It has been indelibly etched into my soul for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories as a young dancing fool involved dancing to “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics in my parent’s bedroom mirror. Of course I was teased by my brother and sister, but for some reason, that song just made me want to dance. I didn’t care. I must’ve been all of 4 years old, and the music literally moved me.
Soon after, I was tagging along with Mom and my big sister to their Jazzercise class, watching the legwarmer-clad women dressed like Jane Fonda, working it out to synthesizer music, sweating and panting in their botched attempts to follow the surely coked-up instructor’s choreography. I was the cute kid in the corner with the water bottles and dirty socks and gym bags, also following along.
A few years after that, I was obsessed with The Mickey Mouse Club and no one was going to stop me from my dream of being on the show. I gathered the neighborhood kids in my front yard and they learned choreography to the latest hip-hop and pop songs the likes of Janet Jackson, New Edition, Big Daddy Kane, MC Lyte, et al. They had no idea what they were doing it for, but some of them had fun between rounds of “Double Dare”.
Not long after, I was on stage, dancing. I had been tagging along (again) with my sister to her rehearsals for the “Miss Black Awareness Pageant 1989” and the choreographer noticed the cute kid over in the corner following along to her adaptation of “I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line (surely foreshadowing my obsession with that musical that was to come). She asked if I would like to come up with a routine of my own to perform during an intermission. How could I say no? I was all of ten years-old.
I had a white suit and a white fedora and a bow tie and shiny black shoes, and I danced the Roger Rabbit and did The Wop and The Cabbage Patch Kid to one of my favorite songs, “Every Little Step I Take” by Bobby Brown. The blinding lights were the biggest high, the whooping applause the biggest rush. I wanted to do it again and again and again.
Soon, I had become friends with some black girls from around the block and stepping was really starting to take off. I learned all the complicated clapping, slapping and stomping movements that came with the dance form. It was very difficult for me, being more of a free-form movement artist until then. The success of School Daze by Spike Lee was sweeping black communities everywhere, and in its harsh and candid depiction of black disunity, it somehow made us all come together through music and dance, much like our ancestors.
In junior high, I made friends who were cheerleaders and I started taking gymnastics. This was for me, I thought. Dominque Dawes became my new idol, and she even lived in my on-again-off-again hometown of Silver Springs, Maryland, where I spent summer’s with my father. She was an inspiration to me, a virtually unknown black girl rising above all odds in the world of gymnastics with her powerful acrobatics and quirky style. Unfortunately, after a while, I realized that my body wasn’t cut out for the pommel horse or the rings, it was my lower body that held my movement strength, so I dropped out of gymnastics and started to watch the cheerleaders more (though there were no boy cheerleaders at my school and I was too afraid to be the first one).
Instead, I took up soccer, a very visceral sport in itself. That ball is so unpredictable and there is no play that the coach can call to make the game go in a certain direction. I had always been an athlete and came from an athletic family, so it was no surprise that I excelled in some sports, particularly track and field. Of course the sport I hated the most I prevailed at and even broke many records. Part of me was trying to live up to the accomplishments of my brother and sister (I was the smart one) who were varsity stars of track and field and basketball, respectively.
When I got to high school, one of my best friends was the captain of the cheer leading team. I joined her at rehearsals and helped them incorporate some hip hop and modern styles into their routines. God it was so gratifying to see my choreography on them. Something about cheer leading that hones such discipline and obsession with perfection, and it’s really really hard to attain these objectives when you’re dealing with the physicality of the “sport” all while wearing a skirt!. I took up soccer my freshman year, and then I found the stage again.
In junior high I was in one musical. It was about the 50s and I got a small roll as one of the parents who were trying to show the kids “how it’s done” at the school prom. I got to do the Charleston, but my partner was a hot mess. I kept yelling at her behind the scenes going over the steps again and again, but alas, she had two left feet, poor thing. Great singing voice though. I wonder what ever happened to her. If she ever thinks of that little faggot that made her cry because she couldn’t dance. Oh well.
I gave up sports for drama. How surprising. I was hooked on the theatre and acting and those glaring, blinding lights that helped me see deep into myself all while creating the character of someone else. I loved reading plays and I began writing them for classes. I was getting small “blackground parts” (we black students called them) in the straight plays and major dancing roles in the musicals.
And the people I got to work with. So amazing. Mostly bipolar. Not only was there the drama club, but there was the distant cousins of choir (which I joined) and the ever infamously popular band geeks, known for their incestuous camaraderie and closeted flag boys. What fun. There was always a sax player that was so sexy though. The rogue, if you will.
Around the time I was in high school, once again I was tagging along with my sister, this time to gay clubs. This was the 90s, and I never thought at the time I’d ever say this, but the 90s were so awesome and free and light. I was all of 15 years-old, had just lost my father and still trying to cope with being gay and my imminent coming out of the closet. My sister paraded me around at 21+ clubs as her “straight” little brother, telling everyone I was 18, as if that made it more legal for me to be there.
There was Starz (formerly known as Ludwigs and now TIME) on Samson street, that infamous street where all the (then “drag queens”) now trannys would go to get their “coins”. I saw my first strip show there the likes of something I’ve never seen like it before or after. We’re talking beer bottles being used in inappropriate ways, fire torches, knives, wigs, weaves, silicone, ping pong balls, tennis balls, high heels, everything. I sat in awe as I drank my amaretto sours.
There was also The Nile (now known as used to be Signatures) on the corner of 13th and Locust, the dark dingy club that was predominantly black and dominantly gay. There was a bar in the front, a dance floor in the middle, and a pot smoking room in the back. The second floor is a blur. It was the 90s. And it was hot.
