‘Strength, resistance, power’: inside Bogota’s radical ballroom community

In a new film and photo series, Sebastian Prince and Florian Hildebrandt meet the trans Colombians using dance as a form of protest

If you were spending any time on the internet whatsoever in 2021, you probably saw a wildly viral video of a group of trans women in Bogota, Colombia, protesting the government with voguing. These protests were initially sparked in response to a proposed tax reform but grew to encompass a wider dissatisfaction with rising inequality, police violence and government corruption within the country. For these women, however, joining the protest was also a way of making their presence felt in a society in which they are still marginalised and made invisible. Now, one year on, photographers Sebastian Prince and Florian Hildebrandt, of studio Kapturing, have released Magica, Marica, Voguera, a fascinating short documentary that chronicles the experiences of these protesters and other people within their community.

Prince, who is himself Colombian, and Hildebrandt, who is from Germany, are a photography duo and married couple based in Paris. They spent three weeks in Bogota shooting the film this February, and initially wanted the project to be more about fashion. But as they spent more time with the girls and listened to their stories, they realised that what they were creating was deeper and more political. The video pairs footage with the girls with voice-over interviews in which they outline their personal experiences of being trans in Colombia, both their trials and their triumphs. It’s as much about their individual stories as their political philosophies, but of course the two things are entwined. “They’re young girls, some of whom have only just recently transitioned and started to be part of the community. They’re starting to live the life that they want to live,” says Hildebrandt.

Voguing has only been around in Colombia for around six years, according to Azul, a member of the House of Tupamaras. This means that, compared to its decades-long history in the US, it’s a fairly recent phenomenon. Yet one of the most striking parts of the film is the level of skill and athleticism on display. How did they get so good at it? “For me, the most beautiful thing about voguing is that it has helped many people to recognise their body. For this, you don’t have to be a professional dancer,” Azul tells Dazed. “For me, dancing is about a relationship with gender. Through voguing, I use it as a tool to discover myself.” According to Amapola, a member of the House of Yeguazas, the key thing is training, although this rarely takes place within formal settings. “We practice in any kind of space; streets, parks and many spaces like this that are not really suitable for training. It’s not only physical work, however, but also mental. To be able to leave your insecurities behind and dance extravagantly is an art.”

“We think of movement as an extension of our lives, our tastes and the inner world that each one of us inhabits,” explains Jona, also from the House of Yeguazas. As with Amapola, she says that training is a key part of their skills. “Some days we meet to dance together, share information and raise our level; at other times we meet to organise and create choreographies for a specific event,” she says. “So all the time we are in constant movement and creation.”

For these girls, dancing is about political resistance as well as creative expression. “Voguing is the celebration and resistance of your femininity in a patriarchal world, of your history and identity and your truth,” Bella, a member of the House of Cobras, tells Dazed. “It is a movement born among trans people who have been racialised. Your story is what gives flavour, substance and strength to your dances. In this macho society that tries to sell us the idea that femininity is weak, voguing gives us strength, resistance and power.” While there is a sense of competition inside the ballrooms, out in the world they are a family and take care of one another.

This kind of resistance is all too necessary in a country where being trans is still extremely difficult. “I don’t think that things are getting any better,” says Amveria, from the House of Yeguazas. “I live in a scenario that is synonymous with survival, where people want you to be self-conscious, where they implant you with fears to forbid you from existing. These fears are real, but I’d prefer to die for what I am. It’s not fair: I don’t want to walk in fear in the street, I do not want to die for existing or to endure hunger. I want and deserve to live. I want opportunities because I am bright, happy, and free.”

“The truth is that I don’t see that things are getting better,” agrees Jona. “On the contrary, I feel that the country is taking giant steps towards the past. After the protests in 2021, in which the dissidents went out to claim our rights as citizens and existing bodies, why a year after these protests, are we still being killed, raped, and beaten?” While there have been signs of progress for the LGBTQ+ community, such as the election of a lesbian mayor in Bogota, these small steps have yet to make much material difference to the lives of trans women in Colombia. “Transfeminicides have increased, murders against people of the LGBTQ+ community have increased, the insecurity against us continues,” says Amapola.

Bella agrees that the situation has improved a little in the past ten years, but stresses that the trans community in Colombia still faces discrimination across every sector of society. “Even though we are becoming more visible and we can access our identity documents thanks to the hard work of activists, the process is still very crude and inhumane, because there is no education that instills respect for human diversity,” she says. Trans and non-binary issues are simply not mentioned within educational settings. The healthcare system, meanwhile, makes transitioning incredibly difficult, erecting a number of bureaucratic barriers.

But while trans people face unique challenges, these women see their struggle as being intimately connected with the wider problems in Colombia. “Social class equals human value according to this society,” says Hersu, from the House of Cobras. “No home, no health, no ability to pass as cis – what are we left with? We are just surviving from day-to-day without the possibility of progress.” Azul agrees that the fight for trans liberation is bound up with the fight against class hierarchies. “Our struggles are connected to poverty, social class and homelessness. In this country to accept that you are a trans person makes you lose many privileges, such as having a family – because they often reject you – which leads to not having a roof over your head. This leads many trans girls to sex work and living on the streets; poverty is imposed by the simple fact of being trans.”

While the situation is in many ways a stark one, these women are optimistic about the future, and the power they have to change it. “There is much to continue fighting for victories that we have yet to win,” says Jona. “Currently there are several collectives and organisations working for the human rights of diverse communities. The work that has been done so far has been big and powerful. It gives us hope to think that in the future our lives can be much better.“

 “Unfortunately there is much to do to go in the right direction because this society is still governed by a double standard that seeks to invisible us,” agrees Bella. “But the resistance, the ballroom and the work continues and will continue because even if many want it, we are not going anywhere!”