Modern Moves presents a very special Moving Conversation centered on blackness, queerness and the global voguing and ballroom scene featuring renowned DJ/producer Vjuan Allureand dance studies scholar Melissa Blanco Borelli of Royal Holloway University.
Today, voguing and that distinct house ballroom sound are more popular than ever. From FKA Twigs to the most recent iPhone 7 commercial which features a jingle set to a ballroom beat, and from new documentaries like KIKI and Strike A Pose, the cultural conversation about voguing anc cultural appropriation is hotter than ever. Join us for a very special Moving Conversation about the contemporary voguing scene and its connections to dance, music, and queer of color creative labor.
The icing on the cake is a one-of-a-kind appearance by Mother Stephane Mizrahi of Paris, who will lead a spirited mini voguing workshop after the conversation. Followed by an after party helmed by Vjuan Allure + a menu of Korean Chicken Kebabs, Tiger Prawns, Punjabi Samosas, Quorn Meatballs and cosmos!
6:00: Doors open
6:30: Vjuan Allure + Melissa Blanco Borelli
7:30: Voguing workshop by Mother Steffie
8:00: 10:00 Afterparty!
Register here, tickets are limited but we’d love to have you for the fabulous night it shall be!
Conjointly organised by Kali Argyriadis, Giulia Bonacci, Modern Moves’ friend Adrien Delmas, director of the French Institute of South Africa, and placed under the charming hospitality of Shamil Jeppie, the international 2-day conference gathered academics from everywhere in a very friendly and multilingual atmosphere. Although the connections between Cuba and Africa may seem obvious regarding cultural, musical and religious practices in Cuba, yet the involvement of Cuba on the African continent from the second part of the 20th century to today is still underestimated in the realm of academic research. Therefore, the topics addressed during the conference offered a rich and precious wealth of information and knowledge for the researcher interested in this aspect.
The role and stay of Cuban soldiers, anthropologists, religious priests, doctors and musicians have been addressed, as well as the political, military and ideological fight led by Castro’s government against Apartheid in South Africa. Perspectives from Cuba on the one hand and Nigeria, Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Mali, Algeria, South Africa on the other hand have been presented. Some other papers very relevantly and critically engaged with a debate towards Cuba’s geopolitical implication in African issues from the viewpoints of the anti-Castrist Cuban-Americans as well as from a comparative study between different Latin-American approaches to pan-Africanism (Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil). The economical, geo-political and ideological issues at stake in Cuba’s involvement in Africa during the Cold War have been thoroughly explored from different and complementary perspectives as well as at a more intimate level.
On the one hand, some papers indeed expounded on how the life of Cuban anthropologists, soldiers and doctors sent during military operations in African countries has been irremediably transformed by this experience. On the other hand, others showed how the presence of the Cubans deeply marked the memories of African populations that have been in contact with them. The transnational experiences of African students sent to Cuba to get trained in various fields have also been addressed, whether they remained there and formed a diasporic community, travelled back and forth or returned to their home countries. The papers about the shaping of a transnational religious practice through the reciprocal travels of Yoruba and Santeria priests were also particularly striking.
Some untold stories have been brought to light during these two days and hopefully this pioneering conference will open the path for the development of a research network, publications and further encounters and exchanges.
Drawing on this renewed apprehension of Black Atlantic exchanges between Cuba and Africa, the heteroclite posse of the conference celebrated these fruitful two days in nowhere else than in a Cuban-like concert-bar called Café Mojito considered the “little Cuba of Long Street”, the main entertainment area in downtown Cape Town.
The walls displayed a Cuban and tropical imaginary and some signs indicated the direction of Caribbean Islands, as well as mentioning that we were supposedly at only 50 km from Varadero! ☺
Moreover, we danced personal interpretations of a crazy mix of moves, drawing on Afro-Cuban rumba, Puerto Rican and Cuban salsa, Angolan kizomba, Jamaican dancehall, Dominican merengue, Cameroonian makossa, Congolese ndombolo, Ivorian coupé-décalé and the like to a live band led by a very talented Congolese singer performing a full range of African and Caribbean hits, from Senegalese mbalax to Myriam Makeba’s Pata Pata via reggae and soukouss among others.
This last evening together certainly highlighted significantly the intellectual sharing and interpersonal exchanges that occurred during the conference. Once again, the Black Atlantic space was enacted and connected through bodies, songs and dance moves by a heterogeneous crowd unified by its shared interest in the historical and contemporaneous encounters between Cuba and Africa.
All photos by Elina Djebbari unless otherwise specified.
The Modern Moves team members are en route to Haiti to attend the Caribbean Studies Association Conference held in Port-au-Prince from 5th to 11th July 2016. There they will present a panel dedicated to their ongoing research on Katherine Dunham: Staging a New “Créolité”: Katherine Dunham’s circum-Atlantic World.
Modern Moves researcher Madison Moore, our resident pop culture expert, recently appeared in a brief online video about Beyoncé’s Lemonade. The video outlines five reasons the visual album should be taken seriously as a work of art. Be sure to watch the brief video here!
On Lemonade, the sixth studio album and second visual album by cultural powerhouse Beyoncé, we are in many ways re-introduced to the creativity of a singer who has been with us for 15 years already – the same singer who gave us “Bootylicious” and “Bills, Bills, Bills.” Only this time, she’s not here to entertain: she’s here to take creative risks.
One of the excellent things about Lemonade, and there are many, is how the record shows Beyoncé pushing her voice and musical palette to explore new and uncharted musical territory. Lemonade production and song writing credits come from the likes of unexpected people like Jack White of The White Stripes and British singer songwriter James Blake. These are two of my favourite musicians but I never, ever thought in a million years they would work on a Beyoncé record, mostly because the music she makes often gets catalogued in music stores as R&B or hip-hop, or as “black” music, whereas The White Stripes have always been seen as alternative or indie rock, or “white” music, despite the fact that rock and roll was black music first.
“Daddy Lessons,” one of the twelve excellent tracks from Lemonade, is by far the stand out number of the bunch. It’s my favourite anyway, the one I keep playing over and over. In it, hand claps and a roaring saxophone capture the summer sun and sitting out on a sun kissed porch allure. We hear the uplifting spirit of New Orleans jazz before an enthusiastic female voice comes in to add just a splash of ambiance.
“YEEEEEEEE HAWW!” she sings, a reference to the stereotypical vocal flourish of country music. “Texas,” Beyoncé says three times, in case you didn’t hear her the first two, repeating herself specifically to locate herself in the Black American south.
“Daddy Lessons” is a straight up bluegrass track and for the life of me I never imagined that Beyoncé would ever make a country record or a bluegrass track, let alone one that works really well and doesn’t feel forced or as though it’s trying too hard. There is, of course, a long history of black Americans making country music before it got whitened, one of the major takeaway points of last year’s the Modern Moves research trip to the Rock and Soul Museum in Memphis,
Aside from its strokes of musical genius, like the painful vocals in the sparsely colored “Sandcastles” or the “Tonight I’m fucking up all your shit, boy!” piping hot urgency of the Jack White-assisted “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” where Lemonade stands out especially well is in how it offers a highly polished, highly editorial, high art version of Beyoncé. This is a Beyoncé who channels Yoruba goddess Oshun in “Hold Up,” and who has surrounded herself with an intergenerational cast of women of color.
This is Beyoncé 3.0, a Beyoncé who is above making music for the radio, above churning out “hit singles” and what record labels want her to do. We already know she can dance. We know she can sing. We know she can pen a chart topping single and start a dance craze in seconds.
“I might get your song played on the radio station,” she boasts on the pro-Black anthem “Formation,” the last track on the album.
But her swerve away from traditional measures of musical success actually gives us an experimental Beyoncé, one who takes her own musical and creative risks. Lemonade is a visual album – you really need to see it before you hear it – and was released first as an HBO special on April 23, 2016, available for streaming and download shortly after. The effect of such a visual album is that we are forced to sit down and engage with it as a whole piece of work rather than as an assortment of singles surrounded but a bunch of other songs.
And in it’s visuality Lemonade is stunning, it’s message made explicit visually explicit. You could watch Lemonade with the sound off and still understand its politics. For instance, the very first image of Beyoncé is of her out in a field wearing a hoodie, an unsubtle link to the BlackLivesMatter movement and Trayvon Martin as well as a way of locating her black/creole body in the iconography of slavery.
But perhaps the moments that sum up what Lemonade is about are all of the close, tight shots of women – black women – standing completely motionless. They stand alone, motionless, and stare down the barrel of the camera, motionless. They stand in groups, motionless, and even when they’re in groups they are still motionless. These long, deliberate shots of motionless women of color has the effect of elevating them, valorizing women of color, their beauty and personhood. Film critic Laura Mulvey famously critiqued cinema for the way it frames women as “to be looked at.” But here, the women are actually looking back at us just as much if not more than we are looking at them. This is a return of the gaze, where standing completely still becomes an an act of resistance.
Of course, like all good art, Lemonade has its naysayers and harsh critics. New York rapper Azealia Banks, infamous for her Twitter beefs with just about everyone, pointed out that all of the songs on the album are about heterosexual coupledom, heartache, heartbreak, cheating, essentially begging a man to love her. Specifically, she said that Beyoncé needs to “stay under Jay-Z’s foot”:
Banks surely has a point. Here’s an album about black women, femaleness and womanlihood that is all about getting back at her man for cheating on her, so far as attacking “Becky with the good hair.” But part of me wonders if this is just not part of the genre of love songs, songs that are always about the cycle of love and heartbreak.
If a man sang these songs – say, D’Angelo – would we read them any differently? Would we approach and critique them any differently?
The fact that Lemonade can be problematic in places and stunningly beautiful everywhere else – it is a work that is “both” “and” – attests to its value as art. Good art is always complicated and stages more questions than answers.
An evening in January 2016, a few days after my arrival in Benin, a friend took me to a “maquis”, an open-air bar restaurant where music is usually played live. When we arrived, the place was quite empty and the band was playing for almost nobody. The stage rather small but full of musicians was at a corner of the open-air space surrounded by table areas. We chose a table near the orchestra and we both sat in a way to be able to look at the stage and get an overview of the venue while being able to talk to each other. I immediately noticed that at the opposite corner of the open-air area, a big plasma screen was competing with the orchestra to catch public attention. The screen was displaying music videos of West African music dance genres, from Ghanaian azonto to Cameroonian hit “Coller la petite”. The sound was muted to let the acoustic space filled by the music played by the live band. However, a woman was sitting back to the stage and looking at the screen, seeming to give reason to Simon Frith’s observation when he wrote that “music on television is less often heard for its own sake than as a device to get our visual attention” (Frith 2002: 280). How, I wondered, can one look at silent images while a live band is playing right behind one’s back doing his best to catch one’s attention and create a joyful ambiance despite a very limited crowd? This scene immediately took me back to some other interactions between audience and plasma screens within music dance places I experienced in Cuba.
Here I will present some comparative observations I made in Benin and Cuba regarding the role of plasma screens and their interaction with dancing bodies in music dance venues. This interest draws on an ongoing work in progress first using materials from the research I have done in Mali for my PhD, where I could observe how the new media format of the music video radically changed the transmission of dance while allowing for the creation of a new dance genre called “danse de clip” in Mali, a process that I have analysed elsewhere as a process of “videochoreomorphosis”¹. Examining how media are in turn themselves mediated and staged, inserted in the context of a music dance venue where they then become part of a broader performance goes a step further.
Pervasive screens and post-screens
In a country like Cuba where Internet is a struggle and economically deprived by decades of embargo and socialist plans, a tourist might not get a TV in his habitación in a casa particular but when he does, it will certainly be one of the huge old models. Moreover, according to Robin Moore, “image and marketing have been less central to domestic music-making than in other countries” (Moore 2001: 166). Yet in a lot of music dance places, even in the small ones, there will almost always be at least one if not several plasma screens that broadcast a mix of video clips, live concerts and sometimes candid camera.
During my last trip to Cuba in March 2016, I even noticed that the screens observed in a specific place more than one year ago had been replaced by projections on the bare walls of the venue. Therefore, it is not only screens but post-screens as (post?-)mediation tools that we have to engage with to enlighten the intricate layers of cultural products that contribute to shape both Caribbean and African popular culture.
Ubiquitous and pervasive, “music that is not just mediated, but on screen or screened has become a global norm, an ordinary fact of life. This is the case even in parts of the world that are relatively unindustrialised, rural and remote” (Mera & Morcom 2009: 4). Linked with the development of a capitalist entertainment industry (Goodwin 1992), the abundance of screens in Cuban venues is particularly striking and seems to act as a manifesto of profusion hiding severe economical struggles: the shelves of the grocery stores might well be half empty, yet the dance music scene is not only beyond lively but the venue’s walls are also adorned with the newest technological tools. Additionally, even though the screens in music dance venues and the music videos as their main content are part of a broader “mediascape” (Appadurai 1996), yet a sense of the local and a personification of the relationship between the venue and the audience are created through them.
Screen as a communication tool and the role of the Video-Jockey
Behind the screen is a person: the Video-Jockey (VJ). This character uses specific digital tools (Vjing softwares available on Internet), constitutes a database of videos and images, which he will play with throughout the event. He will improvise in live at the same time of the concert performance, thus multiplying the components that are part of the event: the space, the audience (dancing or not), the lights, the sound, the venue’s staff, the musicians on stage, the music played, the screens and the images displayed. With his inputs, he adds his own layer to the narrative and the dramaturgy of the performance. At this stage of the research the empirical materials remain to be completed but I am definitely interested in knowing more about this dramatis personae: how does this person choose and compile the materials that will be linked to the performance? How is the database of images constituted? What are the meanings underlying the different items that are displayed? How improvisation, aesthetics and technical skills are simultaneously combined?
The screen does not only display music videos or live concert footages more or less related to the event currently taking place in the venue, it is also used as a promotional tool for both the musicians on stage and the venue that welcomes them. For instance, during the Timbalaye concert I attended at El Jelengue de Areíto in Havana, the screen displayed a loop of photos of the band, concert flyers and musicians portraits. And it so happened for others live band concerts I attended in this venue. The spectator would at the same time see the live body and the screen body of the same musician, either reproducing the same musical gesture with the instrument on stage or showing the human being in other kinds of settings: relaxing, chatting, rehearsing… Different facets of the same character are then being transmitted and perceived, either redoubling the musical life style or on the contrary suggesting another life off the stage. The glimpse at the multifaceted musician’s life one can get when looking at the screens’ efforts throughout the event does not only allow for an understanding of a broader context than the one offered by the stage performance but also expands the scope of what is accessible to the spectator.
On another level, in a place I frequently went to in Havana, I was known as being French and the French flag was therefore popping up at regular interval on the venue’s screen. And so were some other flags corresponding to other audience members’ nationalities. The flags were inserted as images in-between the on-going display of photo-loops and music videos.
Not only was the singer sometimes asking the public where they were from, but the answer was also soon after illustrated on the screen. When I asked the video-jockey in this Cuban venue what was the meaning of the displayed flags on the screen, he told me: “This is a way to greet people, to make them comfortable. We acknowledge that they are here, that they came all the way from their countries to listen to our music, here in Cuba. We want to make them happy”.
In Benin, I observed a similar use of the plasma screen as a mediation tool between the place and the audience. Indeed, as I arrived with Steve Lokonon’s Club Shango team at a place called Le Privilège in an evening of January, soon after our arrival a message was displayed on the two screens placed on both sides of the stage greeting and wishing us a happy new year.
The visual element, whether it be the flag in Cuba or the written names and greetings in Benin, often replicate the singer’s greetings orally produced and spread through the microphone. The screens therein duplicate some communication features of language social codes where the mediated greetings and the address to audience members by artists are part of the local politics, ethics and aesthetics of speech. The screens act therein as a contemporary digital “post-griot” mediator creating a renewed interface and filter between the emitter and the receptors of the messages transmitted through the screens.
Before/during/after: the screens as actors of live performances
According to my observations, the screens play different roles during the event that takes place in the venue. The screens and their content really become “actors” of the live performances (Aufderheide 1986: 57).
They serve as a kind of waiting room animation. They are indeed really filling the waiting time before the concert starts or between the interludes. There, the screens are not only fulfilling an empty music space before the concert as a basic background noise but they are also really playing a role in the ambiance of the party. In so doing, they are therein replacing the role of the MC or any other dramatis personae who in Cuba or Benin and as elsewhere are making “the invariable attempts to involve the audience in performances (through quizzes between songs, dance competitions, etc.)” (Manuel 1987: 176). In this sense they are much more than part of the décor, they are really something to look at and react to.
Whether it be the competitive screen in the Beninese scene described in the introduction or the redundant screens in Cuba, the screen become another dramatis personae of the event, fulfilling the visual landscape with either competitive or additional information about the band and the venue or even at an extreme extent of the scope of potentialities, displaying music videos with muted sound while other music, either played live or recorded, is broadcast in the venue. These competitive levels of visual and aural information saturate the space and the senses of the spectator while at the same time motivating cognitive reactions to these stimuli.
As far as I could observe, people do really look at the screens even if they are with a large group of friends, it does not only provide the lonely researcher with a welcome composure! Moreover, the screens lead people to adapt their body attitudes during the event, either by orienting their body differently according to what is watched, either in direction of the screen or the stage, especially in the cases where the screens are scattered throughout the venue. People do react to what is displayed, acknowledging their appreciation of the songs broadcast, singing, moving and dancing, laughing to the candid cameras when there are. Indeed while seeing some moves performed by dancers on screen, at an individual level one might want to follow on and draw inspiration from to bring into their own improvised dancing; at a more collective level, the screen can lead a group of people to tacitly reproduce through their own bodies the choreographies displayed on screen, especially if the music is matching the screen content, as I could observe both in Benin and Cuba.
In Havana, I was surprised that people invited me sometimes more often to dance to the music broadcast via the screens before and after than during the live concert. In such a recurrent way that dancing to the screen became then the antechamber and the way out of the live performances I went to. Allowing for an embodied response to the music they display, the screens appear to play both the role of appetizer and desert, preceding and following on the excitement of the concert.
Furthermore, people interact with the screens in a similar manner as they do when the live performance starts, singing with the singer or responding to him, moving and dancing like the dancers. For instance, during a night at Casa de la Musica, the two big screens that frame the large stage on both sides were displaying a live performance of Pupy y los que son son just before the same band appeared on stage. I could then notice the continuity of the interaction that occurred between the audience and the screened band and then the live band. Again, the mise en abyme that occurred at that specific moment was particularly striking, blurring the notions of here and now, there and then, acknowledging how much “with screened music, fundamental shifts occur in the relations between performers and ‘audience’, something that continues to change as technology does” (Mera & Morcom 2009: 7). Besides, Michael Taussig’s theorisation of one of the two layers of the notion of “mimesis” as “a palpable, sensuous connection between the very body of the perceiver and the perceived” (1993: 21) allows for an understanding of the mediation process that comes and goes and links altogether the screens, the stage and the audience, each interface echoing each other in differentiated manners. Reflecting upon this conversation between screens, dancing bodies and stage performances led me to think more about the notion of videochoreomorphosis I elaborated earlier.
From a work I have done on the interactions between dance and music videos in Mali, I proposed the notion of videochoreomorphosis as an analytical tool to appreciate how dance and dancing bodies are transformed by both the music video format and the audio-visual techniques. This notion encompasses both the aesthetical transformation that led to the creation of a new dance genre adapted to the music video and the changes in the transmission, practice and consumption of dance through this very media format. Furthermore, it addresses how the audiovisual format transforms a live body into a screen body (Dodds 2004: 29) thanks to several technological tools. If I therein applied this notion to the realm of music video making, the interactions I observed between bodies and screens within Beninese and Cuban music dance venues allow for an expansion of this analytical approach. Indeed, as live and screen bodies are interacting and improvising with each other, they are therefore creating another performance within the performance, informing and transforming each other. The way the screen and its content influence the body attitude of the listener/dancer even at a simple level (orienting one’s body towards the screen, moving to it) is part of the process of videochoreomorphosis. Moreover, by paying attention to the process of the transformation of the dancing body in its interaction with the video format, the notion of videochoreomorphosis helps then not only to apprehend how the live dancing body is transformed when it is captured in music videos but also how in return the screen body is able to impact the live body on the dance floor. The notion of videochoreomorphosis also includes the persons that are behind and/or between the dancers and the technological tools, whether it be cameras or screens. Thus, as well as the role of the cameras, directors and editors have to be taken into account when analysing music videos making, so has to be the role of the video-jockey as well as the layout of the screens within specific music dance venues. As much as the process of videochoreomorphosis allows for an understanding of the performativity and the interaction between objects – the screens – and subjects – dancers, audience, editors, video-jockey – within a specific space – nightclub, dance floor, music dance venue -, it also highlights how multi-layered and intricate are the relations between bodies, movements, live music performance and digital media that nowadays shape dance floors worldwide.
Screens, bodies and the temporality of the dance floor
From these preliminary observations, the ways in which these technological tools complement the musicians in the rolling out of the live performances highlight the complexity and the intricacy of music, dance and media interactions in a digital era that surely shape Caribbean and African if not global dance floor nowadays.
In these particular settings where screens display music and dance images while at the same time other music dance components are simultaneously played live at the same space, this complicates further the issues that are already at stake when addressing music dance screen mediation for itself. In these cases where music and dance are simultaneously performed both on stage and on screens, not only “screened music involves and is in part defined by particularly complex processes of de- and re-contextualisation, and also trans-contextualisation, the ability of mediated musics (screened and other) to span contexts across time and space, transcending the boundaries of live performance” (Mera & Morcom 2009: 6), but it also implies that the audience has to deal with competing messages and aesthetics during the very live performance that nevertheless happens within a spatio-temporal unit, although additional screen media might suggest otherwise. The content of the screens then challenges further the apprehension of the dance floor temporality that has already its own interpretation. Even without evoking all the other screens that you encounter in a music dance venue at such a point that sometimes you only see the performance through a forest of smart phone screens creating a series of mise en abyme – a screen in a screen in a screen filming a screen ultimately displaying what is going on on stage – it remains that the plasma or projected screens give another set of information, either competing or complementary to the current event, that echoes the digital saturation of our everyday lives. Incarnating at once a certain “commodity fetishism” and “postmodernist aesthetics” (Taussig 1993) and appearing as the paragon of intermediality, the display of screens in music dance venues is certainly a major feature to interrogate further in order to get a better understanding of the intersection of economical, political and aesthetical issues that are at stake when you dance to a live band either in Cuba or in Benin.
Appadurai Arjun (1996), Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Aufderheide Pat (1986), “Music Videos: The Look of the Sound”, Journal of Communication, p. 57-78.
Djebbari Elina (forthcoming 2016) “Vidéochoréomorphose: Danses et vidéo-clips au Mali”, Volume! La revue des musiques populaires, Éditions Seteun.
Dodds Sherril (2004), Dance on Screen. Genres and Media from Hollywood to Experimental Art, Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Frith Simon (2002), “Look! Hear! The Uneasy Relationship of Music and Television”, Popular Music, Vol. 21, No. 3, p. 277-290.
Goodwin Andrew (1992), Dancing in the Distraction Factory. Music Television and Popular Culture, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Manuel Peter (1987), “Marxism, Nationalism and Popular Music in Revolutionary Cuba ”, Popular Music, Vol. 6, No. 2, p. 161-178.
Mera Miguel & Morcom Anna (2009), “Introduction: Screened Music, Trans- contextualisation and Ethnomusicological Approaches”, Ethnomusicology Forum, 18:1, p. 3-19.
Moore Robin (2001), “¿Revolución Con Pachanga? Dance Music In Socialist Cuba”, Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies / Revue canadienne des études latino-américaines et caraïbes, Vol. 26, No. 52, p. 151-177.
Taussig Michael T. (1993), Mimesis and Alterity: a particular history of the senses, New York ; London: Routledge.
All photos are courtesy of Elina Djebbari.
¹ See Djebbari Elina (forthcoming 2016) “Vidéochoréomorphose: Danses et vidéo-clips au Mali”, Volume! La revue des musiques populaires, Éditions Seteun.
A favourite field research site for me, even before Modern Moves started officially, has been the salsa festival. The festival can take the form of an extended week of sightseeing and physical activity in a location not quite on one’s usual flight path— or a weekend in a city not far from one’s own.
During the past four years, I have also been attending kizomba festivals, and noting the co-existence and competition between these two related, but certainly contrasting dance scenes.
At the same time, my love for Brazilian social dances (and Brazil!) allows me to compare the salsa and kizomba scenes with the differently developing circuits for Brazilian zouk and samba de gafieira.
Whatever be the continent, the size, the dance genre, or the vintage of the dance festival, it is the site where my thoughts about the transnational reach of African heritage social dance first crystallised. It doesn’t matter how many festivals I attend: these events are still spaces that provoke food for thought, empirical data, and flashes of theoretical insight.
Whether the festival is one that I return to every year or one that I visit for the first time, it allows me to track evolutions in the industry, test hypotheses, and augment my ever-growing dossier of information on the dramatis personae who circulate in and indeed create the scene.
To an uninformed observer, it may seem that I’m at these festivals to have fun in the guise of work. Let’s leave aside the problematic assumption that ‘work’ cannot be ‘fun’. Research on site at a dance festival is actually hard work (while indeed being fun). As all who attend them know, they are physically demanding, with workshops through the day and shows and parties through the night.
If you want to add to the agenda sightseeing and meeting up with friends, you can say goodbye to your sleep for the entire weekend. I marvel at die-hard festival junkies whom I observe partying every weekend and spending their weekdays in logistics of organising travel and accommodation for their year- round festival fix.
The intention to conduct research further complicates this already hectic schedule. Along with participating in all the activities a festival has to offer, I’m constantly noting down and analysing what I see, feel, and hear. What are the men wearing (always more important than the women’s clothes!)? What are the DJs playing? What are the banners declaring? Who is attending? How exactly are they dancing? What is the festival advertising? How are local and global, history and the dance, interacting? All these questions add up to the big one: what are the games of identity being played out on the dance floor, and by whom?
Furthermore, when the festival dance floor is the archive, the tools of research are quite varied:
The mobile phone that can take photos, videos and notes while you are mobile (and an outfit that allows you to tuck the phone in somewhere while dancing);
The iPad that is a cross between the mobile phone and the field notebook in terms of size, and
The notebook and pen that cannot (yet) be dispensed with, because sometimes this old fashioned girl still needs to write;
And of course, the dance shoes and regulation outfits (there are often party dress codes) to blend into the scene!
But the most important tools are the ability to be alert to serendipity, to the artist you want to talk to who is passing you by in a hotel corridor or sitting in the next table for breakfast, and a photographic memory that processes visual and aural details that flash even as one is in motion.
For aspiring festival researchers, the most important tips I’d proffer are:
Book yourself into the artists’ hotel so that you can take full advantage of serendipity
Don’t be shy to talk to strangers about any aspect of their dance, dress, or style that interests you
Don’t miss the shows, as they always dialogue with the most interesting trends of the social dance floor
Always follow the festival on Facebook, as it is an invaluable way of ferretting out information about the dramatis personae of the festival scene
Always try and establish contact with the festival organisers ahead of time. Most of them are very happy to support academic research
Offer your services as a researcher to give back to an industry that is benefiting your career (warning: you have to prove yourself as an established member of the scene before organisers respond to your offer. That’s ok: academics need to learn humility)
Smile, be friendly, humble and receptive! Just because we do research, it doesn’t mean we are ‘superior’ beings. Surrender to and revel in the dance floor’s democracy!
Dance research keeps me on my toes and the dance festival has given me hours of delight as well as constant motivation for analysis. Thank you to all those who keep it vibrant: organisers, professional dancers, DJs, photographers, social dancers!
This blogpost is an introduction to a mini-series of posts I’m going to publish over the next month about specific festivals, in order to develop some of the broad statements I’ve made in this post about the research methodology I’ve developed at festivals. Here’s to happy reading, writing, thinking, and—of course—listening and dancing!
All photos by Ananya Kabir unless otherwise specified.
Dr Elina Djebbari just came back from her second trip to Havana, Cuba where she spent two weeks in March 2016. During the first half of her stay she attended the conference of the Latin American branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music held at Casa de las Americas from 7th to 11th March. For a report of her Cuban journey, click here!
For two weeks in March 2016 I came back to Havana, Cuba. This was then my second stay on the island after having spent one month of fieldwork and archives research more than one year ago (for an account of this journey, see the four ‘dispatches from the field’ featured in the blog: week 1, week 2, week 3, week 4). Thanks to this previous experience I knew a bit what to expect yet I was curious to see whether the opening of the diplomatic relationships between Cuba and the United States of America might have implied some noticeable changes.
Interestingly, those state affairs seem like an underlying theme of my Cuban experiences. Indeed, a few days after my departure from Havana the first time the reestablishment of diplomatic relationships between the two countries was announced. And now again my departure coincided exactly with the arrival of Barack Obama on the island. Towards the end of my stay, the sentence ‘hay Obama que viene’ constituted a leitmotif to explain unforeseen organisation issues, from the cancelation of events I wanted to attend to the delay of my outbound flight. This echoes in an interesting way the research I am currently carrying out about other kinds of diplomatic exchanges between rather other partners during the Cold War.
The first week of my stay has been mainly taken up by the conference of the Latin-American branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music held at Casa de las Américas from 7th to 11th March. There I presented my work and spread the word about Modern Moves among the Lusophone and Hispanophone colleagues coming from all over Latin America. Although I sometimes felt a bit like the ugly duckling in this gathering – the only paper presented in English for instance – I could meet some very interesting persons and listened to many papers exploring various issues about Latin-American music.
In addition to the academic content, the conference organised many events during the week. Day after day, I was able to enjoy various concerts in different venues. Among others I was struck by the performance of young Repentistas and their verbal jousting based on improvisation; I admired old couples dancing danzón to Orquesta Miguel Faílde; I discovered the musical experimentations of Alberto Lescay Jr & Proyecto Forma at Fabrica de Arte Cubano (a factory reconverted into an alternative art centre); I relished the exhilarating rhythms created by the percussions-only group Percuba Ensemble; I savoured the music performed by the charismatic Alain Pérez y ‘Hablando con Juana’.
In addition to the busy programme of the conference, I pursued my research agenda by benefiting from being located in Vedado, an area of Havana where a lot of interesting places, for both archives and fieldwork researches (some were partnering with the conference anyway), are concentrated. I came back to some places I already knew to complement the research started last time, such as Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Música Cubana (CIDMUC), Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (UNEAC), Museo de la Danza and spent an evening of salsa dancing at La Gruta. I also discovered some new places that were undoubtedly worth the journey: El Castillito where I could get some fantastic dances and even be chosen to join the Rueda de casino show offered that night, and Casa de la Amistad where I could listen to the salsa music produced by a live band exclusively composed of very talented young women who, perched upon their stiletto heels, choreographed every piece of their repertoire.
I also attended the show at El Gran Palenque, headquarter of Conjunto Folklorico Nacional, where rumba guaguanco, orishas and Abakua performances were on the programme.
After having enjoyed the airy area of Vedado, the return to the teeming calles of Habana Centro for the second part of my stay was quite challenging. Basically I renewed my Cuban double-life routine: research in the institutions during daytime and in concert and dance venues at night.
Luckily I was staying very close to one of my preferred concert venues, El patio de la EGREM (or El Jelengue de Areíto), that I frequented a lot last time and where I knew already some people. I enjoyed the music of Conjunto Chappottin and Son Atrevido while collecting some materials for my on-going research about the role of plasma screens in the dance music interactions.
One of the highlights of this second part of my stay was certainly the unexpected encounter with Frank ‘El Matador’ Oropesa, the director of famous Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro. I was walking down a street when my attention got attracted by the sound of drums being played. While I was trying to locate where the sound was coming from, someone arrived and offered to take me in and get a glimpse at the rehearsal going on. This place was the headquarter of Septeto Nacional, a legendary Cuban orchestra that exists since 1927 and has contributed to the development of son, and this person no one else than the orchestra’s director himself. We talked about the rich history of the orchestra and their experiences of touring in Africa and Septeto Nacional’s director invited me to their forthcoming concert on the roof terrace of a hotel in Habana Centro happening on my last Friday night, what luck! So two days after this impromptu happenstance, I attended the concert and had certainly one of my best Cuban nights, full of dances and food for thoughts. ‘Curiosity killed the cat’ maybe but can also provide you with some incredible opportunities it seems!
From this descriptive account, one cannot deny that Havana has an incredible lively musical scene. Every day one has to choose from the numerous offerings of live concerts, dance shows and parties happening in every corners of the city. And it is also very common to bump into a musical or dance gathering in a street or a plaza, either organised or spontaneous, attesting to the importance of such cultural practices in Cubans’ everyday lives despite a deprived economical and political background.
At the same time, although the music lover would obviously be more than satisfied during a stay in Cuba, the researcher trying to look at the popularity of Cuban music in Africa encounters some epistemological obstacles. My fieldnotes are full of disappointed comments about this situation:
You are in Cuba and you want to do some research about the influence of Cuban music in Africa? Just forget about it. That is not a good idea at all. Conscious of this problem, because it’s your second stay and you know that people will encourage you to research on the other way round, you keep repeating something like ‘I’m looking at the sense from Cuba to Africa, not from Africa to Cuba in link with the slave trade, no no no’. And I repeat again ‘sobre la influencia de la musica cubana en Africa’. Well, in the best cases, after a mini-second of delay, you will get such answers ‘there is a lot here about the influence of Africa in Cuban music, a lot…’; ‘I’m an Abakua initiate, I know a lot about Afro-Cuban religions’; ‘I’m a santero, I know a lot about Afro-Cuban religions’; ‘I’m not a babalawo myself but I have a friend who is and knows a lot about Afro-Cuban religions’; ‘you should look at the rumba and the orishas, they are from African origins’… Humm, it starts all over again I’m afraid…
And it doesn’t matter who you meet with, an academic, a musician, a dancer, or in which documentation centre you go where the person in charge of the library would imperturbably try to help you by piling up on your table all the classical studies of Argeliers Léon, Odilio Urfé and others who worked precisely on the African influences of Cuban music genres. I’m not sure to be able to assess if it is definitely the sense Cuba-Africa that may be a bit too unorthodox so far or if it is the fact to go to Cuba to find sources about the political and musical exchanges between Cuba and Africa during the Cold War that proves to be problematic. Whatever it is, it is worth thinking at least theoretically about this epistemological barrier and the possible ways to unlock it. In this research journey, maybe Eleguá, the orisha who opens the pathways and already travelled across the Black Atlantic, could guide my quest and ‘allow me to see when I’m opaque’ (me deja ver cuando estoy opaco¹) .
All photos are courtesy of Elina Djebbari
¹Excerpt of the lyrics of the song Canto para Elegua y Shango by Orishas.
I don’t really remember how I first discovered the American drag celebrity RuPaul, but I do remember she was always fabulous. At the height of her career, sometime around 1992, I was a young, closeted black twink, or bwink, I guess, and I felt an immense pressure to do what I could to hide my sexuality. So I pretended, failing miserably, to have no interest in drag queens, divas and the like. I couldn’t publicly like RuPaul for fear of outing myself, I rationalized. The thing is, if you were able to watch TV or hear a radio in the early to mid 90s, you knew about RuPaul. She was that famous.
What’s interesting about RuPaul and the specificity of her rise to fame in the early 1990s is that she popped up right around the corner from Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, a documentary about the New York voguing scene which dropped in 1990, and not that far from the publication of Gender Trouble, a seminal text on gender and performativity by Judith Butler, which was also published in 1990. The ’90s also saw the rise of the supermodel era — Naomi, Cindy, Christy, Linda. In many ways, then, RuPaul was a crystallisation of conversations about gender, drag, and fashion modeling that boiled particularly strong in the ’90s.
The RuPaul song everyone knew, from New York to Kentucky, was “Supermodel (You Better Work!),” an upbeat dance track from 1993 that peaked at number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 that year. In the video, RuPaul plays the role of an international supermodel. The whole thing feels like a fashion editorial, with footage of RuPaul posing for the camera and close ups of her putting on make up and getting ready to be seen, a double commentary on the aesthetic labor of the fashion model and the coming-into-being of the drag queen, both bodies that are transformed by the power of make up for a performance of some type, catwalk, nightclub lounge or otherwise.
“Work! Turn to the left. Work! Now turn to the right. Work! Sashay, shantay!,” RuPaul sings.
The overall message of “Supermodel (You Better Work!)” is to love yourself, accept who you are and let your inner colors shine, a powerful message geared for the mainstream yet coming from a celebrity female impersonator.
Whenever I’ve listened to “Supermodel” I’ve always been struck by the specific instructions to “work,” especially in a queer performance context. That’s why what interests me about “Supermodel (You Better Work!)” is twofold. On the one hand, I love taking the “o” out of the word “work” and replacing it with an “e,” what I have called elsewhere “work — with an e,” or the embodied, reclaimed labor, to use Joseph Roach’s term, of work you do because it is creative and because you love and want to do it, not because you have to.
“Work! Cover girl. Work it girl! Do a twirl. Do your thing on the runway,” RuPaul sings on the track.
“Work,” in a popular, queer of color context, is spelled in a number of ways: werk, worq, werq, worrrrrk, purposeful misspellings that I think actually do the job of tying queer aesthetic labor off as work you do because it’s exciting, creative and embodied, and also because it reflects some core aspect of yourself.
But I’m also curious about why so much popular queer performance, and black queer performance and music in particular, is so focused on “working,” as RuPaul evidences, taking up the allure of being fabulous, flawless, and working the catwalk.
A few years ago, when I was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — before Williamsburg reached its Whole Foods-having, luxury condo apex — there was a tiny gay club I used to go to called Sugarland. Pizza joint by day, gay club at night. My friend Jeremy and I went there one weekend, not quite the opening weekend but in any case the venue had not been open all that long, and we watched this queer underground New York band The Ones perform a song called “Flawless.” We really loved it! “Just like perfection, absolutely flawless,” the trio sang over and over to a house-flavored beat. When we left the venue we had the song stuck in our heads, singing it at 3am all the way down Bedford Avenue, wondering how you could make a whole dance track focused only on feeling good, looking flawless.
Something interesting happens when the language of modeling and fashion is poached in that de Certeauian way from a purely commercial context, the world of the commercial fashion industry, and thrown into queer performance, where what the catwalk displays is not an item of clothing that can be purchased by an editor in multiple and then sold back to an audience, but queer creativity, personhood and imagination.
The catwalk is a performance space where individualized fabulousness gets performed for the public, where fabulousness is about creativity and self-assertion through the optics of style, not bald commerce or dividends. In the process of such public displays of style, fabulousness turns out to be very much about storytelling, a certain poetics of the self, and narrating that self through movement and posing on the catwalk. In the end, the catwalk is the space where queer aesthetic labor, or that “work with an e,” is put on display. The aesthetic of fabulousness on the queer runway is about using fashion and the body to imagine individual, small scale Muñozian utopias right here, right now, and in real time.
TWO: WALK FOR ME
As a closeted queer teenager in Ferguson, Missouri I secretly watched hours and hours of catwalk video footage on Fashion TV because I was fascinated by runway modeling as affect. I loved watching the models walk back and forth, back and forth, because even though what they were selling to the room was the garments themselves, what captivated me was the allure. I liked the fantasy, what they did on the stage, how they walked. And where reality television is concerned, shows about fashion models come and go, from America’s Next Top Model to The Face. Though ANTM did include catwalks at certain points throughout the show, they were never the main dish. ANTM focused primarily on how to take pictures or, to paraphrase the art critic Craig Owens, how to pose as though you were already a picture. It was not until Bravo’s Make Me A Supermodel dropped in 2008 that the runway walk was part of the weekly competition and elimination process, a show where you were judged both on your ability to take editorial pictures as well as on your runway walk.
Needless to say, Make Me A Supermodel was my preferred reality fashion show of the bunch!
When Beverly Johnson, the first African-American model to appear on the cover of American Vogue, worked the catwalks in the 1970s she transformed the room with her elegance. She was giving a fantasy. Through movement, makeup and accessories, models draw you into their world, and it’s this sense of imagination and otherworldliness that has always interested me about the performative possibilities of the runway.
But when catwalk performance is poached from the world of the commercial fashion industry and used creatively in a queer of color performance context, for instance, it takes on a new meaning. This new meaning has to do with doing fabulousness as self-worth, and it’s a sentiment that’s even embedded in much of queer dance music.
In Erikatoure Aviance’s 2011 single “My Pumps,” for instance, she sings about the love of fashion and being on catwalks, and the sound of the pumps hitting the pavement is a key sonic element embedded in the track. The sound is about walking. It’s about movement. But it’s also the beat. “You can’t bring me down – cause I’ve got the shoes!,” Erikatoure Aviance sings, but, where its key is: “Swish, swish, swish, swish, sway, bitch you can’t come for my runway,” the sentiment here being fabulousness is queer personhood, and the runway is the place where that personhood is performed.
When the language of the catwalk is poached from the world of fashion and launched in a queer of color performance context the revised meaning it takes on has to do with fabulousness as self-worth, where the runway is the parade ground where queer fabulousness is turned on, animated.
So yes, in my earliest twink days I was drawn to fashion catwalks as a space where you’re meant to see and be looked at, a moving display case of identity where the job is to tell a story (and sell garments) by simply walking straight ahead. If you think about it, walking is actually pretty boring, if uneventful. It’s something most of us do all the time, every day, for no other reason than to get from point A to point B. Think, then, what it means to aestheticize or to make performance out of a thing as seemingly mundane as a walk. But that’s just it: when elevated to performance, when put on a runway, when made a spectacle, walking begins to look a lot like dance.
One of my favorite dance-walks is from Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love,” the 2003 single that to my eyes helped make her a household name. At the start of the video she pumps down a deserted industrial street, with a photo shoot vignette in the video aimed to position her as a model. The message is: I’m here, get into it — as powerful a message as any coming from a black woman performer working in a white dominated industry.
But it’s not just celebrities, fashion models and famous drag queens who get to elevate walking to the level of dance, because I also feel a personal connection to walking-as-dance-as-presence. When I go dancing one of my signature moves is walking around the room to the mood of the music like I’m on a catwalk, not at all an uncommon site if you’re at the club and there are some brown queens in the room. No matter how packed the club is I will still find some sliver of dance floor real estate, just a long enough corridor, and my friends and I will take turns walking to the music, working the room, going back and forth, back and forth, looking at each other, commenting on each other’s moves.
It’s not something I’ve ever seen happen in a straight club, or that I have seen straight people do. But if you’re at a club and there are enough queens in the room, especially black or brown queens, you’ll see someone walking around, feeling flawless — walking as dance.
To really punch up this connection I’m making between the catwalk, fabulousness, queerness and browness, I’m reminded of a viral YouTube video about Soul Train posted nearly two years ago by Darell Hunt. Soul Train, for its turn, was a successful televised variety show where black and brown folks danced down the soul train line, really a catwalk, to funk, disco, R&B, gospel and hip hop. In Hunt’s video, a must see, he dubs hilarious, sassy commentary about each dancer’s performance as they worked the Soul Train catwalk. While the performers are actually dancing and not really walking, they still use the language of the runway, the catwalk, to display their uniqueness, their style and their creativity.
The clip is centered around his positive reactions to the dancers as they hit the Soul Train line. “Yesssss,” he says. “Ow!” These terms are micro affirmations of black gesture and creativity, highlighting that fabulousness is a quality that when performed elicits a response from an audience. It does this by creating awe or astonishment in the viewer. As the dancers here pump down that catwalk, yaaas, they combine fashion and dance to really stake out a claim for a fabulous self. The dance moves themselves are about individuality, personality and creativity.
The Soul Train line was already a space where fabulous dancers of color worked a look and their dance moves on the catwalk, an early example of the catwalk as a parade ground for identity, creativity and personhood. But what I love about this video and about his commentary in particular is the way he uses the specificity of black queer language to infuse the already queer space of the Soul Train line with even more black queerness. “Come On, Pumps!,” he says, and if you visit his website you can even buy the tote bag.
