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Moving Conversations

Moving Conversation #7: Vjuan Allure, Stephane Mizrahi + Melissa Blanco Borelli

Moving Conversation #7, held on November 18th, 2016, was red hot. For this edition Modern Moves put two iconic pioneers from the global voguing and ballroom scene — Stephane Mizrahi and DJ and producer Vjuan Allure — in conversation with Melissa Blanco Borelli, Senior Lecturer in dance studies at Royal Holloway University. As a dance form, culture and movement language, voguing is more popular now than ever. With artists from Yelle to FKA Twigs incorporating (or appropriating) voguing into their aesthetic, not to mention the release of new documentaries on voguing and ballroom culture such as Kiki, voguing has reached a cultural apex. For this conversation, which was centered on queerness, sexuality, and a strenuous critique of heteronormativity, we heard from the pioneers of the field.

It all started off with a teaser dance by Mother Steffie, known for a style of vogue called Old Way which centers on clean lines, geometry and posing-as-dance. Steffie, who wore a captivating red catsuit with opulent fringe dangling in all the right places, his face covered with a matching red feather fan, worked every corner of the room — the floor, the space aisle between the seats, the back, the front as well as the balcony.

At the end of the performance, Melissa Blanco Borelli asked the panelists to describe what voguing is, particularly for people in the audience who may be unfamiliar with the culture. “I was there at 11 1/2 years old in the club when I learned about voguing,” Vjuan Allure said, locating the origins of voguing to the drag balls in Harlem of the 30s and 40s. “Voguing is a dance to express yourself but it’s also a battle dance. It is actually a fight between people in the club that don’t like each other. That’s what it’s supposed to be but it’s more amicable now.” This particular kind of fight, to be clear, is more of a creative fight, not one with blood and actual punches. It is a battle of aesthetics, an attempt to see who can throw the hardest punch with the best outfit and who can outdo the competition with better moves or another type of surprise performative element. The battle sentiment of voguing is a way of having creative tricks up your sleeves that will make you and your performance come out on top.

“It’s self-expression,” Allure says. “It’s also fabulous drama. It’s moving [in the way] of model poses. Stretch, acrobatics, and definitely a lot of attitude. You cannot vogue without attitude. It’s you coming out of your shell and being presenting it on the floor.”

When Mother Steffie finally caught his breath, he joined in the conversation.

“Voguing is a dance style that takes its roots from poses, lines. You can use also Egyptian influences when you do your poses. It’s about being elegant, present. Now in ballroom culture you have different styles of voguing, which is Old Way, New Way, Vogue Femme, and in Vogue Femme you have two different styles: soft and cunt and dramatics.”

We weren’t going to let him talk about the styles without demonstrating them to us, of course.

Old way, as the audience initially saw in the teaser dance, privileges strong lines, cat walking and posing. “Each time you go a new direction, you pop,” Steffie told us. New way, on the other hand, is really all about the stretch — stretching muscles and awkward, bone bending poses. Vogue Femme, a form created by trans women of color, includes the catwalk, hands performance, duckwalk, spins, dips and is all about attitude, femininity and being “pussy,” a ballroom term used to indicate heightened femininity and which also points to the de/construction of gender. That point was made clear when Steffie added a crucial element to Vogue Femme performance. “When you vogue femme you have to bounce.”

Old way is straight and linear, whereas with vogue femme you push your hips out to give off heightened femininity. “Transsexuals used to dance vogue,” Steffie said, “and they took the style and owned it, made it appropriate for them. They didn’t want to be masculine. They wanted to be feminine.”

“And the reason there’s a category called vogue femme,” Allure jumped in, “is when you’re a gay club you have what we call “butch queens,” which are guys, which would be us. Then you have people that are drags, which are guys who get into drag. But you also have transsexuals and when they were in the club, they wanted to vogue, too, but they made it very feminine. That became their style.”

“There used to be a category in ballroom called “butch queen voguing like a femme queen,” so a guy imitating how a transsexual vogues. That’s what became vogue femme.”

With all of these various communities coming together — drag queens, gay men, and transsexuals, all of them interested in vogue — Melissa Blanco Borelli wondered what factors were in play that allowed these parties to innovate, to seize voguing in a way and make it their own.

“There was an ostricization regarding certain styles,” Allure said, “because old way was the classic style. When things started getting more acrobatic, people started to bend their bodies differently, including splits and clicks and doing more hieroglyphics that were more than just straight lines.”

But because not everyone could dance that way, Old Way became its own style. Like all forms of dancing, voguing requires precision, attitude and conviction in order to deliver a compelling performance.

After talking through the various elements of vogue, a perfect tool kit for the free voguing workshop Mother Steffie led after the panel, the conversation shifted towards a discussion about beats, or the importance of the DJ in pulling out a successful, emotive performance from the dance floor.

“We didn’t have our own music. What we used at balls was music that was older or anything that was out at the time. I started to make beats and I kept making them. I made hundreds of them, almost thousands of them, and now we have a whole arsenal of beats. We have other beat makers that make these hyper beats. The hyper beats are there to garner this energy.” To achieve that level of energy, balls are constructed of various layers of sound: the call and response feedback from the crowd, who shout house names at the competitors, the commentator, a master of ceremonies who spurs the performers on while also narrating what they are doing and keeping the show moving, and finally the DJ, who knows how to play the right kind of beat that will pull out the right kind of performance from the dancer.

We all have some kind of relationship to beats, a point Melissa Blanco Borelli knew all too well when she asked Mother Steffie to talk about his favorite ballroom beat.

“The ‘ha’. I like ‘the ha,'” he said. “I like Vjuan’s stuff. I like MikeQ’s beats, too. Also in Paris there’s some producers that want to venture into [beat making] and the first thing I told them is, ‘If you want to make some voguing beats, you’ve got to learn how to vogue! How else are you going to get the inspiration to get the girls going if you don’t know what’s about and how you feel it?”

“The beats give you the energy,” he continued, pointing ultimately to voguing as about endurance, especially in the battling stage. You advance to the next round of competition in a category if and only if the judging panel unanimously agrees that you brought the category with your performance. A single “chop,” or disqualification, from any judge kicks you out of the competition and from advancing to further rounds. You need “10s across the board,” as it is said. Let’s say a category starts with 10 contestant. The entire goal is to find a single winner of that category, meaning that people are “chopped” until there’s a winner, and the winner from a previous round, usually seen as the best, keeps competing until they win or get beat by someone else.

With this in mind, beats have a special meaning in ballroom. “When you have to do one battle and then you go through. Then the second battle, you’re going through again. Then the third battle you’re going through. You’re already out of breath and then there’s this saying, ‘No Breather’ so you gotta go through the next battle again. You need hard beats that are going to give you energy to keep going again, surpass yourself.”

In as much as voguing is about self-expression, community and self-acceptance, Melissa Blanco Borelli noted, what are the ways that voguing as a uniquely queer of color political-aesthetic cultural form become a tool for capital. What does something like RuPaul’s Drag Race, for instance, do to the history of voguing?

“It’s great to have someone like RuPaul in commodity culture,” Blanco Borelli noted, “and showing these different creative expressions of the queer self. But then it’s also what happens to the history and to the innovators and people like Vjuan Allure, who were around from day one. What happens when it’s commodified?”

Vjuan Allure spoke about the way he always grills newcomers to the ballroom scene whenever they want to write a paper about voguing or do anything related to ballroom at all.

“Why? You have nothing to do with this culture. You’ve never been to a ball. How are you going to write about it? What are you going to say about it? The community has been taken advantage of before, so they kind of very on their Ps and Qs when someone comes in. RuPaul walked a ball in drag in his earlier career, but he did not compete. But on his show he does have people that are in the ballroom scene that are actually drag queens that are part of the houses.”

“He wanted to do an album as a tribute to the ballroom scene, and that was the album called Butch Queen, and that was the one I worked on. Purposefully I did not give him ballroom beats. I gave him beats that were different, that were things he didn’t have. A lot of people believe that RuPaul has nothing to do with the ballroom scene when actually he does. As long as we continue to monitor what people are doing with the ballroom scene we keep appropriation out of the works. Or at least try to.”

The spirited question and answer session included questions about whether or not it’s cheating if women are involved in ballroom; safe spaces; the presence of voguing on YouTube and the internet; about the problematics of racial dynamics and competing with fellow people of color; and personal confessions about how voguing has shaped their own lives.

The depth of this seventh conversation was in the power of thinking through popular culture and dance while simultaneously thinking seriously, and in an intersectional way, about race, gender, sexuality and dance. We learned that it’s hard to talk about dance, really any kind at all, without also taking into account how that dance is impacted by sexuality and or queerness, gender and racial dynamics.

We closed the Conversation with a free voguing workshop led by Mother Steffie and an after party with beats by Vjuan Allure, a party where everyone got to be a diva for the night. And isn’t that what it’s all about?


Moving Stories

Voguing In Berlin

During July and part of August I spent a month in Berlin to start a brand new project on the cultural history of Saturday night. It’s no secret to anyone that Berlin is currently one of the world’s hot spots for creative nightlife, where innovation in electronic music meets extensive nights out. I’m always amused when I tell people that my new book project is on club culture because their initial reaction is always something like: “Huh. That’s a topic?”

I’ve wanted to write a book about nightlife culture ever since I taught a self-designed junior seminar at Yale called “Dance Music and Nightlife Culture in New York City” back in 2010. This nightlife book, I imagined, would be a trade book for an informed mass audience about the power of parties and pleasure. The idea for this book came after news coverage of my junior seminar hit the international airwaves and gossip pages, leading some conservative pundits to criticize Yale for allowing me to teach such a course, paving the way for others to criticize me for offering such “nonsense” to Yale undergraduate students. The strand of criticism was so thick that I even received an email from a prominent Yale donor who said “shame on you for bringing Yale’s name into the mud.”

I thought my days as a Yale graduate student were over.

Each time I saw a new critique of the course I grew more and more frustrated because you can learn a great deal about people, time, place, and politics by studying their nightlife cultures. That’s because the history nightlife is always a history of resistance to legal sanctions, a history of musical and artistic innovations, a history of the underground, and a history of self-expression.

This is the anecdotal backdrop that frames my new book project A Cultural History of Saturday Night where I aim to think about why people party and what they seek from Saturday. Of course, a book about Saturday night can’t just be about Saturday, as people party and dance and drink on any night of the week, but there is still something special historically about Saturday. How did Saturday night come to be so special? How are Saturday nights experienced by different people in various parts of the world? How does one place become a nightlife destination over another?

A major draw for me in Berlin was the Berlin Voguing Out Festival, now in it’s second year. The folks behind the Festival are at the razor edge of the voguing scene in Germany, and have done much to introduce the dance form and culture to Berliners. Knowing that Berlin will play a central role in my “Saturday night” book, working on the voguing culture in Berlin as well as the increased internationalization of the black and latino queer culture of voguing is a real opportunity for original research. I have already done some work on the US voguing scenes, but now that I am based in London this is a great opportunity to pivot my focus to the Euro voguing scenes, as to my knowledge there is not very much scholarship being produced on the topic.

The week-long Voguing Festival included a screening of the 2006 film How Do I Look, a more recent portrait of the Ball scene than Paris Is Burning and a talk back with DJ Vjuan Allure, runway coach Archie Burnett, and Berlin-based editor Jan Kedves. The screening took place at a cinema in Mitte and was packed with scholars, voguers, and various people interested in the culture. During the Q+A Archie Burnett talked about learning voguing in New York in Washington Square Park. I remember seeing voguing for the first time in the West Village on Christopher Street and along the Hudson River pier, where underage black teenagers emerged from New Jersey on the PATH train and hung out because they were too young to go to a club.

Today, cupcake shops and bougie candy stores have replaced the saucy gay sex shops and pumping black gay bars that used to line the street. So during the Q+A at the film screening I said that if Archie learned voguing in Washington Square Park and if I saw it on Christopher Street, now that New York is so gentrified what does voguing look like now? Where has it gone now?

