Walking the streets of New York with voguers past and present, revisiting the parts of the city featured in the cult 1990 documentary
It is a sticky summer day in Harlem, and Justin “Monster” LaBeija is literally dancing in the street. He vogues down the sidewalk, his sinewy arms winding into impossible angles, emphasised with the twirling of a bright red ribbon. Two women in nursing uniforms are delighted; they offer a couple of shimmies in response. An elderly man on a stoop smiles. Justin finishes and takes a bow, panting.
Justin was charming the residents of 129th street because we were there to visit an essential spot for previous generations of voguers: the Harlem Elks Lodge and church that played host to many of the balls chronicled in the 1990 classic documentary Paris is Burning. Voguing evolved from balls, the Black and Latinx trans and queer-centred events in which members of different houses (Ninja, Xtravaganza, LaBeija, etc.) would compete in drag-centric categories based around style, dance and attitude.
Balls used to be held at the lodge at night, going so late that by morning competitors would brush up against church ladies. But despite numerous pleas, the church’s current bishop won’t let us in. So Justin vogues in the street.
At 28, Justin isn’t old enough to have seen a ball here. But as we chatted on the sidewalk, he was reverent of the past. “The leaders that we still have now, that were in Paris Is Burning, that know about the culture, the history, and voguing, should come back and own it,” he tells me. “They should teach the youth what voguing is and what it really means and feels. It’s more than just doing a movement, you know?”
A simple definition of voguing is that it’s a dance born of imitating poses in Vogue magazine; it is artful and angular and very challenging, and there are several forms of it (my favourite, namewise, would be “Soft Cunt”). And while voguing is still very much a New York art form – every person featured in this article is a New Yorker, born and raised, and balls are held all over the city, from establishment concert halls like Irving Plaza to Bushwick clubs like House of Yes – over the past three decades it has exploded internationally. There are voguing houses in Europe and Asia, not to mention across the greater United States. It has been represented in the mainstream for some time. The goddamn Madonna song came out nearly thirty years ago.
Voguing master Willi Ninja, the first founder and mother of the House of Ninja, expressed a dream in Paris is Burning. “I want to be worldwide,” he says. “I want to take voguing to the real Paris and make the real Paris burn. And not just there, but to other countries as well. My House name is Ninja and I would really like to take my whole House and go to Japan and have them accept it there.” And as renowned dancer and current father of the house Javier Ninja tells me, “Willi’s dream came true. We are global.”
“Willi’s dream came true. We are global” – Javier Ninja
But the expansion of vogue into dance curriculum and popular culture at large isn’t entirely welcome. Many dancers express that creators aren’t given their due credit, and that the dance itself is being watered down. “It’s a double-edged sword that it’s gone so international,” says superstar voguer Jose Xtravaganza. “Because it’s an art form that everyone should see, that should be respected like ballet or modern. I would love to see it at Lincoln Center. But I think it’s become about financial gain, and people are starting to all look like they’re doing the same thing. Voguing is too technical now. It used to be about a feeling, not about how high you could get your leg in the air.” Jose, along with many others, asserted that there are too many voguing teachers who themselves are new to the ball scene.
“We lost a little control of the ballroom scene,” says Justin LaBeija. “Of what it meant, the history, the vogue”.
Regardless of whatever the side effects may be, you do see the influence of voguing and ball culture everywhere: RuPaul’s Drag Race, FKA twigs’ videos, dance TV shows and Azealia Banks’ music. People are constantly using and misusing the term “shade.” Enormously influential Hood by Air founder and current Helmut Lang designer Shayne Oliver was a voguer, and he’s incorporated the dance into his runway shows. Beyoncé has imitated “Wonder Woman of Vogue” Leiomy Maldonado’s signature hair flip, the “Leiomy Lolly.” Maldonado herself recently starred in a Nike campaign. Ryan Murphy is working on a show about ball culture called Pose.
“It reminds me of hip-hop,” says House of Milan father Stan Milan. “First it was a subculture dance and now it's in all the major dance schools, and I think that this is what it is going to take to put vogue on the same wavelength as all the other dances.”
