Nicolas Jenkins’ new film ‘Walk’ traces three decades of voguing in the Big Apple – we speak to the filmmaker and one of the dancers from the era
A new documentary named Walk has been released by underground filmmaker Nicolas Jenkins, which traces 30 years of the voguing and ballroom drag culture in New York. For anyone who has seen Jennie Livingston’s iconic 1990 film Paris is Burning, this one is also not to be missed. Jenkins’ archive of footage features trailblazing ballroom houses such as House of Xtravaganza, House of Latex and House of Chanel, alongside some pioneering forces like Willie Ninja and Kia Labeija.
Black and Latino ball culture emerged in Harlem over 40 years ago, where members of drag houses would walk, vogue and showcase their ‘realness’ at all night dance battles. What was once sub-cultural faction of the New York underground has now become popularised by the wildly successful RuPaul’s Drag Race, creating an explosion of lip-syncing fierce queens around the world.
Walk documents decades of drag ball culture through a combination of video material and interviews with prominent figures in the scene. Filmmaker Jenkins has been attending balls since the late 80s and has witnessed a seismic change in the scene.
“Both the music and dance have evolved - earlier ballroom was heavily influenced by house and disco, but today a new generation of kids have reinvented the music. It’s much harder and revolves around an MC chanting over minimal beats.” While voguing was exposed in the 90s, Jenkins claims the scene didn’t die, but only went back underground. However, its prominence now does worry him.
He says: “While the resurgence in its popularity across the globe is fantastic, I’m a little nervous that voguing is crossing over into the mainstream and the ballroom scene may be losing its connection to its roots which were historically marginalised urban black and Latino gay and trans communities.” As with anything, popularity can often be the kiss of death for fringe cultures as they become a victim of their own success. “I’ve been around long enough to watch many subcultures get absorbed into the mainstream and eventually get commodified, but a generation of kids will come along and reinvent things and bring them back underground.”
As Jenkins pieces together the growth of the ballroom scene, we are given insight into the dynamics of drag houses, and how this once underground culture has been cultivated in 2016. Enter the radical Kia LaBeija, a dancer, photographer and storyteller from the House of LeBeija, who praises ballroom for its community but is also wary of its appropriation in popular culture.
“The Ballroom scene has evolved tremendously, as all subcultures do,” she explains. “Many people are generally interested in Voguing today, big name artists want it in their music videos and on their world tours, designers want it in their fashion show presentations. Voguing, like all forms of black and brown art, has become a worldwide phenomenon and as with anything that becomes mainstream, it is bound to be diluted some”
Madonna first made Voguing a global phenomenon in the 90s with her song and video, ‘Vogue,’ and it has since been in our collective conscious. LeBeija continues: “Everyone wants a piece of it, as it is currently in the spotlight. Balls are being held all over the world, a sort of mimicry of what exists here in New York. I think it is wonderful for people to love and appreciate Voguing, but as it is a cultural practice, it should also be respected as such.”
When asked what she makes of the sudden interest in drag, and more specifically ballroom drag, she tells me there is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. “Much of the language and overt femininity is a performance of The Black Woman, young black men imitating their mothers, aunties, and sisters. I am constantly seeing young white drag queens appropriating this, talking about their ‘inner black woman’, which is a BIG no no.” While LeBeija doesn’t know what the future holds, she maintains the scene will continue to “birth legends, statements, and stars.”