Vogueing Is Still Burning Up the Dance Floor in New York
By BRIAN SCHAEFER JULY 23, 2015
The dance form evolves stylistically and demographically.
Dancers at the Vogue Knights party at Escuelita. CreditKrista Schlueter for The New York Times
“The whole idea is, I’m fierce and I know it,” Archie Burnett said of the dance style known as vogueing, which he has performed for decades. But don’t confuse that with self-indulgence: “It’s not for your benefit,” he said. “It’s for the camera’s benefit.”
The camera he refers to is metaphorical: Vogueing began as an imitation of models in fashion magazines and on runways. It is part communal tradition, part competition, part personal statement. And occasionally it surfaces as a mainstream pop-culture phenomenon, too — including this summer (just ask Channing Tatum).
Vogueing first strutted into the mainstream in the early ’90s with Jennie Livingston’s documentary “Paris Is Burning” and the music video for Madonna’s “Vogue.” The film showcased the dance as a central feature of the underground Harlem ballroom scene, populated primarily by black and Latino gay men, a scene that blossomed in the 1980s and has roots reaching back decades.
In 1990, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the community organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis gave a party called the Latex Ball with the goal of distributing health information to denizens of the ballroom scene, who were hit hard by the disease. On Saturday, the Latex Ball celebrates its 25th anniversary at Terminal 5 in Hell’s Kitchen.
While the ball honors vogueing’s pioneers, it also reflects the ways that the dance has evolved stylistically and demographically: its global expansion; the increasing participation of women; and a shift to bolder, more acrobatic dancing.
One catalyst for renewed interest was the 2009 appearance of the dance troupe Vogue Evolution on the MTV reality show “America’s Best Dance Crew.” Dashaun Wesley, a troupe member, instructed Mr. Tatum in the art of vogue for the film “Magic Mike XXL.” He says social media and the Internet, particularly YouTube, are partly responsible for vogueing’s revival. “That gave us the opportunity to reach people who weren’t reachable before,” he said.
But some in the ballroom scene are wary of the form’s renewed popularity, which they fear removes vogueing from its cultural context. “You can’t learn a lifestyle in a couple of days,” said Mr. Burnett. He and others teaching vogueing in dance studios in New York and abroad are trying to share the form’s history and focus on its essence: the empowering poses, the expression of a personal story and the projection of confidence.
“That’s the foundation, the blueprint,” said the voguer Luna Khan. “And we don’t want that to die off.”
Here are four sites where vogueing thrives, each illuminating aspects of the dance and questions about its mainstream embrace.
On Monday nights at Escuelita, a subterranean club on 39th Street, about 200 people crowd around a small dance floor for weekly vogue battles. (Doors open at 11 p.m., but the competition doesn’t begin until around 1 a.m.) Cash prizes are awarded for Virgin Vogue (first-timers), Women’s Vogue, Hand Performance and O.T.A. (“open to all”). The vogueing here, and at balls, has become increasingly acrobatic, to the chagrin of some. The new vogue is “about the things that give you an immediate ‘Wow,’ ” said Mr. Burnett, a veteran dancer. “Back in the earlier days, it was more about the intensity of what you’re doing and the belief of what you’re doing.” Javier Ninja, who teaches vogueing around the world, agreed: “It’s lost its essence. It used to be about performance. Give them a story, with a beginning, middle and end.”
Dance studios across the city have added vogueing to their schedules in response to student demand. Javier Ninja, whose real name is Javier Madrid, teaches a class at the Broadway Dance Center, which is frequently filled with women. “There have always been women in the scene, but not a surplus of women as it is now,” said Kia Labeija, who won in the popular and competitive women’s vogueing category at last year’s Latex Ball.
Mr. Burnett, who teaches at Peridance Capezio Center, said studio employment would help a generation of dancers. “They’re making a living, paying bills, teaching the culture,” he said. “That never could have happened in my time.”
“It’s a big community health fair, ball, family affair and reunion,” Mr. Khan said of the Latex Ball, which he has helped organize for the past eight years. “We celebrate each other.” But it is also a battleground. The ball features the city’s premier vogueing competition, and of the roughly 2,500 attendees, around 100 will do combat on the dance floor. Their weapons: slashing arms, sudden drops to the floor and ferocious stares. A panel of judges — veterans of the scene — will crown a winner based on musicality, originality and attitude. They’ll also be looking for key elements: catwalks (traipsing on an imaginary runway); duckwalks (bouncing on toes in a squatting position); hands (in circles, waves, lines and taps); dips (like the punishing, and popular, death drop); and floor work (rolls, crawls and splayed legs).
Madonna’s “Vogue” video, directed by David Fincher, put an international spotlight on vogueing. Today, Madonna continues to showcase the form in its modern guise: Her recent performances have included the female Japanese voguers Aya Sato and Bambi. Some in the scene have mixed feelings about Madonna’s video, which they feel borrows vogueing’s attitude and visual appeal while erasing the struggles of the mostly poor, black and Latino gay men who created the dance. “Our community has been used for other people’s profit,” the voguer Julian De La Blanca said. And some, including those teaching, worry that YouTube videos and studio classes will distill the dance to its flashy moves. “With the appropriation there’s also the loss of histories,” said the voguer Kia Labeija, referring to the decades of social stigma within which the scene developed.