In one of the opening scenes of Paris is Burning, the legendary Pepper LaBeija describes balls as “our fantasy of being a superstar, like the Oscars or whatever. Or like being on a runway as a model.” But as Kenya Hunt wrote for The Guardian, ‘Fashion, art and music seem to be increasingly influenced by ballroom culture rather than the other way around.’”
After the Elks Lodge, dancer, photographers, a video crew and I continue on to different spots featured in the film: Washington Square Park, the LGBT Center in the West Village, the Christopher Street Piers. I’ve been to all of them about a million times, but I am white and I am not a voguer nor a part of ball culture, and the dancers obviously saw those places through a very different lens. But even though the city has been gentrified to death in the years since Paris, many said that the Piers and the LGBT Center remained good places to go. Washington Square Park has changed a lot — it’s where Paris is Burning director Jennie Livingston first met voguers, and she shot both Willi Ninja and a number of dancers here. We all agreed that there were too many NYU students here today, all jumping into the fountain.
You do have to give New York a little bit of credit for still being weird – nobody blinks an eye at the dude covered in pigeons or the various barefoot hula hoopers. But when vogue legend Grandfather Hector Xtravaganza and the young Kimiyah Saul start to dance, people want to watch.
Kimiyah, a trans woman and Brooklyn native, is only 22, and she’s been dancing for about six years. A high school friend brought her into the ball scene. “The ballroom scene was a whole new world to me,” she tells me as we huddle in the video crew’s van. “It was just so much creativity. I was like, ‘I have to join, I have to join.’”
“I was young,” she continues, laughing. “So I would go to the balls and I would take a sneak peek of the first ten minutes of it and then I would have to run home because I would get in trouble.”
Kimiyah says she dances, “more hip-hop-ish. More with the swag. I like that.” And even though she is comparatively so young she, like other young dancers I spoke with, says it’s important to understand the lineage. “You can’t be in the ballroom scene and not know your history,” she said. “You can’t walk a category and not know who started the category and who paved the way for you to walk the category.”
The previous generation of dancers know their history. They see a lot of ghosts.
We were lead on this tour by Melanie Johl, aka Melanie Ninja Xtravaganza, a voguer and model turned yoga teacher who possesses the calming air of an ASMR video. Melanie is currently running “tea dances” at New York’s Museum of Sex, mini balls featuring famed dancers like her friends Jose Xtravaganza and Javier Ninja, covering styles including Old Way, New Way, Runway, and Posing (tea dance DJ Slim Ninja told me that Melanie is particularly good at getting excellent MCs and commentators). It’s her major re-entry into the ball scene – after years away, Melanie returned last year for the ten-year anniversary of the death of her best friend, iconic voguer and Paris star Willi Ninja.
Melanie is a cis, white woman, rare in the ball scene. But she was always with Willi, whom she met at 17 after a salesperson at an East Village boutique told her to go to one of his rehearsals at the LGBT Center. “I was not prepared for what I saw when I got into that room,” Melanie recounts. “There was Willi and he was so incredibly gorgeous, tall, just stunning, androgynous, beautiful, charming, lovely, warm, kind, and did I say funny? He was hilarious and an instantly loveable person. I was absolutely in awe of him from the minute I saw him because he was so stunning in just the way he moved, it was so gorgeous. It was a love-love connection,” she says, making eye contact despite the bright sun. “Instantly.”
Walking around New York City with Melanie is like receiving a crash course on one of the city’s best eras of nightlife. She and Willi would go to Palladium (now an NYU dorm), The Saint, Sound Factory. “But I didn’t drink,” said Melanie. “I’d just have water and gaze at the lights.” She told me about walking in the Village with Jose Xtravaganza, dancing around just for the joy of it.
Willi was featured on the first-ever record about voguing, Malcom McLaren’s “Deep in Vogue;” Melanie appeared in the video with him, and they all went on tour. After a benefit performance with McLaren, Willi and Melanie looked up to see Madonna in the wings. “Oh my god you guys,” she screamed. “Don't stop! I want to see more!”
