Friday, 2 November 2012

Take It To The Ball

 
 


Octavia Saint Laurent ~ Paris Is Burning
(Courtesy of Miramax)
Image courtesy of: 12 Magazine
 
 
 
 
...music meets fashion meets runway meets competition. ~ DJ Junior Vasquez




Image courtesy of: KIDNAPPED CULTURE
 



At the mention of “Voguing,” you would be forgiven for immediately connecting the term solely with Madonna's single, Vogue. But a year before Madonna's release of her 1990 hit song (the accompanying video débuted in March of that year)—the first from “I'm Breathless,” the companion soundtrack album to the film Dick Tracy and her eighth U.S. number one hit (and one that she reportedly still performs live in concert)—there was Malcolm McLaren's less known but much more authentic, Deep In Vogue (from the 1989 album Waltz Darling). (As a frame of reference, while Jody Watley's 1989 video for her single Friends featured snippets of Voguing, Malcolm McLaren's Deep In Vogue was entirely based on the dance and was its centrally featured theme—the first of its kind—predating Madonna's Vogue by nearly a year.) Both albums and their respective singles, however, were exceeded by Jennie Livingston's Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning 1990 seminal documentary, Paris Is Burning (first released by Miramax Films at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and the Princeton Queer Articulations Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 1990 and then to wider audiences and at other festivals in 1991). (Deep In Vogue was unquestionably influenced by Paris Is Burning as it incorporated certain vocal extracts and phrases taken directly from the film; later on, when Mr. McLaren embarked on a worldwide promotional tour of his album, Waltz Darling, he engaged several dancers from some of the Houses, foremost among them, Willi Ninja—along with fellow-Voguers Adrian and Aldonna Xtravaganza—who was responsible for choreographing the Deep In Vogue video as well as prominently starring in it. At that time and while still working with Mr. McLaren, Willi Ninja was simultaneously approached by Madonna—both of whom, Willi and Madonna, attended the August 7th, 1991, benefit/premiere of Paris Is Burning for AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills—and invited to be a troupe member of her dancers for her upcoming 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour; but for reasons of his own, it was an offer that Ninja refused. Willi Ninja did, however, make a very fleeting cameo appearance in Deee-Lite's Good Beat video—the single, from the band's 1990 début album, World Clique, was released in 1991 [Sources: Kedves, J., Lovegang, undated; Paris Is Burning (1990), IMDb].)




Take it to the ball and on that runway, walk the body ~ Something's Jumping In Your Shirt, Malcolm McLaren (Waltz Darling, 1989)




A seventy-six minute film, shot entirely in New York City between the years of 1987 and 1989, Paris Is Burning is an insightful chronicle of Harlem's drag Ball culture in the declining, twilight years of the 1980s. The film—set to a backdrop of such Pop and House classics as Love Is The Message by MFSB, Cheryl Lynn's Got To Be Real, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) by the Eurythmics, Barry White's Never Gonna Give You Up, Move Your Body by Marshall Jefferson, and, of course, Diana Ross's Love Hangover—follows several key players (along with other contestants)—all of whom are members of the gay/transgender African-American and/or Hispanic-American communities—as they compete for elaborately-constructed trophies—(sometimes soaring up to as much as twelve feet in height)—in various, strictly-adhered-to categories.

 







Voguing: The Message is courtesy of:  ~ Vimeo



 
But for all the brilliance (and iconography) of Paris Is Burning—a film which cost about $500,000 to complete, including $175,000 for music clearances, won the 1990 Los Angeles Film Critics' Award for Best Documentary, then the prize for Best Documentary at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival (a title it shared that year with Barbara Kopple's American Dream [Sources: IMDb, 1991; Green, J., The New York Times, April 18, 1993]) along with several other awards including, the 1990 International Documentary Achievement Award, the Seattle Film Festival Best Documentary Prize, the San Francisco Gay Festival Audience Award and the Berlin Film Festival Teddy Bear Award (Source: Hagwood, R.S., Times Union, September 10, 1991)Deep In Vogue and Vogue, they were merely indicators, signals, that heralded Voguing's surfacing into the consciousness of mainstream popular culture. Even though many may be familiar with its modern form, few are aware of the intricately rich cultural, political, sexual and social history—its roots and ancestry—of what ultimately came to be known as “Voguing.” It is a steep account, one stretching back decades. And the birthplace and cradle of the dance was—as it always has been—Harlem. However, before charting the evolution of Voguing from the Harlem Ball culture, a brief allusion must be made to the Harlem Renaissance—it was the scenic backdrop as well as the fertile ground from which that (Ball) culture emerged and—culminating in its final expression—Voguing eventually derived.


Harlem. Its very name evokes images of lasting fascination—half factual, half mythical—of late-night clubs, sultry speakeasies (hidden addresses tucked away in basement saloons—sometimes run out of private dwellings—where any number of illicit activities such as gambling or drinking could and usually did take place) and bewitching Jazz. A district of New York City, Harlem can generally be said to occupy the northern part of Manhattan, encompassing an area that bounds between “155th Street on the north, the East and Harlem rivers on the east, 96th Street (east of Central Park) and 110th Street and Cathedral Parkway (north and west of Central Park) on the south, and Amsterdam Avenue on the west(Quote: Encyclopaedia Britannica, undated). Most of the area's rowhouses had been built sometime in the last years of the nineteenth century by speculative builders. By 1904, however, the real estate market had collapsed providing shrewd and opportunistic Realtors with the chance to offer Blacks—newly displaced by the construction of Pennsylvania Station in their old neighbourhood in the West Thirties—affordable housing. As the 1910s commenced, Harlem had already become established as Manhattan's foremost Black residential borough.


But Harlem offered its inhabitants more than inexpensive housing options; it offered the chance to establish themselves within their own community as well as affording them a sense of autonomy and freedom. And the impetus—as disruptive and destructive as it may have been—was provided by the First World War. In his excellent and commendable book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994), George Chauncey writes: Harlem consolidated its status as New York's leading black neighborhood just as World War I led tens of thousands of Southern blacks to migrate to New York and other Northern cities. The Great Migration, as historians have called it, was precipitated by the sudden availability of thousands of well-paying jobs in Northern industry due to the military mobilization of white workers and the cutoff of European immigration. Many blacks also viewed moving North as an act of political self-determination, tied to the elevation of the race as well as to individual improvement. To many southern migrants, the North seemed a land of freedom, where they could escape the grinding poverty, political powerlessness, and daily indignities to which they seemed forever condemned in the Jim Crow South.(Quote: Chauncey, G., Gay New York, 1994:245)




Image courtesy of: music makes me happy
 



By the 1920s, Harlem had morphed into much more than merely a Black borough—a veritable Black metropolis, the size of which was unparalleled anywhere else in America; by the mid-teens, more than eighty percent of Manhattan's African-American population was already residing in Harlem—it was home to Black-owned businesses, Black churches, a variety of social organizations and nightclubs (notably, Connie’s Inn—owned and run by a White bootlegger named Connie Immerman who, with his brother George, owned several delicatessens in Harlem that they turned into speakeasies during the Prohibition. Immerman acquired the Shuffle Inn which he converted into Connie's Inn in 1923—Cotton Club, Barron's, the Lenox and Everglades Club), hundreds of basement jazz clubs and speakeasies, cabarets, brothels, and even Marcus Garvey's militant Black nationalist movement. More significantly, perhaps, Harlem attracted poets, musicians, artists, novelists and club impresarios and singers—(the most famous of which was Ada “Bricktop” Smith, so named by Connie Immerman on account of her flaming-red hair; she left Harlem in 1924 and headed to Paris's Montmartre district to entertain and headline at Le Grand Duc, a nightclub there)—all of whom contributed to create what came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance as well as the self-determined, self-assured “New Negro” (as African-Americans called themselves).


Harlem—christened with the epithet 'Paris of New York'—became Manhattan's principal entertainment district, attracting well-to-do visitors from throughout the city eager to enjoy its lively nightlife and free-flowing liquor. Harlemite culture had a particular attraction for White visitors—sojourning into Harlem became fashionably known as “slumming”—eager to relish such exuberant revues and musicals as that of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along (a musical production written, performed, produced, and directed by African-Americans) which opened on Broadway—the first of its kind—on May 23rd, 1921, at New York's 63rd Street Theater (then still considered as part of Broadway).
(Sources: Chauncey, G., Gay New York, 1994; New World Records, 2002; Monahan, P., To Bricktop, on Her Belated Birthday, the Paris Review, August 15, 2011; Cullen, F., Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Vol. 1, 2006)


In this cultural (and racial) kaleidoscope where, by necessity, a diverse assortment of people lived side by side, a gay and lesbian social world also took root in Harlem—all seeking similar emancipation from conventional values and social strictures: “Among the thousands of young men and women who flocked to the land of freedom were people who hoped Harlem would liberate them from the conformity imposed in small Southern communities. Although some evidence suggests that gay men were more accepted in rural black communities than in comparable white communities, moving to the city made it possible for them to participate in a gay world organized on a scale unimaginable in a Southern town... Gay life suffused the district, but the class and stylistic conflicts that divided the white gay world elsewhere in the city took on special force in Harlem, simply because so many people from such varied backgrounds were gathered together... Like the straight white slummers who made Harlem's jazz clubs and speakeasies their playground, gay white men visiting Harlem were leaving behind the communities and families who enforced the social imperatives that normally constrained their behavior.(Quote: Chauncey, G., Gay New York, 1994:247-248)






 
 
 


 


 
Even though masquerade Balls had been held annually at Harlem's Hamilton Lodge since 1869, it was not until the 1920s—when Harlem's renaissance made it a fashionable destination—that they came into their full fruition. The organizers of the Ball—Hamilton Lodge No. 710 of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (held at the Rockland Palace situated at 280 West 155th Street; “The site is now a parking lot beneath an overpass leading to the Macombs Dam Bridge[Quote: Biederman, M., Journey to an Overlooked Past, The New York Times, June11, 2000])—officially called it the 'Masquerade and Civic Ball,' but by the late 1920s, though, everyone knew and (unofficially) called it the 'Faggots Ball.' (Balls were also staged at other Harlem venues such as the Savoy Ballroom located between 140th and 141st Streets on Lenox Avenue; The Savoy was in operation from 1926 to 1958.) And by the late 1930s, the reputation of the Masquerade and Civic Ball/Faggots Ball as a female impersonators' event was well-established. (It must be noted that despite the fact that gay men promenaded openly as 'fairies' or 'sissies' through much of New York's streets and the working-class neighbourhoods of its outlying boroughs, it was only in Harlem, significantly, that men felt sufficiently comfortable to venture out in public dressed in women's attire—in 'drag'; it appears that there existed some degree of tolerance if not a qualified total acceptance of these “pansies on parade.” Drag queens, as cross-dressers were and still are known, regularly appeared in Harlem's clubs and cafés.


Perhaps Harlem's most famous female impersonator and club host was a fellow by the name of Winston who performed under the stage name “Gloria Swanson.” “Gloria”—(who arrived in Harlem in 1930 from Chicago where, as an accomplished drag queen, he had not only won several prizes at Chicago's Balls but also ran and hosted his own club)—was apparently so convincing as a 'woman,' that many patrons who attended his performances left without ever suspecting his true sex. Still, it took substantial courage to walk the streets of Harlem dressed in 'drag' as the queens faced not only harassment from local youths but also arrest by the police who regularly patrolled the neighbourhood.) The late 1920s and early 1930s were a prosperous time for “female” as well as for “male” impersonators: “The Ubangi Club had a chorus of singing, dancing, be-ribboned and be-rouged 'pansies,' and Gladys Bentley who dressed in male evening attire, sang and accompanied herself on the piano; ...the famous Hamilton Lodge 'drag' balls were becoming more and more notorious and gender was becoming more and more conjectural.(Quote & source: Chauncey, G., Gay New York, 1994:252)




These [Balls] made Wigstock look like an Off Off Broadway show. ~ Michael Korie

 


Described by Langston Hughes, the social activist and writer, as 'spectacles in colour,' these resplendent annual Hamilton Lodge masquerade Balls (New York's biggest annual affair) were certainly attended by drag queens prior to 1926; but it was only in that year that a newspaper report recorded that approximately half of the attendees were gay men ('fairies'). However, a substantial 'gay element' at the Balls—(with female impersonation as a featured specialty)—only became prominent in the 1920s when a new group of organizers and administrators took command of the event in 1923. In anticipation of the evening's chief highlight—the costume competition—drag queens processed through the auditorium in what was termed as “the parade of the fairies” followed by a dance for the remainder of the night with stereotypical, superficially straight dance partners: lesbians attired as men and gay men who favoured the 'butch' style danced with women—either the biological sort or effeminate men in drag, dressed as women. And although there were a number of White masqueraders (as both dancers and spectators; straight and gay), the majority of the dancers were predominantly gay and they were the prime focus of attention. And in that (gay) segment of attendees, the majority of drag queens came from working-class labourers—(though some upper-middle class men did also attend in drag)—under the age of thirty.


The popularity of the Hamilton Lodge Balls peaked towards the end of the 1920s and into the early 1930s. Increasingly, as the popularity, interest in, and attendance at the 'Faggots Ball' rose incrementally, more and more of those who attended came not so much to dance as to gaze at “Harlem's yearly extravaganza—'The Dance of the Fairies'”: in 1925, about eight-hundred revelers attended that year's Ball; in 1926, nearly fifteen-hundred guests were present; in 1929, three thousand people came to ogle at two thousand 'fairies' as they danced—over the next few years, at the height of its popularity, the Lodge's annual Ball would draw up to seven thousand spectators. In 1934, for example, the Amsterdam News reported, “Four thousand citizens, numbering some of Harlem's best, elbowed and shoved each other aside and squirmed and stepped on one another's toes and snapped at each other to obtain a better eyeful(Quotes & source: Chauncey, G., Gay New York, 1994:258); after that, attendance at the Balls would generally hover around the four thousand mark for the rest of the 1930s. (The Amsterdam News, Harlem's largest newspaper, began reporting on the Lodge's annual event starting in the mid-1920s, and continued to do so right through until the close of the 1930s.)


But the popularity—and notoriety—of the 'Faggots Ball' was such, that it extended beyond Harlem's boundaries, being reported in Baltimore's Afro-American and the Inter-State Tattler and even in the conservative New York Age. And although Harlem hosted other masquerade Balls, Hamilton Lodge's annual spectacle garnered the most attention and was regularly reported on by the Black press who, aside from publishing photographs or drawings of the guests, also interviewed the winning contestants, detailing their costumes—either on the first or second page in the news section of their papers—for their readers. (The Amsterdam News, for instance, accompanied their coverage of the Balls with drawings of the winning contestants—often referring to them as the “Girls”—centrally featured with the second- and third-place winners alongside; at the 1936 Ball, the first prize for Best Costume was $50.) (Sources: Chauncey, G., Gay New York, 1994; Lawrence, T., 'Listen, and you Will Hear All the Houses That Walked There Before': A History of Drag Balls, Houses and the Culture of Voguing, Academia.edu, 2012)
 

(For a compendious  outline  of  New York's 'Golden Gay Age' of the 1920s and 1930s, please visit: Out Traveler [Manhattan's Roaring Gay Days, January 14, 2008].)

 

 
 



 
As they returned from the battlefront following the conclusion of the Second World War, there was an influx of gay servicemen in Manhattan; many of whom had passed through the city on their way to the war. Now, instead of continuing to their original home towns and States, a number of those gay men chose to settle permanently in New York City. All these new arrivals bolstered the already existent drag Ball culture in the late 1940s—which, it appears, had continued to thrive during and after the war years. In March 1953, Ebony Magazine reported that over three-thousand contestants and spectators had all gathered at the Rockland Palace “to watch the men who like to dress in women's clothing parade before judges” at one of those Balls. (Quote: Lawrence, T., Academia.edu, 2012)


Significantly, whereas the Harlem drag Balls of the 1930s were fairly well integrated with both White and Black contestants as well as spectators attending the events (“Those balls were merely drag fashion shows staged by white men two or three times a year in gay bars, with prizes given for the most outrageous costumes”)—it was conditional: hopeful Black contestants wishing to participate were, nonetheless, expected to 'whiten their faces' in order to compete with their lighter-skinned or White counterparts for a chance to win a prize at the Balls. (“It was our goal then to look like white women. They used to tell me, 'You have negroid features,' and I'd say, 'That's alright, I have white eyes.' That's how it was back then,” as Pepper LaBeija (Mother of the House of LaBeija), a veteran of the Ball circuit and one of the stars of Paris Is Burning was once quoted as saying.) By the 1960s, a handful of Black drag queens took matters into their own hands and began staging their own events in Harlem, beginning with Marcel Christian's 1962 Ball; it was the first exclusively Black drag Ball and it signaled a new phase as well as a new direction for the drag Balls. (Quotes: Cunningham, M., The Slap of Love, 1995)
 
 
By all accounts, as these all-Black 1960s Balls progressed through the decade—(held at rented venues such as Elks Lodge [Imperial Lodge of Elks]  on 160 West 129th Street)—they increasingly became ever more extravagant and glamorous—much more so than their earlier counterparts. As word spread around Harlem that drag queens were assembling show-girl style costumes “...bigger and grander than Rose Parade floats(Quote: Cunningham, M., The Slap of Love, 1995), people (gay and straight alike) began to attend these spectacles, bringing along sandwiches, buckets of chicken and liquor for sustenance—they first came by the dozens, then by the hundreds, all eager for a view. (“They [the Balls] began to be held as early as 3, 4 or 5 a.m.—a tradition that continues to this day—in order to make it safer for participants to travel the streets wearing high heels and feathers when 'trade' had gone to sleep. The early morning start times also made renting out halls cheaper, and ensured that 'the working girls' (i.e., transsexuals who made their money as late-night sex workers) would also be able to make the function[Quote: Harlem's Drag Ball History, Harlem World, April 27, 2011].)


As the number of audiences grew, so did the elaborateness of costumes and entrance effects: a golden-sheathed, lamé-clad comely Cleopatra once arrived reclining on a barge flanked by six of her attendants, each of whom waving white, glittering palm fronds; other contestants included faux fashion models, wearing Mylar-lined feather coats—at the moment they swung open their coats, a two-thousand-watt incandescent lamp suddenly lit up; the reflective effect was so brilliant that, for a few minutes afterwards, it momentarily rendered the front-row audience blind. This high-voltage glamour and ornamentation contributed to what Michael Cunningham termed as, “Vegas come to Harlem. It was the queens' most baroque fantasies of glamor and stardom, all run on Singer sewing machines in tiny apartments(Quote: Cunningham, M., The Slap of Love, 1995). But as these heady Harlem Balls grew in stature and became an underground sensation, the stars of these spectacular events, the Black queens, began to split into rival factions. It was not until the 1970s that these factious groups would coalesce and form into separate 'Houses.' Before drag Ball culture in the 1970s could be reviewed, a pivotal event must be taken into account—one that had a profound, everlasting effect on gay life everywhere.
(Sources: Lawrence, T., 'Listen, and you Will Hear All the Houses That Walked There Before': A History of Drag Balls, Houses and the Culture of Voguing, Academia.edu, 2012; Cunningham, M., The Slap of Love, 1995; Harlem's Drag Ball History, Harlem World, April 27, 2011)




If the beginning of the black balls coincided with the intensification of the civil rights movement, the formation of the houses paralleled the increasing confidence of the gay liberation movement, which enjoyed its symbolic breakthrough when drag queens occupied the frontline during the Stonewall rebellion of June 1969.” ~ Tim Lawrence
 
 


At the end of the 1960s, a momentous event in the lives of drag queens (and gay men and women in general) occurred: the Stonewall riots. Before the riots transpired, prohibitive Sodomy laws criminalized gay activity—homosexuality and homosexual acts of any kind, in fact—legally forbidding it in New York (as it was prohibited in all other States—with the exception of  Illinois—and the majority of other countries; in some parts of the world, it remains illegal). Gay bars, businesses and establishments were regularly under police surveillance—specifically targeted and often subjected to raids; systemic persecution of gay men and lesbians was rampant. Police harassment frequently led to the closure of gay-owned businesses along with arrest of gay customers and consumers. (As though that was insufficient, it was not uncommon for those arrested to be publicly exposed in newspapers, finding themselves summarily dismissed from their jobs, incarcerated or sent to mental institutions—their lives and livelihoods ruined.)


At 1:20 a.m. on the night of June 28th, 1969, a group of gay patrons were at a popular gay bar called the Stonewall Inn, in  Greenwich Village—a bar that allowed dancing  in its back room “and which police tolerated in return for regular, under-the-counter payments. When those payments were delayed, officers would raid the bar in order to remind the owners of their obligations(Quote: Lawrence, T., Academia.edu, 2012)—when police launched what they assumed to be yet another typical raid; this night, however, while police officers waited for patrol wagons to arrive and cart away those under arrest, the usually complaisant patrons—(which included a number of drag queens already on edge following the funeral of singer-actress and gay icon Judy Garland who, a week earlier, was found dead at her London home on June 22nd at the age of forty-seven)—had had enough and refused to comply with orders—a violent riot ensued, one that lasted for six days. Word of the demonstration quickly spread around the city and the Inn's customers were soon joined by other gay men and women—(nearly four hundred individuals)—who jumped into the fray—(which lasted for forty-five minutes)—and began throwing objects of all sorts—pennies, beer bottles, trash bins, whatever they had close at hand—whilst shouting, “gay power.” (By an odd and fitting coincidence, the Stonewall Inn riots occurred on the 100th anniversary of the first masquerade Ball, inaugurated at the Hamilton Lodge.)


Not surprisingly, other police forces arrived and started to beat the crowds—thirteen people were arrested and four police officers were injured; by the next night, June 29th, a large gathering of people convened—outnumbering the one that had assembled the night before—numbering between one- to two-thousand people, and returned to the mêlée; they rioted outside of the Stonewall Inn until the riot-control squad arrived and dispersed the crowds. For days afterwards, in an act of defiance and resistance, demonstrations took place throughout the city. The Stonewall riots were not confined to New York City; soon, they inspired similar demonstrations all over America in support of gay rights; it became the catalyst that launched the gay rights movement—(also known as the gay liberation movement).


Although there had been other acts of resistance prior to the Stonewall Inn riots, what differentiates these riots from the ones before them are numbers and dimension. The previous demonstrations had been small and disorganized in comparison; Stonewall attracted the attention and support of people nationwide, on a massive scale. Within two years of the riots, gay rights groups had taken root in nearly every major city in the United States: it is estimated that within a year after the Stonewall riots, one-thousand organizations formed; two years later, there were approximately two-thousand-five-hundred established. At the end of each June, the Stonewall riots are commemorated annually with Gay Pride celebrations across the United States as well as in many other countries and cities the world over.
(Sources: The Leadership Conference, Stonewall Riots: The Beginning of the LGBT Movement, June 22, 2009; Singleton, D., Stonewall Riots: 40 Years Later: A Look Back at the Turning Point for Gay Rights, AARP Bulletin, June 2009; Levy, M., Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012; Lawrence, T., 'Listen, and you Will Hear All the Houses That Walked There Before': A History of Drag Balls, Houses and the Culture of Voguing, Academia.edu, 2012)

  

 











 The Art of Vogue are courtesy of: jayb22 ~ YouTube




The factious groups and inevitable drag-queen cliques of the 1960s were merely a prelude to the Houses that formed in the 1970s. Put another way, Houses were the natural, progressive evolvement of these coteries. Although initially based on the concept of famous fashion couture Houses—(some Houses even adopted the actual names of fashion Houses such as Chanel, Armani, Mizrahi, Saint Laurent and Dior)—the Houses were more akin to a nuclear family with a 'father' (sometimes) a 'mother,' and 'children' of a House (who, as representatives of their respective Houses, would compete with one another for trophies, prizes and/or titles at the Balls); Houses are part surrogate families, part dance troupes. Most Houses, however, took their names from their founding 'mother'—usually the most powerful member of the family—or 'father' (as in the Houses of Crystal LaBeija, Patricia Field, Hector Xtravaganza, Paris Dupree or Willi Ninja). As is the case with many gay youth, a number of whom found (and still find) themselves ousted from or disowned by their own biological but intolerant families, these (Houses) “were a literal re-creation of 'homes,' in the sense that these groups became real-life families for individuals that might have been exiled from their birth homes. However, contrary to popular belief, many early 'house' kids were still deeply connected to their biological families but still sought the unique protection, care and love the street houses provided ... the houses became underground social networks by and for urban black gay people(Quote: Harlem's Drag Ball History, Harlem World, April 27, 2011). These 'families,' these Houses, played an integral part in the lives of their members, providing them with “the warmth of an extended community(Quote: Lawrence, T., Academia.edu, 2012). Andre Collins, a disc jockey at the Bronx's largest gay club, Warehouse (141 East 140th Street, between Grand Concourse and Walton Avenue), has gone further, insightfully pointing out the socio-psychological need for group belonging:  “...from the onset, there has been a need for gay people to have a unity. Being a homosexual, a lot of these kids have been ostracized, beat up by their families, thrown out of their homes. It's no different now than when I was a kid. Some of these kids are homeless and struggling. They don't know how much talent and ability they have going on. So, if they join a house, they can belong somewhere. They can be part of a team(Quote: Trebay, G., Legends of the Ball: Paris Is Still Burning, The Village Voice, January 11, 2000).




Mordant social commentary has always been at the core of the voguing balls, and long before academia institutionalized the notion that gender is performance, the ball children were tartly making the same point at elaborate fetes where competing groups vied to outdo each other at caricaturing the masks of sex.” ~ Guy Trebay




In 1972 (some sources place the year as early as 1970), the first 'House' was founded: the House of LaBeija (“an African-American vernacular redeployment of the Spanish word for 'beauty'[Quote: Harlem's Drag Ball History, Harlem World, April 27, 2011]). The House of LaBeija came into existence when a Harlem drag queen by the name of Lottie (who worked at a  welfare office on 125th Street), approached Crystal LaBeija and forwarded a proposal to co-promote and co-host an annual drag Ball. At the time, Crystal LaBeija was a feisty drag queen competing in the pageant circuit—one of the few Black queens to be awarded the title of 'Queen of the Ball' at Caucasian-organized Balls. Crystal had gotten tired of the anti-Black, White-favoured drag Balls where Caucasian queens were the inevitable recipients of winning titles and awards; when she agreed to co-host Lottie's Ball, Crystal did so on the condition that she be the main feature, the highlight of the event: “Lottie made the deal sweeter by convincing Crystal that they should start a group and name it the House of LaBeija, with Crystal's title 'mother.' Crystal agreed. The event was titled 'Crystal & Lottie LaBeija present the first annual House of LaBeija Ball at Up the Downstairs Case on West 115th Street & 5th Avenue in Harlem, NY'(Quote: Lawrence, T., Academia.edu, 2012). Soon, other Black drag cliques formed their own Houses and 'families' that not only cared for and socialized with one another, but also helped to either prepare their own Balls (which they would host) or attend another group's Balls: “Mother Dorian and Father Chipper founded the House of Corey in 1972, and two years later Father Jay set up the House of Dior, after which La Duchess Wong and Nicole Wong established the House of Wong, and Paris Dupree and Burger Dupree inaugurated the House of Dupree, all in 1975. The House of Christian and the House of Plenty augmented the total before Mother Avis and Father Kirk launched the House of Pendavis in 1979” (Quote: Lawrence, T., Academia.edu, 2012).







 

 Pepper LaBeija (1948-2003), legendary 'Mother' of the House of LaBeija, made her Ball début around 1972 ~ images excerpted from Paris Is Burning (1990/1991)
Top (left) image,  courtesy of: tumblr | Middle (top right) image, courtesy of: DEREK ★ DEWITT
 Middle (top left) image, courtesy of: AfroDiaspores | Bottom (right) image, courtesy of: FrontiersLA




You know what a House is; I'll tell you what a House is. A House is a gay street gang. Now, where street gangs get their rewards from street fights, a gay House street fights at a Ball. And you street fight at a Ball by walking in the categories.” ~ Dorian Corey




Those were just the Houses established in Harlem; from the second-half of the 1970s to the early 1980s saw the formation of five Brooklyn Houses that were to become as influential—and as long-standing and legendary—as those in Harlem: The House of Omni (or Ultra-Omni), the House of Dupree, the House of Revlon, the House of Ebony and the House of Chanel. (It was a couple of years after that that Pepper LaBeija [whose birth name was William Jackson]—who had made her début on the Ball circuit around 1972—became the new Mother of the House of LaBeija.) As Tim Lawrence eloquently wrote in his timely and highly informative academic article, 'Listen, and you Will Hear All the Houses That Walked There Before': A History of Drag Balls, Houses and the Culture of Voguing (2012), “From this point on, contestants battled to win trophies, with multiple entrants walking along an imaginary runway in costume and character for each category. At the end of each round, a group of scrupulous judges would cast their verdict, sometimes rewarding optimum realness—or the ability to pass as straight in the outside world—sometimes backing sheer outrageousness and opulence.” (Sources: Lawrence, T., 'Listen, and you Will Hear All the Houses That Walked There Before': A History of Drag Balls, Houses and the Culture of Voguing, Academia.edu, 2012; Harlem's Drag Ball History, Harlem World, April 27, 2011; Trebay, G., Legends of the Ball: Paris Is Still Burning, The Village Voice, January 11, 2000)





 XEX Magazine Ball: Debut of VOGUE FEMM is courtesy of: XEXMAGTV ~ YouTube

 


The unfolding of the 1980s saw the the diversification and proliferation of Houses; it also saw the founding of the first Latin House: the House of Xtravaganza. Established by Father Hector in 1982, the Xtravaganzas—nicknamed the 'Ganzas'—were originally comprised of Angie (who would eventually step into the role of Mother of the House in 1984), along with some of its most compelling members: Carmen, Danny, Raquel and David Ian. (David Ian and Danny Xtravaganza both released 12" club singles: David Ian's Elements of Vogue (1989) and Danny's Love The Life You Live (1990).) The Xtravaganzas officially entered the drag Ball scene when they attended a Ball thrown by the House of Omni in 1983. (Hector Xtravaganza did not attend the Ball, having died either before the event or shortly thereafter.) By the mid-1980s1984 and 1985Angie and Carmen were both winning prizes and acclaim at the Balls, establishing a name for themselves and the House of Xtravaganza. Another founder in the early part of the 1980sand perhaps the most celebrated person from the Ball scene responsible for promulgating Voguing—was Willi Ninja, who founded his House of Ninja around 1981 or 1982. Willi Ninja's main contribution to Voguing was his introduction of disciplined Asian aesthetics and evocative, angular moves. (Subsequently, in 1987, Patricia Field, a Greenwich Village boutique owner who is widely recognized for her critically acclaimed role as stylist and costumière for some of television's most wildly successful weekly programmes, Sex And The City (1998-2004) and Ugly Betty (2006-2010), as well as for her work on the films The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)—among many of her collaborations and projects—founded her own House, the House of Fieldthe first downtown house to walk the uptown balls[Quote: Lawrence, T., Academia.edu, 2012].) With the formation of Houses, then, the stage was set for a challenge. (Sources: Lawrence, T., 'Listen, and you Will Hear All the Houses That Walked There Before': A History of Drag Balls, Houses and the Culture of Voguing, Academia.edu, 2012; Pat Field, IMDb, 2012)




Voguing evolved into a contorted, jerky, slicing style of dance when drag queens incorporated kung fu aesthetics into their routines, having become familiar with the swift, angular movements of Bruce Lee and his co-stars while working trade inside Times Square's porn cinemas, or heading there after a night's work to get some rest.”

Also inspired by the precise, angled strokes of Egyptian hieroglyphics, voguers hailed from the same ethnic, working-class environments as the kids who pioneered breaking in the mid-1970s. And just like the breakers, they honed their skills through a mix of competitive instinct, athletic ability and, above all, a desire to be seen (rather than a desire to become part of the crowd, which  motivated most club and party dancers).”
~ Tim Lawrence




Whether they care to admit it or not, rival groups of any kind—regardless if they be street gangs, hierarchically structured Mafia organizations, dance troupes, singing groups or disc jockeys—often feel threatened by an opponent or (perceived) adversary. At times such rivalries are harmless, relegated to healthy sportsmanship; at other times, such opposition could turn violent, even deadly, as each group challenges and competes for turf, monetary gains, bragging rights or any other form of acquisition. In the drag Ball culture, that rivalry and competition took the form of Voguing.


But while Ball culture had a clear and traceable history, the same cannot be said of Voguing—“with its angular body movements, exaggerated model poses and intricate mimelike choreography” (Quote: Ogunnaike, L., The New York Times, September 6, 2006)—and its first appearance; there are a couple of theories as to its origin, the most tantalizing (and probable) of which involves Paris Dupree and the ritual of “throwing shade.” (“Shading,” it must be clarified, is the subtle yet humiliating art of upstaging or overshadowing an opponent, either verbally or non-verbally on the dance floor. For a full range of the underground Ball community's vernacular, please visit Aaron P. Brown's [Aaron Enigma] website, House of Enigma.)


As it is relayed by David DePino, a disc jockey at many (Voguing) Balls and an honorary member of the House of Xtravaganza—DePino spun records for the House's first Ball held at Elks Lodge—in Tim Lawrence's article on the history and culture of Voguing, the dance began one night at an after-hours club—ironically and perhaps suitably called Footsteps, once located on 2nd Avenue and 14th Street—and worth repeating verbatim so as to detract nothing from its effect; it is the stuff of legends: “Paris Dupree was there and a bunch of these black queens were throwing shade at each other. Paris had a Vogue magazine in her bag, and while she was dancing she took it out, opened it up to a page where a model was posing and then stopped in that pose on the beat. Then she turned to the next page and stopped in the new pose, again on the beat.” The challenge was at once recognized, noted and unhesitatingly returned in kind by other dancers present at the club that night. “Another queen came up and did another pose in front of Paris, and then Paris went in front of her and did another pose. This was all shade—they were trying to make a prettier pose than each other—and it soon caught on at the balls. At first they called it 'posing' and then, because it started from Vogue magazine, they called it 'voguing'.
(Quote: Lawrence, T., Academia.edu, 2012)




Image courtesy of: Lady Bunny Blog




Kevin Ultra-Omni (who, along with Thomas Omni, founded the House of Omni in 1980), while conceding that Paris Dupree—whom he had first met in 1975 at a club called Better Days—was at the forefront of Voguing, forwards another anecdotal account whereby the first 'Voguers' were gay inmates at New York City's Rikers Island Penitentiary, which sits in the East River—near LaGuardia Airport—between the boroughs of Queens and the Bronx and which houses about eleven-thousand inmates. Omni proposes that the dance was used by the (gay) inmates of the facility as a way of not only attracting the masculine attentions of other inmates but for throwing “shade” at one another: “Maybe they didn't have a name for it, but that's what they were doing, so it's said. I know Paris was an early pioneer of voguing. But I believe that vogue existed in some other form through other people as well. I also think that a lot of voguing poses come from African art and Egyptian hieroglyphics.(Source & quote: Lawrence, T., 'Listen, and you Will Hear All the Houses That Walked There Before': A History of Drag Balls, Houses and the Culture of Voguing, Academia.edu, 2012)




 




The title of Jennie Livingston's award-winning documentary was provided by Paris Dupree's annual Ball, Paris Is Burning. The phrase itself is historically derived from a much darker past. In August 1944, as the Allies were about to arrive in Paris, Dietrich von Choltitz, the German Military Governor of Paris, received the order from Hitler to destroy Paris rather than let it fall undamaged into the hands of the Allies (a command that, fortunately, von Choltitz had refused to obey): “Brennt Paris?” (“Is Paris burning?”) Adolf Hitler demanded over the telephone with his Chief-of-Staff, Alfred Jodl, on the eve of the liberation of Paris (August 25th), enquiring whether the capital of France had been blazed and razed to the ground—as he had demanded—by the retreating German troops in anticipation of the advancing Allied forces.
(Sources: Green, J., Paris Has Burned, The New York Times, April 18, 1993; Shapiro, F.R., The Yale Book of Quotations, 2006)


By the time Jennie Lvingston directed her camera lenses at Harlem's drag Balls in Paris Is Burning, they had evolved into highly-structured events with elaborate and fiercely-contested categories at their core. These categories were not only specifically designated but widely varied and themed such as “Banji Realness” (rough and tough, street-wise youth)—(“Banji: looking like the boy that probably robbed you a few minutes before you came to Paris's Ball... Sweetheart, with the cigarette, you are giving me a Banji-girl effect. This is Banji. You know, the girls that be on the corner talking about yo' man.[Excerpted from: Livingston, J., Paris Is Burning, Miramax Films, 1991])—“Executive Realness” (business suit attire, completed with the prerequisite briefcase); “Going To School” (looking like a studious student attending either high school or college); “Butch Queen” (those [closeted] gay men who can pass for 'straight' men in society—undetected); “Femme Queens” (those androgynous, effeminate transvestites or transsexuals who can dress as women and pass as such—in daylight—also without detection); “Military” (passing for a uniformed member of one of the Armed Forces); “Runway” (the ability to 'walk' the runway of a fashion show with all the confidence and élan of an accomplished über-model); “Body” or “Luscious Body” (muscularity for men and butch queens; a lithe model-esque or voluptuous figures for femme queens); “Opulence” (appearing in the guise of living a moneyed lifestyle of wealth and indulgence); “Town and Country” (assuming the patrician veneer of the landed gentry as it is featured—and advertised—in the pages of lifestyle magazines); and so forth—there are now countless other new Ball categories. But the main, underlying theme of all the categories is simple: verisimilitude—in other words, “realness.” The aim and primary purpose of “realness” is  to “blend” seamlessly—undetectably—into mainstream society by looking like its heterosexual counterparts.




To the drag queens of that time, vogue was a beautiful escape, a way to dance away the pain and oppression they were experiencing. But beyond that, it was a celebration of their beauty.” ~ Kevin Ultra-Omni
 



To compete, One must first aspire. These categories were more than mere play-acting or pretending—they were (and are) the central axis around which the whole purpose of the Balls revolved (“...a fashion subculture that had more to say about mainstream America than mainstream America had to say about itself was a story that needed to be told” was how Jennie Livingston succinctly phrased it [Quote: The Huffington Post, October 25, 2011]). Although to an outsider looking in the Balls may appear to be “parodying” the mainstream, dominant WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) society and its ideally realized “American Dream,” there is a deeper psychological significance to them as well, “offering participants a chance to mirror a society that consistently excludes poor black and Latino gays while seducing them with images of white prosperity, white beauty, white straight family life(Quote: Brown, J. Paris Is Burning, The Washington Post, August 4, 1991): the yearning for that which is unattainable becomes all that much more desirable.


As Georges-Claude Guilbert, author of Madonna as Postmodern Myth (2002), writes, “Voguing (some spell it 'Vogueing') is a state of mind, a political statement, and a dance... The aim of these drag balls is to allow the Children to invent a glamorous identity for themselves, during a parody of access to the American Dream. Judges evaluate contestants who rival in inventiveness, gorgeous clothes and gorgeous make-up. They pick the one who has created the most striking persona, who has elaborated the most impressive poses; hence voguing: to vogue is to dance in a way that is inspired by the poses of models in the pages of Vogue, especially the Vogue of the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties. In the sixties models began to adopt more natural poses (as oxymoronic as this may sound), less glamorous and less evocative of stardom. During a drag ball, the (drag) queen becomes a star, for one night, dancing with ample and extremely stylized leg and mostly arm movements. Voguing, which also incorporates Afro-Caribbean kick-dancing, means to revive bygone Hollywood stars, whose poses on professional pictures were anticipatory instances of voguing (such as Marlene Dietrich), all this, need I add, is done tongue-in-cheek, halfway between pastiche and parody” (Quote: Guilbert, G-C., Madonna as Postmodern Myth, 2002:124). When seen in that regard, the cogent emphasis on “realness” becomes all the more readily understood.
(Sources: Livingston, J., Queer/Art/Mentorship: How Mentoring Emerging Queer Artists Helps Them... And Me, The Huffington Post, October 25, 2011; Guilbert, G-C., Madonna as Postmodern Myth, 2002)




Archie Burnett ~ from the House of Ninja
(Photo by Ian Douglas)
Image courtesy of: Voix de Ville




The scene of Vogue battles between Houses did not always occur at specifically designated Balls. Clubs were also the chosen venues favoured by rival House members: Tracks (19th Street and the West Side Highway, perhaps the most popular gathering spot for club-goers and Voguers—an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 dancers attended Tracks every Tuesday night), Better Days (316 West 49th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues), and Paradise Garage (84 King Street in SoHo) were all places where the 'Children' congregated and commandeered different corners of the clubs. Here, Voguers would find areas on the periphery of the main dance floors—some clubs had alternative, separate rooms altogether—“where they would find more room to practice their moves and, perhaps more importantly, enter into an economy of seeing and being seen.”  Once a certain song was played, it was their signal to start out-Voguing each other and a fierce Vogue skirmish would ensue. So it is not surprising that Voguing made its first foray into main-stream consciousness, though indirectly perhaps, through New York's club scene. (The very first hint or whisper of Voguing as a dance movement came in the October 1988 issue of Annie Flander's Details Magazine which published a landmark article, entitled “Nations,” about New York's club scene contributed by Chi Chi Valenti—chronicler, performer, special events promoter and producer—who introduced readers to the House of Field along with that of the fiercely proud House of Xtravaganza (which boasted sixty members at the time of publication of Valenti's article). “Modern balls, with their judging panels holding up numbered scorecards, petty jealousies among lifelong rivals, and partisan crowds booing their favorite's low scores, have all the flavor of great sporting events,” Valenti had written.) (Quotes: Lawrence, T., Academia.edu, 2012)

 








Javier Ninja Parts 1 & 2 are courtesy of: Funk'd Up TV (Dance) ~ YouTube




Vogue preselection Javier (Ninja) is courtesy of: Annidance ~ YouTube




Malcolm McLaren (1946-2010), the strategic impresario who, with then-partner Vivienne Westwood operated a clothing boutique provocatively called Sex, pioneered the British Punk movement in the mid-1970s and was better known for managing such groups as Adam and the Ants, Bow Wow Wow and, most famously, the Sex Pistols—four musicians whom he “provided with an attitude suited to Britain in decline: nihilistic rage, expressed at high volume in songs like 'Anarchy in the U.K.' and the vitriolic anti-anthem 'God Save the Queen' [whose release was timed to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee]” and who disbanded in January 1978 (Quote: Grimes, W., The New York Times, April 8, 2010)—than for drag Balls. “I’m much more of a magician than a musician,” he once said. I steal other people’s songs and try to make them better.” Pilfering and/or bettering other people's music may have been his modus operandi, but it did not prevent the entrepreneurial McLaren from releasing records of his own, “Fans” (1984) with its novel mixture of opera and urban music—“Popera” was how Mr. McLaren described it, whereby Pop music is performed in an Operatic style using Operatic overtones—(which included the hauntingly beautiful hit single Madame Butterfly)—“Waltz Darling” (1989), and “Paris” (1994) are among his more noteworthy albums.


Malcolm McLaren was first introduced to the subculture of New York's Voguing scene when Johnny Dynell—the husband of Chi Chi Valenti and member of the House of Xtravaganza, was a disc jockey at The Tunnel, a nightclub once located at 220 12th Avenue, at 27th Street, in the Chelsea district of Manhattan—sent McLaren a tape of Jennie Livingston's tentative and still-unfinished documentary about the Harlem Voguing scene in the hope that it would pique McLaren's interest in the project and entice the much-needed funds for Livingston to complete it. Dynell recalled discussing the Ball scene with McLaren “because I thought it was perfect for him. Of course he immediately put sound bites from the movie on his record. What the hell was I thinking?” But McLaren, a wizard at not only appropriating other people's work but also for having the uncanny ability to recognise an upcoming trend, did not desist with merely including dialogue from Livingston's still-unreleased movie. The ending lines for Deep In Vogue, recited by McLaren, were culled directly from Chi Chi Valenti's 1988 article for Details Magazine, “Nations”: “Sometimes on a legendary night / Like the closing of the Garage / When the crowd is calling down the spirits / Listen, and you will hear all the houses that walked there before.” (According to Dynell, Valenti sued McLaren and successfully won credit rights.) (Quotes: Lawrence, T., Academia.edu, 2012)


Like Malcolm McLaren, Madonna—another savvy trend spotter and a chameleon of ever-changing personas—recognised a good trend when she saw one. Debie Mazar, the actress and long-standing friend of Madonna's, was a regular Tracks attendant. Mazar was also a friend of David DePino as well as with Luis and Michael Xtravaganza (who, as a hairdresser, also worked occasionally on Debie's hair). David DePino recalled what happened next: “They set up a meeting with me [DePino] and Madonna, who came to Tracks when the club was closed to meet and watch some voguers. I had a group of kids here to vogue for her, including some kids from other houses. She picked out who she liked for the ['Vogue'] video.” She also began going to the Sound Factory (618 West and 46th Street in Manhattan's Chelsea district) where members of the House of Xtravaganza congregated to dance to records spun by Junior Vasquez (Donald Mattern)—such as Ellis-D's (Vasquez's late 1980s alter-ego and alias) Just Like A Queen or Took My Love Away—on Saturday nights. “The first time she came to the club she called ahead,” Vasquez has said, recalling Madonna's initial visit to the Sound Factory. “She came into the booth and then sat on the speaker in front of me. After that she came periodically for about three months.” Jose and Luis Xtravaganza ended up as the feature dancers in Madonna's Vogue black-and-white video (the only two dancers of her troupe who actually had any authentic Voguing experience)—with its clear appropriation of Man Ray's iconic 1939 “Mainbocher Corset” photograph and heavy emphasis on 'Golden Age of Hollywood' glamour—the two Xtravaganzas also accompanied her as back-up dancers on the Blond Ambition World Tour (April 13th—August 5th, 1990) and the resultant 1991 documentary of the tour, Truth Or Dare (also known as In Bed With Madonna in Europe and Japan). “Madonna never came back to the Sound Factory after the tour. She was over vogue,” Vasquez later recalled. (Jose Xtravaganza also made an appearance in the Justify My Love video. Produced with Lenny Kravitz and mixed by Shep Pettibone and Goh Hotoda, Justify My Love was one of two new songs included on Madonna's first greatest hits compilation album, “The Immaculate Collection” (1990); due to its R-rated content, the video was banned from MTV and subsequently released as the first-ever commercially available VHS video single.) (Quotes: Lawrence, T., Academia.edu, 2012)
(Sources: Lawrence, T., 'Listen, and you Will Hear All the Houses That Walked There Before': A History of Drag Balls, Houses and the Culture of Voguing, Academia.edu, 2012; Grimes, W., Malcolm McLaren, Seminal Punk Figure, Dies at 64, The New York Times, April 8, 2010; Rovi, Junior Vasquez, AllMusic, 2012)


 
 

















The above four photos are by & courtesy of: Erik Liam Sanchez



  
1989 was a significant year for another reason. On May 10th, uptown Voguing came (to the frenetic)  downtown when party promoter and New York nightlife personality/impresario, Susanne Bartsch, organized and co-hosted—with Details Magazine's editor Annie Flanders—the first ever Love Ball at the Roseland Ballroom (on 52nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue) in support of Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA)—AIDS care and preventive education. Known for her mixture of uptown and downtown, gay and straight, Ms. Bartsch created the Love Ball as a way to bring awareness to the devastation that HIV/AIDS was having on the fashion community. The Harlem drag Balls were the inspiration for the Love Ball and assorted categories were created for featured members from various Houses and competing personalities. For the first time, Voguing culture and styling was introduced to a national audience.


On hand for the occasion was a motley crowd of celebrities from the worlds of fashion, modeling, music, Manhattan socialites and club-life characters: Steve Rubell (of Studio 54 fame), Michael Musto (columnist for the The Village Voice), Lady Miss Kier and DJ Dmitry (from the musical group Deee-Lite), RuPaul (actor, drag performer, model, author, recording artist and television host of RuPaul's Drag Race), Leigh Bowery and Lypsinka (performing artists), Keith Haring (artist), Lady Bunny (drag artiste, actress, comedienne, singer, disc jockey, and founder, organizer, and host of Wigstock, the annual musical drag queen festival). The panel of judges included: Paris Dupree (founder of the House of Dupree), Andre Leon Talley (Vogue magazine's contributing editor-at-large), Fran Lebowitz (author and critic), the fashion designers Donna Karan, Carolina Herrera, and Thierry Mugler—M. Mugler, along with fellow-designers Jean-Paul Gaultier and the Black American designer, Patrick Kelly, had already used Voguers to walk the runways of their Paris ready-to-wear presentations—Iman Abdulmajid (the Somalian super-model, author, actress, entrepreneur, and  Project Runway Canada television hostess), Nile Rodgers (musician and producer), Karole Armitage (American dancer and choreographer),  David Byrne (musician and member of Talking Heads), Gwen Verdon (actress). (Vogue magazine, from which the dance derives its name, made no formal presentation at the event: “I'm very, very upset. They didn't even ask me to be a judge,” the magazine's editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, facetiously said.) A couple of days later, on May the 12th, Woody Hochswender of The New York Times described the Love Ball as having “all the elements that make New York City night life remarkable: beauty, pageantry, celebrity and gender confusion. Leading figures from the fashion industry were on hand to sponsor, perform or judge in perhaps the biggest public display to date of ''vogueing,'' a campy, stylized version of runway modeling that has flourished for decades in Harlem and more recently in downtown nightclubs.” (Quotes: Hochswender, W., The New York Times, May 12, 1989)


Following the success of this event, which raised around $400,000 for DIFFA (the second Love Ball, in 1990, was also held at the Roseland Ballroom)—Ms. Bartsch created several more annual Love Ball galas in cities other than New York, such as Vienna and Paris. (Thanks to her efforts, from 1989 to 1992, Ms. Bartsch had raised over $2.5 million in the battle against HIV/AIDS.) The intent and purpose of the Love Balls becomes even more poignant when a simple fact is taken into account: in the years following the release of Paris Is Burning, some of the leading personalities of the film, along with a number of lesser-known members of the Ballroom community as well as many of the House founders—some of whom directly participated in some of the Love Balls—succumbed to and were carried away by the disease, as were so many in the entertainment and creative fields. Angie Xtravaganza, only twenty-seven when she passed, died on April 6th, 1993; at Angie's memorial service—at the Sound Factory Bar—Dorian Corey who, upon arrival, received a rousing round of applause, drawled characteristically, “It's O.K., children, because Angie's got something now that we've lost: a little beauty, a little peace. And it's gonna be hotter and better up there.(Quote: Green, J., The New York Times, April 18, 1993)


An AIDS-related heart failure claimed the life of Willi Ninja on September 2nd, 2006, at the age of forty-five as well. Others also lost their lives, mostly to complications from AIDS-related illnesses, though not exclusively: Dorian Corey (in 1993), Avis Pendavis (in 1995); David Ian Xtravaganza (in 2001; Pepper LaBeija,  who last performed at a ball in 2001 when she was carried in on a litter by thirty attendants—(Pepper had been bed-ridden for the last ten years of her life prior to her demise)—died at the age of fifty-three (on May 14th, 2003), likely due to complications from her diabetic condition which had also necessitated the amputation of both of her feet; Octavia Saint Laurent (on May 18th, 2009) and, most recently, Paris Dupree (on—or around—August 15th, 2011; the cause of death remains undetermined and unconfirmed). (Sources: AIDS in New York: A Biography, New York Magazine; Chang, B-S., A Wig To Match Every Look, The New York Times, December 30, 2011; Hochswender, W., Vogueing Against AIDS: A Quest for 'Overness', The New York Times, May 12, 1989; Rouilard, R., Star Voguers Hit Runway and Dazzle Aficionados, Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1989; Lawrence, T., 'Listen, and you Will Hear All the Houses That Walked There Before': A History of Drag Balls, Houses and the Culture of Voguing, Academia.edu, 2012)

 
 
 
Voguing is the same thing as taking two knives and cutting each other up but through a dance form...”
 
Voguing came from 'shade' because it was a dance that two people did because they didn't like each other; Voguing is a challenge dance. Instead of fighting, you would dance it out on the dance floor and whoever did the better moves was throwing the best 'shade'. ~ Willi Ninja


 

In the aftermath of the critical and financial success of Paris Is Burning, that pivotal film so instrumental in launching the careers (and fame) of a few of its central characters beyond the Ballrooms of Harlem and Brooklyn—Willi Ninja's being chief among them—resentment, disagreement and anger arose from some of its stars who felt betrayed by Ms. Livingston, expecting more monetary compensation for their appearances in her documentary.


I love the movie, I watch it more than often, and I don't agree that it exploits us,” The late Pepper LaBeija was once quoted in an interview. “But I feel betrayed. When Jennie first came, we were at a ball, in our fantasy, and she threw papers at us. We didn't read them, because we wanted the attention. We loved being filmed. Later, when she did the interviews, she gave us a couple hundred dollars. But she told us that when the film came out we would be all right. There would be more coming.” Relations had so disintegrated between film-maker and performers that threats of lawsuits loomed. (Paris Dupree, who is never named on camera and whose appearance is less than three minutes of film's seventy-six, “sought $40 million for unauthorized and fraudulent use of her services; Paris's 1986 Ball did, nonetheless, provide the film with its title and is extensively featured in it. Still, all those featured in the film—Paris Dupree included—had signed waiver and release forms; in the end and due to the waiver, Dupree's lawyer was obliged to relinquish the legal matter.)


For her part, Jennie Livingston “decided to pay about $55,000 to 13 performers, based on how long each appeared on screen. And in 1991, after the claims against her had been dropped, the money was distributed” Pepper LaBeija, though not entirely content with the settlement, considered the $5,000 received at the time as “hush money.” “But at least,” LaBeija conceded in 1993, “it brought me international fame. I do love that. Walking down the street, people stop me all the time. Which was one of my dreams doing the drags in the first place. What hurts is that I'm famous but not rich. A California magazine said I had sued Miramax and won untold millions and was seen shopping with Diana Ross on Rodeo Drive in a Rolls. But I really just live in the Bronx with my mom. And I am so desperate to get out of here! It's hard to be the mother of a house while you're living with your own mother. Why couldn't they give us $10,000 apiece?