At the end of the video he offers his own theory of fabulousness when he says, “You can’t out do black people.”
Part of the allure of poaching the language of the fashion model and throwing it into a queer performance context is the humorous ridiculousness of aestheticizing something so mundane as a walk. It’s not that it is funny, comical, or a joke, say in the sense of high camp, but that it is about doing something creative, framing, an everyday action. Nowhere is this more clear than in New York performer Paul Alexander’s — one of the singers in The One’s — track “Walk For Me,” an ode to the voguing scene. “I want you to take to the catwalk, darling,” Alexander chants, “you sure look gorgeous! Walk for body, walk for face. Walk it and snatch first place. Walk for me.”
It isn’t that the lyrics themselves are that funny, but what is amusing is that while he chants Kim Aviance stands next to him, dressed in full regalia, and as he says “Walk for me” she turns her body and on comes the treadmill/ There she is, walking in place, dressed in a full look, on the treadmill, as performance, as a catwalk. In this performance not only has a walk been turned into dance, into performance, but a treadmill, a machine meant to whip (or “torture”) bodies into shape, becomes fabulous. The high glam has to do with whether or not she can stay on the treadmill, looking fabulous, without falling and ruining the fantasy.
THREE: THE RUNWAY WORKSHOP
On YouTube there are countless tutorials and compilation videos, many of them produced by top fashion magazines, that offer the secrets of the catwalk or that otherwise highlight fabulous (or fierce) catwalk performances. But I’m interested in what happens when the language of the fashion runway, model walking and all the rest mixes with queer performance culture.
Much of the queer allure of the catwalk has to do with its connection to the ballroom scene, evidenced especially well in “Tens,” a 2014 Jennifer Lopez track about the vogue runway.”Eating the runway, serving the runway, marching the runway, eat that runway, walk,” she sings. “The whole idea,” Grandfather of the House of Ninja Archie Burnett said at the Berlin Voguing Out Festival in 2014, “is I’m fierce and I know it” Bringing this trope of fabulous, fierce walking into a queer lifeworld shows the extent to which performing fabulousness in the vogue ball is ultimately about the value of self-authorship.
Curious about the queer performance dynamics of the runway in a vogue ball context, during the summer of 2014 I went to the Berlin Voguing Out Festival where I participated in a series of pre-ball runway workshops at Motion*s, a dance studio in Kreuzberg that is also ground zero for a number of Berlin-based voguing workshops. This particular workshop was led by Archie Burnett, a legend in the global ball scene who travels internationally offering similar classes. There were only about 15 people in the class I was in. Some wore heels, others went for more comfortable shoes, and I was upset that I didn’t think to bring my own pumps to class. There were six guys and the rest girls. The point of this particular workshop, as with all the others, was to give people the essentials of the runway category.
We began by walking like our normal selves from one end of the room towards the mirror of the dance studio. This was the most important task, Burnett told us, because even though a model walk doesn’t seem natural, it should feel natural. He didn’t want any of us to walk the way we thought models were supposed to walk. From there Burnett prompted us to move like we were in a hurry to meet our friend for a drink, and we did this back and forth for a few minutes. Then we were told to walk like we were on our way to a hot date, altogether different kind of walk, one with seduction built in. Each of these walks has a different purpose, all inspired by a specific theatrical impulse or set up, and he was mainly encouraging us to think about the way we move inside our own bodies. At all times he told us not to walk the way we think models are supposed to walk. This was his way of allowing everyone to tap into their own creativity.
As we went through the exercises in the dance studio that’s when I realized there was an empowering aspect of the runway workshop, even if you weren’t competing in the ball. It was all about selling yourself as an object of creative energy. “Don’t walk to the music,” he’d say. “Walk to the attitude. You’re worth it!” he screamed over and over as we walked towards the studio mirror, and just the fact that he said “you’re worth it!” actually made you feel worth it. This is ultimately, I think, what the runway is about within a queer performance context. It’s not about asking for value nor is it about asking for permission. On the catwalk, fabulousness is a stern declaration of creativity, self-worth and possibility. It is happening now. It is happening in real time. And it is happening on the catwalk.
After the group exercise of catwalking towards the dance studio mirror with various scenarios, at the end of the class we did a mini runway show where each of us walked alone to music as a way of showing off what we learned. This time our only prompt was to find something about ourselves and sell it to the room. It could have been a piece of clothing we already had on or either one of our defining features. I’d never been more nervous than I was then. One girl piled her long hair into a ponytail and held it at the top of her head. The experience was cathartic in a lot of ways because the act of walking down the runway ushered in the confidence that comes with working with what you’ve got. Coming away from the runway seminar taught me how much voguing and runway work are about small scale utopias and a demand for self-authorship. Embracing a poetics of the self has a much more pronounced impact when you live in a world that consistently devalues your queer, brown sense of worth.
In the fashion industry as on the vogue ball floor, the catwalk is always about selling it, whatever you’re selling, and making an audience believe the fantasy. The act of selling something on a catwalk is a metaphor for performance itself, but it’s not just about bringing something to the table. It’s about how you yourself can put something new and interesting on the table itself. That’s for sure what the Soul Train line was about. You didn’t want to dance down the catwalk like the person who went just before you. What would be the point of that? So the issue becomes, what of yourself can you bring creatively that hasn’t been seen before? Fabulousness, then, is about the confidence of approaching the table but then putting something on it. Through spectacular performance and make-believe it is possible to gain confidence, express yourself creatively and imagine your own utopian version of the world in real time.
In his work on utopia José Muñoz wrote that a queer utopia is something from the future, something that’s not here, now, but that is coming. Performance is the space where queer utopias are enacted, and the stage is the actual platform where utopian visions can be realized. To my mind, the catwalk is precisely the utopian space where queer personhood, personality, creativity and innovation can be claimed. Instead of selling clothes and garments to magazine editors and tastemakers, what you’re actually putting up for show is your sense of self worth, your ideas and creativity. This sense of peacocking, of parading yourself around, is an important aspect for all kinds of brown and queer performance practices, because brown and queer people are constantly told that we are not good enough, that we don’t get to sit at the table, that we don’t have rights, that our votes don’t matter, that our lifestyles are invalid. On the catwalk, poached as it is from the system of fashion and launched into a performance context, we get to shout, for all to hear, that we may be brown, and we may be queer. But we are here, we are creative, and we are fabulous.