7 March 2012

Strike a Pose…

For use of apt terminology, voguing, came into vogue, in the late 80s thanks to artists such as Malcolm McLaren and Madonna bringing it to the mainstream.  And we’re glad to say it has now once again come into public conciousness thanks to the release of; Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York 1989-92, the unmissable book by photographer Chantal Regnault, who was lucky enough to be immersed in the underground world of this extraordinary scene at its glittery peak. The scene, albeit dissipated, is still alive today in New York, which is a homage to the Big Apple, and its ability to foster individuality and diversity which would scarcely get the chance to flourish in other parts of the world.

The cultural phenomenon of voguing, a style of dance based on emulating the exaggerated poses of fashion models in magazines emerged in the house ballroom scene of Harlem in the 1970s. The underground ballroom scene acted as a safe harbour for gay and transgender African-American men, allowing them to express themselves, freely, without ridicule or abuse, which in turn give rise to a revolutionary movement; the exuberance and aplomb of which (in its heyday) has never quite been replicated since.

The members of the scene aligned themselves into social houses, such as the House of LaBeija, House of Dupree, House of Corey and the House of Xtravaganza. These social houses were named after their ‘mothers’,  Pepper LaBeija, Paris Dupree, Dorian Corey and Carmen Xtravaganza (now all deceased), legendary drag queens who brought the scene into being and mobilized young, urban gays to express themselves in ways that mainstream America could not quite fathom. At organised drag ball events, members of the houses competed against each other in various categories, such as ‘face’, ‘realness’, ‘butch femme’, ‘voguing’ and many more. It was out of the drag queen ritual of throwing ‘shade’ that voguing was born, when a queen would subtly insult another queen.

Malcolm McLaren first brought voguing into the mainstream with his video, Deep In Vogue. The video featured Willi Ninja, known as the Godfather of Vogue, he was one of the most influential characters responsible for bringing voguing to the masses. He also featured in the video for Madonna’s 1990 hit, Vogue, which became number one in 30 countries, catapulting voguing to a worldwide audience.

Madonna, Vogue

In the same year, Jennie Livingstone’s film, Paris is Burning, provided a moving and insightful look into the hidden world of drag balls, the drag queens, and the unbelievable lives they led. The film portrayed the hopes, dreams and struggles of these drag queens and the sad end that many of them met at the end of their up-hill struggle for acceptance and fame and fortune.

With the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic the ballroom community was ravaged, and many lost their lives to the disease. But during those wild years, when the ballroom scene was at its height something truly magical happened, something you look back on and wish you’d been there to experience, to glimpse the excitement of a scene that lit up the night and left a glamorously indelible mark on the society in which it flourished.

Beneath the subversive style, brazen sexuality, eccentric extravagance and most of all beneath the make-up, lay an avidity for acceptance into a world unwilling to listen. A struggle which many still face today; but indubitably, a struggle that has been lessoned by these pioneers of the eccentric, these queens of the underworld.

We’ll leave you with the immortal, maudlin tinged words of the legendary mother of the House of Corey, Dorian Corey, taken from the end clip of Paris is Burning, as she talks of a life lived and dreams lost.

Dorian Corey, Mother of the House of Corey

New York is still a bastion for individuality and self expression, and the voguing community still thrives in certain pockets of the city today. For anyone intrigued or inspired by the ballroom scene, a visit to the city where it all began is a must. Visit Black Tomato for more information and to plan a trip.

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