How voguing carries decades of queer history through its movement

From the underground ballroom scene of New York to RuPaul’s Drag Race, the journey of vogue represents both the tragedy and the beauty of queerness

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The person extends their arms out toward the audience in a vogue pose with a PowerPoint slide of the event banner projected behind him
The public talk and workshop event gave an emotionally compelling introduction to ballroom culture and vogue. Photo Credit: Chloë Arneson / The Peak

By: Chloë Arneson, News Writer

On June 16, the SFU School for the Contemporary Arts and SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement hosted a Public Talk and Vogue Workshop at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. This workshop and presentation was part of their two-day event to explore the history of the house and ballroom community. 

House and ballroom is an underground Black and Latinx LGBTQIA2S+ subculture that features extravagant social events of gender and sexual expression. Vogue is “a highly stylized form of dance.” Inspired by poses from Egyptian art and high fashion, voguing uses exaggerated gestures and movements to tell stories and celebrate LGBTQIA2S+ identities.

As a queer person, I’ve interacted with fragments of ballroom culture and voguing, but had very little knowledge of its rich history and cultural importance going into this event. When I walked off of the colourfully lit dance floor on the afternoon of June 16, I left with a greater appreciation for how much of our present-day queer culture is owed to the Black transwomen of the ballroom scene.

Michael Roberson, co-creator of the National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Group, walked us through the origins of ballroom and voguing. He explained that a community formed around the ballroom scene, led by Black and Latinx transwomen who created this space for themselves in and around New York. Vogue uses a variety of different styles and techniques, all with various cultural origins within the queer community. Roberson showed us videos of iconic ballroom and voguing performances by trailblazers including Leiomy Maldonado and Javier Ninja

I was astonished that in all of the drag related media I have consumed, I had never heard these stories. Drag is an industry that profits immensely from the culture of Black and Latinx people, but now largely excludes them from the limelight. I made a mental note to think more critically about the queer content I support going forward and started by watching more Maldonado videos in awe as soon as I got home.

Following the moving and educational talk by Roberson, we jumped right into the voguing workshop. Ralph “Posh” Gvasalia, the founder of the non-profit VanVogueJam, led us through the basic 5 Vogue-Femme elements: hands, catwalk, duckwalk, spins/dips, and floor.  

As we learned the first few moves with our hands and practiced our catwalks, I felt like a badass. This explosion of confidence was instantaneously cut short as we moved on to spins, dips, and the duckwalk. Bouncing across the floor in a crouched position, some attendees put on their best Maldonado faces and some couldn’t help but laugh as we struggled to keep balance and kept falling backwards. The duckwalk required you to kick your feet out while crouched, incorporate the hand movements we learned earlier, and core strength — all of which I do not possess.

For a dance that is so commonplace within queer culture, I never realized how hard voguing is. Posh taught us that ballroom is more than just individual elements laced together to create a performance: it is a form of storytelling. He told us to imagine a story for ourselves that embodies the attitude we feel while we dance, and let it be seen through our movements. It was a little tricky to embody the diva within me as I gracefully smacked my head on the floor. 

We practiced in a circle around Posh and even though I was definitely not getting better, I started having more and more fun. In the spirit of vogue and ballroom, we clapped to keep each other on beat and cheered with delight as Posh showed us what a true master of vogue can do.

As a person who never had the chance to really participate in queer culture within their own city, this event felt really liberating for me. Learning how to vogue encouraged me to step out of the restrictive box I created around my queerness and allowed me to be unapologetically expressive. I felt connected to both my local queer community and its rich history. 

To learn more about the history of ballroom, you can watch Michael Roberson’s TED talk. To learn more about SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement’s upcoming events you can check out their website and their Twitter.