The Vogue trend returns
The year was 1990. The world was about to be introduced to a form of urban dance that had rarely been seen outside of Harlem, thanks to an independent documentary film and a pop music icon. The movie: the award-winning Paris Is Burning. The icon: Madonna. The form: vogue. “Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it: Vogue!” became a global dance anthem, while Paris Is Burning went on to win the 1991 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. What began as a vibrant form of cultural expression for NYC’s black and Latino gay community became a worldwide sensation. But then, like other underground dance forms that have been “discovered” by the mainstream, vogue faded into pop culture history, remembered most for Madonna’s catchy lyrics. Now, 18 years later, the dance has regained the spotlight on its own terms.
Vogue actually dates back to the 1960s, when black and Latino gay men began performing in drag at Harlem ballrooms. Dressed in elaborate costumes, they combined the flamboyant dances of Las Vegas showgirls with pantomime and modeling poses. The dance was originally called Presentation, and then Performance. By the 1970s and into the ’80s, however, the dance had become less about decorative clothing and more about movement and individual style. During this era, vogue became more connected to the street and to the lives of a marginalized community seeking artistic expression through dance. Madonna was likely introduced to the form through her backup dancers, and may have even attended a ball in Harlem.
In the world of vogue, “houses” represent a collective of dancers who often perform together. Members of each house are known as its “children.” Some of the best-known houses include House of Ninja, House of Mizrahi, House of Xtravaganza, House of LaBeija and House of Aviance, many of which were featured in Paris Is Burning. The members of the house view their collective as a family and often change their last names to show their affiliation.
The houses compete in “balls,” which are dance or “walking” competitions based on a variety of categories. The concept of “realness” is integral to the balls and describes dancers’ incorporation of a theme into their movement, attitude and style. Whether the dancer “walks” as a schoolgirl, fashion model, hip-hop thug or business executive, he or she is able to embody that persona convincingly. “The dancer who can best transform into the theme while maintaining individuality is the winner,” explains Hector Xtravaganza, godfather of the House of Xtravaganza. Dancers who consistently win a variety of balls become Legendary, vogue’s highest honor.
There are four primary styles of vogue: Old Way, New Way, Vogue Femme and Dramatics. Old Way describes any style that predates 1990 and focuses on graceful movement, transitions between standing and floor positions, and linear hand gestures and poses. New Way (post-1990) incorporates more contortionist movements of the limbs, known as “clicking,” and creates complex illusions with the arms and hands. Vogue Femme is a style that emphasizes an exaggerated femininity and flamboyance. Dramatics describes the acrobatic tricks and stunts often incorporated into the vogue style.
After the media spotlight faded in the early ’90s, vogue transitioned back to its underground roots. The New Way emerged as the hot new style, seen by many as more innovative and acrobatic. The vogue ballroom community gradually expanded throughout the U.S. and into Europe, which strengthened the vitality of the artform. And in 2006, German filmmaker Wolfgang Busch released a documentary film, How Do I Look, chronicling the development of Harlem’s vogue ballroom scene since the release of Paris Is Burning.
Willi Ninja, founder of the House of Ninja, was one of the best-known and respected voguers of his generation. Before his death in 2006, he prophesied that vogue would reach out to the mainstream dance community and gain respect as a serious artform. In an effort to diversify, the House of Ninja now features dancers from all walks of life, including women and straight men from the house dance community. Now under the guidance of Benny Ninja (recently spotted on “America’s Next Top Model” teaching contestants how to pose!), the House of Ninja has brought vogue to the stage. In October 2007, they premiered a choreographed work entitled The East is Red, which is now being considered for an off-Broadway production. The piece, a 45-minute narrative work first shown at NYC’s Dance Theater Workshop, featured voguers as dragons, geishas, masters, students, warlords and more, and it merged urban styles like b-boying and house with vogue.
Voguers are now also competing in mainstream dance competitions, such as House Dance International NYC, which will host its second annual festival in July 2008 and includes a vogue category. (For more: housedancenyc.com) And thanks to YouTube, anyone can have access to vogue’s ballroom subculture, a chance to see a vibrant dance form in its element. So if you’re ready to jump into this blossoming artform, channel your own realness and get fierce with that walk: “You know you can do it. . . Vogue.”