Voguing is an underground style of dance popular within African American and Latino LGBT communities, particularly in New York City. Voguing has recently begun to gain popularity and exposure within the mainstream, thanks to a resurgence of interest in the groundbreaking 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. It is a physically demanding and visually dazzling style of dance, with experienced dancers performing frequent falls, acrobatics, and splits as part of their performances.
The premise of voguing derives from posing, as for the magazine Vogue: the dance is essentially based on a foundation of poses, as though the dancer was constantly being shot by the lens of a fashion photographer. It is popular among traditionally disenfranchised minority LGBT youth, who are passionate about the fashion icons they grew up looking up to; voguing gives them the feeling that they, too, however fleeting the moment may be, have reached equal levels of grace and style, surrounded by the cheering applause of their captivated audience.
Recently in NYC, voguing has appeared in sanitized, well-organized performances for the entertainment of a far more mainstream public generally unfamiliar with the concept of voguing. For example, an officiated voguing battle, where two or more contestants battle it out for the crown, is a regular sight at Catwalk, Susanne Bartsch’s Thursday night extravaganza at the Marquee nightclub. Last fall, celebrities and fashion darlings alike turned up for the W Hotel’s inaugural Love Hangover Ball in support of amfAR, with voguing contestants dancing off in front of the likes of Fergie and Kelly Osbourne. Even MoMA PS1 featured voguing during its Movement Ball last October.
Voguing seen in expensive nightclubs and posh hotels is certainly entertaining, but I found the voguing I was seeing in New York to be lacking something – namely, authenticity. Although the performers were certainly authentic and masters of their craft, I longed to see voguing in its natural environment – surrounded by black people.
In my quest to discover and throw myself into the heart of the voguing moment, I began researching articles and videos to learn more about the movement and find out where I could go to see some voguing realness for myself, free of posers and scene queens who have no idea of the history or meaning behind the fantastic dance they drunkenly witness only to retain a dim, blurred memory of the next day. In my search, I stumbled upon this Diplo-produced gem:
A quick search led me to the official event page for Vogue Knights at Escuelita near Times Square, an underground vogue function that happens every Monday night in NYC. So I sent out a mass text message to my five black friends to see who would accompany me, as I wanted to blend in. I ended up going with my friend Tommy, the Harvard-educated son of Nigerian diplomats, originally from London but living in New York, like myself at the time. I wasn’t sure if he would exactly blend in, but I figured we would be fine as long as he didn’t talk much.
We showed up to Escuelita a bit after midnight, which turned out to be way too early. It was worth it though, because the first person I came across upon entering the dodgy club was the legendary Benny Ninja, a voguing master who I recognized from an appearance on America’s Next Top Model. I took advantage of the opportunity to have him show me the basic vogue moves that I could use to spark my ascent from embarrassing to semi-passable voguing, then snapped a picture of us which I put on Instagram. Benny soon sashayed away, and we were left wondering what to do after finding out that the voguing didn’t actually start until 2am. Tommy and I popped out of the club with a couple transgendered girls to go get a slice of pizza. I recommended the place across the street, and one of the girls whirled around to me and skeptically asked, “Is it a dolla??” I regretfully informed her that I thought it was more around $2.50, so we followed them a couple blocks down to 37th St for some dubious one dollar pizza slices. When I asked one of the girls why the show started so late, she replied matter-of-factly, “Because that’s when the neighborhood girls get off work”.
Upon returning to the club, we mingled with our fellow attendees while waiting for the show to start. The crowd consisted of mainly black people and a smattering of Scandinavians, including a few who were students of Benny Ninja’s and voguers themselves, further solidifying my belief that Scandinavians are the coolest people on Earth. Soon the show began, and we took our places. The illustrious judges took their seats on stage, the MC grabbed his mic, and the first contestants sashayed onto stage to battle it out. What followed was a two-hour dance extravaganza of dips, flips, turns, falls, poses, splits, crawling, head-whipping, hair-flipping, booty-shaking, hip-thrusting, runway-walking explosion of voguing realness. The dancers consisted of mainly black young gay males and both biological and transgendered girls.
In addition to the vogue battles, the show (or function, if we’re to use proper voguing lingo) featured the highly entertaining categories. My particular favorites included BQ realness and FQ realness – categories where participants do their best to pass as biological, heterosexual males or females. During BQ school realness, several very straight black men suddenly came out of nowhere with backpacks, as if on their way to school, and took to the stage to strut their stuff in front of the judges. Not fully understanding the concept behind the contest, I puzzled as to what they were doing at this otherwise very queer event. Then I realized that they were the very same fabulous and talented dancers I had marveled at only moments before, doing their best to pass as straight males, which they did so well that it made me wonder just how often they had to in real life. Then after this parade of slightly menacing yet secretly fabulous men came an assortment of beautiful women, flipping their hair and flashing their most dazzling smiles at the judges. I turned to my neighbor and whispered incredulously, “Are they really all trans?”, to which she rolled her eyes and replied affirmatively.
Another category included was female runway walk, which shockingly had no volunteers – until a saucy Finnish girl sashayed across the stage with grace and snatched first place. She may have won by default, but I thought she did a pretty good job – and it must be intimidating to step out beneath the critical eye of such talent!
In the end, Tommy and I ended up having a fabulous time – no drinks required to enjoy the amazing display of talent – the energy and enthusiasm of the dancers was infectious. If you’re ever in NYC on a Monday night, I highly recommend checking out this show – you won’t regret it! It’s not easy to see for most people, with most of the action taking place between 2am and 4am on a Monday night, but that’s perhaps what allows it to remain underground and retain the authenticity that its primped and polished cousins at Marquee and the W Hotel have lost. You have to be committed to go to Vogue Knights, but stepping outside of the box always did take a bit of commitment – and it’s always worth it.
WHERE: La Nueva Escuelita, 301 W 39th St, Manhattan, NY 10018
WHEN: Monday nights. Vogue competition from 2am to 4am.
HOT TIP: Text VOGUE to 88202 for reduced admission (from $10 to $6). 18+ to vogue, 21+ to drink.
Here is the link to the official Facebook page for Vogue Knights, where you can find all of the latest event information:
For further information about voguing, such as the rise of prominent voguing houses, ball culture, its influence on Madonna’s “Vogue”, and much more, check out these great articles:
I also highly recommend checking out the documentary Paris is Burning, but is you’re short on time or motivation, this video of Azealia Banks’ song Fierce should catch you right up: