Scan 2

C’mon, Vogue.

First let’s talk about house.

Many of us remember the ‘house’ music of the 80’s. Those of us still at school didn’t quite understand why it was called such, but the word was soon everywhere. The mainstream picked up on it pretty quickly and the characteristic, hypnotic  ‘4 to the floor’ thump became a feature of the dance music of the later years of the decades, with generic sub categories such as hard and acid house. With the advent of ’90s, came sampling and borrowing of beats, basslines and divas from past eras. The journey of dance music shows a full circle through ’70s funk and soul, through disco, to rave, ‘garage’ various ‘broken beat’ phases including jungle/grime …. and back again. Like many movements made popular by media exposure, house and it’s associated dances had it’s base, continuing to this day, in the underground, far away from Top of the Pops and MTV. The tradition extends way back to the Harlem balls of the 1930’s, a queer subculture often just referred to by insiders as, ‘The Life.’

Jennie Livingstone’s 2009 cult documentary, ‘Paris is Burning’, dropped off a library shelf, the day after I bought a a 3 CD limited edition of ‘Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1976-96.’ (Published by Soul Jazz Records.) The above image of Willi Ninja, is by Chantal Regnault French/Haitian photographer who documented the  New York voguing scene at it’s height.

The  film makes no reference, musically or otherwise, to a certain famous singer of the ’80s  – whom many associate with the word ‘Vogue’. Instead, it focusses on the lives  and aspirations of the brave, competitive drag queens, dancers, models and hustlers of the gay Harlem world who created a universe where they could be safe and proud. Their lives revolved around the gay ballroom subculture, where houses would strut and battle their costumes, identities and fantasy categories on the dancefloor. Big hearted, yet fiercely adversarial, the Queens and novitiates of the Houses of Extravaganza, Ninja, St Laurent and Labeija, would compete to outdo each other in categories of ‘butch queen’, or ‘realness’ (i.e can you pass for straight) military, girl-next-door or any variation that the imagination could dream up. Weeks of preparation would go into costumes and choreography, with serious gamesmanship and shade-throwing between those who ‘walked’. Despite the bitching between factions, the houses and their ‘mothers’ represented community and safety for the LGBT youth of the time, often unwelcome in their own families.

The geometric, yet sinuous dance moves expressed an outlandish glamour, evocative of  the fashion catwalk and the materialistic spirit of the 80’s. All could dream of being wealthy and fabulous, just for a short while. Contenders could range from the amateur to the highly polished, such as the phenomenal dance instructor and pioneer, Willi Ninja, who did maybe more than anyone to develop the sophistication and visibility of vogueing. He died of AIDS related illness in 2006, leaving his own impressive performance legacy, the scope of which is only now being recognised by the music industry.

Historically, popular culture devours and discards subculture for it’s own commercial ends. Though they worked hard and dreamed big, most of the participants of ‘Paris is Burning’ never got to enjoy the widespread renown of the craze they had invented. Most are now dead. Teenage hustler/transsexual and voguer par excellence, Venus Extravaganza, was murdered during the making of the film – a reminder that whilst mainstream culture will happily appropriate new fads and fashions, it does not always love the source, especially one that falls outside the realm of social acceptability. Is it possible to envisage a world where actual gay people are celebrated? Not just the aspects of gay culture packaged and sold to the public? I hope so. This movement is alive and well and new generations are discovering it. Enjoy the movie link.


Excellent article by journalist Dave Morris on Canadian news site, Globe and Mail:

Interview with photographer Chantal Regnault:

‘Check Your Body at the Door’ – dance documentary by Sally Somer:

Fascinating 2007 interview with Freddie Pendavis:

Promo for ‘Wig Out!’ 2008 Royal Court production of  Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play about competing drag queen houses. I saw this at the time, also bought copy of the script. It evokes the era perfectly.