We walked to the LGBT Center in the West Village with Grandfather Hector Xtravaganza, doing so is certainly an experience – he’s well known on 7th Avenue. Hector has been in the ball scene for decades, and as his name would imply, he is the Grandfather and co-founder of the House of Xtravaganza. He just turned 59. “But I’m still moist, you know?” he laughed. “That’s my hashtag. ‘Still Moist.’” Icon is an overused word. Hector is an icon. He made Lil’ Kim’s fur bikini for the “Crush on You” video.
The LGBT Center wouldn’t allow us to record and, lacking other quiet options, I had a voguing legend stand in a dirty stairwell. I felt terrible, but Hector thought it would look cool and asked me to take a picture. He posed with the sides of his forearms facing forward — they are each tattooed with “XTRAVAGANZA” in block letters. “My blood type is ‘X,’” he said. “That’s Xtravaganza to the core.”
Dorian Corey, Hector’s “gay auntie,” took him to his first ball in 1979. He started competing in categories like “Leather vs. Suede” and “Model Body Vs. Muscular,” and eventually began voguing. He co-founded the House of Xtravaganza with fellow dancer Hector Valle as a way for Latinos, who he says were previously excluded, to enter the ball scene. “The name Xtravaganza fit us like a glove,” he explained. “You know. Because we’re loud”.
Houses are family, especially for those who wouldn’t have one otherwise. “My House is not a house,” said Hector. “The House of Xtravaganza, we’re really a home. We’re family first. House of Xtravaganza is second.”
I ask Hector what he remembers from his early days in the ball scene. “Well,” he swallows. “What I remember from back in the day that stays with me was when the epidemic came. I lost my gay mother [Angie], I lost Hector. I started losing my family, and I started losing my friends. I can only think I’m next. It was bad enough coming out of the closet, and now we had to go deep into a dungeon and hide. And family didn’t accept it, because we didn’t know what was going on. So, in the ballroom it was so joyful and happy. But I noticed nobody was really touching each other like before. Nobody was really around one another like before.”
“In the ballroom it was so joyful and happy. But I noticed nobody was really touching each other like before. Nobody was really around one another like before” – Hector Xtravaganza on the Aids crisis
In 1982, after Hector’s friend Princess passed away from Aids, he got tested. As of August 18, he has been HIV positive for 35 years. “What keeps me going are my kids,” Hector said. “I need for them to do more than me. Push more than me. So I fight for them.”
Two weeks ago, Melanie took me to meet Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, current father of the house of Xtravaganza, before a ball. He brought along the newest member of the house, 18-year-old model and Instagram star Alexis Jae. They met at one of Melanie’s tea dances at the Museum of Sex. “I found him on Instagram, and that’s when it all hit me,” she says. “I’d been watching him in Truth or Dare and the ‘Vogue’ video since I was like, ten.”
Jose has been successful for decades. At just eighteen, he choreographed Madonna’s “Vogue” video with Luis Camacho (“I couldn’t say I worked my whole life for this job ‘cuz I’d be lying”). It’s pretty much been a steady stream of accolades since – he also stars in the lionised documentary Truth or Dare, about Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, as well as the follow up film focusing on her dancers, Strike a Pose. You can briefly catch him voguing (and winning) at his first ball in Paris Is Burning.
Debi Mazar introduced Jose to Madonna in a club. “Madonna said, ‘I heard you’re great at this vogue thing, will you show me?’” Jose recounted. “I remember I was wearing this Gaultier outfit and it was very constricting, and who wants to roll around on the floor in Gaultier? And she looks at me like what, is it your outfit, is that what it is? So she made her bodyguard give me her slacks, and he waited for me in a towel in the VIP bathroom. They were larger than life, but I just tied a belt around them and I went out there.” He killed at the impromptu audition, and that was that.
“Madonna said, ‘I heard you’re great at this vogue thing, will you show me?’ I remember I was wearing this Gaultier outfit and it was very constricting, and who wants to roll around on the floor in Gaultier?” – Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza
Madonna has long been regarded as an appropriator of voguing culture, someone who stole the credit. But Jose disagrees. “People say, ‘oh they ripped us off, or whatever,” said Jose. “And I can’t say that. It took someone like her to bring it to the masses. And she took two of us from the community and gave us a stage to show it on.”
“I don’t feel any bitterness towards Madonna,” he continued. “On the contrary, I’m very grateful. I’m so glad that I was given the opportunity to show the world this thing that was so beautiful, that was made out of nothing, made out of struggle.”
There’s of course a similar debate surrounding Paris is Burning, one that has been raging since the film’s release. There have been arguments that the white, lesbian director Jennie Livingston should not have come into the ball scene at all. Some of the film’s subjects threatened to sue. Pepper LaBeija told the New York Times that she felt betrayed – she wanted exposure, but felt she had been promised money she did not receive. “They all got rich,” she said. “And we got nothing."
Livingston, who has been struggling to fund another project for years, maintains that she did not become wealthy from the project (documentarians almost never do). But she did break with journalistic ethics and gave $55,000 to be split amongst 13 subjects. “The journalistic ethic says you should not pay them,” she told the Times. “On the other hand, these people are giving us their lives! How do you put a price on that?” Dorian Corey, a sage voice of Paris is Burning, hit the nail on the head. “I’ll tell you who is making out is those clever Miramaxes,” she says of the film’s distributors.
The debate about Paris is Burning caught fire again in the summer of 2015, when Celebrate Brooklyn organized a public screening that was to include appearances from Livingston and musician J.D. Samson – and no trans or queer people of colour from the ball scene. There was a petition, there was a boycott. And the debate is still going; there are all kinds of concerns about Paris is Burning. Dancers Stan Milan and Ito Ninja both said that they took issue with the film’s inclusion of hustling and drug use (Stan thought the film leaned negative). A gorgeous trans woman in her early 20s named Enigma, wearing a headscarf in honour of Paris star Octavia St. Laurent, told me that she did not like the depiction of “the LGBT community trying to assimilate to heteronormative society,” saying that while times were different then and she knew some assimilation was necessary for survival, it still made her uncomfortable to see. And there are numerous people who take issue with the concepts of recognition – that Livingston made a respected name for herself, and yet the stars of the film did not become celebrities.
Everyone I spoke to who had problems with the documentary still acknowledged how entertaining it is, how much they enjoyed watching it. And it also obviously makes sense to be angry at an unjust world in which the beautiful Octavia St. Laurent could not become a supermodel, where Pepper LaBeija would not be a superstar, where Venus Xtravaganza was murdered. Circumstances are such that pioneers did not get their due credit, and while Livingston didn’t become wealthy or a household name, she did receive awards and recognition that those she filmed would never get. And there should of course be more stories told from within the ball scene – like this year’s gorgeous documentary Kiki.
“People have told me that the film has been helpful to them, helped them self-define, helped them survive in various ways,” Livingston wrote in an email. “So I think it's given some people imagery, perhaps particularly for people who don't come from bigger cities, to inspire them. To fire their imaginations. On the negative side, I'm sure it's made people who have nothing to do with ball culture (straight people, white people, and others) feel proprietary about it, which understandably irks some people from the ball world.”
“There’s some hard stuff in [Paris is Burning],” says Jose Xtravaganza. “But it’s life, and that’s what was going on back in those days. Aids hit and no one knew what it was, and people were afraid. And I think this film helped us to lean on each other, and it made us feel like somebody.”
Perhaps something getting lost here is that voguing is fun. Balls, however shady and competitive Kimiyah warns me they get, are fun. Melanie’s tea dances are fun. And it is beyond fun to see artists, people who are so wildly talented, do what they love to do.
“I took dancing as an escape, to just make myself feel happy again,” says Justin. “I took dancing and I turned it into a talent, something that I fell in love with, something that was joyful for me to express myself in every way that I can.”
At the end of our big shoot day, Melanie gathered ten voguers on the Christopher Street Pier. Everyone was dressed up. Dancer and MC Princess Magnifique asked if someone could play a song from their phone, and everybody started dancing and posing. It was magic hour. There were young kids who were voguing by the water; they came over to watch legends dance. The song was called “Love is the Message.”