Dorian Corey (whom Jesse Green of The New York Times once described as looking like “a cross between Tina Turner and Barbara Cartland, albeit with stubble in the cleavage of her silicone-enhanced breasts) who, along with Willi Ninja, had hired lawyers seeking further compensation, had a more  philosophical view of the legal debacle that followed the film's release and subsequent success: “Oh yes, to this day a lot of the girls hate Miss Jennie, but that's just greed. Junior LaBeija pitched a bitch in The Amsterdam News, saying he wanted $50,000 because he was the star of the movie. But the Bette Davis money just wasn't there. I'll tell you who is making out is those clever Miramaxes. But I didn't do it for money anyway: I did it for fun. Always have. You see I was in show business for years, so when my 15 minutes finally came, it was gravy. And what I got from the publicity tour you couldn't buy. They paid the hotels and limos. I didn't even buy cigs; I just signed. I got to be a star! In Boston, the black children were coming up to me with tears in their eyes! It did whet my appetite, and I hoped that crazy little Jennie would have done a sequel, because once you do something big, you want to do it again. But what I got was plenty, and the rest is just bitter onions.” (Source & quotes: Green, J., Paris Has Burned, The New York Times, April 18, 1993)
 
 

 
 

 
 
 
 

Paris Is Burning is courtesy of: paunpaira ~ YouTube




According to Christian Marcel LaBeija—considered to be the Grandfather of the House of LaBeija—before Paris Is Burning was released, there were about twenty-seven active Houses in New York; a year after its release, there were seventy. But in the ensuing years, after the limelight glare and excitement of Madonna's Vogue and Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning had abated, the Voguing scene of the 1990s experienced a recession due to a combination of factors: overexposure, commercialism and the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on the community; the period that followed Paris Is Burning even seemed anti-climactic (“Once mainstream America began to copy a subculture that was copying it, the subculture itself was no longer of interest to a wider audience[Quote: Green, J., Paris Has Burned, The New York Times, April 18, 1993])—or so it appeared.


While most people had more or less forgotten about Voguing (“The cultural moment bracketed by film and video left many with the impression that the world of the balls was transitory ... In reality, Madonna's video and Livingston's film were station stops on a cultural continuum” as Guy Trebay expressed it [Village Voice, January 11, 2000])—ostensibly, every club in every major city had cliques of Voguers who would wait for the opportune song to be played before starting their runway modeling through the crowd on the dance floor, only stopping long enough to pose in time to the beat—the real Houses returned to their Balls in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn. Voguing never died—it survived, very much alive, but subduely and of its own accord. Andre Collins, the disc jockey at the Bronx's Warehouse (mentioned earlier), a gay nightclub and hive for Voguers from the late 1990s onwards, had this to say in The Village Voice (January 2000): “People don't understand the continuing importance of the houses. They think it all ended with Paris Is Burning. Those legendsParis [Dupree] and Pepper [LaBeija] and Dorian [Corey]—are important, but what nobody realises is that the concept has transferred from one generation to another(Quote: Trebay, G., Village Voice, January 11, 2000).


And it is this transition—from one generation to another—that has kept the dance alive. Survival of any species is dictated by natural law; in order to survive (and thrive), a species must be adaptable and evolvable. This same principle is applicable not only to the traditional fashion Houses—where young designers are hired to introduce and graft new ideas onto the Houses' traditional aesthetics as they were set down by their founding designers—but also to Voguing Houses as well. As its older members—House Fathers and House Mothers—passed away and new recruits (Children) were inducted into the Houses, the younger House members stepped into the leadership roles of Fathers and Mothers, taking on the reins of responsibility. (From nightclub dance-floors and Ballroom battlegrounds, many of the young House members have built careers out of their Voguing talents: providing instruction on runway modelling and poise—Willi Ninja, who once walked the runway with Iman for Thierry Mugler, instructed the young Naomi Campbell early in her career as well as giving Paris Hilton pointers in the arts of walking and posing, opened a modelling agency, EON (“Elements of Ninja”), in 2004—teaching dance-class Voguing lessons, or appearing in music videos, television programs, concerts, and films. It is the younger generations who have ensured Voguing's relevance by continuing its forward development.)


While it is certainly true that not all the Houses have survived from their time of inception—extinction is also part of natural law—others have definitely thrived into the Twenty-First Century. By the time Guy Trebay's article (Legends of the Ball) appeared in the Village Voice in January 2000, the New York-based House of Omni (“one of the last of the original drag queen houses whose balls proliferated in the 1980's, then faded from memory and, seemingly, disappeared[Quote: Trebay, G., The New York Times, May 22, 2005])—headed by Kevin Ultra-Omni, who has been a member of the Ball community since the late 1970s—for instance, had just celebrated its 20th Anniversary—(“We started our house when it was just a bunch of drag queens having fruit fights in Washington Square. In the old days, there were just the drag queens. There were no butch categories, no realness, no face. I want these children nowadays to know the history. I want them to go to school,” Kevin stated at the time [Village Voice, January 11, 2000])—and again, in 2005, the House of Omni celebrated its 25th Anniversary.


The House of Omni is exceptional, being one of those Houses fortunate enough to have managed to pull through the last couple of decades; it has not only survived but thrived—and even diversified: it has chapters across the United States (each chapter headed and supervised by its own Mother and Father); several websites, including its own magazine and newsletter; it is also the subject of the new community-driven documentary, How Do I Look (2006)—(a film that took ten years to make). The aim of the film was to 'set the record straight,' as it were: “Jennie Livingston only showed the drag queens going on about having nose jobs and snatching burgers, and she never even addressed HIV or AIDS. Our film shows the femme queens who actually went to college. It shows one of them who works now in Washington D.C. and who just reopened the House of Christian. She's a registered nurse and is going for her PhD(Quote: Lawrence, T., Academia.edu, 2012). (In the past few years, other projects have been launched: Leave It On The Floor (2011), an original musical directed by Sheldon Larry about Los Angeles’s own drag Ball culture; and the just-mentioned documentary film How Do I Look (2006), directed by the German filmmaker Wolfgang Busch—with Assistant-Directors, Kevin Ultra-Omni and Luna Khan—who's upcoming project is another documentary, Flow Affair, about the “Fanning” and “Flagging” community and its new Ball category known as “Floguing,” which combines Fanning and Flagging with Voguing.)
(Sources:  Lawrence, T., 'Listen, and you Will Hear All the Houses That Walked There Before': A History of Drag Balls, Houses and the Culture of Voguing, Academia.edu, 2012; Trebay, G., Legends of the Ball, Village Voice, January 11, 2000; Trebay, G., Still Striking a PoseThe New York Times, May 22, 2005; Kevin Omni, Qualia Folk, December 8, 2011; Ninja Taught Paris to Walk, New York Observer, February 9, 2004; Ogunnaike, L., Willi Ninja, 45, Self-Created Star Who Made Vogueing Into an Art, Dies, The New York Times, September 6, 2006)
 





The Luna Show presents Vogue in Baltimore is courtesy of: TheLunaShowNY ~ YouTube




Everything happens for a reason and happens in its own appointed time. Paris Is Burning definitely has its place in the social history of Voguing, impressing the Ballroom scene with its indelible mark; like fossilized inclusions, the film acted like a resin of golden amber, capturing its participants and preserving them—and the Ball culture at a definitive, specific point in time on its continuum—for posterity. One way or another—with or without the assistance of Paris Is Burning and VogueVoguing would eventually have come to light; of that there is no doubt. But it is also doubtless that—setting legal matters and other criticisms aside—the media spotlight furnished by Livingston's film, along with Madonna's hit single and video, greatly accelerated that process; the film, in particular, also did much to bring awareness to a (Black and Latino) gay cultural phenomenon that had hitherto lain hidden and largely unknown outside of its immediate precincts—(some of the colloquial expressions of that world have even entered mainstream vocabulary and are now taken for granted). As well, it enhanced the Balls' pioneering legends and propelled their legendary status out of the confines of their micro-worlds of Lodge venues and onto the world stage of popular culture; in the process, it helped to create new legends—(“...it brought me international fame. I do love that. Walking down the street, people stop me all the time. Which was one of my dreams doing the drags in the first place,” Pepper LaBeija once said). Opinions may (and do) vary as to whether or not the portrayals of those multi-faceted and fascinating Ball communities were accurate, sensitive, inclusive or otherwise, but that is entirely left to the reader's or viewer's subjective opinion and personal discretion to consider. (Quote: Green, J., The New York Times, April 18, 1993)
 
 


Above left, Image courtesy of: Rue 89 | Above right, image courtesy of: ISYS
(Photos by Chantal Regnault)


Image courtesy of: Storm - Design Art Fashion




Voguing is not easy. And it absolutely has to come from the heart.” ~  Janese Bussey




Suggested readings:
 
 
 
Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994), by George Chauncey: Basic Books
 
Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989-92 (2011), by Chantal Regnault, Stuart BakerTim Lawrence: Soul Jazz Books



 

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