That’s when I was exposed to vogue dancing. Just the right song with just the right beat would make the whole place erupt with feminine screaming, making it sound like a cross between a roller coaster ride and several women getting sexually assaulted all at once. “YEASSSSS” “ALRIGGGHHHTTT” “OH NO SHE DIDN’T” These were the cat calls for “Divas to the Dance Floor Please”. My mind is flooded with those tunes and beats and sirens and alarms and bells and slams that accompanied those long long sweaty nights. “There’s Some Whores in this House”, “Wonder Woman”, “Darling I Love You But Can’t You See It’s Over For Me”, “From the Back to the Middle and Around Again, I’m Gonna Be There Until The End. 100% Pure Love”. All remixed to perfection.
Arms flailing, hair weaves flying, legs everywhere…this was the purest most emotional dance I have ever known. Battles on the dance floor were obligatory; men in scantily clad outfits, some topless, wrapped around each other, contorted and askew, in unthinkable positions of the body while the crowd cheers and waves their fingers in approval, egging them on for more. “YEEAASSS!” It was a whole other time.
There was something pure about the movement, something carnal. While not everyone was competitive, the amorphous nature of the dance spawned others to steal and share with one another. If someone came up with something new, the dance floor erupted. If someone came in and was double jointed, they got their props. If someone used a prop, it was “ovah” for them. It was all inclusive.
The culture of voguing predates my experience of it. It has only been popularized and solidified in pop culture by the queen of fag hags herself, Madonna, who effortlessly polished up the technique in order to market it. Vogue was a big hit, and it was remastered by a lot of deejays and in turn we adapted to the cleaner, more pretty version of the dance and watched in disgust as people tried to imitate it. Luckily, the brilliant and critically acclaimed Paris is Burning set the record straight- it wasn’t just about the dance.
I can’t remember when or where my first ball was. But much like the first strip show I saw, it was really fucking captivating.
I learned that there were groups of friends who recruited each other and traveled in cliques known as “houses” appropriately named after primarily haute couture fashion houses or references to and in the fashion industry. There was/is the House of Karan, the House of Mizrahi, the House of Revlon, House of Balenciaga etc. I never knew the initiation process because I was more of a spectator, but I knew you had to be drafted in and at least walk in one ball in order to be considered, and then approved by the house mother (usually a tranny) and father (usually a butch lesbian or a butch gay man). Every city has it’s own mother and father. It’s like the game of house, but for grownup gay people.
I won’t go into too much history of balls though. They are extravagant get togethers slash competitions where men and women (and others) compete for prizes on the runway, usually the likes of trophies and cash. There are several categories and they are all “gender specific”. By “gender specific” it is what the person in question identifies themselves as. There are butch queens (gay men), femme queens (transsexual females), trade (gay men of more masculine persuasion), butches (lesbians of more masculine persuasion) and women (women). The categories were mostly runway walking or voguing but there were subcategories such as “butch queen walking femme” which means it’s gay men strutting down the runway like women (there is also a category for when they are only allowed to walk in heels). There are numerous voguing categories, not only for the “gender specific” (I use that term SOOO loosely), but for the type of voguing that they do, usually old-school or new-school. Old school is traditional voguing which incorporates a more rigid and precise way of moving with some of the core techniques thrown in, the duck walk, wrist flexes, shoulder popping, and a lot of isolations. New school is much more freestyle and artistic, incorporating more acrobatics and original movement, usually where the more flexible prevail.
I went from the Mickey Mouse Club to this. It was all so fascinating. At the time it felt new and hip but so natural at the same time, as if we weren’t doing anything different. Every decade has it’s phenomenons and fads, but this just felt like we were carrying on a tradition. I did get really drunk one time and I tried to vogue at a ball, I was totally out of it. I got “chopped” within seconds and laughed it off (chop: to get cut from the stage and eliminated from competition, usually notified by one of the judges holding up a hanger – a hint for the competitor to “hang it up”).
About a year ago, the last nail in the coffin came in the form of Key West closing which was heavily patronized by the gay black community after several other places closed. I’m glad I got to see a little bit more of our tradition before it closed down. Now, we still take to the dance floors of Woody’s and Pure, but it is not how it used to be.
Now we have Vogue Evolution. The vogue-heavy dance group competing on America’s Best Dance Crew on MTV. Sure, America (and kids, more specifically) are a lot more acclimated with and accepting of gay culture these days, but I am still surprised that they are doing so well in the competition. While what they do is an important part of dance history and culture (much like burlesque, but don’t get me started on that), it seems as though they are emphasizing how political it is to have not only an all-gay group on the show, but a tranny too. I am so sick of people not realizing that the dance world is run by women and gay men. Those sexy moves you see Brittney Spears doing on that stripper pole there, a gay man came up with them. Like the Pussy Cat Dolls? Um, well a skinny white dude that likes his salad tossed taught those girls how to be sexy. The list goes on and on and on. And that’s just with pop dance.
I hope the best for Vogue Evolution. I must’ve watched all of their routines about 17,000 times last night. As a performer, I was so nostalgic and reminded of what has inspired me for so long. Still I go to dance clubs and I just watch people, I watch new styles progress and old styles return. It will always fuel my passion. As a choreographer, I couldn’t help but note every misstep, sloppy move and un-synchronized section of their pieces. But, I will say, more than most other dance forms, voguing has a very unique point of view in that it comes essentially from the heart and is amorphous in its production and composition. No two voguers are alike, and never should they be. I am extremely impressed by these boys (and girl) and I feel blessed to be inspired all over again by something that is such a part of my cultural history and my personal life.