Vjuan Allure jumped in immediately. “It looks like this,” pointing back out to the audience and reminding everyone how white the room was – full of young, white hipsters. He didn’t say it was a bad thing; just that this is the way culture always proliferates. He wasn’t at all concerned about the appropriation of the culture, because “by the time you all catch on to voguing, which we have been doing for years, we will have already moved on to the next thing.”

In other words, blackness and queerness are constantly innovating new aesthetic forms.

The festival also included a weeklong series of workshops on voguing, runway, floor performance, old way, and new way. At 25 euros a pop the courses were quite expensive so I was only able to participate in the runway workshop, which was taught by Archie Burnett. Burnett, a legend in the Ball scene, has made a career of traveling around the world and offering similar workshops, particularly in Europe and Eastern Europe.

There were only about 15 people in the workshop, some wearing heels others in more comfortable shoes, six guys (all of us queer) and the rest girls. The point of this particular workshop, as with all the others, was to give people the needed tools to compete successfully at the vogue ball – so they wouldn’t get chopped.

We began by doing our normal walks, from one end of the room towards the mirror. This was the most important task, he told us, because even though a model walk doesn’t seem natural, it should feel natural. We were told to walk like we were in a hurry to meet our friend for a drink. We were told to walk like we were on our way to a hot date. At all times he told us not to walk the way we think models are supposed to walk, and to me this was his way of allowing everyone to tap into their inner confidence.

There was something very empowering about the runway workshop because it was all about having and selling confidence. “Don’t walk to the music, walk to the attitude.” “You’re worth it,” he would say as we walked towards the mirror, and it did actually make you feel worth it and like you had a sense of value. “Own the runway” and “Own it” were his critiques to me during the class, suggesting that I needed to give just a little bit more to fully unlock myself on the runway.


After the group exercise of walking towards the mirror with various scenarios, we did a runway show where each person walked on their own to music to show off what we learned. I’ve never been more nervous than I was then. As much as I like wearing ridiculous clothes and being on display, I actually do not like being on display when I know everyone is watching – especially not when all the lights are on! The same anxiety I have about dancing alone in a drum circle, or in any type of circle, is the same anxiety I had when we had to walk down the runway on our own to “show off our stuff.” But the experience was cathartic in a lot of ways because people cheered you on and the act of walking down the runway did usher in some confidence.

Coming away from the runway seminar really taught me how much voguing and runway work (werk) are about confidence. That much seems obvious, but in fact loving yourself as a black or queer body has a much more pronounced impact when you live in a world that is constantly attempting to devalue your sense of worth. That’s why the incorporation of runways and walking runways and selling looks on the catwalk is such a powerful trope and mode of expression. You’re worth it.

It’s hard to underscore just how white the voguing Ball was. I’ve attended balls in New York, Paris and Washington, D.C. and though there is always a white person or two, balls are mostly full of brown, queer bodies. So it was a real shocker to go to this ball and see how white, and not always queer, the space was. I looked around the room and wondered how many guys were bisexual or gay or queer, if any, and I wondered how many of the girls were lesbian or trans. But it wasn’t just the audience that was 95% white – it was the performers, too, who hailed from Sweden and Italy and Slovakia and Russia.

“I went to my first vogue ball in Paris a few months ago and as soon as I walked in everybody had their arms crossed, like, ‘Who is this white bitch?’, but then when I danced they were more at ease and saw that I was one of them,” Sarah, one voguer told me. The anecdote really gets at the internationalization of the voguing scene, and when I asked her about why the room was so white and straight she told me that a lot of the guy attendees come because they are there supporting their girlfriends, so they might not have any direct connection to queerness or queer culture except this.

Interestingly, the panel of judges, all legends from the New York ball scene, did a lot of work to teach and educate the audience about ball culture. They reminded the room that this is a black queer culture. They did a lot to preserve the culture in terms of specific dance moves and performance categories to insure that the integrity of voguing and ball culture didn’t evaporate, even in its cultural translation. Given how quickly and how expansively voguing has spread around the world I think it’s great to try to preserve the culture, using cultural transmission as a pedagogical tool, too.