Vogueing is having a moment. Again.
The last time saw Madonna’s 1990 hit “Vogue” soar to the top of the charts in America and was supposed to herald a period of greater exposure for the New York ballroom community. It didn’t. Now vogueing has a new lease of life thanks to programmes like RuPaul’s Drag Race and extensive usage in fashion campaigns and advertising. No longer the domain of the underground, vogueing is rapidly reasserting itself as a valid artform, but as this happens it’s worth dwelling on the origins of this iconic dance and its potential future. Is vogueing just going to disappear again, or is it here to stay?
Developed by the African American and Latinx LGBTQ+ communities of New York during the 1980s, vogueing is a dance that mirrors the poses found on the front cover of Vogue magazine, hence the name. Dance sequences don’t tend to be prepared; they are improvised to a pounding beat. Vogueing, like any other art form, has changed dramatically since its conception. Where the icons of the 1980s elegantly strutted and posed, modern voguers are more like acrobats. The arena for vogueing competitions is the ballroom, but ballroom isn’t just about vogueing. The balls were created to appreciate the talent of poor, LGBTQ+ people of colour in New York and have been thriving there in various forms since the 1920s. To put it far too briefly, queer people gather in groups called houses, which often act as family units for people who have lost their own. These houses carry elaborate, iconic names like Xtravaganza and LaBeija, and the balls are the battlefield on which they compete for notoriety. Voguing is just one of the ‘categories’ in these balls, others include attempts to serve ‘realness’ or runway walks.
Originally underground to the point of being invisible, ballroom has a history of informing popular culture in return for virtually nothing. In 1990 “Vogue” was the song of the summer, and the voguers of New York were supposed to get the opportunities that they had been denied for years. On the surface it seemed to be a total success for ballroom; vogueing was mainstream and dancers like Willy Ninja became international dancing sensations overnight. This success was, however, tainted by the link that was established between vogueing and Madonna. When Madonna’s summer hit faded out of the limelight, so did vogueing. Vogueing had mainstream appeal, but it failed to forge an identity of its own before the song sank below the waves of popular culture. Vogueing would not have another big break until most of its creators had died of AIDS, and the iconic dance would forever be tied to Madonna’s name and image.
As vogueing hits the mainstream again it is worth reflecting on how we can avoid repeating history. The worrying aspect of vogueing’s current fame is the lack of understanding of its origin and nature in the media. This misunderstanding inevitably leads to appropriation, which is particularly harmful in a situation when those performers whose artform is being exploited are from extremely marginalized communities. How is it that Dolce & Gabbana’s fashion shows start with a vogueing performance when some of the dance’s leading lights literally have to beg to be paid for their performances? If the link between the dance and the community that founded it is broken it makes vogueing the property of everyone, and while this is what many of vogueing’s founders want it to be, it also opens the door to appropriation. As people outside the ballroom community learn how to vogue it detracts from the very few opportunities available for the people within it. Drag Race has the potential to forge a similar cultural link to vogueing as Madonna, where people assume that because Drag Race presents an idea or art, it must be at its origin.
That being said, the situation is improving. Ryan Murphy’s ‘Pose’, and other programmes such as Viceland’s ‘Our House’ are helping to combat this lack of understanding by displaying the origins and development of vogueing, as well as its importance to the ballroom community. Videos of the most iconic balls that are available on Youtube regularly gain thousands of views and social media allows people who are passionate about vogueing to follow the best dancers as they develop their styles of performance. Ballroom legends like Leiomy are getting a huge amount of work nowadays, and as the world becomes more open to trans rights there is definitely room for optimism. Even Drag Race, for all its faults, does work in the ballroom community’s favour. Constant references to ‘Paris is Burning’ from Ru and the contestants are guiding more queer people towards educating themselves on ballroom and its influences, and without the show it is safe to say that many people wouldn’t even have heard of vogueing. It is, naturally, up to the viewer to educate themselves further on how queer, AfricanAmerican and Latinx communities have influenced popular culture, but it is also evident that Drag Race and other popular TV shows are providing a good base from which to educate ourselves on the contributions of the balls to popular culture.
Vogueing never expected to be popular. It isn’t a dance form that has been developed over hundreds of years, and it doesn’t have prestigious schools to educate the performers of tomorrow. The current generation of voguers learned their craft in the balls of Harlem and New York, something which lends an almost incomparable authenticity to the dance. The original idea for vogueing was the imitation of modelling poses that the LGBTQ+ community of New York could never hope to strike on real covers, and in that sense vogueing almost loses its meaning when it is appropriated by white models, actors, and actresses who are imitating a career that has always been open to them. Vogueing’s future is anything but certain. LGBTQ+ culture is having a moment in the sun, but we shouldn’t forget that these moments are always fragile, fleeting and fickle. Even if vogueing can cement itself in popular culture, history has shown that it may not be the inventors of the iconic dance form who benefit. The ballroom community will still have to fight injustice and inequality, but there may finally be room for these performers to step into the spotlight they deserve.
Photo: RuPauls Drag Race UK © @RuPaulsDragRaceUKBBCThree