Voguing has been an important part of queer identity for decades. It is a liberating form of self-expression and identity for the community, an essential element of pride. Thus, it is a celebration that should be honoured during Pride Month.
The art of voguing, much like the tradition of Pride, comes from the Black and transgender ballroom scene of New York in the 1980s, a safe space for people who experienced discrimination. Black and Latinx queer communities of Harlem birthed the dance form. Between the 1960’s and 80’s “balls” were held in New York, which is what we would understand today as drag competitions. They transformed into elaborate pageantry and “vogue” battles. Black and Latino voguers would compete in battles for trophies, and to uphold the reputation of their “Houses”. The house names were inspired by fashion Maisons of Paris and Milan, with family members taking them as surnames. The mothers or fathers of the houses became safe parents for people ostracised for their gender, sexuality or race.
The balls were a space of joy for the community that experienced homelessness, sex work and abuse. The contestants walked an imaginary runway in elaborate outfits. They would be judged on their look, dance moves and “realness”. In its sudden poses, hand contortions and the iconic dip or “death drop”, where a dancer falls dramatically backwards onto the floor, voguing mixes athleticism with attitude and one-upmanship.
The inspiration behind the dance were the models of Vogue magazine, Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and gymnastics. The personae often parodied white femininity while glorifying and subverting ideals of beauty, sexuality and class. Voguing was a tool of storytelling and survival, a way of responding to the AIDS crisis while still being satirical and comedic. Through dance, drag queens performed gender – they pretended to put on makeup or “beat face”, style their hair and put on extravagant clothes. Through dance and pantomime, voguers “read” each other. It was a performance battle, with the winner being the contestant who ‘threw the best shade’. Drag competitions between the 1960s and 1980s turned from pageantry-style balls to voguing battles. Contestants competed for trophies and the reputation of their ‘house family’. Most poignant of the categories were where they walked as executive businessmen or Hollywood starlets, dressing aspirationally beyond what was permitted to them.
For many trans, queer and gay contestants, excelling at vogueing was like earning a college degree. The underground queer culture of New York, where most of these elements were popularized, was a stigmatized, criminalized and brutalized space. The terms and drag elements were crumbs of acceptance in a world that largely mocked and disowned them.
In 1990, one of the earliest examples of queer ballroom culture going mainstream was Maddona’s music video “Vogue” and its performances. “Come on, vogue, let your body move to the music…” The video featured dancers from competing houses facing off. The single made people see voguing as dance, fashion and subculture. It got further popularized through the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning and then through shows like Pose. Inevitably, voguing attracted a star-studded following. Through Madonna’s single ‘Vogue’, the art became a worldwide phenomenon. It became famous, yes, but lost its cultural origins in mainstream dialogue. People were trying it and celebrating Madonna, but the queer, Black and Latinx ball performers felt disenfranchised. Voguing was an element of survival and acceptance for many Black queer and trans people, but a cisgender heterosexual white woman gets credited for its popularity today.
In Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, a ball participant said: “Balls to us are as close to reality as we’re gonna get to all of that fame and fortune and stardom and spotlight.” Thus, the popularization caused more cultural harm than good. After Madonna’s “Vogue” era ended, the art became a fad instead of being respected as a source of livelihood and pride for underground performers. Using Black and trans cultural elements, like voguing and the terms “the house” and “shade”, and labelling their terminology “a trend” removes the celebration or acknowledgement of their historical roots. Black queer people are removed from mainstream dialogue in these acts of erasure. The language, culture and history of marginalized communities are highly political; the people who fostered the roots faced punishment until the majority decided that these aspects are good enough.
Queer culture and history are filled with beautiful elements which should be celebrated. Vogueing and usage of queer terms is not inappropriate for cisgender, heterosexual people. However, it is essential to respect the history behind them. From Harlem to an intergenerational community, queer people perform Voguing now in countries where LGBTQIA+ existence is illegal. From the underground clubs of New York to a source of homage to the victims of the Orlando Nightclub Shooting (2016), Voguing is still a tool of acceptance and community for ostracised queer people. After decades of its origination, it is still a space for queer survival, an expression of freedom and identity.