge parties on the weekends, and sometimes charges a dollar at the door to help pay the bills. His apartment is known as a welcoming space for gay men, and much of the TLBG community across the city spends copious amounts of time there. As a result, the house is a hub of queer activity in the midst of a city in which many might deny its existence.
I think the work that my friend does in his apartment is radical. Though it is not always sustainable, and certainly comes with a complex network of relationships and interactions, it provides our community with space, with housing, and a source from which we can draw our sense of connectedness and interdependence. The question I have been asking myself lately is, can what my friend does with his home be qualified as community service? How we go about answering this question has everything to do with how community service has historically been defined, and the space it occupies in our current social consciousness.
Patricia Hill Collins, professor and Black feminist theorist, speaks insightfully to the idea of ‘community service’ as it stands–often unquestioned and undefined–in many of our modern discourses. The category is inherently raced and classed, she states, as by most definitions, community service is something done out of obligation–an act performed by those with the excess time to do it, and the excess resources to “share” with less fortunate people. This categorization is oppressive to Collins, not only because it constructs community service through a series of patronizing and insincere transactions, but moreover because it makes invisible the ways in which oppressed people are already serving themselves. We don’t apply the term community service to an unemployed mom watching her neighbors’ kids while they are at work, but we do when a wealthy patron volunteers her time at a daycare center in a “bad” area of the city. For this reason, Collins argues, a reclaiming of community service is needed, one which acknowledges the ways in which oppressed people are always struggling to serve themselves within the systems which perennially deny them basic rights and resources. Service should be thought of not as patronizing and brief exchanges of unused time, a donation passed down from the powerful to the powerless, but rather as activism, organizing, and collective support–the things we do daily to sustain ourselves and each other as members of marginalized populations, not out of obligation but necessity.
What my friend does with his apartment is not likely to appear on a resume, nor to help him find a new job. Even more significantly, he does none of it for credit, recognition, or out of sense of “giving back.” (Why some of us have resources to “give back” to others in the first place is a topic of conversation all its own.) He does it because he has been navigating his own life as a queer man of color almost completely on his own since he was fourteen years old. He does it because he has friends who need a place to stay, and he would never turn down someone he considers a brother. He does it because a queer space is something he needs just as much as the guys who flock to his apartment. He does it because there is an indescribable energy generated by Brown, queer people voguing in the living room, smoking in the staircase, and laughing in the kitchen. It’s an energy which sustains in the face of struggle, of unemployment, of hustle, and of homophobia. In other words, it is something we all need, all benefit from, and that only we are capable of providing for ourselves.
As oppressed people, we need spaces which are our own, which we control, and within which we can determine and enact that which will best support our collective efforts and desires. We do not require the patronage of the privileged, nor should we feel guilty about activism which provides us with resources as much as it does our larger communities. Service, reclaimed and redefined, is most effective and transformative when it comes from the communities that it addresses, and when it is instituted for all, by all, not merely by one faction on behalf of another. Enough giving back; we’re taking back–first the definition of community service, and next the places, resources and knowledge which can sustain our movements.
Special thanks to Jenn Leyva at Fat and the Ivy.
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